Aloha and Welcome to this chapter in the LEGENDARY SURFERS series covering the life and contributions of Bob Simmons.
I am indebted to many for helping with this updated chapter, but most especially to Bob Simmons' friend and biographer, John Elwell.
All images, except where noted, are courtesy of The Sufer's Journal.
To my knowledge, this is the most in-depth study of Simmons ever published. Please tell a friend about it. Mahalo!
“If anybody was ever to get the credit of being the ‘Father of the Modern Surfboard,’” famed Santa Barbara area surfer and shaper Rennie Yater told me, “I
would say it would have to be Simmons. He changed board design in a shorter period of time than anybody has before or since.”1
Back in the 1940s, Bob Simmons was the first person to consciously and purposefully apply hydrodynamic theory to create dynamic lift in surfboards; the first one to use fiberglass
and resin to strengthen lighter weight boards; and the first one to actually define a surfboard and describe how it works. Using the principles of Archimedes, Newton, Bernoulli, Munk and Lord, Simmons turned his surfboards -- what he called his “machines” -- into “hydrodynamic
planning hulls.”2 By combining the hydrodynamics of planing hulls with the beginning of the plastics revolution, Simmons radically improved surfboard design
Legendary surfer Peter Cole put it succinctly: “Simmons did more for surfing than anyone else.”3
Robert Wilson Simmons was born in Los Angeles on March 29, 1919. His father was a postal worker but his family was basically poor.4
In his early teens, Bob developed a painful tumor on his left ankle. The prognosis was cancer and the doctor’s recommendation was amputation. The pain was intense and he was forced to drop out of high school. His mother,
anguished over the thought of her younger son without a leg, sought a second opinion. Dr. Murphy, a well-known naturopath and chiropractor, prescribed a radical clean-out diet of fresh fruits, juices, special vitamins and
grain gruel. He treated the leg directly by manipulating it and within nine months, the tumor disappeared. Bob remained on this diet and visited Dr. Murphy for the rest of his relatively short life.5
Because his body weakened due to his long period of immobility, Bob took up bicycling to strengthen himself and speed up his recovery.6
He got to be such an excellent bicyclist that, years later, he used “to cycle to Malibu and Hermosa from Pasadena,” his friend and biographer John Elwell told me. “Not many knew he was an endurance athlete.
[Dale] Velzy said he could have been a State cycling champion or on the Olympic team. No one could touch him in a race.”7
“Roy Bream was one of the best long distance paddlers on the coast, and an endurance athlete,” John began, in telling of a classic Simmons bicycling moment some time
after he had taken up surfing. “One day he showed up at the Hermosa pier with the latest racing bike. Simmons looked it over and challenged him to a race. Roy declined, looking at Simmons’ old beat up bike... but
with all the gears and tuned to perfection. Simmons said he would spot him a lifeguard tower on a race to Manhattan Beach.
“Roy smiled and knew that he could peddle easy to the first lifeguard tower a couple hundred yards away and then the race would really begin. The lifeguard there was on the
phone when Bream passed to start Simmons. The race was on.
“Bream looked back and Simmons was way back. He looked back again as the lifeguard towers blurred past and Simmons was gaining on him! When they got to Mahattan, Simmons was
drafting him and swung out to pass him and beat him! Bream could not believe it!
“What Bream did not know is that Simmons had counted his sprockets and calculated the speed he was capable of maintaining. Simmons, the brute he was on a bicycle, knew he
had designed his bicycle with higher gears and was faster and knew the distance exactly. He did all the calculations in his head while chatting with Bream, before he made the challenge. Such was Simmons!”8
Way before this, though, shortly after he had taken up cycling in 1936 at age 17, Simmons suffered another serious physical setback when he collided with a moving automobile while
riding his bike. A car at high speed had done a U turn right in front of him.9 At the nearby hospital, he was diagnosed with a skull fracture, a broken leg and
a badly fractured elbow. When he regained consciousness, he refused to eat hospital food. His mother had to work out a deal with the head nurse in order to smuggle his special diet to him by coming up the fire exit at prearranged
times. John Elwell, who knew Simmons about as well as anyone wrote, “You can picture Simmons in his hospital bed, his head swathed in bandages, his left arm and leg suspended in casts, his fierce dark eyes peering out,
his mouth terse and twisted, thinking about how he had beaten cancer and now this! He would often say, as a favorite expression, ‘What a dis-ass-tur!”10
His hospital doctor remarked that Simmons had strong bones and that’s probably what saved his life. The doctor had to put a stainless wire loop in Simmons’ elbow to
lock the arm in a natural extended position. His instructions to Simmons were to regularly exercise the arm or he stood a good chance of losing it. After the doctor left, another patient who had fallen off a ladder and who
happened to be well-known surfer Gard Chapin overheard the advice and hobbled up on crutches with a casted broken leg. “You ought to try surfing because you paddle and swim a lot.” As Simmons would recall the story,
years later, Chapin told a lot of tall tales, one of which particularly interested him. “According to this surfer,” Simmons remembered, “you’re riding along in this softly lit green room and it is so
quiet that if you whistle or yell, you can hear the echo! – Like a damn fool, I believed him!”11
Big wave legend Greg Noll recalled that when he started surfing at 11, he listened intently to the stories Dale Velzy and Bob Simmons told him. Noll remembers Simmons talking about
this hospital scene and tales of the green room: “This guy tells me you take off on these waves and you start down the side and you angle off one way or the other and these waves throw out over the top of you. Suddenly
you’re inside this enclosure, a green room, and the wave has broken completely over you. If you want, you can yodel or yell and the noise bounces off the side of the walls. You go on like this for a while, then you go
flying out of the other end of this tube into daylight.”12
Noll added that this first indirect exposure to surfing really captivated Simmons. “He was determined to go out and get into that green room. He believed that every wave was
like this, not realizing that it’s every surfer’s dream to spend even a second or two in that ‘green room.’”13
A few years of this second long recovery passed before Bob Simmons first hit the surf. Already, he had lost some of his formative years as a young man. The years he had spent were
years of physical suffering, without normal associations and experiences young men of his age typically had. Summarizing the pluses and minuses, John Elwell wrote that “He became very self reliant, frank, outspoken and
lacked social skills.”14
Added to the “dis-ass-turs” that had already befallen him, Simmons’ casted elbow became infected and normal atrophy from disuse occurred. As a result, he had to
become ambidextrous. Having been left handed, he had to learn to use his right arm and hand as well as he had his left. Even so, when he took to surfing, he rode as a natural left hander would: “goofy foot,” with
the right foot forward and left foot back.15
During this second recovery period, he got into designing and constructing boomerangs and throwing them with accuracy. He also took up precision hatchet throwing and table tennis.
He got back on bicycles again and became one of the most powerful of early cyclists along the beach. He used to boast, “You can go anywhere on a bicycle!”16
Around this time, Simmons' older brother, Dewey invented a strain-measuring device at Caltech called the SR-4 strain gauge. The device helped the aerospace and construction
industries by allowing stress to be measured for such things as airplane wings and bridges.
According to a 1986 article in the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Engineering & Science magazine, Dewey Simmons sued the university for royalties. In 1949, the California Supreme Court awarded him the right to what amounted to $1 million in royalties over the 17-year life
of the patent. Even before the decision, the school changed its rules so that all patents developed on campus become Caltech property. Dewey subsequentluy moved on to oil prospecting, skin-diving and 3-D photography.
Unfortunately, the brothers had an argument during the war years and never talked to each other again. They were a lot alike: stubborn, reclusive and brilliant.17
Simmons actively read and studied, but missed two years of high school, making him technically a “drop out.” Even though he never gained a high school diploma,18
he tested for and passed the admittance exams for entry to the Caltech, in Pasadena. He also won a scholarship there, just as his brother Dewey had done. Simmons now demonstrated his IQ level by never
bringing a book home from Caltech, seemingly never doing any homework, and still getting nothing but straight A’s in advanced mathematics, the language for science and engineering.19
“I had always wondered about Bob,” recalled John Elwell when he met him later on, “hearing him, watching him surf and work, about his incredible mind for recall
of facts, exact statements of wave heights and skill in duplicating shapes. He also had an uncanny judgment to identify a position of lineup in any surfing area.” Apparently, Simmons was eidetic and possessed a photographic
mind. “There was no doubt Bob Simmons was a gifted genius,” Elwell went on, “with precise coordination, tenacious will, programmed to interpret things mathematically almost instantly. This was combined with
a razorous tongue and wit, asking for no quarter and receiving no quarter. He was a fierce competitor, with one thing in mind: victory! Like most geniuses, he would be difficult to understand, and like most in history, would
often be rejected.”20
At Caltech, Simmons studied under a mathematics professor by the name of Bell, who wrote the History of Mathematics. Through his courses, he was introduced to the theories and formulas of great scientists such as Archimedes, Newton, and Daniel Bernoulli. Bernoulli was especially
important to Simmons because of Bernoulli’s contributions in the Law of Lift, as it related directly to aeronautic wings and planing hulls. Not surprisingly, Simmons was in a flying club that designed and made boomerangs,
which are essentially flying wings.21
It was 1939 when Bob Simmons first got on a surfboard. While visiting his sister and her husband on Balboa Island, he was towed into the waves along Newport Beach, by speedboat, riding an old Tom Blake
He had built the hollow board from plans out of Popular Science magazine, but discontinued using it almost immediately. Instead,
he bought a 150 pound solid plank from Gard Chapin and then modified it.23
Machinist by Night, Surfer by Day
When war broke out in 1941, Simmons dropped out of the Caltech. Fellow surfer Dave Rochlen recalls that Simmons always insisted that he had attended, “Not for credit, but for knowledge, he used to
One can imagine he might just have been putting “spin” on what happened, but his purpose, apparently, was to learn all he could about
aero and hydro dynamics, not get a degree.
