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Panorama: The Gerry Lopez Interview

The Legacy of Paddling While Standing Up

By Christian Jung // Featured in the Fall 2016 Edition of Standup Journal

Gerry Lopez is a surf icon who needs no introduction. Every surfer around the globe knows him for his riding skills and also for his surf and sup board designing and shaping. It has been an often-mentioned pride point, as the seed of sup has grown among the incoming flocks of new standup paddlers, that “Gerry is one of us.”

Indeed, the story of standup paddling is mixed in with Gerry Lopez’s own. From the very beginning, he was involved in making standup happen. During my interview, on a calm late-June afternoon in Bali, “Mister Pipeline” talks story and gives us his panoramic view of our sport:

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SERVAIS: “Some places are just made for a standup board.”

Gerry Lopez is a surf icon who needs no introduction. Every surfer around the globe knows him for his riding skills and also for his surf and sup board designing and shaping. It has been an often-mentioned pride point, as the seed of sup has grown among the incoming flocks of new standup paddlers, that “Gerry is one of us.”

Indeed, the story of standup paddling is mixed in with Gerry Lopez’s own. From the very beginning, he was involved in making standup happen. During my interview, on a calm late-June afternoon in Bali, “Mister Pipeline” talks story and gives us his panoramic view of our sport:

CHRISTIAN: When was the first time you realized sup boards could be true performers in the surf?

GERRY: It was on a trip with Laird to the Mentawais. Dave Kalama, Rob Machado…who else went?…the Malloy Brothers were also with us. We made a film called—I forget what the film was—The Watermen or something…but Laird and Dave brought standup boards, and that was the first time I saw anyone riding a standup board in really good waves. Some heavy waves, too. Not super big but, you know, barreling waves. And I was going, “Wow, this is pretty good” ‘cause they could catch the wave way outside of where we were sitting on the surfboards and then they still could ride and, you know…then when I went home, I decided I wanted to try it.

CHRISTIAN: Can you tell us the story of how Laird bugged you to make him a sup board, and how that got you interested in giving standup paddling a try?

RIP ZINGER Uluwatu, Bali.

GERRY: Oh, you know, I made Laird the first standup paddle board. It was me and a good friend of mine, YU (Yoshi Ueda). We were in Japan one time and Laird called and said he was coming over. He asked if I would make him a big board. Like a 12-foot tandem style board. This was long before hardly anybody else was doing standup. I said OK, and then we looked around for a blank. We finally found one that must have been sitting under a house for, I don’t know, 10 to 20 years.

It was all brown and, you know, beat up—but Yoshi and I made this board for Laird and he loved it. He was surfing on it. He would ride that big board so well. It was a giant longboard—12 feet long, thick and wide. As big as the blank, really.

You know, on Maui, at Hookipa Beach, people would see him coming with this big board and it looked like he was out of control, but he wasn’t.

And then, I think Brian Keaulana [C4 Waterman co-founder] told him where to get a long paddle, and Laird’s challenge was to just stay standing up. (That first board was wide by surfboard standards but narrow by today’s sup standards.) But, you know, as big as that board was, still he wanted one bigger. So he asked me for another one, and I ordered a blank for him from Clark Foam. It was 12’8” and, I think, 26 inches wide. He told me to make it as big as the blank. So I did.

It was so big that it took two of us to move it around in the shop, to glass it and everything. And then when I was finishing glassing, it was so heavy that no one person could lift it—except when Laird came to take it. He lifted it above his head and went, “Wow, this one is perfect! Can you make 10 more just like it for all my friends?”

“Finally we found one that must have been sitting under a house for, I don’t know, 10 to 20 years” -Gerry on the huge foam blank he and shaper Yoshi Ueda found under a house in Japan to make Laird’s first sup board

You know, our shop was big, but still, it seemed like the job was too much for me. This was on Maui, so I called my friend Ron House in California. Ron and I were friends since maybe 1966, and he was a very good shaper. He was living in California where it’s easier to get the blanks and do everything there. So I told Ron about this because we both knew Laird when he was just a baby. We knew his mother well…so Ron said, “Yeah, I can do that.” And then he started shaping sup boards for Laird. Then, a few years later, they made a model for Surftech. Surftech was already making a 12-foot tandem Mickey Muñoz board that Mickey and a few others were able to use as a sup board, but “The Laird” was the very first production standup model. It was red or yellow, sometimes blue. Twelve, maybe twelve-one, but really wide—a longboard-style shape.

