Behind the board – Paul Strauch

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When did you start surfing? My father started me surfing at Waikiki when I was four years old. He grew up two blocks off Kuhio Beach and spent most of his youth surfing and fishing along the coastline from Diamond Head to the Ala Wai Harbor. He knew all the surfing reefs in the area and all the Waikiki beach boys. It was a childhood fantasy for meÄ Being pushed into that first wave on his redwood plank, quietly skimming through the water and watching all the fish and beautiful coral reef pass by underneath the board was magical. I’ll never forget my first wave at Baby Queens. It was so exciting I thought my heart would burst right through my chest… And it’s been that way for me ever since then!

What was it that first got you into the water? As a child my lungs were underdeveloped and I had trouble breathing. My parents took me to the ocean to increase my physical strength and endurance. They felt the ocean activity would increase my appetite and build me up. I started out with a small paipo board in the shore break and slowly progressed to a surf mat, redwood plank, hollow board and finally at 12 years old I got a balsa board with a swallow tail. My Dad contracted Tom Blake to shape two balsa boards in our garage, a 10’6″ square-tail for himself and an 8’6″ swallow-tail for me. Tom helped us pick out the balsa from the local lumberyard. He diagonally cut the first 3-1/2 feet of each separate length and then took the cut pieces and glued them to the top of each length to fashion the scoop or nose rocker. Then all the pieces were glued together lengthwise, the outline cut, the board shaped with a drawknife, planer, sandpaper, and then fiberglassed all by hand without the use of any power tools. And, he did everything in our own garage! Tom had even made a fin mold, which he used to make fiberglass fins. They looked like the vertical tail from a B-52 bomber. He added pigment to the resin so our fins were bright red. I remember carefully watching him through each step of the entire process. He was quiet, reserved and very humble… Extremely meticulous and patient, and health conscious. I remember he only ate raw vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grain cereal and fresh fruit. It took him three weeks to finish both surfboards. We took them to Waikiki and baptized them with a Hawaiian ritual before entering the ocean. My 8’6″ Tom Blake balsa was so light and maneuverable by comparison to my 8′ finless hollow board. Now I could really put my weight on each rail and reverse my direction with ease. It was like night and day. What a remarkable difference from the redwood and hollow boards I had been riding up to that point.

Who were some of your early influences and mentors? My father, Tom Blake and George Downing were guiding lights in my surfing. Their knowledge of the ocean, currents, winds, wave intervals, reefs, bottom topography, hydrodynamics, surfboard design and fundamental elements in the sport were unparalleled to me. I learned so much from each one and thank them for their patience and many gifts to me. There were others at Waikiki whose style and talent I admired because they really stood out from the rest in the crowd. These surfers exuded so much confidence and poise, they were like super heroes to meÄ Richard Kauo, Blackie Makalena, Blackout, Squirlie Carvalho, Rabbit Kekai, George Downing, Dingo, Dickie-Boy Abbey, Maurice Ikeda, Alan Gomes, Conrad Canha, to mention just a few. They were my heroes in the surf and they commanded respect. There was always a hierarchy and you quickly learned to respect your mentors and elders in surfing. In Hawaii, you learned from your eldersÄ Those who had more experience, better equipment, respect, style, patience, humility, and dignity. It was personal. No team thing, just you and your mentors. There was etiquette and courtesy. It required great personal effort and commitment to progress. You learned about the sea, and its many different moods. You discovered how to flow in harmony with the movement. Personal pride and accomplishment were yours. You shared the experience with others. You became the mentor. This is surfing in Hawaii.

