Salty Fins: Fred Simpson

Fred sat on the cozy, white couch wearing a subtle grin of someone who has the answers if you ask the right questions. A massive Wedge wave stretched across canvas hung over his left shoulder. Like a proud father, he informed me that the wave was at least 36ft. Fred whipped out a tape measure to show me how he deduced the wave height with a scale based on the known length of the Viper fin sticking out of the trough. The wave is massive, but the real horror for the uninitiated is the raw weight of that wave. Fred laughed about the 2007 swell, saying guys like Steve Kapela claimed 40 footers rolled through the break. Over the 50+ years Fred Simpson has been down at the end of the Newport Peninsula, he has seen and been a part of it all. These days he’s content to blend in amongst the gawkers watching the next generation of bodysurfers find their way.

Fred Simpson Wedge Bodysurfer

Fred has always been a swimmer. He swam competitively in high school and then played water polo as well for UCLA. In those early years he and his friends would practice the art of bodysurfing in Huntington Beach. During lulls the boys would climb the barnacled pilings to spot the incoming sets. They’d shoot the pier and enjoy the other aspects of young life at the beach. In 1962 he met the wave which he would eventually become inextricably linked: Wedge.

Fred remembers that first day. He noticed that the guys swimming here were the best swimmers around. He says it was the power that grabbed him. As Fred dove under a wave, like he had in H.B., the force nailed him to the sand and he thought, that’s got some juice. The hook was set. Through those early years, Fred was guided through the break by the old guard. Guys like Judge Gardner whom Fred describes as bigger than life or Don Redington known as “The White Whale.” These guys were there because they loved it. On big days, there’d rarely be five guys out and Fred says the big ones would go unridden. In those days, guys didn’t know if it’d crush your organs. They simply didn’t conceive of making waves that large.

Through the 1970’s Fred began to make a name for himself at Wedge. He had seen a path where others hadn’t looked. He thought those massive Wedge peaks were rideable and possibly even make-able. It was moments like this where Fred differs from many bodysurfers in that he is looking forward, seeing the wave for what it could be and not what it was. He developed a technique affectionately referred to as “The Fred.” When Fred started using his arm as a rudder and purposefully keeping his body on the slanted surface he showed the true potential for riding waves longer and better than ever before. Others saw the value in Fred’s innovation. Guys like Terry Wade saw the function of Fred’s form and tweaked it to ride some of the largest waves ever bodysurfed.

Fred Simpson Bodysurfing Wedge by Ron Romanosky

Fred would eventually move closer to Wedge. He worked locally as a Xerox agent, frequently calling the boys to see if Wedge was working. At that time, there were only a handful of fin choices Churchills, Duck Feet or UDT. Fred says that he couldn’t kick the UDT and the Churchills and Duck Feet didn’t offer enough power. He was duck-diving a peak one summer day in 78′ when he wasn’t able to get where he needed to and took a proper beating. As he was rolled and smashed about the bottom his Xerox training rattled through his mind; there’s always a better way. So once again he found another path.


Viper I-beam prototype
This is the actual Balsa Wood Prototype Fred Simpson created in 1978

Fred designed an efficient fin specifically for bodysurfing. The idea was to increase the channels and move the water in the most direct way off the end of the fins. Each aspect of the fin with the seven-inch blade had a purpose in efficiency. Fred constructed a balsa-wood prototype and walked surf shop to surf shop to see if they would be interested in stocking the unique design. Fred found interest and teamed up with Don Redington to get his new company, Pacific South Swell,  off the ground. He put Viper Surfing Fins on the sand in 1981 and had some of the best bodysurfers in the world representing the brand.