He now switched his attack and took advantage of a wartime training act, learning how to be a skilled machinist. He worked late at night which gave him the daytime for surfing. He later recalled that his
early attempts at surfing were definite “dis-ass-turs.” John Elwell recalls Simmons saying, “I had to have a friend or my mother help me load the board on a car because it was so heavy. I had to drag it down
the beach. You couldn’t turn them and they would pearl.”25
It didn’t take Simmons long to work out alternative transportation to the beach. At one point, he used to tow a red wagon with his board on it, attached to the rear of his bicycle. From this simple
transportation arrangement, Simmons went on to even hop freight trains with his board. He would travel up and down the Southern California coast that way.26
During his daytimes Simmons surfed and also “went to work for Gard Chapin building garage doors,” wrote Australian champion surfer Nat Young in his History of Surfing
, “and started to build his own surfboards as well. Naturally his first boards were copies of Gard’s but within a year he had developed those ideas and improved on them.”27
Chapin was a member of the Palos Verdes Surf Club [PVSC] -- at that time the most well-known of all surf clubs. “He was considered one of the best surfers on the coast,” remembered Elwell. “He
was aggressive, very vocal and not very well liked.”28
Rennie Yater agreed: “Gard Chapin was a really good surfer. He and Simmons really didn’t
get along that good. Nobody
really got along good with Simmons! But, they admired each other their ability.”29
would later gain renewed notoriety as the step-father of Miki “Da Cat” Dora. In the 1930s and ‘40s, however, he was known for his surfing and as one of the very best in the PVSC. Notably, in the world of
surfboard design, Gard Chapin significantly changed the accepted San Onofre style of rail. The plan shapes were similar to the old San Onofre outlines but even as far back as pre-World War II, Gard was turnng the rail down
in the back and using nose blocks to give lift in the nose.30
Bob and Gard built and repaired traditional surfboards for mostly younger surfers who were able to enjoy the sport without the the war coming between them and the waves. “To make money,” period
surfer Joe Quigg recalled, “he had started remodeling old-fashioned boards for people.”31
Simmons also started making some boards of his own. Probably taking the cue from Chapin, they had better rail design than the planks of the previous decade.
Gard became his mentor
and Simmons picked up his woodworking skills from him – as well as a lot of attitude.32
Kit Horn was a young teenage surfer during the early days of World War II. Remembering the first time Simmons showed up at Malibu, Kit said that Simmons swam a large board out, with his left arm on the
board. Simmons was 8-to-10 years older than the kids at Malibu. Most everyone his own age was either in the military or in production during the daytime. Some notable kids later became his friends; surfers like Peter and Corny
Cole, Buzzy Trent and Matt Kivlin.33
Although Simmons was a loner, he did not surf alone all the time. One of the most enthusiastic of the younger surfers during the war and after was Buzzy Trent. Buzzy would tag along with Simmons on many
of his impromptu surfaris. “Together, they were a real pair –” recalls Joe Quigg’s good friend Dave Rochlen, “like the mad scientist and his big, burly side-kick Igor.”34
In the early ’40s, Simmons had a stripped down ‘31 Ford, with flat bed and racks, which
became the surf vehicle for he and his younger friends. “He modified fuel mixtures with kerosene to extend his mileage,” noted Elwell.35
During the surfaris with the 1931 Ford, Simmons racked up repeated tickets for speeding and vehicle violations.
One time when both Simmons and Trent were on surfari, during the war, and while Simmons still had his flatbed, they rode “up the coast in [Simmons’] old Model A flatbed,” wrote surf writer
Craig Stecyk. “Trent needs to relieve himself in a major way, but Simmons as usual is in a hurry. The ever-innovative Buzzy climbs out on the wooden flatbed, squats over a convenient hole in the platform and begins to
answer nature’s call. Other motorists are taken aback at this graphic spectacle. Bob is outraged... ‘Trent, you stupid bastard, quit shitting through that hole.’ Trent’s well-measured reply was one
that could only come from a person in that state of satisfied quietude and relief, ‘OK Simmons, what do you want me to do, shit in your front seat?’ End of discussion.”36
During the later part of the war, Simmons went to work as a mathematician for Douglas Aircraft. He’d leave work when the surf came up and return when it dropped and Douglas put up with it. While still
working with Gard Chapin, he took over the family garage in Pasadena for his own surfboard development and research. The war was winding down and suddenly it was over. In August 1945, a big swell came in the day the first
atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Pat O’Connor, a Los Angeles county lifeguard, remembers the day vividly. After the news of the bomb drop came over the radio, “Simmons ranted and raved all day that
they would ruin the world with this new bomb. No one knew what it was, but Simmons knew something about its potential destructive powers.”37
In December 1945, Simmons collided with another car at San Onofre, totaling both cars, but without injuries. Afterward, he replaced the ‘31 Ford flatbed with a '37 Ford Tudor, V-60. He gutted the Tudor
out, except for the driver’s seat, made a plywood deck in it, had a wooden milk crate for a passenger seat and racked his board on top. With sleeping bag, hydro graphic charts, canned soy beans, fruit and boomerangs,
he wandered and surfed the southern and some central parts of the California coastline.38
Simmons refused to sleep in a bed, preferring the floor, instead. This must have had something to do with the pressure on his back. Even so, Simmons acquired a “taste for the meanest, hardest breaking
shore break on the biggest days.”39
Later to become the first modern surfboard builder, Simmons became a dedicated surfer who was “usually first out
in the morning and last in at night.”40
His nephew Rick recalls one particular day that demonstrated Simmons’ penchant for the big, gnarly stuff despite his handicap. It was after he got known for his surfing and shaping. He was taking
a pounding, but fully stoked on the smashing he was receiving, after making some fantastic takeoffs. A lifeguard came down the beach, angrily ordering him out of the water and lecturing him on how dangerous it was. Lastly,
he demanded to know his name. When Simmons told him, Rick recalls the lifeguard stammering and then apologizing. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was you.”41
Lord, Munk and Physics
In early 1946, Joe Quigg and his former Santa Monica High School classmate Dave Rochlen visited Simmons at his garage. Rochlen was on leave from the Marines. “Dave and I got curious about Simmons,”
said Quigg. “We were still into surfing, and we heard he was building boards in his garage in Pasadena, so we drove over to see what he was up to.” They found Simmons in the process of building three traditional
redwood surfboards. “At that time,” said Quigg, “he was still selling and talking up big, heavy boards, the same kind we’d always used.”42
Quigg admitted that, in those days, he wasn’t too impressed by Simmons. However, Dave Rochlen said, “When we first met Simmons, we knew he was different
. We knew he was somehow special, and we knew he was up to something. We called him a mad scientist.”43
Simmons was just about “the only guy anybody could buy boards from during those [war] years.”44
In 1946, many of the technological developments used during the war to enhance the country’s military capabilities came out on the open market. “Most important to Simmons and surfboard history,”
wrote Elwell, “was a publication by one of the finest US naval architects, Lindsey Lord, a Ph.D. from MIT who did an intensive study on planing hulls. Most of the work was done in Hawaii, with the initial phases using
simple shapes looking like body boards. Surfboards were used also. Simmons had somehow acquired a copy. Lord’s study was remarkable. The Navy had sought an ideal width and length shape for quick lift, maneuverability
and speed. Lord maintained the study was solid information and a new, not previously known, naval science.
“Simmons must have been delighted,” wrote Elwell. “The book was full of graphs, complex equations and recommended a new material to strengthen lightweight planing hulls: fiberglass and
resin. The form developed was simple parallelism, with an ideal length-width ratio number called aspect ratio...
“One of the problems, Lord relates, concerned the ideal shape. It was not attractive, but could be. He mentions that pointed sterns produce the most drag, extreme lightness is dangerous, and planing
hulls are complex. He warned that a few weird things work, but don’t be fooled... everything modified to get something else... is a compromise. All things were considered and applied for the ultimate goal of superlative
speed; such as the nature of water, skimming on it, Newton’s Laws, Bernoulli’s Law of Lift, resistance, load, attack angles, rudder designs and center of gravity. The book was the mother lode for Simmons. Many
surfers saw it in Simmons’ possession, but couldn’t understand it, much less apply it to surfboards. Simmons told me he went to a boat show and a salesman for fiberglass showed him the material and described its
application and use. He located an outlet and purchased the material downtown. He was quite matter of fact about it. The materials were being marketed all over the country.”45
Besides being a naval architect from MIT, writing the Naval Architecture of Planing Hulls and using the Simmons strain gauge, Lindsey Lord had first become “famous for designing fast rum planing boats during prohibition and later [was] commissioned to improve US Navy's speed attack boats in Hawaii, some of the experiments
were using surfboards. Actually, those things like surfboards are called plates, work on Bernoulli Law.”46
As Lord wrote, “There is nothing revolutionary about any of this, because one thing is built upon another... If you change something in this, you also change something else.”
