A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes
By Malcolm Gault-Williams
This Chapter Updated: 21 May 2008
Paul Strauch, Jr.
Image courtesy of Surfers Village
Aloha! And welcome to another chapter of LEGENDARY SURFERS.
Paul Strauch, Jr. was an influential surfer of the 1960s who perhaps is best noted for the "Paul Strauch Five" or "Cheater 5" manouver. He was also one of four riders on the Duke Kahanamoku Surf Team -- an awesome honor in itself.
The following is a biographical sketch of Paul Strauch, Jr. Source material drawn mostly from the writings of Chris Aherns.
“In the mid-1960s,” wrote Chris Ahrens in a 1995 bio for Longboard magazine, “the Paul Strauch Five rocked American surf culture harder than The Beatles. That form-follows-function, friction-free, bird-of-prey swoop cut us in half. Those who could manage a Paul Strauch Five (a PSJ for this staccato, a Cheater Five for the less romantic) fell to one side. Those who could not were kooks. For us kids, it was the first view of noseriding in sizeable surf. More mature surfers saw it as a practical method of trim on hollow waves. Regardless, the impact from those magazine images was staggering…" While the only major surfing maneuver ever to bear a person's’ name is attributed to Strauch and something he is best known for, the Cheater 5 is by no means his greatest accomplishment.
Half Hawaiian, Paul Strauch‘s Hawaiian name is Kalakimau, meaning “The Lucky One.” He started surfing when he “was about seven years old,” he told Chris Ahrens. “My dad was a very good surfer, and he grew up right in Waikiki, two blocks back from the beach. I think that he had one of the first balsa boards that was ever made in Hawaii. It was made by the father of Alan Gomes, who was a woodworker, in 1919. They put a veneer [a thin layer of finer wood covering the surface of chaper wood] over the top and varnished the board. I still have that board.”
Abel Gomes, Alan’s father, was “an accomplished Honolulu craftsman,” a 1997 obituary on Alan described, “was renown for building sought after wooden planks for Alan and his friends, as well as canoes and paddles.” Wally Froiseth made sure I knew, after I had written an article on Tom Blake‘s development of the hollow board, that Abel had actually been the one who built the first Blake hollow boards. Blake would provide the specifications and Abel put it together. “Tom Blake didn’t actually make those hollow boards down there,” Wally told me. “This guy Abel Gomes made the boards. He was a woodworker. Tom wasn’t that much of a woodworker. But, he had the ideas, you know. He knew what he wanted.”
As for Alan Gomes, he became a renowned “1940s and ‘50s Waikiki-based surfer,” in his own right. “Alan was the young, hot, big-wave rider of the period at Point Makaha,” read his 1997 obit in The Surfer’s Journal. “… Alan moved to the Mainland in the ‘50s when his family left Waikiki for the Los Angeles area. Alan eventually glassed Velzy and Jacobs’ famous balsa pig boards of the late ‘50s, marking those boards with a distinctive diamond shaped ‘Glassed by Gomes’ sticker that now helps to demark the South Bay origin boards from those produced at Velzy’s shop in San Clemente.”
“My own first board,” Strauch said, “was shaped by Tom Blake, when I was about 12 years old. My dad had met Blake, and they surfed together. He came up to the house, and made a board for my dad and one for me. Mine had a swallowtail, similar to Skip Frye‘s ‘Fishsimmons,’ but without the inside curve. It worked great. Blake was very much a fixture in the Waikiki area, and very active with hollow boards and balsa boards.”
Strauch’s early influences included his father and George Downing.
“My dad was responsible for getting me the basic feel of the ocean,” the junior Stauch recalled. “He was a fisherman, not by vocation, but by hobby. I learned a lot about currents and waves from him. Eventually, however, I ended up under the tutelage of George Downing. I still consider George to be one of the wisest men around the sea.”