Terry Wade and Mel Thoman Viper Surfing Fins
Viper Surfing Fins advertisement in Surfer Magazine 1982

Recognizing the flaws in his first design, Fred went back into the shop and adjusted. The next generation of Viper Surfing Fins would add a drainage hole. Fred also removed the bottom rail from the original design so the fins would be practical to walk in. The design of Viper Surfing Fins would remain unchanged, although it was suggested to Fred to add some color to the fins so it could be seen when bodysurfers competed in the World Bodysurfing Championships. The yellow dot was added and the recognizable Viper fin was born. Fred would continue producing the fin for decades, eventually adding a model with a shorter blade to accommodate riders of alternative surf crafts who needed less drive. Fred’s passion for Wedge eventually became a part of his livelihood, but his obsession with Wedge would also have a cost.

Fred Simpson explains Bodysurfing Wedge

After years of putting his body “in the path of the bull,” the brutality would eventually wear him down. Wedge would fracture his vertebra, but it was the Sun that would provide Fred’s worst scares. He has been diagnosed and treated twice for melanoma. One time the doctor told him he should get his things “in order” because he was looking at six months to live. His dedication had threatened to take his life and in 2000 Fred Simpson walked away from bodysurfing Wedge. When pressed to explain what bodysurfing means to him, he admits to the inadequacy of words. Fred says, “If you can’t describe what it’s like, you know it lives inside of you.”


Salty Fins: Mark Cunningham

Mark shifted from side to side in the hotel lobby armchair. Having just arrived from a lifeguarding contest in Virginia Beach, Mark looked every inch of 6’4. As he told us about growing up in Honolulu in the veritable hotbed of future Oahu surfing legends, I tried to imagine the tall, awkward 18 year old plunging into the waters at Ehukai, all in the days when Pipeline was the brutal proving grounds for the world’s most adventurous wave riders.


It was true. His arms and legs looked almost too long for his body, like stretched coils bouncing with each long step. And it’s no secret those coils run smooth when balanced in salt water. Later we swam in the shadow of the Oceanside Pier and his movements turned to silk. He chatted up other bodysurfers, hooted for the boys and rode straight on closeouts. Mark was at home in the Pacific.


DC Comics-Tarzan-239His Irish-Lithuanian roots raised him in the suburbs of Oahu. Wanting the cheapest beers in town, Mark’s dad often made trips to the local Elk’s Lodge with Mark in tow. Young Cunningham would hang around the lifeguard who was the first to get Mark into a pair of swim fins. To Mark, the teenage lifeguard was the epitome of cool. He tried his hand at other activities too. Mark played baseball for years, but found himself wanting more and more water time. He loved comics, but instead of idolizing Superman and Batman he was fascinated by the adventures of Tarzan. Tarzan, lord of the jungle, based on a man thriving in the wild with little need for technology or collared shirts. Another icon Mark would one day emulate in his own way, saving people from the dangers of mother nature.

IMG_3587Cunningham dabbled with organized swimming and played water polo at UCSB for a couple of years.  In 1975 Mark joined a try out to be a lifeguard. The test involved swimming round the Ventura pier, but the Hawaiian wasn’t keen on cold water swimming. He concocted a Bengay/Vaseline mixture and lathered himself up for the task. He stood in a long line of boys breathing warm air into their hands and shaking for heat. The young Hawaiian was stoic and focused. He recalls the heat of the Bengay was trapped by the Vaseline burning and challenging his resolve, but as soon as he hit the water he was thankful. The risk paid off and Mark was stoked to make $10 an hour for the rest of the guard season.

The following year, an already homesick Cunningham learned of his father’s passing. Mark found his way back to Oahu where he again tried making something of the nonaquatic life. Life as a real estate agent in Waikiki was a position that promised comfort and potential for monetary success. Something wasn’t right. Maybe he didn’t have the salesman’s skills or maybe he didn’t want to. In either case, Cunningham’s lifelong passion was ignited on the sands of Ehukai in 1976 when he first became a lifeguard at Pipeline.

Mark spent just shy of 30 years guarding the lives of people walking, swimming and surfing the North Shore of Oahu. As he talks about the legendary waterman he had the honor of serving beside, Mark’s pride is apparent. He is a “Lifeguard for life.” Cunningham has appeared in iconic surf films, donned the pages of popular culture print articles and carried the 11-time world champion surfer up the beach in quintessential moments, but the man is lifeguard through and through. He says, “I’m just a retired lifeguard living on a pension.”