From Lord’s perspective, a planing hull is like an aircraft, designed for a calculated load, with a pilot.47
Lord’s study and the fundamental changes to surfboard design that Simmons was to make are connected mainly to Newton’s Laws of Motion and Bernoulli’s Law of Lift:
Sir Isaac Newton’s Three Laws of Motion were first published in 1687 and have been tested and verified many times. They are:
1. An object at at rest tends to stay at rest, and an object in motion tends to stay in motion, with the same direction and speed. Motion (or lack of motion) cannot change without an unbalanced force acting upon it. If nothing is happening to you, and nothing does happen, you will never go anywhere. If you're going in a specific direction, unless something happens to you, you will always go in that direction.
2. The acceleration of an object produced by a net (total) applied force is directly related to the magnitude of the force, the same direction as the force, and inversely related to the mass of the object (inverse is a value that
is one over another number; for example, the inverse of 2 is 1/2). If you exert the same force on two objects of different mass, you will get different accelerations (changes in motion). The effect (acceleration) on the smaller
mass will be greater (more noticeable). The difference in effect (acceleration) is entirely due to the difference in their masses. This law is commonly represented by the equation F=ma.
3. For every action (force) there is an equal and opposite reaction (force). Acting forces encounter other forces in the opposite
A fluid flowing past the surface of a body exerts a force on it. Lift is the component of this force that is perpendicular to
the oncoming flow direction.
It contrasts with the drag force, which is the component of the surface force parallel to the flow direction. If the fluid is air, the force is called an aerodynamic force. In water,
it is called a hydrodynamic force.48
Daniel Bernoulli published his Law of Lift in Hydronydamica in 1738.
In simplified form, Bernoulli’s principle states that within a steady airflow of constant energy, when the air flows through a region of lower pressure it speeds up and vice versa.
There is a direct mathematical relationship between the pressure and the speed. If one knows the speed
at all points within the airflow one can calculate the pressure, and vice versa. For any airfoil generating lift, there must be a pressure imbalance, i.e. lower average air pressure on the top than on the bottom. Bernoulli's
principle states that this pressure difference must be accompanied by a speed difference.49
Bernoulli's principle can be used to calculate the lift force on an airfoil if the behavior of the fluid flow in the vicinity of the foil is known.
Considering surfboards as a kind of airfoil moving through a liquid, if the water flowing past the top surface of the board is moving faster than the water flowing past the bottom surface, then Bernoulli’s principle
implies that the pressure on the surfaces of the board will be lower on its deck than below. This pressure difference results in an upwards lifting force. Whenever the distribution of speed past the
top and bottom surfaces of a surfboard (or wing) is known, the lift forces can be calculated to a good approximation using Bernoulli's equations. There’s a lot more to it than this, but in simplified form, these
are the considerations Bob Simmons put into his board making once he got going.
Simmons was a frequent visitor to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, in La Jolla. As important to Simmons as Lord’s publication on planing hulls, was a wealth of new scientific research on wave
mechanics. During the war, the Navy had had a desperate need to predict waves for the success of amphibious landings. Dr. Walter Munk, a world renown oceanographer and an expert on waves did some work for the Navy in this
regard, including using Simmons’ brother Dewey’s strain gage to record wave pressure.50
Munk had also, coincidentally, been a classmate of Simmons’
at Caltech and, at this time, was married to one of Gard Chapin’s surfing sisters. He was assisted by Towne “Tommy” Cromwell, a young oceanographer and a very fine and well-liked surfer from Windansea.51
Munk and colleagues published their research and it was from these that, “Simmons found out what he was really dealing with in surfboard design.”52
Interestingly, another Simmons/Munk classmate at Caltech had been Hugh Bradner, a physicist who worked on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. He went to Scripps afterwards and worked with Munk to invent the
wet suit for the U.S. Navy.53
Scarfed Nose, Fiberglass and Resin
Simmons now “started shaping and reshaping planks with the modern rail and used fiber glass to reinforce the noses,” John Elwell wrote, “because the design required
the thinning of the tail for attack angle and thinning the nose for quicker lift, like an aircraft... The design of course eliminated extra weight (load).”54
A little while after Simmons got his hands on Lord’s planing hulls study, both he and Chapin started modifying the planks they were working on with nose applications of fiberglass. Out in the surf,
they were overtaking and passing everyone else, “proclaiming planning hull design,” Elwell wrote. “Those who got in the way and did not heed their abusive warnings were rammed. Chapin evidently got away with
it. Simmons was dunked and beaten up in Malibu, punched down at San Onofre and stoned on the trail to Palos Verdes Cove. He returned in the evening with an axe and drove it into some paddle boards that were lying around; ostensibly
belonging to the stoners. Vandalism to the boards on his car by Palos Verdes surfers occurred in retaliation.”55
It’s interesting to note that Mickey
Dora, who became well-known for shoving people out of his way later on at Malibu, may have learned his attitude from his step father Gard and Bob Simmons.
Simmons’ first real departure from the traditional surfboard plan shape was the scarfed nose, using fiberglass and resin. Surfers who rode a board with a scarfed nose acknowledged that the nose lift
helped keep the board from pearling. Soon Simmons had others wanting him to make modifications to their own boards and “scarf another piece on the nose and fair it in to create nose lift.”56
The use of fiberglass in surfboard construction was just beginning.
“Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson was actually the first person to build a fibreglass surfboard,” wrote famed Australian surfer Nat Young, and “he did this in June 1946 with the help
of Brant Goldsworthy, who had a plastics company in Los Angeles which supplied component parts for aircraft in World War II. The board was constructed of two hollow moulded halves joined together with a redwood central stringer
and with the seam sealed with fibreglass tape.”57
“Brant Goldsworthy and his partner Ted Thal,” continued Young, “were the first to sell fibreglass and resin to the private sector. The first resin manufacturer was the Bakelite Corporation.
Those early resins were the same viscosity as the resins used today but the catalyst was a paste-like vaseline that had to be thoroughly mixed with the resin. The drying time was totally dependent on the amount of sunshine
and naturally one side dried while the rails were still tacky. Because it made the boards look ugly compared to the shiny varnish already available it took a little time to gain acceptance, but, because resin was much more
protective, change was inevitable... [Joe] Quigg remembers walking into Ted Thal’s one-room shop (now a huge corporation) and seeing little bottles of stuff that had just arrived at the Thalco Chemical Company. Ted didn’t
know what it was, but the label read ‘setting fluid - highly explosive’ and that made him suspect it was the catalyst he needed. Joe pleaded with Thal to let him have some; Thal, however, declined. Frustrated,
Joe remembered that one of his friends, Dave Sweet, had an uncle who was in the plastics department of Douglas Aircraft so Joe persuaded Dave to contact his uncle and get some setting fluid. When Joe came back to Dave’s
house a couple of days later he saw Dave in the backyard putting out a fire which had occurred from a particularly hot mix! Because it was proving so hard to get he drove back to Ted Thal’s office, identified the suspicious
stuff in the little bottles, and persuaded Thal to part with it and some other funny stuff called pigment or tint.”58
Radical changes occurred in Simmons’ boards after 1946. The rails were coming down, tails and noses were thinner, but they were still basically modified planks. But, Simmons took design further by
developing the first twin fin boards with concave bottoms, and later experimenting with nose and tail contours and rounded rails.59
Simmons Twin Fin
At the time, no one could figure out what the small twin fins Simmons had on his personal boards were all about. Unknown to most was that resistance is
a key factor in aerodynamics and hydrodynamics. Off planing forms comes eddy flow resistance and suction. The “Magnus Effect” comes into play. The twin fin properly placed on a surfboard deflects eddy flow, improves
speed, and lessens drag and eddy flow suction.60
Along with Simmons’ research and development came testing. He tested his boards all over Southern California. He was seen in Solana Beach, in the San Diego area, throwing his boomerangs off the cliffs
there. He frequented the San Diego County Lifeguard HQ and often took all comers in ping pong, beating most everyone with his left wired locked elbow.61
Such ping pong session is one Craig Stecyk wrote as occurring on September 16, 1947. Supposedly a Tuesday night at the Hollywood Tables on Highland Boulevard, Simmons battled it out with then-upcoming board
shaper and Manhattan Beach local Dale “The Hawk” Velzy. The Hawk had accepted Simmons’ challenge to “come and see some real ping pong.” They played for a 19-cent can of cling peaches.
