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A Paipo Interview with Sally Parkin

Capturing the grace and style of traditional English ply surfboards

A Paipo Interview with Sally Parkin
November 20, 2011 - Devon, England
E-mail questions by Bob Green

Sally has ridden ply boards from a young age and her boards were known as surfboards. In March 2008, she established The Original Surfboard Company, which hints at the traditional nature of these boards as well as reflecting her view that the stand up surfboard industry has usurped the term 'surfboard.' From a modest start, her boards are now sold around the world. Their versatility allows people of all ages to surf in a wide variety of conditions. Sally remains stoked to ride and sell her boards.
1. When and where did you first ride a bellyboard?
In the summer of 1965, at Porthcothan Bay, North Cornwall, England. It’s about ten miles north of Newquay. I was five and a half years old.
2. Was there a history of riding bellyboards in your family. Who else in the family rode a bellyboard?
Yes, my mother, father and older sister all used the boards and when he was old enough my younger brother used them too. Having races to see who got the longest ride was all part of the fun of this type of surfing. My sister and I also used to meet up with local friends and spent hours in the sea with our boards. My father, grandfather and great grandfather were all strong swimmers so I grew up in a family who had a great love and respect for the sea. In the early 1900s my great grandfather and grandfather both competed in river and sea swimming competitions.

Sally's grandfather (back row - far right)

Photo courtesy of Sally Parkin.

Sally at Porthcothan Bay
after a surf ride

Photo courtesy of Sally Parkin.
3. What were these boards like and do you know who made them?
The boards were made from 9mm thick sheets of marine ply and were the classic size and shape of the boards used along the North Cornish and Devon coastline from the 1930s onwards - four foot tall and 1 foot wide with a small curved nose rocker - as children we had cut down versions. We still have a few boards left today which include the two that my sister and I would’ve used in the 1960s. Our family boards were unvarnished and only one board has a maker’s mark which is a Challenga logo. I was recently shown another Challenga board which came from a house a few miles away so I would guess that they were made in Cornwall but would be interested to hear from anyone who knows more about the Challenga boards.

Three of the original family boards and a Challenga logo

Photos courtesy of Sally Parkin.
4. Were they called bellyboards back then?
We never used to call our boards “bellyboards” - we called them surfboards. I still prefer to avoid using the word bellyboard - it reminds me of belly flops and beer bellies. I only became aware of the bellyboard term in recent years when I got to know people who worked in the surf industry. When the stand up surfboards arrived in North Cornwall in the mid- to late-1960s most people called them Malibu boards while the boards we used were still called surfboards [see Note 1]. It seems to me that the stand up surfers and surf companies began to introduce the term bodyboarding and bellyboarding to differentiate their way of wave riding and to make it more exclusive.

We had a booklet in my childhood family home called The Art of Surf Riding (1953 Coronation edition) which has wonderful images of people using these boards in the 1950s. For me it captures the grace and style of this type of surfing. Author Ronald Funnell described how, “A new and exhilarating sport is rapidly gaining many fans in England "Surf-riding" and deservedly so, for its health giving as well as invigorating relaxation and pastime.”

The 1954 Newquay publicity guide declared,
“Surf riding is a magnificent sport because it takes place in such magnificent surroundings, it calls for a reasonable degree of skill and judgement, it appeals to people of all ages and it provides so unexpected a sense of speed. According to the guide “thousands of visitors now come to the Atlantic coast and especially to Newquay to enjoy this sport. It has won popularity as sensationally and suddenly as ski-ing won popularity in Switzerland ..... and yet it calls for no equipment beyound a flat strip of wood and a bathing costume.”

The Art of Surf Riding
by Ronald Funnell

Figure courtesy of Sally Parkin.
1939 Holiday Haunts guide

A practical guide to surfing

Shortly after setting up The Original Surfboard Company I was amazed when a well known surfing journalist told me that I couldn't call my boards “surfboards”. I later discovered that in the 1930s when the railway companies and the Newquay Publicity Committee first started to promote Newquay as “Britain’s Finest surf riding resort” they were referring to these thin wooden boards. It was the Original British Surf sport. I had no idea at the time that it would be a controversial term to use. The more research I do the more keen I am to preserve and revive this original surf riding term. Now when people say these boards are not surfboards I can wave my 1960s little blue “Practical guide to Surfing” to prove that “bellyboarding” was originally called Surfing.