Surf stylist Phil Edwards has said that George Downing was the best big wave surfers of his era. “I would say that too,” agreed Strauch. “If you look at the equipment they had, skegless boards on huge waves. By the time I went to the North Shore and surfed Sunset, everyone was using skegs. But they had ridden places like Sunset on those (skegless) boards before I ever got there.”
“When I was younger, riding bigger surf,” Strauch recalled, “I relied totally on my abilities. On a couple of occasions I almost drowned. The thing that gave me a little edge was believing in my capabilities, and I had to be aggressive. I found, however, that it was better to have controlled aggression.
“I have to say that growing up in a Hawaiian environment, it was kind of the law of the land. Older surfers had the right of way. They made sure you understood that real quick: we got the message loud and clear. You had to be out of your mind to do something that would bring harm to you. You had to co-exist in Hawaii: it’s better to be silent and go around circumstances. I found out too that if you were able to use your ability, you could outmaneuver certain situations as well, and as a result of doing that, you gained instant respect.”
Recalling the times he nearly drowned, Strauch said, “The first time was at Sunset. I was 15 years old, and I was using a balsa board in the morning. I had my driver’s license, and I had a car. The morning was perfect: I never fell once. I surfed for about two hours, came in, had some lunch. Hobie Alter was there, and he had a beautiful 11’ board. He offered to let me ride it. I said, ‘Thank you,’ took it out, and took off on a wave that was 10-to-12. I tried to ride that board the same way that I had been riding my own board, and that was really a mistake. I really got smashed, seeing stars and everything. The other time that I remember nearly drowning was at Makaha, a big day again, and I didn’t know which way was up.
“… I never liked [surfing Waimea] because it was always better somewhere else. Everyone used to roar out to Waimea when Sunset closed out. Often it was less crowded when it got big at Makaha. At Makaha you had a lot to contend with. The thrill was to take off as far toward the point as possible and make it all the way through, so you had to really ride high through the sections to be able to make it through the bowl. I don’t think that I rode Waimea more than a dozen times.”
“My first big-wave board was made by Bob Shepard, a beautiful balsa gun,” recalled Strauch. “It was 10’4” and I was 14, I think. I remember going out to Sunset for the very first time on it. We were so limited. It was like riding a plank or a sled that you had limited control on. The key was to use that inertia to your advantage. Most of the guys would take off, angle it, and then lose control. I found the most effective way to ride those boards at the time was not to angle, but to go straight down and turn. If you had a narrow enough tail, you could come off of the bottom and make a long section.”
“I remember seeing him at Sunset,” recalled Gerry Lopez of Strauch, “fading so that he was almost going left, lying down all the way to the bottom and then just doing this huge bottom turn, and walking up. And this was on a terrible, heavy plank.”
“A lot of people don’t know that Paul Strauch was actually a goofy foot,” Barry Kaniaupuni remembered. “In fact, he won the Makaha event one year in big surf as a goofy foot. He was the best surfer in the world. Nobody else was even close… And his bottom turn was just the most radical. The most radical! He had a balsa-redwood that he flipped around like it weighed ten pounds. I mean, he was the first to go down and really crank a turn, and the way he’d accelerate! He made that thing talk, play music.”
“Did you discover that type of turn on your own, or had you seen anyone else do it?” Chris Ahrens asked Strauch.
“No, I had never seen anyone to the point of going straight down and then returning. You went real fast, increasing speed like a skier. Later on, Barry Kaniaupuni would do that very well. He was kind of forced into that position because he was riding such narrow boards. That became an effective way to ride larger surf.”
“He had more style than anyone in any size surf, and he could ride anything,” recalled Gerry Lopez who was just starting out at the time. “When the surf was big, he really stood out. Takayama, Hemmings, Hynson, Butch; they were all really great surfers. But Paul Strauch was on a whole different level from any of them. He was on a level with Phil Edwards. Actually I’d say, from what I saw, he was better than Phil Edwards. No question. Just the best guy everywhere he went. Left, right, big waves, small waves. All of it!”