“Out of my way, you fucking kook. I’m coming through or over, it’s your choice,” was the kind of attitude Simmons exhibited. This session was the first of many to follow, as the
two developed a routine of ping pong playing while arguing over board design late into the evening.62
“Some surfer-observers of that period,” wrote surf writer Leonard Lueras, “say that Simmons was compelled to modify the shapes and weights of his surfboards because of his handicap. It
was hard for him to use the heavy redwood and pine paddleboards then in vogue; he was constantly trying to make his one-armed surfing easier.”63
“Witnesses and photographs exist,” countered Elwell, “attesting to the fact that Simmons’ “left arm was now indistinguishable from his right. He paddled with a dip with the
left shoulder to get extension and sometimes used a bar of paraffin to extend his reach. He had a strong paddle. No one passed him, and a good set of shoulders were developed. His legs were very strong. His swimming, however,
was an unorthodox stroke without full extension and rotation. He was definitely handicapped in this department. He kept his head up, stroked underwater with the left arm dragging and slashing. This did not deter him from surfing
the biggest surf, skirting rips, making his way through powerful shore break. He surfed with the best watermen on the coast and no one ever worried about him.
“Many years later in surf media, his arm became surf folklore and ‘withered,’ and he became known as a ‘one-armed surfer,’ a ‘terrible swimmer, who most likely drowned
because he couldn’t swim,’ and a ‘cripple’ – all were myths.”64
Simmons Twin Fin
Hydrodynamic Planing Hulls
By 1948, Mike Johnson, a friend of Simmons’ who became a surfer, said that Simmons had a board down to nine pounds and was testing it at the Caltech test tank. Kit Horn substantiated that it was at
this time that Simmons came down to Malibu with the first really radical board.65
“Simmons was reported to be going so fast that his boards would become airborne and go out of control,” wrote Elwell. “He had pushed the high aspect ratio and lightness to the limit. To
correct this he increased weight and rebalanced his boards.
“The new boards had unusual features. They were vastly lighter. The noses and tails were thin and featured hydrofoil rails. They were wide and with wide, slightly pulled-in tails. The nose had an
increased turn up with a camber and slight belly in them.”66
Simmons called these “hydrodynamic planing hulls.” He did not elaborate further, but it was obvious they combined elements based on the laws of physics and never seen before. “A new profile
emerged,” wrote Elwell. “The profile allowed the shedding of many pounds, immersing the tail for a better attack angle. The tails were wide and thin, giving quick lift for planing. The rail allowed for penetration
into the wave and giving improved deflection, readily seen in early photographs.
“The results were phenomenal. The boards picked up waves quickly, were stable, easy to paddle and turn and had great speed. They were very easy to surf. It was clear that Simmons had applied some
distinctly new combinations. These factors were confused by observers to be lightness due to materials, although lightness is only part of the whole. Hydrodynamic qualities result from form that gives dynamic lift.”67
Simmons continued to receive visitors to his shaping area. “It was up in Pasadena where I found that Bob Simmons was,” recalled Rennie Yater. “Some kid that lived around the corner said,
‘Hey, this guy Bob Simmons’ lived down in the south part of Pasadena. So, one day a couple of weeks later – it must have been 1948 – I went down there to South Oakland Avenue; found him working in his
garage. And here’s all these different looking surfboards, more than I’ve ever, ever seen before. I was awed, to say the least.
“It wasn’t long after that that I bought one of the boards he had modified. He put a scoop nose on an old board. I think it was at least 40-pounds lighter than the last thing I’d been
riding. I’d been riding 90-pounds and this thing was, like, 50. That was a big jump. Then I got really serious about surfing.
“Bob Simmons absolutely fascinated me, because he was a person who wouldn’t go with tradition at all. He was out there on his own brain wave. I used to go down there, once in a while, you know?
Watch him work, talk with him. He was an arrogant type of guy. Sometimes he really wanted to talk and other times he did not want to talk at all and he’d tell you so. But, when he did talk, he was really interesting to listen to...
“When his boards started showing up at San Onofre, they couldn’t believe it. Such a traditional place. Everything had to look the same, ride the same, pose the same... Simmons’ boards
weren’t welcome at San Onofre. See, his influence was more at Malibu. He could care less about the San Onofre area. He always went up and tested his stuff at Malibu or Palos Verdes Cove...
“To go back a little farther,” Rennie continued, “Simmons worked for Gard Chapin. He had a garage door business, as I remember. So, Simmons had access to a lot of different materials.
They used plywood a lot for garage doors. Simmons finally came up with this – probably the first production line other than Pacific Systems – the first production line surfboard that had a foam [expanded polystyrene]
core, balsa wood rails, and plywood deck. He came up with that idea probably because of all the influence he had from plywood... mahogany veneers on the outside to get them even lighter. He did incredible things for the time
he did ‘em in, compared to today. He’s also fortunate to come out of the Second World War. Fiberglass was a revolutionary product to come out of the war. See, here comes this material on the open market. So, he
now had access to that.”68
Simmons never attempted to fully explain his designs to anyone because they were “complex and the applications were simple, and could be modified,” wrote John Elwell. “He was also secretive
and didn’t trust some people.” His brother Dewey had a long legal battle over his invention of the electrical strain gage and this was probably ever-present in his brother’s mind. Elwell, who knew him, also
feels “There was also some delight in baffling some of the rule of thumb, surfing know-it-alls. There was no doubt he rejected exaggerators and dreamers on the beach. He gravitated to the better surfers and ignored the
less serious and unskilled.”69
“Basically,” wrote Elwell, “Simmons was dealing with others having a ‘Beach Boy Mentality.’ As Jim Voit, a surfer, lifeguard, his
friend who became an engineer said, ‘Simmons would just laugh at those guys!’
“Simmons had a good one liner for this, ‘That is just what you think!’ Actually, materials are insignificant and surfboards and surf craft have been made of all kinds
of materials including metal, rubber, cloth, and wood. It is hydrodynamic form and principle that makes planing possible. Fiber glass and foam has been over exaggerated because people don’t understand.
“Simmons was quite frank about the new boards and said, ‘They are simple and easy to make, and anyone can make them in a garage.’ ‘You can change the nose and
tail somewhat because we are really surfing on the rails.’ He condemned pointed noses because they broke off too easy. They also could cause injury. He defined surfboards as ‘planing hulls’ and his boards
were ‘hydrodynamic planing hulls.’ He also worked out trajectory and said we were surfing almost fast sideways as forward. He said we did not need much fin and what fin, or skeg, we had was for ‘directional
In 1947, Simmons had started messing around with Styrofoam -- a new material at that time. Foam had been used during World War II, molded into fuselage radar domes. Simmons located the raw chemical sources
from a government or corporate agency, then went about building a cement mold in the ground. With this, he blew his own foam to make “styrofoam core sandwich boards,”71
using a plywood lid topped by five large rocks. Elwell recalls seeing these blanks, in 1950, at the lifeguard station at Imperial Beach. The mold still exists by a barn on his late uncle and aunt’s ranch in Norwalk.
Here he experimented with designs and shapes. The location afforded him a place to keep tools and have a large work space.72
Joe Quigg said it was 1949 when Matt Kivlin began talking to Simmons about the idea of making light weight, hollow plywood rescue boards.73
“Simmons thought that was interesting, but instead of simply making the boards hollow he began sandwiching styrofoam between plywood and glassing the whole thing over.” The drawback with styrofoam, however, was
that it would dissolve once catalyzed resin was poured onto it, so the two together turned out to be impractical. By sandwiching styrofoam in between plywood, however, Simmons made it viable.74
“The first couple of boards of this type,” wrote Elwell, “had 50/50 rail lines, but by ‘49 he had them down to 60/40 and as low as 80/20. The tails were so thin as to be fragile.”75
Quigg was still in the Islands when Kivlin wrote saying that Simmons had built his first light board in the 25 pound range. “He had never built anything like this before and that was late 1949,”
wrote Nat Young in his history of surfing. “Simmons had had fibreglass and resins for three years but did not choose to use these materials for their lightness but only as protection around the nose of his redwood boards.”76
Bob Simmons, like Tom Blake before him, had begun thinking that heavier boards would work better, but like Blake, he later spent much of his design and development time aimed at lightening his boards.
The first Simmons-made Sandwich Boards were simply sealed plywood over a styrofoam core. Later, he added light and shapable balsa rails to streamline the shape.77
“The lifeguards, unfortunately, never would buy them, but the surfers – Simmons’ followers – thought they were neat and started buying them,” recalled Quigg.78
Santa Monica Shop
To satisfy demand, Simmons set up a surf shop in Santa Monica. “In those first days,” said Quigg, “Simmons would glue the plywood, styrofoam and balsa parts together, then Matt (Kivlin)
would shape the balsa rails and glass them over.”79
Simmons’ new board-building business became too big for he and Kivlin to handle alone, so they
asked Quigg to return from Hawaii to give them a hand. Quigg came back and, while Simmons maintained his original Santa Monica shop, Quigg and Kivlin organized a separate glassing and finishing shop to support Simmons’
operation. “Matt and I rented a shop space up the same road from Simmons’ shop,” said Quigg, “and it was there that we did all the finishing work. At that time, Simmons had lots of orders. We did maybe
a hundred boards.”80
Greg Noll tells a little story of this period. “One day, I ditched school and talked Simmons into taking me with him to Salt Creek. He didn’t like kids any more than he liked adults, but I also
rode one of his boards, so he tolerated me. He’d go through long periods of silence, then he’d start quizzing me. ‘Why are you going to school? What are you going to do with your education? Why don’t
you get out and do something with your life?’ He was provocative and he was smart. A real individual.”81
“Simmons’ boards were in such demand that the pressure of meeting orders almost became too much for him,” continued Noll. “Like most of us, he really just wanted to surf. I remember
once, he had something like thirty-four boards on back-order. Velzy and I both had had a Simmons board on back-order for three months. Simmons wouldn’t answer his phone, so Velzy decided that we would check out the situation
“Going to Simmons’ shop was... as much an experience as riding one of his boards. The shop was on a side street in Venice Beach. It was an absolute goddamn mess. He never cleaned up the balsa-wood
shavings, so you’d have to make a path through the shavings and other debris to get from one place in the shop to another.