Figures courtesy of Sally Parkin.

5. Was this primarily a summer activity when you were young?

Yes. We didn’t have wetsuits when we were children and we went in the sea from the May half term through to September. I was lucky enough to be in a house right by the beach for the entire school summer holidays. My sister and I went into the sea every day whatever the weather - we didn’t have wetsuits but we stayed in for hours. The wettest days were often the most fun as there would be hardly anyone in and often the waves were usually better when it was raining. .
6. What do you know about the hiring of boards at your local beach?
A number of the old Newquay guides advertise the fact that surf-boards were available to hire at all the main beaches.They often included the beach name on the board.

1937 Newquay publicity guide extract

Figure courtesy of Sally Parkin.

The Strongman family used to run the local beach store. I can still picture their hire boards - they were painted bright orange and each one had its own large black painted letter "S" and then a unique number. There was a book at the shop in which the hire details were recorded. Grace Strongman told me recently that in the 1950s and 1960s they had 100 boards which were often all rented out - you could hire on a daily or weekly basis. In those days many people came on holiday by train or coach and didn’t have the space to bring much luggage so it was common for the beach shops to hire out boards and other beach equipment. They often had the hotel or beach name on the board. A number of the old Newquay guides I have contain Hotel Advertisments showing that these boards were available for hire.
7. What prompted you to start the Original Surfboard Company?
In the summer of 2007 a few of our old family boards from the 1960s snapped and I didn’t know where to buy new ones. A friend arrived with a new bright pink painted board which had a “ made by Charles Pearce & Sons” sticker on it. I called and found out that Dick Pearce, then in his late seventies, was still making these boards as he had done for the last forty five years in the Old Tannery in South Molton, North Devon. I went to visit him and bought five boards. It was like stepping back in time - his office had a ribbon typewriter and traditional paper filing systems - not a computer in sight. I was enthralled.
Dick Pearcein his office, 2009.
Five decades of board building. (12/04/1929 - 10/07/2010)

Photo John Isaac.

Sally (right) with friend Sara with
first breast cancer boards, May 2008.

Over the next few months I began to think more about the boards and in particular the pink painted board. My sister had died of breast cancer in 2004 and for me pink had a strong link with breast cancer ribbons. I went to the World Bellyboard Championships the same year and saw a display of boards with amazing hand painted graphics and artwork which inspired me to think of the boards not just as surfboards but as signs and works of art too. I approached Cancer Research about the idea of producing a board with a pink ribbon and asked Dick Pearce if I could buy blank boards and six months later I launched The Original Surfboard Company website with eight designs that included two breast cancer ribbon boards. It felt incredibly special to launch the first breast cancer boards in memory of my sister.

Photo courtesy of Sally Parkin.

8. I’ve read about three models – Heritage ply boards, the High Performance boards and the Supersize boards. How do these boards differ in design, construction and dimensions?
Apart from the supersize boards - the boards are all the classic British shape - four foot high and one foot wide with a gentle nose rocker. We also make some slightly shorter length boards for children although some adults choose to use these boards. The classic ply boards are all 9mm thick but with the higher grade boards we are able to make thinner five ply boards. These are significantly lighter (as much as 500g!) and more flexible than the classic birch ply boards. I think they are more like the original boards from the 1930s and 1950s, which were very light and thin. During the summer of 2010, I spent a lot of time testing boards with different woods and different thicknesses along with other surfers - Jack Johns took one of the first racing stripe boards into the 2010 World Bellyboard Champs and won the competition with it. He had never ridden a wooden bodyboard before. Last Easter, he and Sam Boex took two of the boards off the reef at Porthleven. It was very exciting to see them being used at such a high level.

One of Sally's boards in Hawaii (February 2011) and Jack Johns riding a wave at Porthleven in Cornwall
(April 2011).

Photos Jack Johns and John Isaac.
The high performance boards all have a burnt in logo. We use boat vinyl graphics to personalize boards and have also started to work with a specialist painter to create one off boards using enamel paint.

The supersize boards are the same height and width as the classic ply boards but are wider - they are designed for exceptionally tall and wide surf riders - we also sell them as tables for VW Campervans!

