Mark Cunningham And Mike Stewart On The Best Swim Fins
We’re putting an end to “best fin” debate once and for all.
I’ve been working on a bodysurfing fin review for the last couple months (read that here). I have a bunch of different pairs, ample swell, sand in every orifice, and very sore feet.
It’s a rule: you can’t write about bodysurfing without speaking to Mark Cunningham and Mike Stewart. They are, without a doubt, the two most talented dolphin-men on Earth. They’re also super friendly and were more than willing chat about the most often ignored thrill one can experience in the ocean: bodysurfing.
I thought it would be fun to ask them the same questions and see if they agree. A combination of wave experience mashed together into a delicious knowledge medley.
Stab: What makes a great fin?
Mark Cunningham: I’m only gonna talk to you if you say Da Fin is the best. You know that, right?
What I always tell people, you wear the fins that feel the best. That fit the best.
It’s kind of a fine line, you don’t want a whole lot of blade back there, so you can put your feet and legs where they wanna go. But you want a big stiff blade to help you catch a wave in the first place. Sometimes those bigger, stiffer, blades, they get a mind of their own and start going in unusual places.
I’m always real proud of our fin. When you hold our fin pocket-up to most of the other brands, I just feel like ours are a bit more ergonomic and round, an organic sort of shape, where most other fin pockets are these rectangular boxes that aren’t quite as comfortable.
It’s that combination of a very comfortable packet, yet with very stiff and powerful blade, and those little rails they have on either side give you just enough bite to hold your feet in place and keep your legs where you want them on the wave, without being too obtrusive – meaning once they start tracking they’ve got a mind of their own.
There are quite a few fins that are on the market because of bodyboarders, and bodyboarders can get away with a much shorter blade because they have the flotation and momentum of their board. And once they start pulling their fins out of the water to do the aerials and belly spins, all those other crazy maneuvers, and drop knee, they want a very small profile fin.
Whereas, you know, the Duckfeet and UDT and Da Fin, it’s a longer stiffer blade that’s more appropriate for bodysurfing and/or lifeguarding. A bit more power.
Mike Stewart: I’ve got wide feet so the MS Viper foot pocket fits my feet really well. But the main reason I like them is that they’re a really good planing surface. As you’re riding a wave, and your feet are dragging behind you, they’re not completely flat all the time. You have to twist your ankle, usually and point your toe down and in, to make them flat.
What happens, generally, is that the edges become like rails, like bodyboards, and so, with that, you have a lot of control through the attitude of the fin versus the concept of putting a skeg in. Which I think is pretty counter-productive.
So you can use it like a bodyboard, where you can change its angle and really affect your ride. You can go really fast, it has a very low drag shape to it. And the rails won’t catch, unlike some of the other fins on the market that have vertical rails. Those kind of work against the water-flow anyway, if you look at the fin and how it goes through the water. That’s why a lot of the other fins will pop off if it gets too big. It’s like a snow plow where it catches and the force is too intense.
A big part of it is how it works on the wave, if you’re going to bodysurf in them. I think that’s given the least consideration when people buy fins. But that’s why I buy them, and why a lot of people I know buy them, so they perform better in the wave.
I guess it’s the planing surface and the shape that makes it a very good performance fin. You can control speed, you can control your position on the wave really well. I like that they’re kind of short and broad. It allows you to get a quick acceleration with a rapid kick, versus a longer fin that works with a really rhythmic, slow, kicks.
Anything with more surface area than your foot is going to provide you thrust through the water. I like to be able to take-off when I want to take-off, and to be able to meet the speed of the wave you need to be able to accelerate quickly. A broader, shorter, blade helps me do that.
There’s a lot of fins on the market that kick great, that are very comfortable, but they ride like dog meat on the wave. They catch, they don’t allow you to utilize them like they can be used: as planing surfaces that can control your ride.
Why don’t more people bodysurf?
Mark Cunningham: It’s not as fast, you don’t cover as much ground, and it’s harder. Bodysurfing is harder than surfing. Anyone can board surf. Bodysurfing is a bit more challenging.
I wish more board surfers would do it, just to mix it up and, just to give them a new perspective on waves and the ocean. It’s a different experience when you’re in the wave, or a part of the wave, as opposed to floating on top of it.
