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

Images, Thoughts and Reflections – Wedge, July 6 & 7, 2014 – Ron Romanosky

Roman03-023
Photo by Woody Woodworth

Ron Romanosky rode Wedge for decades as a knee boarder and bodysurfer and has long been known as a strong supporter of Wedge bodysurfing.  He has photographed and documented Wedge in its entirety, its standout bodysurfers and its unique ongoing story for years, long before the www and social media discovered and exploited the place.  From its inception the Surfers Journal has published Ron’s photos of Wedge and of surfing in general.   The Journal also published three Wedge-related pieces written by him, the last of which was Our Wedge, Our Way.   His photos have appeared in print media around the world.   He continues to shape kneeboards under the logo ROMANOSKY and has websites for kneeboards and photography:  www.romanoskykneeboards.com and www.romanoskyphoto.com Note:  A battle with late stage throat cancer necessitating weeks of chemo and radiation treatments in 2009 led to Ron’s decision to leave the wedge lineup.

Picture 022This is the Wedge California and I knew years before the internet and long before every attention-craving social media post would immediately be known to the world.  The image, from a 35mm slide and one of a several shot sequence, was captured at mid-day in the summer of 1990 or 1991.  No, the transparency was not scanned to facilitate photo-shop to remove anyone from the image or to add anything.  Minutes prior to this wave – one of a 3 or 4 wave set, several bodysurfing friends and I had been in the water.  Scattered about on the beach was a small number of beach goers more interested in tanning.  The word mellow adequately describes that day.  The only camera there was mine.  There were many days such as this one – of a pristine Wedge, etched into my memory banks… and, for both substantiation and history, archived in my film collections.


First called ‘The Hook’ Wedge (it’s ‘The Wedge’ to the TV and news media and the great masses directed there) has hooked riders and fans for decades.  And since the advent of the internet (and consequently, due to it) this once bodysurfing-only spot during big south swells has become ground zero for riders of every persuasion and trend who would challenge it, test themselves and hope to “star”.  Unfortunately, Wedge’s fame and notoriety have not escaped the usual commercial and promotional interests (specifically, skim and surfboard companies and many photographers) who covet the break for its earning potential.  Wedge bodysurfing would likely become a memory if these interests had their way.  Fortunately the Newport Beach City Council has not yet allowed Wedge to become California board surfing’s first whorehouse… nor, it is hoped by bodysurfers and Balboa Peninsula homeowners alike, will it ever. 

1
This set peak is reserved for the bodysurfer who has positioned himself in the right spot, as small and specific as it always seems to be on the big ones, and who possesses the rare abilities to catch and grace it with skills which are the end result of years of dedication and experience. And let us not forget the parts played by aptitude, passion, stamina and talent in the makeup of an outstanding bodysurfer. And the end result when such an individual glides across a good wave? Nothing other than the exhibition of an art form.

 

Inviting shape here.  With the majority of this swell’s set waves being quite the opposite it was disappointing that no one took it.   With big souths being as rare as rain in SoCal one could even imagine that one rider might have snaked another on this one.  But as wrong as that offence is, it happens... and it was not uncommon 2-3 years ago.  The water temperature on both days was as nice as the absence of wetsuits should indicate.
Inviting shape here. With the majority of this swell’s set waves being quite the opposite it was disappointing that no one took it. With big souths being as rare as rain in SoCal one could even imagine that one rider might have snaked another on this one. But as wrong as that offence is, it happens… and it was not uncommon 2-3 years ago. The water temperature on both days was as nice as the absence of wetsuits should indicate.

Teddy Bandaruk on a good one.  The water color is real, not enhanced.
Teddy Bandaruk on a good one. The water color is real, not enhanced.

