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.”

-EJ

Sandy Pages: The Art of Body Surfing

There are a handful of fervent bodysurfers who took the time to document, educate and rave about this one-of-a-kind activity. Here is a brief review of one such pursuit.

The Art of Bodysurfing by Robert Gardner.The Art of Body Surfing: Robert Gardner
Chilton Book Company, 1972.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Judge, as many prefer to call him, starts his book by detailing a scene we’ve all witnessed, the masses bodysurfing. Despite being less than “proficient,” people seem to love floundering in the surf. Much of the book is dedicated to the education of these masses. Gardner reviews the basics of bodysurfing in chapters 3, 4 and 5. He describes the process by which beginners can first “feel” what it is like to bodysurf and then progressively work their way into cutting and riding bigger waves. The Judge writes with authority and does not hesitate to remind beginners to get out of the way of the rest of us. It is the Judges authoritative voice which pulls the reader in. I found myself laughing aloud often at his matter-of-fact commentary on more than one occasion.

In his early chapters, Judge Gardner gives his interpretation of primitive bodysurfing. He refers to the imaginary bodysurfing pioneer, Crazy Og, who sparked the spirit of his onlooking tribe when he rode his first wave into shore. Crazy Og is referred to throughout the book in both reverence and as a reminder to not give up. Gardner progresses to briefly chronicle the “post swim-fin” era of bodysurfing, recognizing the tremendous advancement swimmers were able to make with the aid of the swim fin.

Fred Simpson in the Art of Body Surfing

As Gardner moves into the modern art of body surfing, his passion for riding waves, especially big waves, is most evident. He name-drops those he considers to be the top riders of the day including Buffalo Keaulana, Micky Munoz, Fred Simpson among many others. The Judge also provides a list of body surfing beaches on both coasts with anecdotal commentary. 

Like most of the book, his information on riders, technique, spots and history is very brief. In 83 pages, Judge Gardner can transport present day bodysurfers back to a simpler time. The irony is, in many ways, bodysurfing itself hasn’t evolutionarily transformed. The equipment and basics remain true and much of the techniques are still relevant.  In Judge Gardner’s second to last chapter he concludes “… just you wait, you board surfers. Body surfing is about to take off. Just remember that you are on the water; we are in it.” Although his vision of a future Ocean filled with competent bodysurfers has not yet come to fruition, his elegant and heartfelt contribution to the culture of bodysurfing is one I recommend any serious bodysurfer pick up.

-EJ