What built your interest in big wave riding and was there any particular day or event you remember as being particularly significant to you? I started going to Makaha when I was about 14 years old. I entered the Makaha International Surfing Championships in 1958 and placed second and won the division the following year. In 1958 I got my first foam board, a 9’8″ yellow Hobie pintail, through George Downing. It was this board that made the second major impact on my surfing. It was much lighter than my Blake balsa and extremely responsive. It paddled faster, turned on a dime and would scoot forward under sections of the wave when you shifted your body weight forward and back and from rail to rail. The Hobie worked great in surf up to about six feet. However, when the surf rose over six to eight feet, the width in the tail section caused the board to skip over the surface chop and you lost both speed and control. At 15 my Dad and I went to meet with Bob Shepherd and Joe Daniels at the surfboard shop called Swim Boats in Kakaako, just south of downtown Honolulu. Bob was a fireman and master shaper, and Joe did all the glass work. Bob shaped a beautiful 10’4″ balsa gun for me. I christened this board at Sunset Beach with George Downing. It was my first time there and George and I sat on the beach for over an hour as he showed me the lineup doe the west peak and the north point rides. He explained how all the water rushed straight in, over the reef to shore, and turned into a strong rip tide which ran parallel to the beach and then went back out the sandy channel. We timed the sets and wave intervals, watched people swim in for their boards and go right back out the channel riptide when they swam out of the incoming whitewater line. George really knew his stuff in big surf. He was the Man, the main Guru for big waves without any question! Following our beachside observation, I paddled out with George and surfed all morning for over three hours without incident. I clearly remember the surf was in the 8 to 10 with occasional 12-foot sets rolling through, super clean with clear skies and a mild offshore blowing. My new Shepherd balsa gun was super fast and would come off the bottom with no drag and keep accelerating from the speed of drop and easily make the wave. It was exhilarating to go so fast. I watched everyone else and they all seemed to take off on an angle rather than drop straight down. Most of the time their take offs were so late that they would bounce down the face and couldn’t hold the tail of their boards in the wave, loose control and spin out. If I timed it right, I could go drive my board almost straight down the face, shift my position and weight to the tail section of the board, bank hard off the bottom, take two steps forward with my weight on the inside rail, level the board while in a crouch and then rocket forward from all the follow through and speed. This take off sequence worked really well at Sunset. In fact, I found that I could get so much speed out of my boad from a well-timed bottom turn that the board seemed to almost squirt out ahead. My Shepherd gun worked like a dream! Later after lunch, Hobie Alter, who was out in the morning, offered me his 10’6″ gun to try. I took it out and paddled into my first wave with all the confidence I gained in my morning run and just got clobbered. His board was longer, thicker and heavier and didn’t turn like mine. I lost control right after I dropped in and was held down so long with no air left that I began to see stars. I thought it was all over. Somehow I managed to get back to the surface, and slowly worked my way to the beach. It as vivid wake up call for me, very humbling indeed. A wipeout I’ll never forget. After that first day at Sunset I used to day dream constantly about riding big surf using the same techniques and “hot-dogging” style as in smaller waves. But, I learned in order to do surf this way, you had to have the right equipment. Board design made all the difference in riding large surf. You needed experience and coordination, timing, good judgment, physical conditioning. But without the right equipment, a properly designed board, it was impossible. You were doomed!

Are you still active in surfing today, and what types of boards do you use on a regular basis? I am very active in surfing now. I surf about four to five times a week. Living in San Clemente where there are nine breaks within five minutes of each other and very consistent all year round. Although the surf in this area only breaks over 8′ a few times a year, you can find surf at least 300 days of the year. I use about five different boards on a regular basis; two 10′ small wave longboards, a 8’8″ semi-gun, 10’6″ gun and 11’2″ fun board. I prefer to ride a longboard here in California due to the smaller surf. I love to noseride and the thin, glassy morning surf here offer a premium ride for that purpose. I spend a lot of time at the Point at San Onofre where the surf is very consistent, mellow and family oriented with predominately longboarders. There’s no real contention in the water, and everyone has a good time. I’m the current president of the Hawaiian Surf Club of San Onofre, a 12-year old surf club designed to perpetuate surfing and Hawaii’s culture, and we meet every Sunday for a relaxing day at the beach. We host an annual Polynesian festival and luau in San Clemente over the Memorial Day Holiday to share and perpetuate Hawaii’s culture and the Aloha spirit with everyone here in southern California. It’s become a very popular event over the years. In addition, our club makes an annual trip to Hawaii every year to surf and relax on the north shore of Oahu. It’s become like one large extended family. Check it out on the web at www.hawaiiansurfclub.com and be sure to click on the “Talk Story” section. There are some hilarious stories to enjoy there.

There has been a major resurgence in longboards during the 90’s and now especially with the 70’s-style, heavy weight, noseriders with volan cloth and single fins. Why do think this board design has become so popular now? In the 60’s and 70’s, one of the most important aspects in surfing was style. If you wanted to improve your surfing, you had to demonstrate your experience and control by looking smooth. Casually turning, walking to the nose to trim and then back to the tail before cutting back and then repeating the process. As your surfing progressed you would ride each wave as if it were like a choreographed dance. The best surfers always rode with the smoothest style and repertoire. They stood out from the crowd with their casual elegance and always looked so poised and in control. You would carefully studied your surfing idols and try to mimic all of their moves and developed your own style. You practiced the same maneuvers over and over again until you could perform the entire dance without hesitation or jerky movements. You learned how to pull out over the top of the wave and glide slowly to a stop while reversing the direction of your board so it pointed back to the lineup as you casually dropped down to the prone position to paddle back out to the takeoff area. You would slowly develop your own personal surfing style by combining all the best maneuvers from all the surfers you admired. All the good surfers did this. It was just part of the flow in surfing. If you watch Joel Tudor, currently one of the best longboarders in the world, you will see elegant Longboard surfing at its finest. Joel Tudor has spent years developing his own surfing choreography into a precise, flowing wavedance. His super-smooth, graceful style has developed a huge following among longboarders everywhere, and you can see young surfers trying to emulate his technique, coordination and style. Joel has been one of the leading proponents to usher back the 60’s style mastery and has helped put real soul back into surfing.

