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.



Purple Blob Report: Winter 2013/2014

Polar Vortex- NASA
XXXL North Atlantic- StormSurf
XXXL North Atlantic- StormSurf

The winter of 2013/2014 is already historic. Bitter, record-breaking cold and snow seized much of the Eastern USA as the “Polar Vortex” dipped south. Sunny skies have California bracing for drought repercussions. XXL after XXL storm churned across the North Atlantic and pounded Europe. They’re calling it one of the best seasons in hypothermic New Jersey surf history.  Gerry Lopez called it a “once-in-every-30-years Pipeline season.” Let’s review the North Pacific winter and what it provided for California wave-riders.

Looking back, there were a couple of solid South Swells in June 2013. Then the Ocean went painfully dormant for much of the summer into fall. Only one beloved Santa-Ana wind/combo swell event in early October and a moderate swell for Thanksgiving. By December, California surfers dried out and moved onto secondary hobbies. NPAC season started slow. Persistent high pressure off the western US spun the storm track north.  The Ocean stayed quiet and mountain slopes remained dry.  There was a small pulse before the Holiday but it was generally pretty weak.

Early January
Early January

2014 dawned with hope as the NPAC showed signs of life. The jet stream coming off the Asian continent strengthened, unsettling the atmosphere in the Pacific near Japan. Low pressure systems started to churn across the Ocean. The high remained along California, but the swell energy from the NW began to funnel down the coast. Sunny and mostly glassy conditions met the first swells of the year. After months of sluggish surf, wave riders deeply appreciated the Ocean’s power.

NPAC-  Jan. 21st
NPAC- Jan. 21st- StormSurf

The first major swell event of 2014 began in mid January.  The North Pacific storm track exploded with activity. Successive storms moved over each other’s aggravated path and strengthened. Culminating in a multi-week run of surf for California. The final storm of the train was the biggest and most powerful. The Mavericks Invitational ran on Friday the 23rd in 25ft, wind-affected surf.

January 25th
January 25th

Long-period, WNW swell began filling into Southern California on Friday afternoon. By sunset, winter magnet waves were well-overhead and pulsing. Saturday the 24th dawned with off-shore wind and pumping 8-12ft. groundswell. The wind slacked around 10am, creating glassy, near perfect conditions that lasted all day. First light Sunday: offshore and holding swell. It remained overhead and glassy through Monday the 26th. Wave riders licked their wounds, recalling the beatdowns and glory that come with 4 days of pumping North Pacific winter energy.

SoCal Winter Weather
SoCal Winter Weather

February remained active with fun size surf throughout. Then in late Feb, a low pressure system intensified as it passed to the NE of Hawaii. The aforementioned high pressure was no longer blocking the coast. SoCal meteorologists became very busy. Weather forecasts called for a major winter storm to impact the coast. The intense low pressure tracked south and surf forecasts quickly jumped. Wind and rain began in earnest on the morning of Friday the 28th.

NPAC Energy
NPAC Energy

On Saturday morning, March 1st, the surf was waist high and windy.  The Ocean changed around noon. Rising fast, each set larger than the last. The close-proximity storm spun strong south winds, periods of heavy rain and raw WNW swell into every willing nook of coast. The Harvest Buoy peaked on Saturday at 21ft. with a relatively short 15 second period. By 3pm, most of SoCal was overpowered and decimated by wind. However, the dynamic California coast contains a few kinks that handle the south wind and pump with heavy winter energy. And pump they did!

IMG_6619  Cleanup

Sunday March 2nd
March 2nd

One San Diego giant awoke with solid 20ft. sets. While South LA was as good as its ever been: clean, double-overhead+ freight trains. The swell peaked overnight, while Sunday continued with overhead+ surf and cleaner conditions. Palomar Mountain recorded over 8 inches of rain for the storm while most areas received a healthy 3+ inches. Burning sinus membranes and the putrid smell just add to the excitement of a rainy, raw winter swell in Southern California.

Overall, the winter of 2013/2014 was good bordering on great. Characterized by a slow start then consistent energy from the W, WNW and NW, high pressure sunshine and two classic swells.

Here’s hoping the South Pacific activates and stays active for the spring/summer 2014! Looking ahead, meteorologists are beginning to see the signs of El Nino setting up for winter 2014/2015. Being a perpetual optimist, my forecast data shows pumping groundswell for the rest of forever.

Purple Blob Review
Purple Blob Review

Swimming Propellers: History of the Swim Fin

Swim fins are the tools of our passion. We wear them for hours at a time. We often have bloody holes in our feet from the incessant rubbing. Wounds that constantly remind us of recent pumping swell. Fins make land travel difficult and often humorous, but when we enter the water, swim fins instantly transform our terrestrial physiology aquatic. They are rubbery adaptations that allow us to power through heavy surf and into heaving-fast peaks. In this article, we will examine the history of the swim fin.

