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Churchill fin history

Discussion in 'History of Diving Gear' started by David Wilson, Jan 1, 2011.

  1. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle

    I guess most, if not all of us, know about Owen Churchill's contribution to modern swim fin development. Here is an image of his prototype:


    and you can read more on the Smithsonian American history page at

    Sports: Breaking Records, Breaking Barriers | Owen Churchill | Smithsonian's National Museum of American History |

    I recently came across a blog focusing on the postwar development of Churchill fins from their first peacetime recreational green version of the 1950s


    to their iconic blue and yellow two-tone Makapuu manifestation in more recent times:


    One of the comments following the blog's pocket history of fin development was of particular interest first because it was posted in late 2010 and second because it was written by somebody with direct knowledge of the production of Churchill fins, John Johnson, the son of a collaborator of Owen Churchill's:

    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.

    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.

    I for one didn't know about the story behind the change of Churchill fins from wartime black to peacetime green, including the technological development of a floating natural rubber blend to produce the recreational version of the fins. On this forum we tend to focus on fins such as Duckfeet and Vikings which secured a much-loved place in early skin and scuba diving, while Churchills have largely fallen off the vintage diving radar because of their adoption by surfers. Perhaps we need to cherish Churchills more as they're the fin equivalent of Cressi Pinocchio masks, a product that is still manufactured and marketed more than half a century since their introduction.

    Anyway, if you want to read the original blog and its comments, you'll find it at

    County Recurrent: Are We Having Fin Yet ?!...

    I hope it's of interest to somebody. In my case, it certainly helped to fill in the gaps in my knowledge.
    Akimbo likes this.
  2. DaleC

    DaleC Solo Diver

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Leftcoast of Canada
    Thanks for the write up David.

    One of my regrets in rummage sale rummaging was passing over a set of original Churchills priced at $2. At the time I did not know their historical signifigance and one had a broken heel strap so I put them back. I still kick myself when I think of how easy it would have been to effect a repair to them and have them in my collection.

    I recently picked up a pair of the repro Churchills at a consignment store just to see how they perform. The blade area is too small to generate the thrust needed by a heavy rigged coldwater diver but I haven't tried them in the pool for lap swimming.

    One thing I learned along the way was the intended use of the hole near the ball of the foot (which I assumed was just a drain). Apparently it was supposed to also provide a suction cup effect when walking topside. Don't know if it works but an interesting tidbit none the less.
  3. blue steal

    blue steal Solo Diver

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Southern California/Redondo Beach area
    Thanks for the article. I still have at least one green fin. The blades were quite flexible and we used them in the 60's, 70's for body surfing and then later in the 80's for body boarding, (boogie-boarding). Seems you alway lost a fin each year in the surf and they didn't float until the recent ones came out. Fin socks with a mini leash helped out.
    The blades are much stiffer now and are great for lap swimming, body surfing, but not so much for scuba, not enough power. I aways thought the hole was to drain out the sand when coming in or going out thru the surfline.

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