No one’s gonna get famous for an awesome shot, you’re not gonna bust an air, or get an endorsement deal because of a wave you ripped bodysurfing. But it’s good cross-training. Just, you know, another way of moving through the ocean. It mixes it up for the board surfers.
Mike Stewart: I think people do bodysurf, whether when they lose their board or play around a bit. But people don’t realize that you can make waves, and have a lot of fun bodysurfing. People might not really understand the potential and possibilities.
Maybe they’re putting around in a closeout, which is fun too, it’s like interacting with an art show or something. But to actually ride a wave, a lot of people have never experienced it. To me, riding a good wave bodysurfing is a pretty amazing sensation. Way more connected than a surfboard. Way more connected than a bodyboard. Everything you do affects the outcome of what happens, more so than the other wave riding disciplines.
How do you feel about handplanes?
Mark Cunningham: I’m not a big fan of them. I know a lot of people use them and they’re very popular. I like the freedom bodysurfing affords me, where I don’t have a piece of equipment. I feel like, if I’m going to ride something, I’ll ride a surfboard, as opposed to a hand board. If that makes any sense.
I’ve had my shoulder nearly get yanked out of its socket because of hitting a bump, hitting some chop, and then getting pulled over the falls. I feel like I’m a prisoner [using a handplane], I almost feel like I’m handcuffed to something.
You can go faster with handboards. You can get around whitewater more. But I just like the sense of freedom of not having something attached to my hands.
I’m also a little paranoid of something that hard three feet away from my eyes and my head.
Mike Stewart: I think, for a lot of people, they’re pretty cool. They can utilize them to generate a little more speed. They’re generally a pretty good thing.
Personally, I’m not super into them. Maybe because I can generate more speed than a lot of the riders. I’m not sure. But I feel that, to a certain degree, they’re a little bit inhibiting. They don’t really allow you to do a lot of the things I like to do.
I like to move my wrist freely, and my arms freely, forwards and backwards. And sometimes during that transition it can catch.
Now if you’re just gonna go down the line, and you have your arm out in front, and you want to stay in the posture, they can be quick. But if you like to mix it up a little bit, which I think is one of the beauties of bodysurfing, I don’t like them so much. I don’t usually ride with a handboard.
You can easily subluxate your shoulder if it’s big. Just because it can catch.
Another thing I worry about is getting cracks on that thing. It can come back and whack you with the edges, you know? You’ve gotta be careful about that.
What’s the best wave in the world for bodysurfing?
Mark Cunningham: You don’t see me at the peak of any wave. Bodysurfers are kind of off to the shoulder, hoping the board surfers wipe out, so they can pick up the scraps. Just because you can’t make that steep of a drop, you can’t go nearly fast enough to come across most of these sections. There’s a certain type of wave that’s bodysurf-friendly.
I’m very biased toward my old office at Ehukai Beach Park. I love how that sand bar moves all over the place, hitting a sandbar bottom is a lot more forgiving than a reef or a sandstone bottom.
Mike Stewart: Oh man, tough one. Probably Pipe or… gosh, man… there’s a couple really good ones.
Pipe is up there. Panics. I think Panics has gotta be right up there. I would even say Teahupo’o. I think that hasn’t really been explored and I think that it has a lot of potential.
I made a bad decision there. My problem was, I could have cut out earlier, but I chose to… it was kind of an exploration-type thing. I kinda rode this wave further in than normal, all the way inside, just to see if I could get a little bit extra speed by tucking my arms, really get some speed then cut out. Because it’s really hard to get through the wave there and not get pulled over.
So I tried that and the further you go in the shallower it gets. So I went to the very end, where it’s kind of a gnarly zone. That’s where Keala Kennelly lost her face on a two-foot wave. It’s just, like, super nuts in there. So I cut out, then got sucked over, and inevitably I knew that I was gonna get slammed. And sure enough, I did. Really badly.
So that was kind of a bummer. But prior to that it was amazing. I got a really good, pretty deep barrel, came out, it was beautiful. If’ I’d just cut out after that, even if I’d got sucked over, it would have been less intense. I definitely wouldn’t have got the injuries I sustained.
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