During the Mentawai trip with Laird, Dave and the Malloy Brothers that I mentioned, I tried Laird’s board a few times. It wasn’t easy on that board (which I still have). But soon Laird and Ron made their Surftech model, and that board was really easy. Ron also made me a custom board. A 10’6” I think it was. That’s when I started paddling a lot.

Wow, this one is perfect! Can you make 10 more just like it for all my friends? -Laird’s reaction to the second board Gerry made for him—when Gerry realized it was time to bring Ron House into the picture

CHRISTIAN: How did moving to central Oregon affect your thoughts on sup?

GERRY: My friend in Oregon has a rafting company, so he was a very strong paddler—but he wasn’t a surfer; he had never ridden waves. We don’t live near the ocean in Oregon. We live in the middle of the state, in Bend, so we would go on the lakes and the rivers and paddle these boards. We really did it a lot and liked it because it was good exercise. And then I started going to the beach and riding waves on it.

On the Oregon coast, the water is very cold and the waves are really hard to catch. They break all over the place, not like here [in Bali]. I’m used to reefs…it’s mostly sandy bottom in Oregon. But with the standup board, by standing, I can see the waves coming, and with the paddle I can paddle anywhere, so I can be really mobile and can catch the waves really easily. So, suddenly, I was enjoying the surf in Oregon much more then I had before because I wasn’t getting wet. Also—I forgot an important part—when I moved to Bend, I met Dave Chun of Kialoa Paddles. He and Meg had moved to Oregon too because they wanted a little lifestyle change. His number one business was making outrigger canoe paddles.

One time Laird asked me if I knew anybody who could make a paddle, so I called Dave Chun and he went, “Yeah, I think we can make it…it’s just a long paddle.” So he started making the paddles. That’s when Dave and I really connected. Today, a large part of Kialoa’s business is making standup paddles. He is a perfectionist: he makes everything so well…So, right from the beginning I had really good paddles. That made it much easier to learn.

So, I started doing it, and I was the only guy on a standup board in the surf in Oregon. Then I took my friend, the river raft paddler I mentioned before. I had tried, over the years, to introduce him to surfing, but he was old already and, you know, it’s hard to start surfing when you are older. Then he started to go with me to do standup. I remember the first time I took him to the ocean. You know, in the lake, or even in the river, the water is easy to paddle on because it’s smooth. But in the ocean water, he was very nervous. The first day, his hope was to stay standing on the board without falling for 10 seconds. Now, of course, he is very good at it and he loves surfing it. In fact, he bought a house in Mexico so he can go sup surfing most times of the year. It really changed his life. And it has changed mine too. Because, living in Oregon, away from the sea, I wasn’t going surfing as much as I used to. I wasn’t staying in very good condition for surfing. But when you go paddling, it’s probably a better cross training for regular surfing (laydown paddling) than almost any other thing that you can do.

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ZINGER (Above) Mr. Pipeline working on his other title: Mr. Longevity…spreading yoga love as he goes, and—in this case—also to benefit Clean Water Uluwatu. (Top right) DUBOCK Styling on the black pearl, Doheny Beach. (Panel, l-r) MUIR Ron House’s friendship with Gerry led to House shaping Laird’s next generation batches of sup boards. Ron is one of the first sup shapers in our sport, and is still shaving superb foam designs today; DUBOCK Ace Performers: pioneers Jenny Kalmbach and Gillian Dagmar Gibree at the 2010 BOP; Rainbow Sandals founder Sparky Longley with lifelong buddy Gerry.