Strauch said that, as a kid, he surfed “So much so that my father used to remind me that long before he came onto this planet there were waves, and throughout my lifetime there would always be waves, and that there was a time and a place for everything. (laughter)” You know how it is, as surfers, we never want to miss a good swell.
“Oh God, yeah,” Strauch said. “I used to take pepper, shove it up my nose, and then go to the school infirmary. It took about six minutes to get the full effect. By then my eyes had reddened and swollen up. It looked like I had this horrible contagious disease. The nurse would say ‘We’re calling home.’ I would always get them to realize that there was nobody there, and tell them that I would go straight home. (laughter) Then I would get on the bus, and take a detour, straight to the beach. (laughter)”
“As a sophomore at Punaho High Scool,” Strauch recalled of a memorable time away from school, “I went to Maui for Christmas vacation with Jan Lee, Harlan Cadeena, Michael Tongg, Eric Romanchak and two other friends. We drove to the end of this dirt road, past these pineapple fields to a place we had just heard of called Honolua Bay. It was like five feet to 10 feet. I still have the eight millimeter film of it.
“Jan Lee had lost his board one night, and it had gone into the cave. When we paddled out, a little piece of his board, about six inches of it, floated out. (Laughter) He didn’t want to go in to get the rest of the board, the cave had this ominous look to it, and we didn’t know how deep it was. The waves were so nice there. Perfect, and is was just us.”
Changing Direction Through Weight Displacement
Asked about the contributing factors to his style, Strauch responded, “I’d have to say that there were several surfers, but it wasn’t until the late ‘50s that I was able to witness Phil Edwards and Dewey Weber surfing, when they came over to Hawaii with Bud Browne in 1958. They had been here before that, but I never had a chance to see them until then. I was really impressed, particularly with Dewey Weber. I mean, Phil had a tremendous grace, and it was amazing how he could ride the tail of the board, and control it so well, and then use the whole board.
“Dewey had a lot more hand motion and upper torso motion, swivel of the hips and things. There were a couple of Hawaiian surfers who surfed somewhat similar (to Weber) but they were more subtle. A guy named Squirly Carvalho was very good at that type of surfing.”
“Without a doubt,” Strauch continued, “Phil Edwards and Dewey Weber“ were the best surfers of his era, as far as he was concerned. “They were so far ahead of everybody else, so much finesse. My style is patterned after that, to be able to get the board to change directions through weight displacement. I used to watch Phil going left at Haleiwa. He’d take off and angle to the right, and as he was about three quarters of the way down the wave, he’d slid the board out, walk toward the tail, with his foot on the left rail. It acted like a fulcrum. He’d pivot, and turn, and as he swung the board around on its inside edge, he’d follow it, walking forward. The board would then level off and he’d go to the nose. He’d move off the nose, and then sort of kick the board out, and come back with another bottom turn. It was awesome to me.”
“At Makaha,” continued Strauch, “Dewey would turn the tailblock with his arms up over his head, and his weight back. He’d do these real heavy swivel turns using lots of hip and upper torso movement. The board had a delayed reaction to his upper torso. His body was always ahead of his board. Then he’d run up to the nose and do a nose stall. He had a funny way of looking away from the wave as he rode up; he never looked straight ahead. Really stylish maneuvers from Dewey, and the bottom maneuvers from Phil.”
“And of course George Downing,” Stauch added. “I don’t think that anybody could surf big Makaha or Laniakea as well as George. He took me out to Laniakea several times when I was younger. Once it was just solid whitewater, right through the break. He’d say, ‘Let’s go,’ and I’d say, ‘There’s no way we’re going to get out.’ It was breaking so far out, you could look out and see Himalayas breaking, massive. We went right through the break in the rip. It was really spooky out there, whitewater all over. You’re not sure if you’re in an impact area, there was solid whitewater, and George sits up and says, ‘Okay, we’re in the lineup.’ I said, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Look outside.’ It was just crashing out there, and he says, ‘No, it will be fine here, and this is where we can catch it.’ Sure enough, the whitewater would stop maybe 20 yards outside of us, and reform right where we were, and there was maybe a 50 yard space where we could take off. You’d catch one wave, ride it, and then you’d have to repeat the process again. He was so cool. He passed on all these things to me when I was young, and I never forgot them. You have to know these things. There’s no other way to work through an afternoon of riding big waves without just getting hammered.”
