Thursday, October 28, 2010

Are We Having Fin Yet ?!...

The Classic "Old School" Green Churchill Fins, above and below, circa 1975. Courtesy of "County Recurrent.

And below, the official Fin of the USLA, namely, DaFin, made in the USA (kudos to Nick Steers for the heads up on this point.)

Below, a quiver of LACOLA Surf Racing team's fins, 2010 Nationals, Huntington Beach, CA

Below, are a pair of the much heralded Voit DUCK FEET fins, which according to LACo Recurrent, Jeff Gaines, Ret., "Duck Feet are the best body surfing fins. The have great speed and acceleration. The are comfortable. Churchill style fins are easier to walk in But I don't wear them to walk. The only down side, is you can't wear them with booties, which matters in the Northwest."

Below, a mismatched pair of circa late 1980's Churchill Fins unclaimed at the end of a summer season on Santa Monica South, and then reclaimed/rescued by the undersigned, shown here on Oct. 1, 2010 at Zuma during a buoy swim and bodysurf session. Of the Churchill Fins, retired L.A. City and LACo Recurrent Lifeguard, Johnny Johnson, whose father co-owned Churchill Fins with Owen Churchill, said: "The design of Churchill swim-fins was based on the shape of a dolphin's tail. The design of "Duck Feet" was based on... ducks. I rest my case."

"County Recurrent" is stoked to once again present another gem of a story from LACo's very own Cal Porter, who has righteously given us permission to reprint his 2009 story on the History of (Swimming) Fins, in a story entitled:


"Owen Churchill is given credit for inventing the swim fin. His fins are well-known throughout the world. The idea came to him while on a trip to Tahiti in the mid-1930’s, where he observed a group of natives on the beach weaving small mats from palm fronds and dipping them into a tub of hot tar. When the tar had cooled and hardened they would tie these mats to their feet and enter the ocean to swim or free dive. Churchill was fascinated by the tremendous increase in swimming speed this generated. He returned to the States and immediately began developing and patenting the first rubber swim fins. I was there at the Olympic Swim Stadium in Los Angeles in 1940 when he first introduced his invention. I watched in amazement as each swimmer wearing the black, vulcanized rubber, Churchill swim fins easily shattered the world’s records for the 50 and 100 meters. Soon after, Churchill made his fins available to the public. He sold very few that first year but I rushed out to be one of the first customers at $4.95 a pair. It was a sizable expenditure but no problem; in 1940 I was making 35 cents an hour as a lifeguard at the Venice Salt Water Plunge.

Churchill’s First Fins, photo source: Smithsonian

But let’s take a look back a few years, back to over 200 years before Churchill’s 1930’s invention. It is the year 1720, and we’re not in the South Seas, we’re in the waters of Boston Harbor. Bostonians were terrified of the water at that time. One writer summed it up this way: “The most frequent use of the harbor is for transport, and drowning”. However, there was one 14 year old boy who had no fear of the waters of Boston Harbor. He frequented the wharves, marshes and docks, loved the water, and taught himself to swim expertly. In later years he advocated universal swim lessons for all, unheard of in his day. In his own words, “I had a strong inclination for the sea; living near the water, I was much in it and about it and learnt early to swim well”. He developed powerful arms and shoulders from swimming and soon showed how inventive he could be at his favorite sport. He was about to conduct his first experiment and test his first invention; dozens would follow. His name? Benjamin Franklin.

I learned of his exploits by studying his own writings in the Philadelphia Franklin Library, and from others who wrote about his amazing life. This quote is from the book, The New American, by Milton Meltzer: “He loved playing in the water, and not content with using his hands and feet to swim, he made oval paddles to be held in the palms to increase his speed. Then he added flippers to his feet to further increase his speed”. And a quote from Ben Franklin, himself, from a letter he wrote some years later to his friend, Barbeau Dubourg: “When I was a boy I made two oval palettes, each about ten inches long and six broad, with a hole for the thumb in order to retain it fast in the palm of my hand. They much resembled a painter’s palette. In swimming, I pushed the edges of these forward, and I struck the water with their flat surfaces as I drew them back. I remember I swam faster by means of these palettes, but they fatigued my wrists. I also fitted to the soles of my feet a kind of sandals; but I was not satisfied with them because I observed that the stroke is partly given by the inside of the feet and the ankles and not entirely with the soles of the feet”.