 

The swell, although not an all-timer, had an inordinate amount of push as the tide filled in on the 6th.  The great amount of water constantly refilling the depression behind the berm resulted in the largest pond and “river” many long-time Wedge people have ever witnessed.  The rapids had small standing waves that were even rideable on boogies.  Everyone, save those who got drenched, lost belongings or got their cameras ruined, enjoyed this face of Wedge.
The swell, although not an all-timer, had an inordinate amount of push as the tide filled in on the 6th. The great amount of water constantly refilling the depression behind the berm resulted in the largest pond and “river” many long-time Wedge people have ever witnessed. The rapids had small standing waves that were even rideable on boogies. Everyone, save those who got drenched, lost belongings or got their cameras ruined, enjoyed this face of Wedge.

Parker Varner “riding” the sand bar of sand bars.
Parker Varner “riding” the sand bar of sand bars.

This shot gives a good idea of the swell’s push.  The little kids were loving it – hard to imagine their experiences from this day not being etched into their memories for all time.
This shot gives a good idea of the swell’s push. The little kids were loving it – hard to imagine their experiences from this day not being etched into their memories for all time.

Sean Starky where he likes being.
Sean Starky where he likes being.

Not a big wave, but a rare right.  The lighting and white water dramatize the image some.  Rider ?
Not a big wave, but a rare right. The lighting and white water dramatize the image some. Rider ?

Long time bodysurfers Rick Piani and Craig Plitt standing next to a stretching Sean Starky.   These three represent 60 or more years of Wedge experience.
Long time bodysurfers Rick Piani and Craig Plitt standing next to a stretching Sean Starky. These three represent 60 or more years of Wedge experience.

The un-rideable?  No way.  If there’s a camera on the beach or in the water there’s always some willing bloke for some rogueish Wedge thing, damn the consequences (unless they’re suffered, eh?).
The un-rideable? No way. If there’s a camera on the beach or in the water there’s always some willing bloke for some rogueish Wedge thing, damn the consequences (unless they’re suffered, eh?).

Thick... nasty... hollow... and rideable.  Trick with one like this is catching it where it’s catchable.  An added pleasure: not witnessing the clutter of water snappers usually populating and polluting the wave’s fore’water’.  Catching the crowd in this shot was intentional.
Thick… nasty… hollow… and rideable. Trick with one like this is catching it where it’s catchable. An added pleasure: not witnessing the clutter of water snappers usually populating and polluting the wave’s fore’water’. Catching the crowd in this shot was intentional.

Thomas VanMelum in the middle of what was a smooth spinner.  To really appreciate a good spinner it must be seen taking place or in a video.  A still photo will not do one justice.
Thomas VanMelum in the middle of what was a smooth spinner. To really appreciate a good spinner it must be seen taking place or in a video. A still photo will not do one justice.

The height of this wave breaking in the harbor entrance usually indicates an epic swell seen perhaps once every 3 or 4 years.   Accordingly the set waves at Wedge should have exceeded 30 feet in face height (the largest this swell may have been twenty).  Note: Photographing such a wave from the Wedge jetty’s rocks, without the people, remains a quest.
The height of this wave breaking in the harbor entrance usually indicates an epic swell seen perhaps once every 3 or 4 years. Accordingly the set waves at Wedge should have exceeded 30 feet in face height (the largest this swell may have been twenty). Note: Photographing such a wave from the Wedge jetty’s rocks, without the people, remains a quest.

Yes - SUPers are becoming part of the on-going, ever-changing Wedge story.  Thank the Heavens for the Blackball!
Yes – SUPers are becoming part of the on-going, ever-changing Wedge story. Thank the Heavens for the Blackball!

No caption necessary, though paramedics are occasionally summoned after such beauties.
No caption necessary, though paramedics are occasionally summoned after such beauties.

Not an enviable position, eh?  Bud Browne would have paid to have caught this wipeout.  So Bud, this one’s for you.
Not an enviable position, eh? Bud Browne would have paid to have caught this wipeout. So Bud, this one’s for you.

From the street at sunset 7/6/14: a somewhat familiar scene of emergency and police vehicles congregating at Wedge as the red flag on the guard stand is barely affected by a gentle breeze.
From the street at sunset 7/6/14: a somewhat familiar scene of emergency and police vehicles congregating at Wedge as the red flag on the guard stand is barely affected by a gentle breeze.

-Ron Romonosky