You know, I got more and more into it. Then I started making my own boards, and the boards were getting smaller, and standup paddlesurfing was getting more high performance. I was surfing more and more waves, mostly in Oregon…a few times on trips to Mexico…and I was really enjoying it. Then, we took another trip to the Mentawais. I went with Wayne Lynch [legendary Australian surfer] and the Malloy Brothers. It was for Patagonia [Clothing], and I took a standup board with me. All those Mentawais waves I had surfed many times over the years, I was now standup paddling into. And, you know, I used to get caught inside and miss the big ones because of being out of position—but with the standup board, it really made it easier to see the sets coming, and I really enjoyed it.

CHRISTIAN: How does all the progression from surfing tie in to sup?

GERRY: I have noticed, over the years, that all these boards sprang from surfing…You know, I mean, there was surfing and then the surfers put the skate wheels on a piece of wood and started skateboarding. Then they wanted to ride that shape on the snow and started snowboarding…and then windsurfing and now kitesurfing. As the sports grow…You know, I have noticed this with my son, because he was born in Maui, but then we moved to Oregon and he grew up there in the snow as a snowboarder.

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PAT HUBER: In 2010, Surfer Hall of Fame big-wave legend George Downing (left) joined Sparky Longley and Gerry to pay a visit to the original sup guy, John ‘JZap’ Zapotocky of Waikiki. It turned out to be the last time they would see JZap, who originally commissioned Downing to build Zapotocky’s first standup paddleboard in the late ‘50s. Gerry remembers seeing JZap out on that board: “In the early 1960’s, as an eighth-grader at Punahou Academy, I would spend my weekends with my school chums surfing at Tongg’s, at the base of Diamond Head. We noticed a fit-looking gentleman who always surfed with a canoe paddle. He was a much better surfer than any of us were and we labored to not get in his way. Oh and by the way, the gentleman that gave Zap the idea that surfing with a paddle was a good thing…well, that was none other than the great Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing.” ZINGER

Now he is a professional snowboarder. He was really an example to me of how sports have a history of their own. Kids grow up as skaters or snowboarders, windsurfers, kitesurfers. Eventually, as they get good at their respective sports, they begin to be interested in the history of them and where they came from, and these sports now bring the kids back to surfing.

Now my son is 26 years old, and he only found surfing in the last few years—he enjoys it, you know. And now, this is his first trip to Bali. It’s really interesting to see how skateboarding, snowboarding and some other sports bring the people who grew up practicing them all back to surfing. At least to try, see and understand the roots of their own sport.

Gerry laying into an about-to-be hollow ramp at Uluwatu.

CHRISTIAN: Do you go out standup paddle surfing more than regular surfing?

GERRY: In Oregon, I do more standup. But when I came here (to Bali), the first day was pretty big. We went out to Bommie (at Uluwatu) and, well, getting out wasn’t that easy with the standup board. I started here [in front of the Uluwatu Surf Villas, where this interview took place, south of Uluwatu], and I couldn’t penetrate until right in front of the cave, because it was big. So, I slipped out just above the outside corner and the peak. You know, I am familiar with that area, especially from all the years surfing there—so I knew that if I didn’t make it out, I was gonna go almost to Padang and have to paddle all the way back. But I slipped out there and then I went out to the Bommie. Right after, I caught three really good, solid waves. Big waves. And then I got caught inside and the leash broke and, oh man, I had a long swim. I thought, “This is gonna be heavy,” because I got pounded and held down for really a long time. I was still tired from the long flight.

Dave Chun is a perfectionist; he makes everything so well…So, right from the beginning I had really good paddles. Gerry on the luck of having Kialoa Paddles relocate from Hawaii to near him in Bend, Oregon

I lost the board and paddle. It was high tide, big swell. I was swimming and thought, “The board is gone.” So I’m trying to swim to go in the cave, but with the high tide the current was strong enough that I just missed the cave and went, “Oh, shit.” And right when I went passed the cave, I saw my board floating in that little spot right after it. I know that spot because I have lost boards before and found them there. I went, “Oh God, my board!” So, then I swam really hard and I got my board just before the wave was gonna take it to the rocks.