So here in 1720 we have the very first hand paddles or hand fins, and the first swim fins for the feet (Leonardo da Vinci briefly gave thought to the idea of fins in the 1400’s). The first commercial hand paddles I ever saw were put out by the Sea Net Manufacturing Company of Los Angeles in 1944, and of course fins arrived in 1940. To fully utilize these two inventions of his for increasing his swimming speed Franklin probably experimented with some sort of front crawl stroke, (“I struck the water with their flat surfaces”), and a flutter kick with his feet to make the fins work, both of which would again put him a hundred and fifty years ahead of his time since the breast stroke was the only method used by the few people who could swim at all at that time; even the side stroke was unknown.

In addition, Franklin came up with other ideas to increase his speed in the water. The marsh or pond area of the harbor where he swam was one mile across. On days when a brisk wind was blowing, he would send his friend with his clothes to the other side, a mile away. He would then let loose above the water and into the wind a sturdy kite that he had made, and hanging onto the cord, he would race across the harbor “at a most agreeable speed”. Sounds like the precursor of many later water activities that we now know, and are popular today. If there had been a handy plank around I’m sure Franklin would have aquaplaned across the harbor. Who knows what other aquatic ideas he might have come up with if he hadn’t been sidetracked harnessing electricity, inventing reading glasses, and heating stoves, and lightning rods, and the odometer, and countless other inventions, and then, of course, taking part in forming the United States of America and signing The Constitution.

And what if he had lived closer to the beach when he was a kid in 1720 instead of inland on the other side of the harbor? And what if he saw those beautiful, white- crested waves rolling unridden toward the shore, and there was an old, thin plank of wood lying on the beach? Do you think it possible, with that imagination and inventiveness of his, that he just might have come up with another of his aquatic ideas?"

No doubt!

Submitted By Cal Porter on Oct. 21 , 2009

© Cal Porter 2010, all rights reserved.


P.S. Just in from Cal today, 10.28.2010, More About Fins:
"Since you are featuring swim fins these days I looked through my earliest photos to see what I had. This photo was taken in 1940 maybe ’41 not long after Churchill invented these fins. I bought the first ones he sold in 1940; they were black and cost around three or four dollars. The skinny kid in the photo looks familiar (good thing he gained a few pounds before he became an LA City Lifeguard soon after). The face plate in the photo is handmade; it had to be since this is before commercial diving masks came on the market. I’m on my way out for a few abalone and lobsters, which were easy to come by in those days. My equipment is a tin can float, burlap bag and tire iron. And it was cold; this was a good many years before anyone would think of inventing wet suits. Ah the good old days! Cal

*** *** ***

Many Thanks to Cal for once again sharing a topic near and dear to any beach lifeguard, and especially the important role played by Owen Churchill. On big surf days, we are all glad we've got our fins on to help us get out through the surf to make rescues. Even if we are bodysurfing on a workout or a day off, fins are essential.

We leave you now with a few photos from the County Recurrent archives that feature various contemporary swimming fins, both in the field, as it were, and on the shelves.

Below, are the stiff bladed Churchill Fins (blue and yellow) that were the idea of Ray Johnson, as his brother Johnny tells us below in the "COMMENTS" section, and shown here on display at the recent Action Sports Retailer trade show in San Diego this past August 2010:

Fins on the railing at a Santa Monica South tower, Fall 2010, below:

Zuma Lifeguard Headquarters, below, Oct. 1, 2010:

Hermosa Lifeguards Headquarters, below, Summer 2010:

Typical Hermosa Lifeguard (t-shirt), below...

Santa Monica Lifeguard Headquarters, below, Summer 2010:


Until next time.....

"County Recurrent" News

Service • Training • Commitment

*** Keeping the County Recurrent "in the loop"..... whether he/she likes it or NOT ! ***

County Recurrent is not affiliated with nor sponsored by LACOLA or LACoFD.

***** ***** ***** ***** *****


William Maguire said...

Just in from L.A. City and LACo Beach Lifeguard, Ret., Jeff McConnel:
"Just a bit to add to the trivia pile. I was asked to go to Garden Grove, circa 1969 to buy 45 pairs of "seconds" from Johnny Johnson at the Churchill factory...They were green and had a splotch of white on the tips....never forgot them, a bargain at $6 each....lost one in a big rescue in a storm in'73, the other in Hawaii lifeguarding Magic sands in '75.... Ed Perry had the largest soft green Churchills I had ever seen....they were more like foot gloves....I think they
may be still hanging in his garage with a few other pairs he found washed up on Venice beach in the mornings....