We spent the weekend around Oceanside with many of California’s top bodysurfers. Mark was rarely alone. We witnessed young children and salty veterans alike take humble approaches to shake Cunningham’s hand. Mark gave his attention to each pilgrim and the only time his answers were short was when he was running to get ready for a heat. The check-in table called several times, “Mark Cunningham please check-in for your heat.” The announcer’s voice more nervous as we inched closer to the start of his heat. The rest of us chuckled and craned our necks to see where the world’s most famous bodysurfer could be hiding. Mark took long, casual strides to retrieve his cap and greeted the rest of the competitors just moments before the horn sounded.

IMG_3786This was Mark, taking relentless attention and praise with quiet gratitude. He was content to talk shop and demonstrate his waterman prowess. When speaking with him on the sand his eyes would track the horizon. Faithful training never fails. Cunningham’s casual personality did little to hide his deep reservoir of passion for the Ocean and all that it offers. The 59-year-old has dedicated his life to what he described as “the ultimate impact zone: where the Earth meets the sky and water” and if you happen to find yourself in the waters of the North Shore someday that’s where you’re like to find him.



IMG_2490 IMG_3360

Salty Fins: Robin Mohr

We were ducking what seemed to be the hundredth set by Scripps Pier when Kyle pointed to the Cove. Whitecaps touched the cloudy horizon, something we had both seen only in pictures. Each caught our last waves to the sand and darted to The Cove.
The word was out. Bodies lined the cliffs, all clamouring for a clear view of the breaking waves. There were two guys who weren’t interested. They were running, literally running down the cliffs with fins in hand. On first sight, Kyle and I exchanged raised eyebrows. It seemed evident these guys were making a big mistake. The older of the two wore a wetsuit that looked to be of the 90’s and their fin of choice was a short pair of Hydro Techs. Furthermore, they were running the wrong way. Making their way back up the hill, we hesitantly pointed them to the entry spot. They thanked us with a heavy South African accent whilst disappearing down the hill. His grin nearly curled behind his ears, and that is how we met Robin Mohr.

Bloemfontein is a small town landlocked in South Africa. His family would vacation at the beach in Capetown where he became enamoured with the ocean. He’d play in the waves with a joy he recounts readily. Robin took to surfing as he did other pursuits that make the heart go thump. He dedicated much of his efforts at a young age to running marathons, but due to unfortunate timing his campaign to compete on the highest level for his country was impossible.

Robin Whistle

The life of an athlete is structured. Each meal carefully constructed and each beer a challenge to your resolve. For Robin, bodysurfing is a counterbalance to the years of careful calculation. “I don’t want to hear another whistle or see another stopwatch,” he stated with his ever-present grin. Robin speaks warmly of his time as a runner and the camaraderie of running with companions. Due to his slight frame, he earned the name “Wednesday Legs” as in When’s they legs gonna break? Robin still pushes that frame, only now he does it in the water.

Robin began bodysurfing after a surfing injury. He waded into the shallows with old diving fins returning with one. Each time he swam back out he tried something new and each time his bodysurfing becoming more sophisticated. He moved from shorebreak into bigger and heavier breaks. Robin noticed that as the break became heavier the crowds became more respectful and so he found himself drawn to bodysurfing the heaviest spots he could get to. Eventually his horizons expanded beyond his local shores and he took to the sails. Scouring GoogleMaps he picked a point in Costa Rica that looked like it would have an amazing wave. After a few phone calls he found someone willing to trade an empty room for work. It was in this place chosen by providence and secured through Robin’s charm that he met his wife, another gift from the boundless Ocean.