Hevea brasiliensis
Hevea brasiliensis

The ancient people of Central America were known for their use of the latex extracted from Castilla elastica or Hevea brasiliensis: rubber trees. Olmec means “rubber people.” The quality of rubber varied greatly until the 1840’s when Charles Goodyear and Thomas Hancock developed the process known as vulcanization: the addition of sulphur and other compounds to natural latex along with curing at high temperature. The cross-linking of individual molecules produces the tensile strength and durability of modern rubber. Vulcanization changed the industrial world.

Da Vinci's Vision
Da Vinci’s Vision

In the 15th century, Leonardo Da Vinci experimented with various devices to improve the human physical condition: wings, vehicles and swim fins.


Young Benjamin Franklin- Skye Walker Art
Young Benjamin Franklin

Colonial Americans were not known for their agility in the water. A Boston newspaper reported, “The most frequent use of the harbor is for transport, and drowning.” But one 11 year old boy loved to swim. The ingenious child strapped thin planks of wood to his feet and hands, thus increasing his speed and efficiency in the water. Young Benjamin Franklin had discovered the swim fin.

Louis de Corlieu
Louis de Corlieu


Frenchman Louis de Corlieu began developing the modern swim fin in the early 1900’s. His 1933 patent called them “propulseurs de natation et de sauvetage (swimming and rescue propulsion device”). Known as “swimming propellers,” they soon gained use in naval military applications.

Churchill Swim Fins
Churchill Swim Fins

In 1940, American gold medal yacht racer, Owen P. Churchill was inspired by local Tahitians using handmade swim fins. Upon return to the US, he received a license from de Corlieu to produce his own rubber fins and renamed them swim fins. They were black and cost $4 dollars. Churchill Fins saw action in World War II with the British Frogmen and US Navy. After the war, Churchill’s team developed a process that made the fins buoyant and allowed for the addition of color. Green, floating Churchills then hit the market. According to Owen Churchill, “The feet and legs of a human being were not designed by nature for swimming…and the use of my invention converts the feet into swimming members of correct hydrodynamic structure and design.”

Mercury 7 astronauts. Aquatic training with Churchills and UDTs.
Mercury 7 astronauts. Aquatic training with Churchills and UDTs.

During WWII, the US Navy Underwater Demolition Team (UDT-precursor to the Navy SEALS) sought a more serious swim fin for their serious duties. The Navy contracted rubber sporting-good giant, Voit, to develop a new swim fin. In 1944, the Voit UDT swim fin was introduced. Longer and stiffer than previous fins, UDTs provided the power that the Navy Special Forces desired.

UDT at the Apollo 15 splashdown.
UDT at the Apollo 15 splashdown.

With the post-war recreation market peaking, Voit released the Duckfeet Custom Model swim fin in 1953. Shorter and more flexible than the UDT, Duckfeet became a standard fin for bodysurfing, life-guarding and recreational diving.


Greg Deets testing the aerodynamics of his UDTs.
Greg Deets testing the aerodynamics of his UDTs -Photo: Mel Thoman

In the early 80’s, Voit left the sporting goods industry as jobs went overseas. Their various products were outsourced and the quality of UDT swim fins suffered. They eventually became harder to find. A devoted group of bodysurfers, divers and water people mourned their loss. One such heavy-water bodysurfer, LA’s Greg Deets Ph.D, was not ready to give up his dedication to UDTs. He tracked down the original molds behind a Tijuana barn and began reinventing the cherished swim fin.

Vintage Viper ad with Mel Thoman, Fred Simpson and Terry Wade.
Vintage Viper ad with Mel Thoman, Fred Simpson and Terry Wade.

Fred Simpson began bodysurfing in the early 1950’s on the northside of the Huntington Beach Pier. He first wore Churchills and later Voit Duckfeet. In 1962, while lifeguarding in Long Beach, a friend told him about a hard-breaking wave in Newport. Fred checked it out and soon dedicated himself to bodysurfing Wedge. He became a standout: strong, talented and courageous. He consistently put himself, “in the path of the bull until it ripped his clothes but didn’t kill him.” But after one too many rodeos deep in the Pit, Fred decided he needed more power than his Duckfeet could produce.

Simpson soon had drawings and balsa wood models of his new fin. Local surf and dive shops expressed interest in the prototypes so he went forward with the patent and manufacturing processes.  The first Vipers, released in 1982, were 7” long, all black, with no drain holes and hard ribs on the upper and lower edges. A short time later, drain holes were added, the lower ribs were removed for easier walking and the now iconic yellow splash was added to the blade. Vipers and UDTs are now synonymous with heavy-water bodysurfing.