Photo John Isaac.
9. What difference in performance do you notice with the thinner, lighter more flexible boards?
I love the fact that with the thinner boards you feel even more in the wave - the wood grains are also stunning - especially the zebrano veneer. They work best in clean breaking waves - some male riders have said they prefer the all gaboon wood seven ply board as the five ply boards can feel a little too flexi out the back in heavier wave conditions. I have really valued getting feedback from very talented wave riders.

British bellyboards. Photo John Isaac.

10. What’s the construction process and who makes the boards?
The classic ply boards are made in the same way as Charles Pearce & Sons made them for almost 50 years - cut from manufactured sheets of 9mm marine or birch plywood then steam bent in a press to create the distinctive British nose rocker. The high performance boards are hand crafted by a boat builder using a laminating process with individual sheets of higher grade hardwoods. This means that you can set the exact height of the nose rocker and it will stay set in the same shape - whereas the curve on the steam bent boards will flatten over time as the veneers are weakened during the steaming process. These high performance boards are significantly lighter and have more flex than the birch ply boards. All our boards are made in Britain but we keep the exact location and makers names a secret.
11. Who buys the boards - locals, elsewhere in the UK, or further afield?
When I first started the business I sold mainly to friends and family and people who saw the boards being used in Devon and Cornwall. Now I sell more boards to people who live further away although the UK-based customers are often buying them to use in Cornwall, Devon or Wales. I am also shipping an increasing number overseas. Within Europe we’ve had orders from the Channel Islands, the Republic of Ireland, Denmark, France, Spain Portugal, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, and beyond Europe, from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and just a few days ago we had our first order from Japan.

We’ve only just been able to sort out the insurance liability issues for the USA and Canada, but have now started selling there too. The boards are now being used off Long Island and in California and last year Jack Johns took one of the boards to Hawaii and used it in the shorebreak which felt very special indeed.

Jack Johns in Hawaii. Photo courtesy of Jack Johns.

12. The average age of the surfers at the bellyboard championships appears much older than you’d see at a standard surfing contest. Is there much interest from younger people in the wooden bellyboards?

Sally with Margie Wegener
at the WBBC 2009.
Photo courtesy of Sally Parkin.
In the early years most contestants were over 60, but in recent years the under-18 category has grown significantly and more talented young surfers are competing in the event. A few years ago most young people would have thought that wooden bodyboards were strictly for grandparents. For stand up surfers there has also been the issue of bodyboarding not being surfing.

Local Newquay surfer Jimbo, 2011.
 Photo John Isaac
On an international level Tom Wegener has been at the forefront of inspiring surfers to think differently about catching waves lying down on thin wooden boards and James Parry, Jack Johns, Sam Boex, and other talented Newquay-based surfers have been helping to change the perceptions about the original British wood bodyboards. I think one of the most special things about this type of wave riding is that you can do it at almost any age. I was recently on a beach with 84-year-old Dot Long, star of The Life of Ply film, which is on our website. She was giving some 4-year-olds a surf riding lesson and as she said, “There aren’t many sports you can start at 4 and still being doing when you are 84.”

13. What criteria are used to judge a winning ride at the bellyboard championships?
You’d have to ask the judges! There are lots of different prizes and categories but the spirit of the competition is about the camaraderie and fun of this type of wave riding.
14. What type of wave do your bellyboards go best in?
One of the great advantages of these boards is that you can use them on almost any wave. If you get to the beach and it isn’t good enough for a stand up surf then you can still have fun on a wooden bodyboard. You can take them out the back with flippers and use them at an advanced level or you can use them in shallow water in broken waves. They’re also great fun at high tide in shorebreak waves.
15. Any new models or design ideas planned?
I would love to make different shapes and models but this summer we kept selling out of the high performance boards - so I am concentrating on increasing the production of these before starting to introduce other models.
16. What is the attraction of bellyboard riding for you?
It is the thrill of feeling part of the wave that I think comes from lying down on such a thin board. It’s such fun and I always feel better afterwards - there is something therapeutic about being in the sea and its also a great form of exercise.
17. Any surfs or waves stand out from over the years?
The first summer I started my company I had a call from someone called John Isaac. By chance I was at Porthcothan - he and Christiaan Bailey came over the same day and brought some Tom Wegener boards with them. It was the start of a friendship and some very special surfing links, including Tom Wegener and his family.

