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

Fin Quiver: Eric Joyce

I have a slight obsession, a love of old objects, aged fins or crusty cameras. Imagine the swells 20, 40, or 60 years ago these floppy duffs of rubber pushed wave-riding pioneers into. Some fins have even seen the murky waters of battle. If they could speak their story, they would have such a tale to tell. Beyond the sentimental, I enjoy the feel of different swim fins. Each design utilizing different aspects of hydrodynamics in order to propel us through and on the sea. The differences, though sometimes subtle, are a joy to experiment with.


The patent was filed Sept. 27, 1940 by Owen Churchill. He saw the potential in a rubber, floating swim fins for both the military and public. He was the first to see the dream of mass produced fins come to fruition. His fins have gone through several evolutions. His first stamped products were black and hardly pliable. The next phase were made of the softest fin rubber to date. They were a beautiful green and the stamp included Churchill’s address in Gardena on the stamp. As pictured above, Owen dabbled into business with Voit (the producer of Duck Feet), but none of their combined efforts seemed as useful. Some were made of a more “plastic-like” rubber (pictured above in blue) or with adjustable ankle straps and no drainage whole. The modern day Churchill fins are produced by a toy company “WHAM-O” and are back to using the fabled Malaysian rubber. I enjoy Churchills for soft beach break. I’ve become accustomed to getting power from the inside of my foot, but Churchills are asymmetrical with emphasis on the outside of the foot. They are comfortable and still sport a similar design to the original fins Owen designed in his garage.


Turbo (left) Scott Hawaii (right)

Scott Hawaii fins are beautiful. They come in several color patterns, the most common being yellow-blue with red tips. Scott Hawaii fins are no longer in production, but they are a favorite of many bodysurfers. I enjoy the fit of the fins. They feel quite heavy out of water, but for being so short and rounded, they provide excellent drive.


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Russian Military Fins

This is a pair of vintage Russian military dive fins. These were supposedly produced in the 1970’s for use by Russian commando frogmen. I love the laces, which make the fins look much older than they probably are.


 

Voit Duck Feet and the UDT fins have a well defined space in the military historical conversation. The original UDT was designed as the anti-Churchill. The military wanted more drive from their swim fins and the long stiff UDT was born. The footpocket is incredibly stiff, but the propulsion was most definitely unmatched in its day. The modern day Duck Feet fins are used by casual swimmers and lifeguards alike. The modern day UDT, updated flex design by legendary bodysurfer Greg Deets. I enjoy swimming in my UDTs, but my foot is in between sizes so it is not my fin of choice for large surf.


Original Viper Surfing Fins

Viper Surfing fins, designed by Fred Simpson for bodysurfers in Newport Beach, California. They have also been through some slight changes in rubber and design over the years, but hold true to their original basic shape. Original Vipers make me think of a workhorse fin. They’re black with square edges, clearly not pining for aesthetic valor and yet they are unique. The first run of fins did not include a drainage hole and can be easily spotted by the double rail (top and bottom). The next version included the yellow dots and came in both 5 and 7 inch blades. I use V-5s as my everyday fin and V-7s as my large-surf fins. The main reason I am hooked to Viper is the unreal fit to my foot. They are snug and responsive to my every ankle flick. They also strike the appropriate balance between power and agility necessary for navigating a variety of waves.


 

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These are Zoomers. Whether it be for the extra workout or for a bit of a challenge, sometimes all you wanna do is zoom-a-zoom-zoom-zoom.

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-E

 

HUGE thanks to Nate Sullivan, the brain and hands behind See Sullivan for use of his studio and his knowledge in capturing some of the fin photographs above.

Fin Quiver: Jonathan Steinberg

unnamedJonathan Steinberg is a dedicated mat rider on the Westside of Santa Cruz. With many years of fin wearing experience, Jonathan’s collection and knowledge are unlike any others. He recently had an art show at The Great Highway Gallery in Ocean Beach, SF with Mark Cunningham. The show, titled “Shorepound Lost & Found” featured treasures found by Cunningham on the North Shore of Oahu and swim fin artwork created by Steinberg.

Jonathan’s fin story:

Fins? I really like fins. Always have. My first fins were an adjustable pair I had when I was a kid. Sorta mini Duckfeet pattern with a nice graphic of a sailfish on them. We used to bodysurf, mat surf and ride foamies (Styrofoam paipos) at Zuma when I was a kid in the 60s and 70s. I kept the sailfish fins long enough to give them to my son. They disappeared in Kauai on a visit 20 years ago. Next, I had a pair of green soft Churchills. I got them at the Goleta Flea Market in maybe 1977 (or 76 or 78). I still have then. Really soft and comfy but not much thrust.

Stein

Next, I had a nice mismatched pair of Churchills. Black and Yellow Boogie Fin and a classic Makapuu. Those where my warmer water fins. Good all round and a solid choice. Not bad on the feet without socks. When it got cold I would wear trimmed down Duckfeet (Super XL) over surf booties: good thrust, not too heavy but not a great fit. Then I started wearing Redleys with booties. Good thrust, good fit and comfy. A little heavy but that was the jam for several years.

Then I started wearing Dafins in warmer water maybe 5 years ago. Again good all around fins. I especially enjoy their lightness. Instead of the Redleys I started wearing Viper MS fins over 3 mil surf booties. Really liked the feel, the thrust, weight and fit over boots. Viper and Dafin are core surf companies, I liked supporting them.

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Recently I have started wearing the new formula Duckfeet (green and blue) and have become a convert. The fit (with thin fin socks), the weight, the thrust all fantastic. I surf long righthand points, with the ducks I can cover a lot over ground on the swim back.

