Saturday, January 11, 2014

Some Tips On Choosing Fins for Boogie Boarding

I started boogie boarding when I was six years old, and I have been enjoying it ever since.  It’s the perfect surfing-type activity for me because I have strong legs and have been scuba diving for 40 years.  I’ve tried surfing with long boards, but it was a lot harder to learn, and I do not have the upper body strength and balance to use a surf board well.  I am much more comfortable on a boogie board, using my leg strength along with the proper fins to catch a wave. 

These are photographs I took while staying in Oahu's North Shore.  So no, that's NOT me in the giant surf of Waimea Bay. 

You can be forgiven if you think that choosing and buying a pair of fins for boogie boarding should be an easy task.  I used to think so.  After 49 years of swimming and 40 years as a certified diver (and 30 years as a professional underwater photographer), I am still learning about what kinds of fins work best for me in different situations. 

Every person is different, and fins for diving and boogie boarding are going to be perhaps the most personal and difficult choice of gear to get.  I can only describe my situation and hope that this review helps some of you folks out there.  I am a short Asian man who is in decent shape for swimming and scuba diving, but I am a good 40 to 50 pounds over my ideal weight.  I’ve done a ton of diving and boogie-boarding in different environments over the years.  I swim regularly at a local pool but that has not been enough to combat my bad food habits.  I have small feet compared to giant white males but my feet are wide.  I am 5 feet six inches tall, my feet are size 7-1/2 and I prefer New Balance shoes since I can get them in a wide EE size. 

For years and years, I just used whatever boogie board and diving/snorkeling fins that I had around.  They worked OK but were not perfect.  I finally learned what boogie boarding fins to buy when I rented a condo on Oahu’s North Shore for four months in 2006.  I went out one day when the surf was up at Haleiwa Bay.  I got out there using my usual Cressi Free Frog snorkeling fins and Morey boogie board, and quickly realized that I had blundered into currents and waves that were much too big for me.  A lifeguard screamed at me to swim back and followed me, yelling like a coach, as I fought the current to get back to shore and away from the large waves coming in.  I finally made it in, and the guy very rudely told me to get a clue, looking at a my noob gear in disgust.  

That same day, I went into a few of the local surf shops and tried on some fins that were made for boogie boarding, not snorkeling or diving.  I had seen these and had even bought a pair of Vipers back home in Monterey.  The Vipers just did not work for me.  When I put them on, bare foot, with nothing else except a thin sock, they were still too narrow for my feet.  I bought a size XL in the Vipers at the urging of a clueless salesperson, and these were still so narrow that I could not get my feet in fully into the foot pocket.  I thought that perhaps the   I was very wrong.  Vipers are designed for people with narrow feet.  I’d argue that you’ll rarely see these popular fins in Hawaii, but the folks in Hawaii generally walk around barefoot most of the time, and their feet are small and wide as a result.  In California, where most folks are white and walk around in shoes, fins with narrow foot pockets like the Vipers are popular. 
fins were designed to flop around on the end of my feet.

What fins should you buy for boogie boarding? 
First off,  any boogie boarding fin will be much shorter than any snorkeling or diving fin.  This is because with boogie boarding, you need a lot of power and speed in the beginning.  As you watch a swell come up behind you, you need to kick powerfully and quickly to match the speed of the incoming swell.  The entire goal is to kick quickly, in a short distance, to gain enough speed to catch the wave coming in behind you.  Ideally, the wave will smoothly rise up behind you, and your kicking and timing will move your body and board so that it falls down the wave as it breaks.  Too slow, and you won’t be able to catch waves, or they will constantly break over you. 

Another reason that the fin should be short is so you can put them on quickly, and waddle into the surf zone with the fins on.  You don’t want to be caught in the surf zone, with waves bearing down on you, as you struggle to get your fins on or off. 

Secondly, any boogie boarding fin needs to be wide enough to fit your feet comfortably.  You can wear booties in them, wear thin lycra socks, or go barefoot.  Whever you use on your foot, buy fins that have foot pockets that let your foot go entirely into the pocket.  Your foot should not flop around in the foot pocket.  Conversely, the foot pocket should not be so narrow that you can’t get your foot easily and quickly into the fin. 

I personally just wear thin Lycra socks, never booties.  I use the excellent Henderson Hot Skins® Fin Socks and Microprene Socks which you can see here:

You can buy them at my favorite dive/watersports store, LeisurePro:

my pair of trusty, well-worn Henderson Microprene Socks

Back to the surf shops in Haleiwa.  These shops had a bunch of different types of boogie boarding fins.  I found that the Vipers and Voits are made for folks with narrow feet.  I bought some off-brand pairs that have been working for me for years.  They have a wide foot pocket; have a short powerful fin; and have a simple strap on the back, making the fins easily to get on and off in the surf. 

I always wear lycra socks to prevent blisters.  Cotton socks don’t work well.  Trying to swim too much with any fins will eventually cause a blister.  Almost nothing is worse than a blister on your foot during a diving or surfing trip.  It will cause you to sit out the rest of the trip, and so I take great care now to wear lycra socks.  I don’t wear booties because they are heavy, hard to get on, and sometimes will cramp my feet almost immediately. 

In summary: find fins that are made for boogie boarding, not snorkeling or diving.  As you get better, you’ll want to find a good surf store that can sell you a more advanced boogie board.  I bought a $150 board on sale in Oahu and it is an advanced board – it moves faster on the water.  I’ve since tried borrowing or renting cheaper boards in Bali and found that I move much slower on those boards, which can cause me to miss waves or get hammered.  The fins should fit your feet comfortably, have foot pockets that are wide enough so you can put your entire foot inside the fin (it should not flop around on the end of your feet), and be easy to get on and off so you can take the fins off very quickly, on the steep sand slope of a beach, as a huge wave appears behind you.  You don’t want to get stuck in the sand as a big wave closes over you, as you are trying to get  your fins off.  

A final note: I do most of my boogie boarding in the chilly (50 degree F) waters of Monterey and Central California.  For the past couple of years, I've gotten by just fine with a 3mm Henderson Aqua Lock wetsuit.  This is the most comfortable, warmest, most flexible, and best-made wetsuit I've ever had the privilege of using.  Being able to wear a 3mm wetsuit in these cold waters is a blessing; the thinner but still warm wetsuit gives me the flexibility to swim around without getting cramps or feeling stiff.  

Take a look:

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