Robin’s penchant for heavy breaks has landed him in hairy positions. The most humbling of which being his session at Dungeons. He sat in the boat for hours watching some of the world’s best big wave riders trade waves. When one of them finally offered him a lift to the take-off it was too late for second thoughts. He had planned a perfect entry, but his ski driver (a big wave legend with a concussion unbeknownst to the rest of the crew) was sure he had the best spot for Robin. After staring down the cliff of a wave he swam into, Robin left that session like any other session, exhilarated and a little wiser for the next go round.

Robin Dungeon
Robin at Dungeons: Photo by Anthony Fox

Robin talks about riding giant waves with reverence. The moment you exchange looks with your buddy and he knows exactly what is happening. The time-warp you experience as your life depends on each and every breath. The wave riding experience, enhanced by the magnitude of your own situation. He’s found some comfort in it all despite what others may think. Turns out that day we saw Robin, amped and ready to throw his body into the roaring Pacific, we weren’t the only ones who were skeptical of his ability to navigate the line-up. The lifeguard tried to talk him out of taking the plunge, warning that he’d have to pull him off of the rocks. Robin smiled and told him to make it interesting. He scored amazing waves and won a burrito dinner that night. His deep connection with the Ocean never ceases to reward.


Special thanks to Anthony Fox for providing the photographs of Dungeons. Check out more of his photography at:


Salty Fins: Mike Sullivan

Sully Spot CheckSully stands tall with eyes weathered by years of sand and salt water. Like a captain permitting passage, he ushers me across Highway 1 down a sandy path to the ocean. It’s 11 a.m. and the breeze has grown into a true onshore wind. He waited loyally for almost an hour while my cell phone dipped in and out of service leaving me directionally beaconless searching for a specific lot. Sully pointed to a sloppy break over rocks across a picturesque bay. He spoke of hoards of bodysurfers descending on the peak when it’s going off. His eyes never left the break while he described how truly special this place could be. He would be the one to know it.


Michael R. Sullivan is called “Sully” by friends and chances are if you’ve shook his hand, he’d be OK with you calling him that. He speaks warmly of growing his sea legs in the protected waters just south of Pacifica. He and his high school buddies would drive a log down to the ocean and build a fire on the beach. In this time before wetsuits, one board was more than enough for the group. While one of them would ride a couple of waves, the others could recapture their warmth by the fire. This kindled Sully’s love of the sea and he began bodysurfing to get more water time when the board wasn’t free.

The good times rolled until the boys were sick of getting chased off the beach by a local Hells Angels chapter. One of the mormon brothers decided to kick over their line of bikes, domino style. They wisely made themselves scarce, but Sully stayed local independently.  He grew deeper roots in the sea and as time wore on he witnessed the darker side of human infatuation with the ocean.

One day in August, just before Sully was heading to college, he went for a run down the beach at Pescadero. He was stopped by a concerned woman looking for her daughter and two friends. Sully knew the area, so he took off to find them. After searching nearby, he returned and told the mother to go alert the firemen before he would return to searching. She did and they eventually found the two boys trapped on a rocky outcropping below a cliff. Sully ran down the trail to get to the boys. He tried to get them to wade toward him in between sets so he could help them out, but they refused. They were pointing to an adjacent sandstone cave that Sully knew to be a deep 100ft cave where the Pomponio gang of the 1870’s would hideout. The boys would not leave the young girl behind.

Seemed like a simple solution to Sully, send in a strong swimmer to bring one out at a time. Although he was an athlete, he admits he would have become a casualty to the situation and instead was recruited to help the firefighters in their effort. Risking their own lives, the firefighters were hoisted down the cliff. They talked one of the boys out and lifted him to the top. The second boy retreated to the cave to help his friend. The tide continued to rise and the firefighters managed to haul the other boy out of the cave. The rescuer at the bottom of the rope was being bounced around the cave by waves and almost drowned before being pulled away from the rescue effort. The young woman was not found and Sully walked away in hypothermic exhaustion. This helpless feeling was not something he would forget and it continues to drive his life action.