Untitled1I also use fins in my art. My friends kick over found singles, orphan, outgrown and broken fins. I now have hundreds. The neighborhood groms know they can come by if they lose a fin or grow out of their pair. Someone gave me a nice pair of red Redleys. They are lighter with a better fit without a fin sock so I am looking forward to trying those.

Fins I tried and didn’t like? UDTs, Classic Vipers, the new yellow and orange vipers, most oddball boogie fins. I have super long narrow feet. Not everything works for me.

Check out more from Jonathan at:

HarmlessNeighborhoodEccentric.Blogspot.com

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Jonathan Steinberg

Fin Quiver: Kyle Stock

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Churchill Swim Fins
-Created during the post-war recreation boom of the late 1940s, these are the second generation Churchill. Unique because they float and they are the first swim fin with color. They are made of the softest rubber compound of any fin I’ve felt. It is difficult to believe that they could even provide much thrust, but I suppose when the only other option was your barefeet, they were relatively powerful. I purchased these on Ebay. A pair of “Greens” show up occasionally and the price varies on who is selling them and who is looking for them at the time.

IMG_1928UDTs
-Developed for military use in the 1940s, resurrected in the 1980’s and going strong today. There is a dedicated crew of older riders that will wear nothing else. UDTs are recognizable by their 10inch blade, the longest available for a bodysurf fin. They are very powerful but it takes a little while to get used to the different, longer stroke it requires to get them really moving. UDTs excel when gaining momentum to take off early. I found the brown gum rubber UDTs buried in the back of an antique dealer’s truck in Ocean Beach, SD. I asked him if he had any vintage fins and he pulled these out…exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. The green and brown UDTs are the modern reincarnation developed by Greg Deets. 

IMG_1911MS Vipers
-Designed by waterman and wave-riding guru Mike Stewart. My personal favorite fin. They are my everyday riders from ankle-high to well overhead. Comfortable, plenty of power and excellent drainage. Although, they have been parasitic to my feet. They’ve added (mostly) painless knobs and bumps to my feet that get shredded when I try any other fins. But the MS’s themselves remain very comfortable. Wonder if that’s part of the business plan?

IMG_1903SURF’N
-Classic style. SURF’Ns are recognizable with the sharp color way and intersecting ribs on the blade. I can find very little information about them. They were sold at Hawaiian swap meets in the 80s and 90s and apparently also come in all blue. 

IMG_1919Viper V7
-Built specifically for bodysurfing by Fred Simpson in 1980, these are the most respected bodysurfing fins ever made. The 7inch blade is very powerful and the padded upper foot pocket makes for a comfortable ride. These aren’t swim fins, they’re SURF fins. Unfortunately, they are no longer manufactured, having been replaced by the synthetic Vector. The used market for V7s sets a premium price.

IMG_1933Crystal Scarborough Swim Fins
-She was a Beverly Hills celebrity swim instructor for 30 years. Scarborough developed a method of instruction for children involving arm floaties and swim fins. These kid’s fins appear to be vintage and closely modeled after early Churchills.

IMG_1939Snorkel Fin
-No, you aren’t scoring any tubes wearing these, but there aren’t always tubes or even waves for that matter. A good pair of snorkel fins can open a new world of underwater exploration.

IMG_1906Voit Vikings
-My first pair of fins. I was a hodad that wanted to try bodysurfing but didn’t know anything about it. I rode a few waves and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, regardless of what fins I was wearing. Within a few sessions, one of the Vikings blew off my foot never to be seen again.

IMG_1908Churchill Slashers
-My second pair of fins and by far the worst fins I’ve ever worn. Uncomfortable, heavy and powerless.

 

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Dawn

The best time of day. As long as the alarm conspires with your brain to allow you to experience it. Stumble out of bed in the dark. Don’t kick anything. Out the door, grab your fins-towel-wetsuit. Morning chill. Beautiful, crisp sky. Orion and Jupiter march toward the sea. The wind is offshore. The buoys jumped up overnight.IMG_3551

Pull up, meet the boys in the lot. Too dark to really see. But it sounds big. Long lines of whitewater glow through the salty haze. Strip down in the biting offshore wind and pull on a cold, wet, sandy wetsuit. Always exhilarating. Stare deep into the darkness, trying to catch a glimpse of a wave. Subconsciously time the sound of sets.IMG_0972

Grab your fins, jump up and down to warm the blood and jog down to the beach. Gulls and pelicans laze in the sand. No one else around. A faint glow begins to the southeast. Twilight. The surf is big. But perfect. Peaks stand up and explode far outside. Of course its even bigger than it looks. Anxious laughter. Trepidation. Excitement.

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Obviously, a strong drift flows down the coast. Jog up the beach, eyes peeled to the horizon. Big sets march toward shore. Plop down in the sand, stretch a bit, couple deep breaths to open the lungs. Fins on. Happy for the velcro security of fin leashes. Hoots all around.

Run backward into the water. Jump under a powerful wall of white water. Swim. Swim hard. Too excited to notice the chill. Already pulled down the beach. Much bigger than it looks. Approach the lineup. Wear a big set on the head. Big breath. Swim to the bottom. Pulled off the bottom and recycled to the inside. Swim. Swim hard.

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Finally make it outside. Sit and catch your breath. Line up a clean one. Offshore spray to the face. Swim hard. Glide into a big one. Woooo. Pull into a big tube, still mostly dark outside, even darker and beautiful inside. IMG_1896

As the sun rises, the offshore spray becomes rainbows. The sun’s warmth battles the chill. Even if its a closeout, go right sometime in the morning light. Mind-bending, psychedelic light spins inside a morning tube. Dawn: the best time of day. No better way to start. Spend the rest of the day crunching sand and giggling about beautiful light and fun rides.

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 -KS
-Cover Photo by Adrian Ramirez Lopez