What is your opinion on tow-in surfing in search for larger waves? Tow-in surfing has opened up an entirely new horizon in riding big waves without question. It has magnified the requirements for being fully prepared to ride the outer reefs. It takes an intense commitment to physical training, special equipment and boards, partner relationship, and a vast expanse of knowledge that can only come from first hand experience. In 1996 I was hired to scout the top big wave riders in Hawaii for a feature film, called In God’s Hands. I helped to arrange a session at Jaws with Maui hellmen Laird Hamilton, Derrick Doerner, Dave Kalama, Rush Randle, Buzzy Kerbox and Pete Cabrinha. I flew over from Honolulu to Maui with Brian Keaulana, Brock Little, Mike Stewart and a cameraman and we drove out to Peahi. We stood on the edge of the cliffs watching these guys tow-in to perfect 18 – 25-foot Jaws for over an hour. Neither Brian, Brock nor Mike had ever surfed there and they paid close attention to the whole set up. Then we drove back to the launch area and met the Maui crew there for their lunch break. Laird and Derrick were extremely serious about surfing Jaws and reviewed all the safety procedures to be followed with all of us. They emphasized Jaws was a real life and death situation and didn’t want any showboating going on out there. I can’t over-emphasize their seriousness about tow-in surfing Jaws, and I respect them for it. After lunch they all headed out the small boat harbor on jet skis and several auxiliary boats for Jaws. I drove back to help set up the cameras with our crew. For next two hours someone in the group rode every wave that came through Jaws. One of the teeth-clinching moments came when Mike Stewart was towed into his first wave, a giant 20-footer on his boogie board. Everyone on the cliff held their breath as he left go of the tow rope and bounced three times to the bottom of the wave, and then got completely tubed before popping out on to the shoulder. It was an awesome wave. Another chilling ride came when both Brian and Brock were both towed into a 25- foot monster. Brian was on the shoulder and Brock on the inside. Brock faded too deep into the pocket and as he made his bottom turn he knew there was no way he could make it out. So, he just pulled up high right into the pocket as the whole thing buried him and he was snuffed like a rag doll. He was held down and dragged for nearly 60 underwater and finally surfaced. He was picked up by Billy, one of the jet ski drivers and towed out into the channel while his board was trashed on the rocky shoreline. Watching the entire wipeout from the cliff, I wasn’t sure Brock would be able to pull through all that punishment, but thank God he did. From Brock’s mishap I learned how important your ski-driving partner is to setting the takeoff up and your survival. If he drives too deep, you’re history! On the north shore when the outer reefs are breaking, sometimes an outside set will break a hundred yards farther out than the last one. You’ve got to be prepared for this to happen all the time when the surf gets super-big. It takes a great deal of practice, area familiarity and seamanship. It’s dead serious stuff. Your survival depends on it. I worry over the growing probability for accidents as more surfers venture out into the realm of extreme surfing due to a number of reasons like inexperience, faulty equipment and a disregard for safety precautions. It seems the fantasy challenge for big wave hunters to tow into bigger and bigger waves will continue as will the personal liability factor. The raw natural power behind waves with 60 to 70-foot faces leaves very little room for error to survive.

Your life as a surfer has covered several decades. When do you feel was the best decade to be a surfer? That’s very difficult to answer. I think every surfer has an indelible mental and emotional imprint etched into his or her memory bank of his or her very first wave. For me Waikiki will always have a special place in my heart and memory. There’s so much history there and it’s so beautiful sitting out in the ocean and looking back at lush Manoa valley and seeing the brilliant colors of the rainbows against the glistening sun…What a majestic sight that is! For anyone asked this question, it becomes very personal regardless of the particular time frame they choose. Surfing is very personal. That’s exactly what separates surfing from all the other sports. It’s all up to you as an individual. There’s no team or other players to always consider. It’s you, your board and the ocean and no one can take that personal aspect away from you. For me it was back in the early 50’s riding a redwood plank across the inside reef at Baby Queens in Waikiki and watching the fish swim by as I walked on water. I’ll own that moment forever.

You have been praised by many for the influence and contributions you have made to the art of riding waves. How does it make you feel to be so well recognized? What do you feel has been your greatest contribution? The Paul Strauch Cheater Five? I haven’t the faintest clue on how to answer this question. Having surfed through the surfboard evolution from redwood planks, hollow boards, balsa, foam and new super light composites and all the design improvements, I can say it’s been personally fulfilling in every respect. Learning to smile while using body weight displacement and physical coordination to functionally maneuver a long, heavy object to stay in the critical part of the wave while trying to appear in complete control has been my objective since a child. I guess that’s my answer. Surf with a smile. Yes, if I can be remembered for one thing it would be my smile. You can’t have fun without smiling, can you?

Who do you feel is the most influential surfer today? There are so many surfers who are considered leaders of the sport today. I admire all of them for their incredible skills, dedication and raw talent in all types of surf. Right now without question, one of these surfing icons has to be Kelly Slater. He’s super-human when it comes to surfing skills. His dexterity, timing and talent is truly awesome. Now he’s also venturing into the extreme realm of super large surf, too. He’s definitely capable of taking small wave performance surfing to an entirely new level in big surf. Just watch him. He’s already there!

Do you have any advice for today’s surfers? Yes I do. Remember the thrill of your first wave. It’s the essence of surfing. Find that feeling every time you ride a wave so you can laugh out loud because you’re doing what you love. and Smile! It’s contagious!

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