It never touched the rocks, and I went, “Oh, man, I can’t believe it.” So I got on my board and paddled back in to the cave. Then I went through the village that I hadn’t been to in 20 years…“Wow, this has really changed.” Then I came back here [to Uluwatu Surf Villas, a long walk].

After that, I just go with the surfboard here, because it’s easier to go out (laughs). I hadn’t taken the standup board again until yesterday, and it was pretty fun.

I should have used it more when the waves were bigger. That’s why I’ll leave this board here for the next time I come back, because I think Outside Corner on a standup board would be a great wave. It was great that day at the Bommie, but I was a little jetlagged and not really totally ready for it.

CHRISTIAN: What about hollow waves? What are the main points for a successful barrel ride on a standup board?

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MUIR: The BOP was always a meeting of the tribes. Sandwiching the yellow-shirted Tahitians are Thomas ‘Maximus’ Shahinian, Colin McPhillips, Sparky Longley, Gerry Lopez (in his gifted Tahiti team shirt), and Chuck Patterson.

GERRY: If it is a wave that has an end on it, then it’s not so bad. Because, you know, the trouble with the standup board is that you don’t want to get caught inside. So you need a channel or something to go out. Someplace like Padang, for example, would be great on a standup board—except for all of the guys. And this has always been a problem. As standup has become popular, the surfers that don’t do it, don’t like it. So there is that little bit of friction. It’s a big board. If there are a lot of surfers, then you really don’t wanna be in that situation. You wanna be someplace where there is more room where you don’t have to worry that your board is gonna hurt somebody.

CHRISTIAN: Still on barrels: it’s always tricky to ride such a big board on the tube. How do you do it?

GERRY: That time we went to the Mentawais with Laird and Kalama, I saw them riding 12-foot longboard shapes and they were getting totally barreled on them. My board now looks like a big shortboard. You have to set it up. You have to make sure the paddle is in the right place. Because, otherwise, it’s gonna drag in the wave and maybe pull you off your board. You have to have your feet almost on the inside rail. I mean almost toes over the rail to hold that edge in the tube. But, you know, it can be done. I have been totally barreled on a standup board. So, yeah, it can be done. I took my board to G Land and I was gonna do it, but there were too many guys. I saw one guy: every wave he got, he got creamed. Just because the wave was too strong, and his board didn’t look like it was working that good anyway.

CHRISTIAN: How tall do you cut your paddle shafts?

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GERRY: It depends. If I am doing racing or downwind, then my shaft is usually about 8 inches or even 10 inches more than my height. But if it’s in surf, then it’s quite a bit shorter. Maybe 4 to 6 inches more than I am tall. I’ve noticed that a lot of guys who ride really small boards because they are always in the crowds sometimes use a paddle that is just as long as they are tall. So the paddle lengths are getting shorter because the guys are paddling harder and in a more crouched position, so they can use a shorter paddle. The longer paddle means a little more effort to lift.

There’s a trend toward getting an adjustable paddle: a lightweight adjustable paddle with generally a smaller blade. That way you have the option to change the length. When you change the length of your paddle, even in the same session, then you start changing the muscle groups that you use in your paddling. So, if you plan on going for a really long paddle, an adjustable paddle is more beneficial because as some muscles get tired you change the length, make it shorter, and start using different muscles.

CHRISTIAN: Do you have any final message to all the paddlers around the world?

GERRY: Yeah: keep paddling (laughs). Always remember…because you have the advantage when you are in the lineup with the regular surfers…to surf with Aloha. Make an extra effort to fit into their world—because, really, they were there first and you are new coming in. Just because you can catch the waves, it doesn’t mean you have to catch them all. You have to share. –Gerry

I have noticed, over the years, that all these boards sprang from surfing. Surfers put wheels on a piece of wood and started skateboarding. Then they wanted to ride that shape on the snow and started snowboarding…and then windsurfing, kitesurfing…-Gerry on how surfing permeates the progression of sup

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Panorama: The Gerry Lopez Interview
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