“Velzy and I arrived there about five o’clock one afternoon. The place looked all shut down. We pounded on the door. No reply. Velzy noticed that the door wasn’t locked, so he opened it
and called, ‘Simmons?’
“No reply. We walked in cautiously through the shavings, calling, ‘Simmons, where are you?’ Finally, we heard a gruff voice from a corner: ‘Whaddaya want.’ We followed the
voice and found Simmons sitting in the corner in shadow. He was eating beans out of a can, using a big balsa-wood shaving for a spoon.
“Simmons was eccentric. When he’d worn holes through the soles of his shoes, he’d cut a piece of plywood and tape it onto his shoe. With his perpetually uncombed hair, skinny physique
and gimpy arm, he truly looked like a mad scientist.
“He didn’t like many people, but he liked Velzy better than most because Velzy rode Simmons’ boards and he rode them well. Besides that, he just liked Velzy.”82
“When I first met Simmons at Malibu,” between 1946 and 1948, Walter Hoffman recalled, “I didn’t realize he wouldn’t make you a board unless he liked you... or he’d make
you wait a year or two... if ever.”83
“Simmons’ stuff was not good craftsmanship; not pretty to look at; not well done,” Rennie Yater recollected. “You might say ‘crude.’ But, his ideas – he just kept
going! He wouldn’t be afraid to try something, build it and two days later be out there riding it just to find out, himself, how it worked...”84
“If you really wanted one of his boards,” wrote Nat Young, “you had to pay for it up front and sometimes you had to wait for a year to get a new Simmons ‘spoon.’”85
The Simmons “Spoon” was a 10-foot solid male balsa board with a full belly, kicked up nose, thin rails and a glassed and foiled wooden fin.86
probable that Simmons developed the balsa Spoon for larger breaks like Ventura Overhead and La Jolla’s Bird Rock due to its relatively pointed nose.87
Rennie Yater noted that, “His spoon nose, you know – it’s been copied ever since. It just made surfboards, instead of being straight, with a little curve to them; quite a bit more curve
to them. They didn’t get essentially that way right away. He did, like I say, very extreme things.”
I asked Rennie if this was the beginning of rocker in surfboards. “Well, you might call it that,” agreed Yater, “because the planks didn’t have any rocker. They were dead flat.
“Simmons’ boards were really wide in the tail. He wanted to get up and go! With concave bottoms and all those things he put back there, they did
go. They went fast, straight across the wave. But, boy, the wide tail would push the nose down because the tail would ride so well. The scoop of the nose, concave bottom and wide tail –
it all worked. The boards had their problems, but the concept itself worked.”88
Simmons did not go for ultra light weight. He believed it was necessary to have a degree of weight in the boards for lift. “Even his ‘sandwich’ board, as it was called,” wrote Nat
Young, “– it had a light styrofoam core with thin plywood on the deck and bottom, plus balsa rails, and was covered with glass – was heavier than the balsa boards that his glassers Matt Kivlin and Joe Quigg”
would soon be making.89
“Weight is important,” underscored Elwell, “and ultra light is dangerous. The principle of lift relies on pressure and proper aspect ratio.”90
Suddenly, in the midst of all the exciting surfboard experimentation and innovation, Simmons had a falling out with his workers, Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin.
John Elwell put it bluntly: “Quigg and Kivlin were Simmons’ glassers and he kicked them out of the shop when they started to copy the technology.” According to Elwell,
both [Bev] Morgan and Peter Cole said that Quigg and Simmons hated each other.91
Simmons and Quigg had gotten into it just the year before. “Simmons was a point rider and had the board to take off sooner with more speed,” Elwell explained. “As the
story goes, Simmons asked for the right of way and Joe scoffed at him. Next time Simmons ran him over with his fiber glass board and a fight ensued in the water, with Quigg dunking Simmons, which continued on the beach. Quigg
threatened Simmons that if he did it again he would beat the shit of him. Simmons spit in his face.”92
It’s probable that the personality conflicts between Bob Simmons and Joe Quigg had more to do with the partnership breakup than Quigg and Kivlin’s use of fiberglass and copying Simmons’
plan shapes. After all, the “Darrylin Board,” Quigg’s first copy of a Simmons had taken place two years before, in the summer of 1947, before Quigg had left for the islands.93
Norwalk / Imperial Beach
Calling it quits in Santa Monica, Simmons moved his surfboard operation out to the family’s Norwalk ranch for privacy, seclusion, research and development. He now surfed mostly in the San Diego area
and it was during this time that he made the best and last of a series of boards.94
Simmons prototyped double-slotted boards to improve paddling. Some very short ones appeared from 6-to-8 feet. He experimented with different tail dimensions, but all his stock models were quite different
than his personal boards. His own boards always had dual shallow fins and harder 60/40 rails, all the way down to 80/20.95
“There was a huge vacuum left when Simmons quit producing boards,” wrote John Elwell. Modified copies of Simmons boards started showing up in the Summer of 1950. “They are easy to make,”
Simmons said, as recalled by Elwell. “Changing the nose and tails somewhat don’t make that much difference. The nose sticks out of the water when we surf. I’d hate to get stabbed by a pointed one! If the
tail is less than ten inches, it’s a paddle board! My noses are much more functional and stronger.” The most common feature to be seen in the modified boards, including the paddle board types, was a Simmons-type
“In San Diego,” wrote Elwell of the turn in Simmons’ life, “a stream of people came down from LA and begged him for boards, as did San Diego locals. He politely refused and only
made a handful of boards for a selected few. He surfed all the time at his favorite spots – the Tijuana Sloughs and Windansea. He was a busy man, finishing his math degree at San Diego State, playing championship ping-pong
and going to the horse races. Simmons had devised a scheme of probability of mathematical odds, pooled family money, played the horses, did very well and took a cut. He had money, got out of all the dust, resin and hassle
of surfboard making and had more time to surf and do the things he liked.”97
“He charged $15 for shaping,” Elwell remembered, “which was a great salary back then for several hours of work. I had two of his boards and finished shaping quite a
few others with his supervision. My last board by him, he refused to take the $15, and said, ‘You... are... a... lifeguard.’ He liked lifeguards and many of them were friends. He admired Tom Blake and George Freeth.”98
Simmons slipped into a legendary status, while still alive, when he withdrew from the whole surfboard production scene. His move down south marked the beginning of the end of what some have called the “Simmons
Rennie Yater recalled, “Simmons went on down to live in Imperial Beach. People kind of forgot about him after he left the Malibu testing grounds. Surfboard evolution went on, but surfboards weren’t
as radical. They were pretty conservative; with natural rocker, the way balsa wood came; with about an inch of deck rocker, with very little heavy rocker in the bottom of the board. That went on for a long time
, into the Velzy era and Hobie era; didn’t change much at all ‘till foam came around. Then, you weren’t restricted by the dimensions of balsa wood. Even the balsa wood boards
didn’t have much rocker, except for the ones in Hawaii, where they started to put kick in the nose because of the big waves.”100
By 1950, Bob Simmons may have been out-of-sight in terms of commercial surfboard making, but he was seen regularly at his favorite spots and remembered by many.
“Simmons was a loner,” wrote Greg Noll. “He had a habit of going off by himself to surf. He hated any type of crowd. He liked Salt Creek, below Laguna Beach. It wasn’t unusual to
go there and find Simmons, by himself. Or someplace else, like Tijuana Sloughs. Places that the usual surfing crowd didn’t go...”101
Jim “Burrhead” Drever said: “I used to say to Bob Simmons, ‘You’re making a big mistake up here [probably San Onofre or Palos Verdes]. You should go down to the Sloughs –
they’re bigger waves.’ He would never believe me. Finally he went down there and he met Dempsey [Holder, the main man at the Sloughs] and he hung out down there.”102
Chuck Quinn recalled Simmons surfing the Sloughs as early as December of ‘49:
“During Christmas vacation, 1949,” Quinn said, “I met Dempsey on the beach near the river mouth. He invited me to go surfing with him. A group of guys were coming down from Windansea and
San Onofre. The next morning we met at the lifeguard station. As we were gathering, Dempsey said a guy had come down there the day before and had a light board tied to the roof of his car. Dempsey said, ‘I told him about
the Sloughs and he drove on down.’
“We got down there in Dempsey’s Sloughmobile and saw a ‘37 Ford103
with the back windows painted out, a board rack screwed
to the top, with some quarter inch ropes tied to it. The board was gone and we figured whoever it was, was already out there. It was big that day. Low tide, north swell, and of course, from shore we couldn’t see it.
“I’d never experienced anything as tough as that shore break. So Dempsey said to me, ‘Stick with me and I’ll tell you when we’ll time it and then we’ll go.’ I barely
got through that last wave of set shore break.
