bud scelsa


Here at Legless we believe that to know where we’re going, we need to know where we’ve been. Which is to say: we like a little history. Our good friend in San Diego, Cher Pendarvis, has been kind enough to share with us a short piece about a good friend of hers who is a real, living part of our history. You’ve probably never heard of him, which is why we think it’s important that you do.  

Captain Bud Scelsa: an inspiration across generations and cultures.

A passionate all around waterman, paipo knee-rider and sailor, Captain Bud Scelsa is a bridge from the ancients to the present. As a founding member advisor to the board of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Bud helped teach many Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike how to canoe sail on the 40’ Naleiha and the 60’ Ho’kule‘a. For many years, Bud surfed daily dawn patrol sessions at Aiwohi, or Publics, riding his self-made wood paipos “knee-down,” as he calls it, or “kukuli style” as the Hawaiians called it. Bud is an important link between the heritage of the ancient Pacific surfers and modern day knee-riding.

Born in 1946 and raised near the ocean in Newport Beach, California, Bud shared a love of the water with his brothers. When they were 8 to 9 years old, the Scelsa boys learned to sail around Newport Harbor, using a 10 foot pram dinghy their grandfather gave them. At the same time, Bud began bodysurfing and riding an air mat at Big Corona. His mom, a bodysurfer in the 1920s–1930s, was very supportive. “Mom would drop us off every summer morning and on most weekends much of the year until we were old enough to ride our bikes down the hill to the 22nd street pier at Newport,” Bud remembers. Eventually, Bud learned to coast his bike down the hill with a 9’2" longboard under his arm, which was OK as long as it wasn’t windy!

A little later, Bud began bodysurfing at Wedge, and he found its power exciting. Bud loved the pure feeling of bodysurfing the powerful shorebreak waves. At that time, Wedge regulars included Joe Quigg, Carter Pyle, Ron Romanosky and others whose names Bud has forgotten after almost 50 years.

Bud’s whole world changed when he was 20. when he left college and joined the United States Coast Guard. In 1966, while on his first trip to Japan with the Coast Guard, Bud’s ship passed through Hawaii and stopped in Honolulu for fuel. Bud grabbed his brown Duck Feet bodysurfing fins and hitchhiked to Makapu’u, where he found the power of the waves reminded him of Wedge. Bud fell in love with Hawaii that day and decided to return when he found a way to get orders to come back. He was soon befriended by a Native Hawaiian beach boy and musician, Splash Lyons and his family. Hawaiian-style, Bud was hanai (adopted) by the family and has lived intermittently at the Lyons’ family home on the South Shore of Oahu ever since.

Bud met his good friend John Wilkie one day while surfing at Makapu’u. John was an excellent bodysurfer and paipo rider who rode his board knee down or “kukuli style.” John allowed Bud to try his Paipo Nui and Bud, naturally, loved the feeling of speed and control. Inspired, Bud decided to work on the “kukuli style” of riding and after that single session became a life-long knee-rider. “During the 1960s and 70s, Makapu’u had a number of paipo riders, and it seemed we all rode "kukuli style,” remembers Bud.

One day, after surfing paipo with Bud and other friends at Aiwohi, I sat down with Bud to ask him a few question about his beautiful, hand-made wood paipos and his knee-riding.

CP: How did you become inspired to make wood paipos that you knee-ride?

Bud Scelsa: Once hooked on paipo, I needed a board. The first few boards made were just two twelve-inch wide redwood boards that were glued together, shaped and then glassed for durability. Most were 24 inches by 48 inches. Lots of others were making plywood boards that were either painted or just left as is. None of these (plywood) boards lasted.

CP: Are your current wood paipos inspired by the designs of the ancient Hawaiians?

Bud Scelsa: Yes. When I began paipo surfing in the 1960s I was using a Paipo Nui. Once I decided to build my own I then decided to do a little reading to see what used to be considered a paipo. By pure coincidence, I was reading a book about surfing written by Ben Finney. Ben was later my Anthropology professor when I was attending University of Hawaii in the early 1970s. I saw that the kahiko forms were very basic. Straight rails, no rocker, some tapering at the nose, square tail. I made a redwood board 2 ft by 4 ft and then glassed it so it could survive the Sandy Beach shorebreak and Makapu’u. Those were my home breaks from the late 1960s to about 1981. The boards have evolved in style ever since. So far only the earlier boards looked similar to one another. All the ones made starting in the early 2000s are unique in shape and size. I call them a “Kahiko Hybrid.”

CP: I love that your paipos are often made of reclaimed wood. What do you think about recycling and  sustainable surf-craft building?

Bud Scelsa: I see lots of thought and effort given to sustainability. I’m not sure if re-purposing does more than delay the eventual lifetime limit of a board when they are built of PU foam. A wooden paipo can last very long. I have two that I made in the early 1970s that are still very useable. I am sure all my boards can be kept active. Some other approaches are boards like the beautiful gun George Downing made from a Yucca and the wonderful intricate laminated wood boards made by Lon Klein. Mike Casey also is preserving dead wiliwili by making great boards. Re-using foam can work to some degree but PU foam can be tough to reuse very many times once a board breaks in half. Foam boards, due to their physical modulus cannot be expected to survive the hard treatment needed to get good performance. Some non-PU materials and coatings are interesting and I think much will be found to limit the environmental issues.

CP: With sincere Aloha, you love to share the stoke of riding wood paipos, and we see you as a bridge from ancient Hawaiian wave riding “kukuli style” riders to the current knee-riders on modern boards. What do you think of modern knee-riding?

Bud Scelsa: I am living in an information backwater in that regard. As my home break has been Publics for so many years, I have no idea what’s going on in other places. I have seen a guy riding a “knee machine” out at Kalehuawehe (Castles ), a Hawaiian guy named Joe. A fellow from Oregon visits Publics once a year with his knee board. Beyond our little world inside of Aiwohi and Kalehuawehe, I’m not sure what is happening.

Cher Pendarvis October 2013