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Jeff Middleton (Nov.9, 1947–June 17, 2019)

Story by Steven A Martin

Magic Sands Point (La'a Loa), the perfect wave for Hawaiian Handfins research and development (Photo: Steven Martin)

In the 1960s, Jeff Middleton spent several summers at Malibu Beach, California, helping his father to build a house. One year, he broke his arm, and since he was unable to help, his father told him to go play on the beach.

He played in the small shorebeak, until one day, a wave banked off a nearby sea-wall and catapulted him parallel to the shore, along the open face of the wave. In a flash, Jeff realized that he could ride the waves with his body!

Like hundreds of other people before and after him, Jeff had discovered the art of bodysurfing.

Jeff Middleton, at Magic Sands Point, testing his products!

Early Prototypes

Many years later, Jeff found himself bodysurfing in the even bigger waves of Hawaii, and his passion for the sport grew with the size and power of the waves.

In his fascination with bodysurfing, Jeff began to study how fish and other marine life moved freely in the sea and rode waves for fun.

He noticed that evolution had equipped aquatic mammals with highly efficient fins, with excellent hydro-dynamic qualities, and began to wonder whether he could equip human swimmers with similar tools.

While bodysurfing at Magic Sands Beach (La’a Loa) in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, in the 1980s, Jeff met Bob Corpuz, a like-minded bodysurfer who shared Jeff’s enthusiasm. Working together, they created early prototypes that became the first generation of handboards.

One day, Bob showed up at the beach with what appeared to be two miniature heart-shaped surfboards, one strapped to each hand. But these handboards, while excellent for riding the powerful waves that broke on the rocky point at the south end of the beach, were fashioned from layers of hard polyurethane, and potentially dangerous in the surf.

I was a lifeguard at Magic Sands in the mid-late 1980s, and I shared in the fun and excitement of bodysurfing and handboarding with Jeff and Bob. It was also my job to keep the beach safe, and I encouraged the transition to soft handboards.

Jeff Middleton's 1990 poster illustrating sea lion (a), walrus (b), and harbor seal flipper (c) bone structure alongside the human hand [click to enlarge]

Soft Boards – Two Handfin Style

The next generation were born in the idea of making pairs boards handboards, one for each palm, out of soft, buoyant material that aided not only wave riding, but also swimming performance.

In his teens, Jeff was a talented, ambidextrous (able to use his right and left hand equally), basketball player in high school, able to dribble the ball and shoot baskets with his right and left hands. As an adult, his ambidexterity allowed him to excel as a professional dancer as he developed choreography and figure-8 dance routines.

Hawaiian Handfins were born from Jeff’s soft handboard designs and his natural ability to transition from one hand to another while hydroplaning on the face of the wave.

In order to perfect his design, he studied the movements of fish and sea mammals.

Looking to Nature

Jeff began to question, "Might sea lions, walruses, seals, and dolphins, who are known to be natural wave riders, offer insight into the physics and art of bodysurfing?"

Seal Flipper Xray - Hawaiian Handfins Research and Development - Swimming - Bodysurfing - Handboarding

X-ray of a common fur seal flipper bone structure

Fish, seals, dolphins, and other marine life, Jeff realized, were naturally balanced and hydrodynamic in a variety of ways. Nature always equipped these aquatic masters with pairs of fins: "We don't see fish with only one fin – nature designed them with pairs of fins for balanced swimming and agility," Jeff explains.

In particular, he observed that many marine mammals had side flippers and tails with bone structures similar to human feet and hands.

Seal double tail-fin X-ray - Hawaiian Handfins Research and Development - Swimming - Bodysurfing - Handboarding

X-ray showing the double tail-fin bone structure of the common seal

After examining X-rays of various marine mammal flipper bone structures, Jeff re-designed his handboards as "Human handfins" which offered the right amount of surface area and buoyancy for improving swimming speed, wave catch-ability, and wave riding skills.

Happy Bodysurfing Seal - Hawaiian Handfins Team Rider
 Bodysurfing dolphins - Hydro-dynamic evolution - Hawaiian Handfins Research and Development

Bodysurfing dolphins, nature's "Hydro-dynamic evolution"

Hydro-dynamic Renaissance

Balance, dexterity, and in particular, ambidexterity, were paramount to his design processes. He began to use his own term to describe his work, Quadra-dexterity, where all four limbs are equally significant in the bodysurfing dynamic.

Likening this quadra-dextrous attribute to Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, drawn in approximately 1490 during the Renaissance period, Jeff coined the term Hydro-dynamic Renaissance, envisioning Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man as a waterman in harmony with the sea and the universe.

Could man evolve to be more fish-like in structure, enabling him to harmonize with the waves and bodysurf at a new level?

Jeff conceives a hydro-dynamic renaissance as a holistic return to the water.

He invites us to re-imagine our aquatic heritage, and to seek harmony with water, waves, and the world.

Leonardo Da Vinci - Vitruvian - Hawaiian Handfins - Research and Development

Leonardo Da Vinci's "L'Uomo Vitruviano

Hawaiian Handfins Team Turtle - Photo Patrick O'Leary

Hawaiian Handfins Team Turtle - Bodysurfing Hawaii - Photo Patrick O'Leary