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It's All Surfing: Surf Mats, Paipos and Handplanes by Chris Ahrens

Posted on September 27, 2014

Can you name anything that isn’t surfing?”

Inventor, Tom Morey

For most of my years as a surfer I thought of surfing narrowly simply as a wave ridden by standing on a foam and fiberglass surfboard. Somehow I managed to ignore four thousand year old cave drawings from Peru where people are portrayed standing on canoes, riding waves. Closer to home, the Chumash Indians made the point by riding waves at Malibu on their plank canoes, centuries ago. Is this surfing? I’d say so.

We all agree that the ancient Hawaiians surfed on various boards, including one called an Alaia. Still, I always wondered if they were turning and getting barreled, or simply standing there, as various centuries old sketches would have us believe. My curiosity peaked one day at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu as I stood, staring at an Alaia and wondering if the rider of that board would have ripped by contemporary standards. I think I got an answer about 10 years ago when a group of surfers led by ex patriot Tom Wegener revived Alaia surfing. The new Alaias were of roughly the same dimensions as those of ancient times—around seven feet long, 17 inches wide and nearly an inch thick. To most these vehicles seemed impossible to ride, much less ride well. Then, seeing Wegener, Rob Machado, Ryan Burch and Richard Kenvin control the finless drift and finesse their way into tubes at places like Scorpion Bay and Uluwatu, made me realize that our forebears probably did get deeper and carve harder than previously imagined. They were certainly going faster.

A few years ago I received a gift from Tom Wegener—a soft foam Alaia made by The Seaglass Project in Australia. The board, which is far thicker, wider and consequently more buoyant than traditional Alaias helped me realize the joy of finless surf craft, by moving faster than I previously thought possible.

Around that same time I received another wonderful gift, this time from fellow Groundswell columnist Scott Bass in the form of a handplane. While I have yet to master that art, I first used handplanes, (formerly called handguns, a term that was mercifully changed in response to increasing gun violence) a few times in the early ‘80s. While this little projectile enhanced my bodysurfing experience, I have yet to ride a wave from peak to shore on it, or beat previously un-makeable sections, as handplane masters do. (Check recent images from the August 2014 swell that slammed into the Newport Wedge for brilliant use of handplanes.)

To round out my alternative quiver I purchased a surf mat from Australian Mark Tomson. Among the aforementioned items the mat, surprisingly, had the steepest learning curve, and proved deceptively difficult to ride. Because of that I don’t surf it often. Still, when I hook into just the right wave, there are few vehicles that offer greater satisfaction. This, in part, is due to the rippling of the mat against the ocean, transferring the feeling of the wave to the rider. The biggest difficulty for me comes through not knowing how far to inflate a surf mat. Sounds simple, I know, but mat inflation needs to be fairly precise, and is counter-intuitive since the less air pressure they receive the faster they tend to go. Another challenge arrives in the need to squeeze and release the mat to control its speed and movement. Lifting and lowering the legs at just the right time further complicates the dance. Locally, mat surfers Henry Hester, Ken McKnight and Peter St. Pierre move through the gears to gain speed that is matched by few other surf vehicles. In the plus column, surf mats can be stored in the trunk of your car, so you’re never without a good, compact wave-riding vehicle.

I have far less experience with Paipo boards, having only ridden a beautiful balsawood one once in the late ‘60s in Waikiki. Though I only rode a few waves, I can still recall how fast that board moved through the water.

The Paipo, which helped give birth to the modern progressive surfboards of today, was mastered in Hawaii by several surfers including Valentine Ching, whom I first became aware of through viewing some of Richard Kenvin’s rough cuts for his steadily evolving Hydrodynamica project. Looking closely at the Paipo, you can trace some of the lines of the mini Simmon’s, a 1940s Bob Simmon’s twin fin derivative.

According to one of the leaders of the current Paipo movement, Johnny Wegener: “The Paipo naturally places itself in the pocket of the wave, and accelerates quickly. Being in the prone position, you can fit into tubes that a stand up surfer may not even notice. Paipos will help you look at waves differently, and notice inside peeling sections at your home break that everyone else paddles over.”

The next time you feel the need for a change of equipment, consider looking beyond foam and fiberglass into the world of surf mats, Paipo boards, handplanes, or Alaias. Regardless of what you ride on a daily basis, these craft will broaden your surfing experience, and, you just might be surprised how much fun you’ll have.

Chris Ahrens



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