Christiaan Bailey (left) and John Isaac, July 2008; Sally with Tom Wegener at Crantock, August 2009.

Photos courtesy of Sally Parkin.

The Wegener family came over to Europe in the summer of 2009, and the first time I met Tom, I had the honor of sharing some waves with him the first time he ever surfed in the UK. His family ended up staying with us at at Porthcothan for the weekend of the World Bellyboard Championships. Tom was the first surfer I had ever heard talk publicly in a positive way about bellyboarding. I was fascinated to learn more from him about wooden board wave riding.
Tom's witness statementPhoto courtesy of Sally Parkin.
Later that year I was invited to join the Wegener family and a number of talented surfers on a surf tour to Ireland. We were staying in Bundoran and arrived at the same time the biggest surf of the year hit the reef. I had never surfed on a reef and there was no way I was going to go out with waves that huge, but at the end of the week Tom suggested I go out on the reef and three of us went out at sunset. For most of the 45 years I’d been surf riding straight within my depth but that day Tom coached me how to surf sideways with my wooden board and I got my first barrel. I was so thrilled. It has to be one of my best surf riding moments ever. I said my sons would never believe it so Tom certified the evidence on one of my boards.

One of the other most special surf rides would have to be surf riding with Gwyn Haslock, at Towan Beach, Newquay, this summer. Gwyn has been riding a wooden bodyboard since the 1950s. She is the lady who started British Ladies Surfing. She entered the men’s national championships in the mid-1960s, because there wasn’t a competition for ladies and as a direct result they started a ladies competition. She went on to win the title five times. She still uses her original wooden board from the 1950s, as well as surfing regularly on her longboard at Newquay.

Pictured are Sally with Gwyn Haslock Newquay, 2011; Gwyn with her original board from the 1950s; and a
close-up of Gwyn's initials on the original board.

Photos courtesy of Sally Parkin.

If I have to limit my most memorable surf sessions to three then it would have it would have to include using the boards at Muizenberg Bay, just north of Cape Town, with Charl van Rensberg, in 2010. He is  one of the top riverboarders in the world. I had contacted Charl when he had posted on John Isaac’s prone to belly blog that he really wanted to try out an English Bellyboard, but was in South Africa. My brother lives in Cape Town and I arranged for him to borrow his board and then when I next went out to South Africa we arranged to meet in Muizenberg.

Charl van Rensberg, surf-riding at
South Africa, 2010.
Photo courtesy of Sally Parkin.
The same day I met Charl, I found this image of surf riders using the boards at Muizenberg in 1924 (see below). I couldn’t believe how similar their boards were to the British boards. When Charl & I went into the sea at Muizenberg it felt like we were re-creating surfing history. I have since found out that Agatha Christie used the boards in Muizenberg, in 1922. She later described the experience of surfing in her autobiography, “Nothing like that rushing through the water at what seems to you a speed of about two hundred miles an hour... it is one of the most perfect physical pleasures I have ever known.”

Muizenberg early 20th century

Figure courtesy of Sally Parkin.

I am more and more convinced that there was a strong Cornish link with Muizenberg that is connected with the Cornish tin miners and traders who went out to Cape Town from the Perranporth area. I am on a trail to find out more and I know that the Museum of British Surfing has also been doing research on this and the Agatha Christie story so hopefully there will be more news to follow on this.
18. Any other comments?
My inspiration for setting up The Original Surfboard Company came from a desire to preserve and revive these wooden boards along the Cornish and Devon coastline. I had no idea then that there would be an international interest in my boards and that they would attract the attention of very talented surfers and be used at such a high level. I have also been touched that they evoke such nostalgic memories for people and enthusiasm from complete novices. I think it’s because surf riding is such a simple pleasure that is accessible to all ages and abilities and it brings people together - both in and out of the sea - as one happy customer once said to me, “Sally it’s far more than just a surfboard.”
Sally at work

Photo courtesy of Sally Parkin.

Note 1: Extract from a Newquay publicity guide dated 1960 - proof they were still calling this surf-riding and using the term surf-board in 1960, to describe these wooden bodyboards:

1960 Newquay publicity guide extract  

Figure courtesy of Sally Parkin.

Other info: Internet link for The Original Surfboard Company.

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