“It seemed like we were paddling out for half an hour and there was still no sign of anybody. We got out and Dempsey says, ‘Geez, I’m looking for that buoy. I don’t know where it
is.’ Dempsey had put a big buoy on an old engine block to mark the lineup. Eventually we got out to where Dempsey says, ‘The buoy is gone. The surf must have carried it away. Maybe I didn’t get it out far
“We’re waiting out there, when all of a sudden we realized there was a huge set coming, and it was way outside from where we were. Dempsey tells us, ‘Paddle out, paddle out.’ We
all started paddling furiously. I had never been in waves that big. These waves were just huge. We got over a couple of waves, but right away half the other guys lost their boards before we even rode any waves.
“We were struggling, and I was holding on to my board. It’s a wonder it didn’t have hands marks on it. I was really scared and was in a situation that I had never even imagined. As we
pushed through the next to last wave, here came this one lone rider on a huge wave. He was riding steeper and closer to the break then anything we ever imagined.
“After the set we kind of regrouped and we’re waiting for the next big set, when this guy comes out and paddles right through our group. Right into it. No one said anything. It was just quiet.
We had heard about Simmons boards. There was a guy at Malibu that was making light boards out of balsa wood. So I said to him, ‘Say, is that a Simmons board?’ He looked at me and he said, ‘My name is Simmons
and this is my latest machine.’ And I remember when I turned my board I bumped his board. I was just a kid and I apologized. He just kept paddling.”104
“Simmons used to show up at Windansea,” recalled John Blankenship, “and tell everyone, ‘If you guys had any guts you’d be out with us at the Sloughs.’”105
Dempsey Holder remembered a time when Simmons and Buzzy Trent surfed the Sloughs and some killer whales cruised by. “Bob Simmons drove all the way down and he brought Buzzy Trent. So I went out. We
got on the outside, sat out there a little bit, and a wave came along. Trent caught it and rode through the backoff area and then got his lunch somewhere in the shore break. His board ended up on the beach and he ended up
“Simmons and I sat there talking, not really expecting anything. Well, we’re sitting there, I’m looking south, and two big fins come up – one big one and one not so big. They were
killer whales and were about fifty yards from me. Scared me so bad I didn’t say anything to Simmons; he hadn’t seen them. I didn’t want to make any noise at all.
“I’m sitting there on my board. I’m not sure if Simmons saw anything until they went underneath us. Before I could do anything, the little boils come up around us. I remember my board
rocking just a little bit. I looked straight down at the bottom – one of them passed directly beneath my board. We were only in 15 feet of water. I just saw parts of it. The white spots appeared, moving pretty slowly.
Boils come up around. Simmons looked around and saw something. I remember him being profane – he was really excited about the size of these things. I wanted him to shut up. I hadn’t said anything. I’m still
alive. I could see that big dorsal fin. Then the boil disappeared.
“I was still alive and I began to swivel my head around. I could see them fifty yards away or so, going straight out to sea. We relaxed a little bit. A little later Trent came back out and we told
him what had come by there. He turned right around and went back in. Then Simmons and I looked at each other and went in.”106
Leslie Williams, who was one of the very best of the Malibu surfers of that period, vividly recalled Simmons at Sunset Cliffs, January 1951: “Bob was gutsy and demonstrated that to Buzzy and I the
morning after the ‘North Bird’ incident.107
We had stayed the night at Dempsey Holder’s Imperial Beach Lifeguard facility and the next morning
went to the Tijuana Sloughs, which was still 12’+ but with a seven foot high tide so the outside breaks were not doing it. Buzzy and I piled into Bob’s ‘39 coupe and we went to Sunset Cliffs. Garbage was
10-12’ or so but the only trail down to the water was in constant surge to a depth of 2-3’ over the tiny cove beach.
“Bob told Buzzy and I to go down the trail as far as we could and he would drop the boards to us. Buzzy and I swam out and Bob pitched our boards to us over the 8’ cliff at the bottom of the
trail. We retrieved our boards and Bob dropped his off, which we recovered, before he jumped off the cliff, which he did in a modified cannonball with legs out-stretched. He thought he was jumping into 6’ of water (he
normally would have been), but he landed on a solitary rock about 4’ under the water. He suffered a sore okole and was a little chagrined.
“Remember we went out there at Bob’s insistence at a super high tide and without wool suits (the wetsuits of that period). We surfed for 2 1/2 hours until the tide went down enough for us to
scale the slippery trail.
“As usual, Bob was the gutsy one in respect to his inability to swim strongly with his bad arm. In truth, the rights that day were slow even though they did occasionally close to ‘Subs.’
None of us had much experience with Sunset Cliffs at that size but we followed Simmons’ lead. In contrast to what happened in later years in the Islands, Bob’s board worked well in the thicker waves that day. This
was in the pre-slot board days but he had a thin twin-fin concave, which was to be one of his favorites.”108
Craig Stecyk wrote of a time in October 1951: “Simmons’ window blacked-out ‘37 Ford sits parked on the Coast Highway, apparently vacant. The sheriff repeatedly knocks upon the window attempting
to determine if there are any inhabitants inside. Later, Matt Kivlin and Dave Rochlen arrive and attempt to rouse Simmons, also with no luck. Still later, another group vainly tries to get Bob to come out of his car. Eventually
Simmons emerges from his car eating cling peaches out of a can using his fingers rather than utensils. No explanation is offered, a man has to have his privacy.”109
Billy Meng told a story to Dewey Schurman about the days before the ’37 Ford,
when “Bob Simmons had an old hearse he lived in. Boarded the windows. Goddamn, you could still smell the flowers in it. And he was sleeping in it. He was up and down the coast, and you’d
never see him. Whenever we’d get to the [Ventura] Overhead, somebody would say, ‘Simmons has been here.’ There’d be a stack of orange peels, like he was checking the surf. Then we’d zip up to
Rincon, and there would be another stack. That’s all he ate, oranges. And he’d be surfing somewhere else. He had all the weather charts out in those days. He was the first guy to figure out the weather and surf,
and he’d be the first guy there.”110
To Oahu, 1953
Although he went once and relatively briefly, Bob Simmons was one of the number of California surfers who comprised what could be considered “the Fifth Wave” of Californians going to O‘ahu
to live and surf. Simmons stayed at Makaha and the North Shore in 1953-54.111
“I was in Hawaii in [early] 1953 when I passed through on a submarine on a secret espionage trip in the Siberian Straits,” related John Elwell. “Walt Hoffman was
there and an old surfing acquaintance. They had just surfed big Makaha. He told me to tell Simmons to get over there right away. I passed the word. When I got back Simmons was gone to Hawaii by the early fall and returned
in January of ‘54. He had charts of the north shore, his bicycle, boomerangs, board and other things. We know he had aerial photographs of Sunset Beach taken by the Army Air Corp in a book by Dr. Walter Munk, the world’s
foremost oceanographer and classmate of Simmons at Caltech. He told Walt and those there, which were just a hand full, where to expect the best waves.”112
Leslie Williams, who came over with Simmons, recalled: “We got off a cargo boat with boards and single speed bike, middle of October, ‘53. Bob started circumnavigation of Oahu by bike the next
“We stayed at Buzzy Trent’s hut at Makaha, south of Dok’s, early November.
“After Buzzy and I returned from town early November ‘53 (and left Simmons at Makaha for six hours), Bob literally railed at us about the fact that Makaha had been 20’ while we were gone
(when we got back it was still 8-12’ as it had been in the morning when we left for town). He said check with Dok’s wife about what she saw – she always was the recipient of many calls from town regarding
Makaha surf status. Bob was really upset that we didn’t believe him – maybe an unintentional turnabout was fair play? He used to confront us with this ‘Simmons constant,’ which was, ‘Surf size
(to him) = reported size ÷ 2 + 2.’ His infamous divide by two and add two.’
“In mid-November on a Sunday, George Downing suggested we haoles join him and go to the North Shore for bigger surf (at this time Makaha was 6-8’). In that era the only two people riding the
North Shore was George and Henry Preece. We put our boards in George’s wagon. He took Buzzy, and Bob and I joined Woody Brown in his Henry J. Because George and Woody had military passes we were able to take the Kolekole
Pass to Schofield Barracks and the road to the North Shore. As we dropped down towards the North Shore (fringed with white water!), Woody started his story about his ‘experience’ in 1943. Woody continued his story
until the cars arrived at Sunset Beach. Of course, at the time there was no one out and no cars parked there when we arrived.”113
“To us,” Leslie Williams continued, “Sunset looked like a perfect Ventura Overhead at 12’ with medium offshores. Since Bob, Buzzy and I were experienced with ‘Big Overhead’
we paddled out to join George. Woody stayed on the beach consistent with the results of his 1943 ‘experience’ story. Direction of the swell was perfect and the peak did not shift sidewise as it came in. Simmons
was using his big ‘slot board’ with rope deck handles. Early in the go-out Bob and I took off on a challenging peak with Bob on my inside. For only the second time in my life I saw Bob pull back on a wave! Could
this have been a reaction to Woody’s earlier story to us? The only previous time I had seen Bob pull back on a wave without taking the drop was at 12-15’ North Bird Rock, in January ‘51 (with Buzzy and I).114
“Simmons was a gutsy rider but I suspect he had problems with his wide-tailed boards (up to 17” in the Hawaiian chop and ‘pitch-up’ waves). He never complained but had a hard time
dropping with that wide tail. After all, his wide tailed boards were a compensation for his inability to paddle normally with his ‘fixed elbow’ left arm. In that era most bigger waves were ridden in a ‘controlled
drop’ manner and only myself, and later Phil Edwards, tried to throw a maneuver on the face of the wave.”115
At Banzai Beach, noted John Elwell, “Buzzy Trent refused to go out with him. Flippy Hoffman elected to try body surfing... Bob told me he surfed Banzai [Pipeline] and he said, ‘It had real possibilities.’
