“(I) learnt early to swim well, and to manage boats; and when in a boat or canoe with other boys, I was commonly allowed to govern, especially in any case of difficulty”.
“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 palettes.”
“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”. (Benjamin Franklin)
But this is not about Franklin, it is about another boater, but not-so-good swimmer – Owen Porter Churchill (March 8, 1896 – November 22, 1985.)
The son of a successful gold prospector who founded a real-estate and investment company in Los Angeles, he had decided to take up flying as a hobby after leaving the Army at the end of World War I. But on his return to Los Angeles, his mother presented him with a boat in exchange for his promise never to fly while she was alive. (People)
Churchill was among the 22 businessmen who commissioned the eight-meter yacht Angelita to compete in a race called the King of Spain Trophy in 1930. The Angelita lost, and Churchill bought her. Then 34, Churchill was an accomplished sailor and a veteran of the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. (People)
Churchill was the first person to win an Olympic yachting gold medal for the US. He and Duke Kahanamoku were US Olympic teammates on the 1932 Los Angeles squad.
Though Churchill lost his bid for a second gold medal at the 1936 Olympics, he skippered the Angelita to victory over three others in the 1937 Lipton Cup in Newport Beach, California. Churchill, while a great yachtsman, swam very poorly.
In 1939, Churchill went to Tahiti, where he observed the natives swimming with braided banana leaves attached to their feet. He was inspired by Tahitian boys who would weave mats and attach metal straps to them.
These then would be dipped in tar, cooled and hardened and the boys simply placed them on their feet and went in the water. Mr. Churchill decided to make his design out of vulcanized rubber which is a cured rubber which makes it harder and less sticky than the natural rubber.
This process also makes the rubber more durable. Vulcanized rubber products are still used today in the form of car tires, hoses and soles of shoes to name a few. He patented his design in 1940. (snorkeling)
“The feet and legs of a human being were not designed by nature for swimming and other water activities and the use of my invention converts the feet into swimming members of correct hydrodynamic structure and design.”
“By increasing the speed of the swimmer the devices employing my invention likewise act to elevate the feet of the swimmer and thereby tend to overcome a problem which always confronts persons who are learning to swim, as it is difficult for a beginner to keep the feet elevated.”
“In addition to increased speed, the use of my invention enables a person to tread water much more efficiently and safely and in that respect is a distinct advantage to persons employed as life guards, for it enables them to perform rescue work in a manner which is otherwise thought to be impractical if not impossible.”
“My invention so materially increases the speed of a swimmer that ordinarily a person using same can swim as fast without his hands as he could by employing his feet and legs without the devices.”
“The devices also enable life guards and others who desire to wear life belts and jackets to progress with material speed through the water, which is ordinarily very difficult, if not impossible, without the use of my invention.” (Churchill, US Patent 2321009)
Churchill Fins saw action in World War II with the British Frogmen and US Navy. After the war, Churchill’s team developed a process that made the fins buoyant and allowed for the addition of color. Green, floating Churchills then hit the market. (SwellLines)
Churchill approached fellow Olympian Kahanamoku, to help sell his new “Swim-Fins” in the fall of 1940 and Kahanamoku immediately tried them.
Kahanamoku reported to Churchill that “you have found something that the swimming public will take to it like ducks.” Commenting that his wife watched him and told him he “went like a streak.”
Kahanamoku elaborated: “with these swim fins it would work out swell . . . spear fishing, kids down at the harbor diving for coins, etc.” (Nendel)
The deal to have Kahanamoku promote the swim-fins didn’t work out. Churchill did use Kahanamoku’s name on brochures for his fins as one “of the many Coaches and Champions who use Swim-Fins,” including Fred Cady, Paul Wolf and Johnny Weissmuller. However, no monetary compensation accrued from that endorsement.
Churchill went on to a long and productive career marketing his invention. While selling only 946 pairs of the fins in 1940, his first year of production, Churchill sold tens of thousands to Allied forces during World War II.
Many of the fins went to Hawai‘i. The Churchill fins became very popular, especially among body surfers and boogie boarders, and remain so today. (Nendel)