California Summer 1961
“When I graduated from high school in 1961,” Strauch recalled, “I was given a graduation present before I entered the University of Hawaii the next fall. I told my parents that I’d love to go to California. My good friend’s father had bought the Santa Barbara Polo Club. I used to play polo with my high school classmate and was invited to come up and play polo. There I met Mr. Hollister. I told him, ‘I’ve heard so much about your ranch, Mr. Hollister, and the wonderful surf that you have, but I know that it’s not open to the public.’ He said, ‘That’s right, but let me give you something.’ He reaches into his wallet and pulls out his business card, and writes my friend’s name and my name on the business card, which said something like, ‘Free access to beach at all times.’ And he signed it. We went up a couple of times in summer, and it was pretty good. When we came back a few winters later, we had some very good surf there. But the Santa Barbara Surf Club, which had surfing privileges in there, used to get so upset that we were allowed access.”
“I stayed part of that first summer in Santa Barbara,” continued Strauch, “and then went down and stayed in Hermosa Beach with Chubby Mitchell and some of the Hawaiian guys. It was great. We met Lance Carson and all the guys.
“Chubby was an unbelievable guy. He had tremendous ability and agility too. He was like about 375, maybe 400 pounds. Once when he was angry, I saw him take a parking meter and bend it right over. I’ve never seen anybody do that. He was really strong, and an incredible surfer. He had an 11-foot board which was really his hot dog, noseriding board. It was really thick.
“Once we were coming back from Secos, driving down the coast, and another car of Hawaiians passed us and one of them dropped his pants and mooned us. I was driving the car that Chubby was in. He was in the passenger seat. He used to stutter and he says, ‘P-P-P Paul, c-c-catch up, p-pass them.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ I didn’t what he was going to do. I looked over and he’s taking his pants off and positioning his rear end out the window. He goes, ‘P-p-pass ‘em Paul.’ So I pass ‘em. I had to pull over into the slower lane, because we were coming up on Malibu, where the Malibu Colony is. I said, ‘Get in, Chubby.’ He says, ‘P-Paul pull over.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and he says, ‘B-Because I’m stuck.’ I had to stop and push him back into the car. (Hard, extended laughter)”
While surfing Secos, aka Arroyo Sequit, Sequit, Leo Carrillo, Strauch and Greg Noll crossed wakes for the first time. “I’ll never forget the first time that I saw Paul Strauch,” Noll recalled. “I was into riding small waves, and I felt that I was somewhere near the top of the dung heap. One day I was out at Secos, one hand kind of in the curl, when from behind me I became aware of his presence, this board, this guy just racing out of the curl. He passed me, just… Whoosh! And then he went back into the tube. When I got to the beach I said, ‘I don’t know who you are, but I want to shake your hand.’ What I really want to emphasize is that even when he reached his prime, he never changed from that first time I met him. He was always such a nice guy, and just as much at home with a bunch of businessmen as he was with a roomful of rowdy Hawaiian friends.”
Paul Strauch Five – aka The Cheater 5
“His signature maneuver,” wrote his friend Fred Hemmings, “was to squat low on his board and stretch his left leg straight out in front of his body. That maneuver came to be known as the ‘Strauch stretch,’ also called a ‘cheater five.’ Paul did this on 12-foot waves at Sunset. Think about it – it’s not easy to do on a big wave.”
