If you’ve ever enjoyed a hot summer’s day on the sand in Far Rockaway, you may have spotted a wetsuit-wearing fellow riding what looks like a wooden boogie board. It may well have been Matthew McGregor-Mento, a Long Island native who has surfed New York City’s waves since 1986. McGregor-Mento is part of a small but growing community of surfers who enjoy riding the waves while lying low.
According to McGregor-Mento, a traditional Hawaiian short bodyboard called a paipo (pronounced PIE-po) can enhance even an expert surfer’s day in the water. “They ride well in super, super, super, small waves, like almost no waves at all, and then they ride really well all the way up to like epic barreling,” he says. Given the streaky nature of New York City’s surf, which is smallest in the summer months and temperamental during stormy seasons, paipos can get board enthusiasts in the water even when the waves aren’t ideal for surfing.
Because of the similarities in technique to boogie boarding, which many of us associate with childhood trips to the shore, it’s easy to relegate the paipo and bodyboarding to the novice end of the wave pool. But during last year’s tornado near Breezy Point, McGregor-Mento was thwarted in the heavy surf on his standup surfboard, so he turned to his short wooden board instead.
“The waves were way too strong, and I was way too weak a paddler–it just wasn’t going to happen,” he says. McGregor-Mento had better luck on his wooden bodyboard, which he always brings with him. “I was basically one of the very, very small handful of people that even made it out that day, and then once I was out on the board, I was picking off all these crazy storm waves that were just like big and burly and weird.”
Surfing as we know it—with long, expensive fiberglass boards and a day’s worth of wipeouts—is a relatively young sport that blossomed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but for centuries prior, Hawaiian, Polynesian and West African wave riders took to the water on sculpted pieces of wood, and rarely on their feet.
Belly boarding on makeshift wooden boards became popular in Hawaii during the post-World War I construction boom, when flat scrap pieces of wood were scavenged from nearby building sites. Now, some local devotees in New York, and plenty others around the world, think there’s of room in the water for anyone who doesn’t want to worry about paddling out and popping up. Modern adaptations of the traditional paipo resemble wooden ironing boards that are about four feet long and only one inch thick and are intended to be ridden lying flat on the belly, though some surfers, like 1950s Hawaiian surfing legend Valentine Ching, have mastered standup paipo riding.
The paipo is only one type of wooden board; others include its close relative, the alaia, a standup wooden board, and hand planes, which resemble small wooden cutting boards and attach to the hands for speedy body surfing. McGregor-Mento rides what he calls an English wooden surfboard from the Original Surfboard Company. Founder Sally Parkin started riding wooden belly boards at age five in Cornwall, England in the 1960s. She says bodyboarding was England’s dominant form of surfing at the time. Part of what she loves about the boards is how accessible they are–other than a willingness to get wet, you don’t need much to get in the water and have fun on one.
“I’ve never been a standup surfer or particularly athletic, but I’m quite a good swimmer; I’ve always loved the water, and I’ve always loved these boards,” she says. “Standup surfing, you know, is a bit like tennis, where it’s quite difficult or it’s harder to share.”
Bodyboarding in England has a devoted audience, so much so that local surfers in Cornwall started the World Belly Boarding Championship in 2003. Now in its 11th year, the competition has grown to include around 400 participants, including McGregor-Mento, who will make his third trip to Cornwall for the annual contest this September. The eclectic event is open to all ages, with some participants donning vintage swimwear and costumes–wetsuits and swim fins are forbidden in the chilly Cornwall water–and includes a pastry bake-off. But amidst the whimsy is a love for surfing in its purest form, McGregor-Mento says.
“It is the most sort of joyful celebration of people riding waves and being in the water,” he says. McGregor-Mento has attended both large, professional competitions and small local contests, and says that Cornwall is, “The most all-inclusive surf event there is in the world. You’ve got people who just love the sea and who have been going down to the sea either every day or every summer for their entire lives.”
While New York City might have missed England’s wooden bodyboarding craze of the 1960s, New Yorkers have always migrated to the beaches in the summer and found their ways into the water.
“It was really, really common to go to the seaside and rent either like an inflatable mat or a board, like a paipo-like board and spend the day riding the waves,” McGregor-Mento says about beach vacations in New York and New Jersey in the pre-boogie boarding days, before the 1980s. “We’ve lost touch with some of those more sort of simplified forms of wave riding, and I think you’re seeing this resurgence of that again.”
The revival comes from the West Coast as much as from Cornwall, courtesy of Jon and Tom Wegener, two of the premier surfers and board shapers in the world (Tom Wegener, who is close friends with Parkin, was named Surfing Magazine’s Shaper of the Year in 2009). They work in natural materials and are fond of paulownia, a light, fast-growing wood native to China. The Wegeners began shaping paipos and alaias in 2005. Since then, they’ve advocated belly, or prone, surfing.
“Being a surfer you think of it as regressing to ride on your belly,” says Jon Wegener, who, along with fellow paipo enthusiasts, started the Paipo Society and the Paipo Stokefest in La Jolla, Calif. “Getting on one of these boards and riding on your belly, the realization is that the ride is really good. They’re super fast; you can ride small waves on them–instead of not having enough power or size, the paipo takes a small or unpowerful wave and gives you an exhilarating ride because you’re on your stomach and you’re so low.”
A Wegener paipo goes for nearly $300, and they’re hard to find in the East Coast surf shops. An Original Surfboard bodyboard sells for around $250 before shipping, and ships from the UK. Though you can snag a foam boogie board for $30, the thinner, sleeker wooden boards offer faster rides and keep you close to the water. And while these prices are about a quarter of what a hand-shaped, standup surfboard goes for, they’re more than most kids’ allowances can buy. That’s why local artist and longtime surfer and skateboarder Jon Bocksel held a paipo-building workshop for young riders at the MoMA PS1 Dome in Rockaway this June. After Hurricane Sandy left many homes in various states of construction and demolition, Bocksel found a wealth of scrap wood up for grabs.
“It’s the same thing that happened with skateboarding in the 1970s–kids figured out how to rip some trucks off some roller skates and attach it to a 2×4,” Bocksel says. “It’s not really rocket science. Most kids can make a paipo with a few tools, you know, a little bit of sandpaper. You don’t even need power tools. You can use a hand saw.”
In New York City, where ample storage is as rare as a perfect barrel wave, and most of us ride the rails, paipos are also spatially economical. They’re also more durable than most standup fiberglass boards.
“A surfboard is a very precious thing, like you walk around an apartment building with a surfboard and you will whack it into things and you will damage it,” McGregor-Mento says. “The wear and tear on New York surfboards, just getting them to and from the beach, is pretty brutal.”
Though still infrequently seen on area beaches, McGregor-Mento thinks there’s plenty of room for paipos and other body boards in New York’s waters, and that they have the potential to connect more riders with a deeper side of surfing.
“Surfing has become an industry; it’s become a profession; it’s become a lifestyle,” McGregor-Mento says. “But ultimately, you know, surfing is a relationship with the sea. Right? It’s a relationship with the waves. It’s joy. It’s adventure.”