That was the first place I headed for because of his recommendation and I did surf it a couple of times until I spun out and slammed my ribs on my board in ‘57-‘58. The overall feelings then especially by Fred
Van Dyke [was] that it was insane... The collapsing blow on the last part of the wave was captivating. The speed and clearness of the water, with the power was just as Simmons said. I think it was five years later that Phil
Edwards surfed it. Bruce Brown and Phil did not know that Simmons and I were there before that.
“I surfed it because I trusted Simmons judgment implicitly,” continued Elwell. “He was never wrong, never exaggerated, and never lost an argument. He had the facts and never tried to impress
anyone. He did offend some of the poseur surfers. I listened to him like Peter Cole. We did not understand him completely, and it took some digging and research to decipher what he was trying to tell us. He was a dynamic character
and surfer. He knew that we could not understand hydrodynamics and wave science. These subjects all take advanced calculus. Peter Cole could understand him because Simmons tutored him on calculus and [Cole] later majored in
mathematics at Stanford. Peter later wrote a paper on wave dynamics and used Simmons calculations and said they were the best he ever encountered. Which means Simmons took it a step higher than Scripps and Munk.”116
“Simmons in general never mixed with Calfornia surfers or Hawaiians,” wrote Elwell of Simmons’ time on O‘ahu, “only those who surfed in big waves and were all around water
men. We do know George Downing thought highly of him. George had met him at Malibu and Bob repaired his damaged board with fiber glass on an earlier visit. There were no locals surfing the North Shore when we were there. Later,
Henry Priest showed up. Simmons surfed Makaha and called those guys ‘Shoulder hugging chickens!’ They were riding the shoulder of the bowl. The Duke confirmed that. This new group prodded by Simmons started to
ride the point. That was the first year Makaha photographs came out in medium surf of Bob, Flippy, and Woody Brown riding the point. George Downing was there too and commented on how fast Simmons was going.”117
With Simmons were his maps he had meticulously studied prior to coming over from the mainland.
“He had researched from ship captains’ log books all the interesting reefs in Hawaii,” wrote
Fred Van Dyke who would, a couple of years later, come out from Santa Cruz, California to make Hawaii his home and big wave riding his specialty. “Using this information, he arrived in Honolulu and went out to Sunset
Beach. It was exactly as he had surmised from the charts.
“There were primarily three major reefs: an inner wall lineup, a middle, and outside peak break. Simmons had figured that Sunset would have a closeout condition at between 15 and 20 feet. He also
had noticed on his charts some deep holes and fissures in the reef which would support deep water (providing safety) if paddled to in the closeout sets.
“Try to imagine that Simmons figured all of this out from library research without ever having seen the island reefs!
“Soon after I arrived in the islands and surfed Sunset Beach, my life was saved on a closeout 30-foot day because I found one of those deep holes Simmons had described and I sat out, in safety, huge
waves breaking everywhere – except in that hole.”118
The Death of Simmons
The picture of Imperial Beach surfer Tom Carlin standing behind Simmons’ rusted out ’37 Ford Tudor, taken in La Jolla, January 9, 1954, is well known, but hides more than it reveals. You can spot the back windows painted out, which was a Simmons trademark. But what you can’t
see is what’s inside: the back plywood deck with just a sleeping bag thrown over it. Located elsewhere inside were hydrographic charts, cans of soy beans and boomerangs. Carlin was checking out the day’s 20’
storm surf. Tijuana Sloughs was closed out. Simmons couldn’t get out there on his double-slotted, all balsa 11’ concave twin fin with rope handles which is clearly visible on top the Tudor. So, he went to La Jolla.
Another thing the photo doesn’t show is that Simmons studied the La Jolla surf break all across the outer kelp beds that day. During a lull, he dashed in. Witnesses -- probably Carlin among them -- said that half way
out a big set hit. Simmons attempted to roll through, holding on to his rope handles. He disappeared under a massive wall of soup and ended up under his board, on the beach, still hanging on.119
“The ‘37 Ford had a V8, 60 HP engine,” John Elwell wrote. “Simmons had gutted it except for a driver’s seat. He had a wooden milk box for passengers to sit on. The passenger
side, all the way back into the rear, had a ply wood deck. He liked sleeping on floors and never a mattress. He carried a boy scout sleeping bag, cans of soy beans and fruits for food. He had a place to carry hydrographic
charts of the coast and the world, to locate surfing reefs. He also had bags of fresh fruit that were in season [that] he got free from trees from friends and his Aunt and Uncle in Norwalk. The top of his car, he had cut and
padded two-by-fours that were bolted on his roof for a surfboard rack. His bathing suit, as you see, is hung on the front left bumper to dry. It was a surplus wool Navy tank suit with moth holes eaten in it. Inside on the
dash, in the ash tray, he had a string of papered wooden ice cream spoons he got free from stores and would discard after using. He ate out of cans on the road. He used to top off a meal with a pint of sherbert ice cream.
“He always wore the same clothes until they wore out. He bathed when he surfed, but the strong body odor was evident to everyone. His wool jacket glistened with fiber glass and embedded with balsa
dust. He was a practical man, a true Scot who saved on money and time. Thrift and a warrior spirit was his mode. As Matt Kivlin recalled, ‘He was tough!’ His cousin Rick Hilts said, ‘His lifestyle was spartan!’
“He loved women, especially his mother and sisters. He did not have the time or would take the extra time to groom himself for courting a woman. He was so busy surfing, making boards, playing ping
pong, researching waves, throwing and making boomerangs, that social life was the farthest thing from his mind. Only a rare woman would have adjusted to his brilliant mind and life style. He was a very simple but complicated
individual. A true loner dedicated to his passions. He was observed reading porn mags which he enjoyed. As far as sex, it was all vicarious to him. He had no girl friends or ever married. He slept with his surfboards, boomerangs,
tools, and ping pong paddles... his toys.
“His remark to one of his buddies was, ‘When a friend of mine gets married, he doesn’t surf anymore!’ A keen observation and lesson to Bob Simmons. His last obsession was a computer,
which was room size, in 1954, at Leiberscope – an aero space lab where he worked at the time of his death. He was totally stoked, doing complicated mathematical computations in split seconds. At this time, the general
public did not know computers existed. We all wondered if he was doing some personal things on surfing and hydrodynamics. The lab was doing a study of octangular waves off torpedoes.”120
One might get the impression Simmons was all seriousness. Not true. He knew how to have fun, especially when it was at a friend’s expense. Bev Morgan recalled one particular trip to La Jolla in Simmons’
“A rock wall curves gracefully down with the road (to La Jolla's Windansea beach). As we entered the top of the drop-off, Simmons let go with a high pitched cackling laugh.
We were accelerating down the curve at 60 or 70 m.p.h.
“Sure enough, he lost it. It scraped into the rock wall with a loud grinding noise. A shower of sparks was flying aft, lighting the eerie scene while Simmons cackled at his
cleverness in scaring the crap out of me. Simmons had practiced this before.”121
On September 26, 1954, Robert Wilson Simmons, age 35 – the “Father of the Modern Surfboard”122
– died while surfing
Windansea. How he died exactly, is only speculation. One of the guys hanging out with Simmons that day says other surfers on the beach last remember him diving underwater to avoid a collision with one of the riders.123
Bev Morgan was there that day and told Dewey Schurman: “It was another one of those deals with Simmons banging on my door at three in the morning. My wife just put a foot in the middle of my back
and shoved me out of bed. ‘Go, you bastard,’ she said.
“We headed south. We parked somewhere and sacked out. In those days, you just pulled over anywhere you wanted and threw out your sleeping bag. Simmons always slept in his car. He had his ‘37 Ford; all the windows [in the back] painted out. So we went to La Jolla. Windansea was about 10 feet. I watched him get a few, and then he got wiped out. I watched him
go in and get his board a couple of times. I didn’t lose my board too much in those days.
“Finally, I got a little hungry for lunch and went in. His board was sitting up against the shack. So I stacked mine up there and went to the car to get some lunch. He usually had a sack of oranges.