Asked about what became known at the “Paul Strauch Five” or “Cheater 5,”and whether or not he was the first to come up with it, Strauch said, “I guess so; I’m not sure. It was similar to what I was saying about the bottom turn. We were riding boards that were about 11 feet long. They were heavy, at least 40 to 60 pounds, and very bulky and straight, very little tail lift or nose rocker. If you made the bottom turn on a larger wave, then you had the objective of making the wave. At Sunset, for instance, or at Laniakea the initial takeoff is important, but you’ve got a line to make too. To be able to trim a board at maximum speed and make the wave is critical. So, walking up to the front of the board and crouching kept the board in trim to a point, but you could also slow the board down if you started rushing it. In the late ‘50s, I had a 9’8” Yater. It had a wide tailblock and you could make a turn, but if the wave was over 10 feet, it would really slow down and become rally shaky. So you could make the turn and level it off, and it could become very stable if you got up there.”
Asked how big of a wave he pulled the Paul Strauch Five on, he replied, “Probably at Sunset, maybe 12 to 15. Nothing much bigger than that.”
“One of my best surfing buddies was Paul Strauch,” Fred Hemmings wrote in The Soul of Surfing is Hawaiian, published in 1997. “He is on the list of Hawai`i’s all-time greatest surfers. I used to call Paul the gentleman surfer. He had a fluid and smooth style of riding waves.”
Asked, in the mid-1990s when the best times of his life were, Paul Strauch responded, “I’d have to say right now.” He went on to say that, “In the context of surfing, I can remember certain days, one of the finest being on December 12, 1960, at Makaha when the waves were 20 to 25 feet. It was like Number Threes, or Rincon, really. Light offshore winds, and so big and perfect that the bowl didn’t even exist. You couldn’t make a mistake that day, just an unbelievable day.”
“Who was out?” asked Chris Ahrens.
“Peter Cole, for one. He was my algebra teacher, and then geometry. I had surfed with him at Ala Moana, and Haleiwa, and a little bit at Sunset. One day I was up at the blackboard doing an algebraic problem. He was standing to the side with this look that made me think that I might be screwing up. I kept analyzing, checking my work, and I knew I was right. Then he looked at me, and said ‘Do you surf?’ And I said ‘Yeah.’ We had been in the water next to each other for a couple of months. (laughter)”
“I don’t think that I’ve ever met anyone who was so focused on surfing as Peter was. He was an incredibly good teacher, but sometimes, when the monitor would bring notes to him, he’d just fall apart, pacing, fumbling. He’d loose all control and start to stutter. I used to think that there had been a death in the family or something. Then, one day, I walked by his desk and saw the note. It was from Ricky Grigg or somebody, and it said that Sunset was 10 to 12 and perfect. (laughter)”
Strauch was not a surfer who went for the spotlight. “I grew up with a different background,” Strauch said, “and for me it wasn’t comfortable to be in the public eye. There were certain surfers who came over to Hawaii who were very much in the public eye, but they seemed so concerned about themselves that it took a lot away from the great surfers that they really were.”
Even though he shunned the spotlight, Paul Strauch, Jr. racked-up a number of notable competitive wins. “I won the junior men’s Makaha event in 1959,” he recalled, “and then I entered the senior men’s, came second and third and won it in 1969. That was one of the last years that it was held.”
As for competitions, themselves, “I enjoyed them actually,” Strauch admitted. “Once you learn that there are certain rules, and that, as long as you surf by the rules...”
The Duke Surf Team
Paul Strauch, Jr. was one of the select few chosen to be part of the Duke Kahanamoku Surf Team. Formed in 1965 and the brainchild of Duke’s manager Kimo McVay, the Duke Surf Team was organized to promote surfing and Duke surfing products. Other team members included Joey Cabell, Butch Van Artsdalen and Fred Hemmings.