Mark Cunningham wears DaFins

In the mid-90’s, Aussie ex-pat Andy Cochran, living in Hawaii, developed a unique swim fin called DaFiN.  Today, there are at least a dozen quality swim fin options for the beginner to charging hellman bodysurfer. Churchills are still a sentimental favorite among some watermen. UDTs are new and “biomimically” improved. The Duckfeet Custom Model are revamped with a new flex pattern. Viper recently released the easy-to-see, synthetic Vector series. Considering the current trend of innovation, how will we propel ourselves into waves of the future?


Special thanks:  Greg Deets, Fred Simpson and Mel Thoman

Cal Porter’s Then and Now Beach Blog


Ode to Water

Bending Water

Hydrogen, most abundant, formed in the Big Bang. Oxygen fused in stars.
Two hydrogen atoms covalently bound to a single oxygen atom.
Dihydrogen Monoxide
Unique amongst all chemicals in the Universe.
H’s are charged positive, while O is negative.
Hydrogen bonds.
H of one molecule is attracted to the O’s of a different molecule.
Dipolarity grants superpowers:
Super solvent with cohesive surface tension.
Ice floats.
Only substance to exist naturally on Earth as
solid, liquid and gas.

Earth is the sweet spot.
If it were any closer to the Sun, the water evaporates away.
Any farther and the water freezes.
If Earth were any smaller, water would escape the gravitational pull.
Any bigger and it might be a water world…
without points or beachbreaks.

Delivered by asteroids and comets,
Water fills Earth’s holes. Shaping terrain.
Cycling up down across round and round.
Absorbing heat. Driving the atmosphere.
Controlling the climate.
Impacting everything.

Although it can be horrifyingly dangerous,
Liquid water is essential for life…
as we know it.
Facilitating photosynthesis.
Dissolving nutrients and transporting them.
Flushing toxins, regulating body temperature.
Water supports the entire Biosphere.

We drink it. Irrigate, cook and clean with it. Travel and transport on it.
We passionately use it for recreation.
From skiing to hockey, water polo to sailing.
We’ve found innumerable ways to enjoy Water.

Wherever wind blows over liquid water, waves form.
Wherever waves break, people ride them.
Whenever people ride water waves, joy is acquired.

Glorious, blessed water!
How sweet and refreshing your taste!
How unique and vital your properties!
How fun and exhilarating your energy!


Anticipare: Meditation On Morning Motion

UnderLipI stir 30 minutes before my alarm screams, Rachel silently approves. Quiet mornings are at a premium for the surf-widow. All night I’ve been out of breath, dodging bombs, choosing spots. Every night at the canyonized beach-break, the canonized beach-break, feet still stinging from the long walk down the Goat Trail. Pupils stretched, searching for the weak spot on the face, the path of least resistance, anything to get out the back unscathed. But I’m awake now, alive now, the anticipation of the day has yanked the pull-string on my consciousness.

 Feels as though I’ve hardly slept, like I was daydreaming and blinked only a moment before opening my eyes to A.M. darkness. My muscles are stiff and shoulders slump. Stumbling to the textiles of the bathroom, I’m pissing while brushing my teeth. No need for deodorant, the Ocean washes all things away. Breathing in through my nose I expand my lungs softly. Capacity is king. Ninja my way out the front door and into the dense salt blanket of air, southern California mornings rarely disappoint.

With most of the coast deep in slumber, the sounds of silence are eery. Years ago I’d be in slumber, rum induced dreamless slumber. I run across the boulevard and into 711. At the counter Charlie’s eyes look red, he must have been here all night. His eyes hardly dart away from his phone long enough for him to realize I’m no threat, just the guy who comes in on the weekends for a Cuba Lima and a couple of bananas. Hit the gas and I’m southbound.

Driving is automatic, I’m lost in the surf again. Streaks of white and red lights bring me back into the car while brief sensations of weightlessness drop me back into the line-up: I need to slow down. Thom hits the crescendo as I round Birmingham Drive. The boys’ living room light is on, a good sign. They come bouncing out the door rabid, stoke-riddled creatures. Their unkempt smiles give way to unadulterated Yews. Poor neighbors.

In the Kia, we are laughing and listening to Stocker’s description of the Harvest Buoy. It bobs fifteen feet every twenty-one seconds, the lure for amphibious hominids. The near empty lot will fill before the end of the hour and we clamber out of the car into the dust kicked up by our own tires. Before we don our rubberskin, we tread to the edge of the cliffs with the subtle hints of the sun peering out of the east. The sonic detonation of water-on-water rolls up the walls of the canyon to pound on our ear drums. Weeks of squinted eyes and juggling attention spans, pouring over pictograms from recent swells, sleepless nights, groggy drives, flashing lights into the sand with eyes on those bursts of storm energy translated into plunging motion.


Just shadows checking for ghosts of storms long past
Just shadows checking for ghosts of storms long passed