Everybody had been talking about Bird Rock, and I figured he’d gone down with some guys to check it out. An hour or so went by and I started to get a little concerned. So I started asking everybody. And one of the guys
had seen him dive under a wave as three or four guys went across the face. And we figured he maybe got hit by a fin. With the surf that big, what are you doing to do but wait and look? And he never did show up. We figured
he got hit by a board, but when they found the body a couple of days later, he’d been banging around the reefs for a couple of days, and they couldn’t tell what had happened. And that was the end of that.”124
When Simmons’ body was found three days later, it was at the foot of Bonair Street at the north end of Windansea. “Ironically,” wrote Leonard Lueras, “that spot is now the favored
hangout of La Jolla area surfers and the site of Windansea’s famed Polynesian thatch hut and ‘surfer’s parking lot.’”125
is known as Simmons Reef.126
“I can’t tell you how much I think about Simmons,” Rennie Yater told me. “I really admired what he did. You know, his approach to what he did. ‘I’m just gonna make what
I wanna make.’ Just try something different all the time. He didn’t care if guys came around. He was annoyed by people coming around, wanting his boards. He only sold ‘em cuz he had to make some money.”127
“Simmons was indeed a rare, rare man,” declared Dave Rochlen. “Here was a guy who believed pretty radically in something. He had a certain kind of integrity. His behavior never changed.
He had a better mind than any of us guys. Above all, he was a better man than almost any man on the beach.”128
“I was there and saw it all,” testified Bev Morgan, who began his surfing career in the late 1940s. “Simmons was the one. It was a brilliant combination of technology and genius. It was
a quantum leap from the old Pacific Homes planks and Tom Blake paddle boards.”129
“Simmons had a profound effect on everything that came after him in surfing,” declared Steve Pezman, publisher of The Surfer's Journal.130
“Simmons was like a missionary who traveled the coast promoting his ideas,” said Joe Quigg. “He was a catalyst for all of us... Matt and I both built boards with Simmons and occasionally
he’d get upset over how we did things or the personal boards we’d build. My concepts deviated from Bob’s so much that there was a time when he quit speaking to me. If we did anything, we helped evolve a board
that worked all around. The Malibu boards weren’t San Onofre boards nor were they planks or hot curls. One thing is certain, after we pulled in the tails, got the weight down and the fins right, no one ever built monolithic
In appreciating what Bob Simmons did for surfing, his friend and biographer John Elwell cautioned:
“It is popular to think materials are important in the change in surfboards” but it is the form of the materials, designed and engineered correctly, that makes for successful surfboard architecture. “Yes, Simmons defined what a surfboard was and how it works... He was the first to
describe the trajectory of a surfboard in a wave by telling us: ‘We are really surfing almost as fast sideways as forward.’ Thus, the surfboard -- really a plate -- must be designed to also surf side ways.
“He also defined fins or skegs as directional stabilizers and not rudders, as were so popularly thought. Simmons also successfully introduced small dual fins... the first foam core,
veneer laminated board... and the first foam mold... years before [Dave] Sweet and Hobie [Alter].”132
When polyurethane foam replaced wood cores in surfboards later on in the 1950s, Alter mass-produced his boards to become a millionaire. “When I made my first board,”
he said in a phone interview, “I copied a Simmons.”133
“The last time I saw him, it wasn't too long before he died,” Alter recalled. “He said, ‘Take me to Windansea.’ Simmons would hitchhike with his
surfboard sometimes. I said I got to go to work. He said I was no surfboard maker, and what kind of surfer was I, working when the surf was up.”134
Simmons at Malibu, photo courtesy of Bob Prosser
The Simmons Board by John Elwell
In John Elwell’s study on the contributions Bob Simmons made to surfing, published in a 1994 edition of The Surfer’s Journal, he wrote an analysis of the Simmons board. This analysis follows, in its entirety:
“The Simmons surfboard is as strange an apparition today as it was when it first appeared. In its time it broke all the rules of the day. It represents a shift from heavy displacement to light displacement
along with the application of scientific theory. It was a radical departure, far ahead of its time, like the designer, and misunderstandings hindered its full acceptance. Bob Simmons disregarded criticism and just went surfing,
which was his great love; his surfing proved the validity of his boards along with their use by a small cadre of followers.
“From what he said and the body of research he had in his possession, along with a visual appraisal, one can get an idea of what he was pursuing. He was an aerodynamicist [one who specialized in aerodynamics]
and a mathematician. That viewpoint must be kept in mind.
“The boards had maximum width. Width was favored for the least resistance. Width plays a key role in delivering kinetic energy to the airfoil rail, the leading edge, that gives deflection. All planing
hulls are deflectors. The airfoil is a special shape that is calculated. Width divided into length, is aspect ratio, giving a magic number related to lift. Width also allows the hull to leave a clean wake. An impressive example
of the value of width is the bodyboard.
“The wide, unusually cambered, uplifted noses created a lot of criticism. The unknowing critics said they were pushing water, but they were in fact working, spreading the water, momentarily, to the
high pressure rails before take off. In a tough spot, where the nose comes in contact with the water, in a steep takeoff or large chop, they lifted. Changing the noses was not a big deal to him, saying they stick out when
we surf. He rejected points as too fragile and dangerous. Some of his early boards had points. Constant form, flat noses are perfectly acceptable in smooth water. Simmons opted for camber, because sea conditions can change
rapidly due to weather changes.
“The outlines were fair parallelism, contiguous rails, fared-in near the tail for clean stable running. Non-uniform outline shapes were rejected, because of eddy flow resistance that increases with
planing speed. This occurs at 10” in width. He is on record that trying to modify paddle board shapes into surfboards was wrong; destroying the wide tail reduced early lift and clean resistance wakes. Those forms pulled
the rail away from the wave and required a single fin, partly corrected with a tri-fin today, which undoubtedly would have been rejected, because of increased appendage drag. Rocker was rejected for reasons made obvious by
his theory. ‘Ya just don’t need it!’
“He rejected the notion that wide tails were the cause of ‘spin out,’ and considered it a fin problem. He moved a small fin to each outboard rail at the end and towed them in to 10º.
This is because the water is moving the fastest at these points as it leaves the hull. A single centered fin is in the low pressure area of the board and away from the wave. He simply expressed, you need more fin at low speeds
and less at high speeds. Simmons and his ‘test pilots’ never spun out with dual fins, surfing the biggest and hardest breaking surf. However, he warned that non-uniform hull shapes could ‘spin out.’
This is because uneven side pressures build up, inducing a possible sudden yaw. These shapes require a deeper fin, increasing appendage resistance as the board surfs forward and sideways. He noted with criticism that narrow
tails, give a tubing, sucking wake. Anything that has eddy flow resistance, was a ‘disaster’ and ‘not the way to go!’
“The rail and fins had a ‘chord value’ percentage dimension, to allow a smooth release of water flow, allowing the least amount of cavitation. An illustration was contained in a text he
had. He dismissed this with a cackle by saying, ‘Generally just lead round, end thin, and that is good enough.’ A true planing hull adjusts itself with speed, where it eventually works itself to a minimum in the
aft inside section of a surfboard, unless as Simmons and others found out, it leaves the water in a launch and a skip. He dumped ultralight to keep the boards in the water. Due to the extreme thinness in the nose and tail,
he recommended two coats of glass, and even a coat of marine fiberglass paint to protect the board from the destructive rays of the sun, ‘... if you want to keep it,’ He added, ‘the extra weight doesn’t
make that much difference.’
“The center of gravity, was precisely placed on these boards. Load has to be forward of lift, a commonly known fact in aerodynamics and naval architecture. Most of his boards would balance on a sawhorse
in the middle or slightly forward. The decks were domed smoothly into the rails, shedding water rapidly off the airfoil, this concept greatly reduced unneeded weight. A density calculation was done of materials to get an exact
flotation for the weight of load, to barely support the rider. Some surfers, skeptical of this, asked for more flotation and he complied reluctantly.
“A very few of his boards had concave bottoms. Simmons said he did this to get air into them briefly, reducing the suction. The center of the hull has a low pressure flow down the center area anyway.
He reduced it even more with a concave. But his concentration was focused on what was happening out on the rail.
“Simmons had piles of computations in advanced math. (All of these are apparently lost, along with test models.) His boards were a complex creation. His efforts were the result of a comprehensive
scientific approach using experimentation and Newtonian mechanics. However, planing hulls suffer a penalty at low speed, struggling to get over the hump. Resistance points can be identified where water breaks away in small
waves. Simmons attempted to solve this by flow slotting aft of the nose, and spoiler slots in the tail. Only a few boards had this feature. It was very difficult to do correctly. Each of these boards had to be surfed without
glassing, with a tack coat of resin. This was applied ‘boomerang science;’ throw and adjust to desired performance. He was also checking the desired attack angle; the immersed, thin-wide tail had to be between
15-20º. This was the secret for quick and early lift for gaining position. Strategically, Simmons wanted to be in the wave first and as soon as possible, for the right-of-way, second he wanted speed, to cover distance
for long rides. Big waves and long rides were his criteria for performance. Everything else was folly! He was successful at this. It was commonly said in his day, ‘No one has ever gone as fast on a surfboard!’
It was noted by contemporaries the he usually got the best rides.
“Length plays a role in speed, to a point. Appropriate length captures the maximum principle of resurgence, as water is pushed away, it rebounds and assists the hull. The only way a non-contiguous
narrow shaped form can come close to a wide hull is to increase length, but it will never lose its lateral instability. He settled for a 10’6” for bigger surf and 8’ for quick, hard breaking inside breaks.”135