During this time, Strauch noted the lack of wave sharing and tendency of some surfers to go out just for themselves at the exclusion of everyone else. He didn’t like it and recalled a lesson the Duke taught him:
“I used to look at that,” Strauch said of this ego-centric mode, “and think ‘What’s wrong with them?’ I’d see people catch a wave, ride it really well, pull out, and then race back to get another, non stop. Then, I was with Duke Kahanamoku at Huntington Beach. He was the guest of honor and I happened to be there with him. They were having the awards ceremony after the contest, and they called up the six finalists. They started from sixth place and worked up to first. I’m not going to mention any names, but when they got to third place, the guy went up, got his trophy, didn’t shake hands or anything. There must have been 5,000 people there. He walked to the front of the stage, took his trophy, threw it into the garbage can, and walked off. I said, ‘Hey Duke, did you see that?’ He nodded, and said, ‘These guys really want to win, don’t they Paul?’ I looked at him and said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘They take it so seriously; that’s wonderful, isn’t it? There is nothing like winning.’
“That took all the wind out of my sails. I thought that what the guy had done was childish, but Duke gave me a whole new perspective. He taught me that it’s relative; that you can’t really forget where that person is at, at the time. It really stopped me, and I never have forgotten it.”
Asked what he thought Duke Kahanamoku would tell the current generation of surfers, Strauch replied:
“Oh God, I could never presuppose to speak for him, but I guess that he would say that there is nothing like competition, because it brings out the best in you. And that you should never resign yourself to accept things the way they are. You should always strive to make it happen. Set your mind to it, discipline yourself, and you’ll be amazed at what can happen. He was the personification of that. He was a terrific guy with a great sense of humor. I’m trying to think of something we could print. (laughter)”
“Somewhere in the mid-’60s,” wrote Chris Ahrens, “as the surfing world did its version of the lost weekend, grew its hair and conformed to the counter culture, was Paul Strauch. Steady, stately, elegantly assisting the Duke through his later days, riding waves in his decreasing spare time with a brilliant economy of movement, smiling on contact with water, not for the camera, but because surfing made him feel so good.
“With the advent of the shortboard in the mid-late ‘60s, Strauch’s name faded from the lineup, showing up only rarely in print, once beneath a photo of him laying down a massive cutback, smiling of course, at Sunset Beach.
“While Strauch himself had all but disappeared from surfing’s mainstream by the 1970s,” continued Ahrens, “you could clearly see his brand on the sons of the shortboard revolution. Gerry Lopez, Jeff Hakman, Barry Kanaiaupuni, and nearly every other great young Hawaiian surfer of that period acknowledge Strauch as mentor and master of the game.”
“You sort of disappeared in the transitional time between longboards and shortboards,” Ahrens suggested in his interview with Strauch. “Where were you?”
“Just business, I guess,” returned Strauch. “I love to surf, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t want to surf all of the time anymore. I mean, I look forward to going, but when you go morning, noon, and night, part of the mystique and magic might be gone. You need the balance.”
Going back to why Strauch considers now to be the best time in his life, he said, “Because I can look back and see the fantastic changes that have taken place in surfing. The boards they were riding at Rincon on the last swell, they were narrow, with super narrow tails, and when the wave broke in front of them they would just ride up over it. And to see the longboards come back. I mean, in Hawaii it was always there. I think it’s back to stay here forever now too. I look at all that’s going on, like Skip Frye with his big gliding boards. Skip is a hero of mine, whom I’ve always admired, especially his temperament. It goes hand in hand with his ability because he’s such a soft, flowing personality, very much in harmony with himself. I’ve never seen him out of control.”
“He had the moves of a bird,” Skip Frye said of Strauch.
“The ocean is a very special place to me,” Strauch told Chris Ahrens. “The Hawaiians looked upon it as a place to bathe, a place to wash away ills, to go through a cleansing, a baptismal if you will. When I was a child I had bronchial problems. That was one of the reasons I was encouraged to be around the ocean. I started out with that, and because of its cleansing, I never have forgotten it. I still feel that way about the ocean, and when you add surfing to that, it gives you something extra.”
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