Sullys Mug

He views the sea with great reverence and deliberate intention. He joined the rowing team and took classes in LifeSaving, Scuba, WSI and swimming. Sully tried out for the Newport Lifeguards, but wasn’t able to beat out the Olympic swimmers and water polo stars in the water. Sully takes pride in being able to swim in strong currents and rough seas. “I’m not a ripper,” he stated with a chuckle. It isn’t a game of riding the biggest wave on the biggest day, Sully is a waterman through and through. Many days, his only intention is to go out, conditions irrelevant. Staying in touch with the true nature of the ocean, he skins it regularly, reminding himself what it takes.

Sully has made 8 rescues that he could readily recall with detail. At unguarded beaches he’ll warn visiting families of strong currents or risky conditions. His lifeguard daughter calls him a “poser.” He can remember first trying out fins in Newport and when he first donned a wetsuit in ‘99, but his face truly lights up when he talks about his family as their stories are his own. His perfect day imagined is a sunny third day of head-high swell with the kids and friends smokin, jokin and talkin shit. So if you see a man on a bike with his fins strapped to the back and a disarming smile, give a wave to Sully.



Salty Fins: Hal Handley

Some people stumble to their place in this world, riding the wave with no consideration of the reef beneath them, nor their position on the face. Hal is not that guy.  He attacks bodysurfing with vigor and inquiry, unwrapping the most subtle movements with focused thought and repetition. Hal is described by life-long bodysurfer and all around purveyor of stoke, Mike Sullivan as, “the ultimate student of bodysurfing, if you ever wonder how to do a maneuver, Hal’s your guy.”

Hal Handley was born the son of a baseball player. His father started at UCLA and had begun his professional career with stints in the minors. Neptune had another plan for the senior Handley and he was given the gift of a baby boy. As a young teen, Hal watched his television in awe as Buffalo Keaulana bodysurfed Makaha’s waves with grace and expertise. He was hooked. Buffalo stored his fins in the fridge to preserve the rubber, so Hal did the same.

Through his teenage years Hal would hitch rides and eventually get wheels to bodysurf Wedge. His friends would go for the novelty, laughing nervously and staring wide-eyed, but he was taking mental notes and making plans for the future. The Wedge, taught Hal to value commitment. His dedication to “the Newport wonder” ended when he was 23. For ten full years, Hal would explore the wave riding world before coming full circle to his pair of Voit Duck Feet in 1982.

Hals Highline   Hals Stroke

One day that summer, Hal sat watching the Oceanside World Championship of Bodysurfing and he set two goals for himself: 1) to win that contest and 2) earn a PhD. Over the following decade he had accomplished both, becoming a Grand Champion in 1990 and earning his doctorate in immunology. Hal continued his passion for science through a distinguished career in research. His work on the molecular level has paved the way for many advancements in cancer treatments today. On the competition front, Hal has continued to pile up achievements with six age-group victories and a showing in the final of the Pipeline bodysurfing contest.

Hal has been a fixture in the La Jolla waters for over 30 years. A cerebral waterman, he has traveled the world studying diverse wave riding forms. At each new wave, the analytical gears turn and Hal picks up novel techniques. He firmly believes in the power of competition. His face turns an excited red as he describes throwing out all the stops in order to make the next heat. Hal has found himself doing things he’d never consider doing on a wave, when in the throes of competitive discourse.

Hal Somewhere in Southern California Photo: Bill Schildge
Hal Somewhere in Southern California
Photo: Bill Schildge

Despite Hal’s cerebral tendencies, he is well aware of his connection to the spiritual resonance of the Ocean. Instead of describing his connection, he painted a familiar picture. We’ve all watched a young child throw themselves into two-foot shore break. They’re tossed by the powers of the sea back to the sand, limbs tangled, laughing and gasping for air, before hopping to their feet and rushing back to do it again. With each new swell, Hal practices with tactical precision, but he also finds himself rolling helpless in whitewater, sometimes gasping for air through the laughter.