Sometime after that I heard Johnny Johnson moved to Oahu...." aloha jeff

Anonymous said...

I appreciate Cal posting this very interesting article about Owen and the development of his Swim-Fins. If you visit the British War Museum in London, there is a display showing a British Commando 'frogman' which includes one of the earliest pair of Churchill fins. The British commandos were Owen's first big customers back in 1940.

My dad, Bob Johnson, approached Owen after WWII with a formula he had developed for natural gum rubber which permitted the addition of a chrome color and would also make the cured rubber buoyant. Up until that time, all fins had been black and simply sank to the bottom if you lost them. Multi-colored fins that could float were much more marketable.

Owen and Dad, who became lifelong friends, approached Voit (later AMF) and got a ten-year contract to manufacture the fins, masks, snorkels, water-proof flashlights and other kinds of aquatics equipment. It turned into a huge business, with a dozen presses operating 24 hours/day.

When the contract with Voit ended in 1957, Owen took possession of the molds and the fins went out of production until my brother, Jerry, became a guard in 1964. At that time, he convinced Dad to start making the fins again on a smaller scale so that lifeguards could purchase them at a discounted price. Jerry and I continued to make the fins ourselves after Dad died in a plane crash in Baja. (Roger Lyon's recent tragic accident reminded me of that terrible time).

Brother Marty took over the fin business in 1973 and built it up very successfully until he sold the company to Kransco in 1980. Owen remained a close family friend until he passed away in 1985.

John Johnson

JohnRJ08 said...

I would add here that the popular gold and blue Churchill "Stiff Blades" were brother Marty's idea. They were called "Makapus" and immediately became very popular, especially for Churchill enthusiasts who wanted a little more kick from the fins.

spyder said...

The one i can tell about fins is that i still have both my Churchill and my DuckFeet pairs. Both are in surprisingly great shape, bought in 1980-81, and rarely get any use. There is always that "someday will come." I do remember, that in 1997, i spent a couple of months living on a large yacht in Channel Islands harbor, working on a huge sound reproduction system (multi-array speakers (over 100 of them in total) two per hand-made custom boxes, tube amps for tweeters, two 10k Crowns completely rebuilt by hand (mostly mine under direction) with different cross over ranges, four enormous subwoofers with a pair of 19" speakers that were also reworked (they came new from Bob Dylan who ordered them but couldn't use them), and three different sound boards. It was grueling ten hour per day work; so the only break i had was to go swim and body surf on the "shores" in a variety of conditions. A couple of times, early in the morning i was most grateful i had the Duckfeet on, and also glad there was no lifeguard on duty yet to see me struggle in seven-foot south swell. It would have been so embarrassing. The sound system is used in Santa Barbara, both at the Arlington and at the County Bowl.

William Maguire said...

Jim Graham sent us this note below on Nov. 9, 2010 as a contribution to this running commentary on "Fins". Thanks Jim! Here goes:

"Hey Will:

In the summer of 1977, while working as a JG instructor at Avenue C in Redondo, our fellow lifeguard and surfboard shop owner Rick Stoner passed away, suddenly and sadly. The Headquarter Crew (Paul Matthies, Steve Wood, etc.) circulated a flyer to all County Headquarters announcing there would be a "memorial swim" for Rick from 8th Street in Hermosa to the Hermosa Pier (Rick's daily workout) beginning around 6:00 p.m. (This was a weekday and allowed anyone interested to make arrangements to be there after their work day ended). Now it was well documented that Rick, not a great swimmer, always swam with one Churchill fin on, so, needless to say, more than a hundred lifeguards, surfers and beach friends showed up at the 8th Street tower, most all of them with one fin to swim the short distance to the Pier. (It was one of the more memorable and inspired send-offs of a fellow waterman in my memory). After the swim, where most were able to say "goodbye" to Rick during that most private time, most everyone retired to the POOP DECK, owned at the time by Steve Wood and Steve Voorhees, for an evening of celebrating our good friends too short life.

Jim Graham (Retired)
Santa Monica (1959 - 1962)
L.A. County (1962 - 1984)

p.s. Paul Matthies may have a photo of the crowd on the beach toasting Rick with Champagne prior to the swim. It was super."