Always click on the LEGENDARY SURFERS icon to return to this homepage. LEGENDARY SURFERS
A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes
By  Malcolm Gault-Williams

This Chapter Updated:  10 September 2005
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BOB SIMMONS (1919-1954)

The Father of the Modern Surfboard

"The 37 Ford had a V8, 60 HP engine. 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 soya 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."

Photo and caption courtesy of Simmons biographer and friend John Elwell; scanning by Gary Lynch.


Aloha and welcome to this chapter in the LEGENDARY SURFERS series. The story of Bob Simmons is the story of the birth of the modern surfboard. Sometimes referred to as the "Father of the Modern Surfboard," Bob Simmons was an enigmatic character and a true individual. Yet, his story is as much about the developement of the modern surfboard as it is about him. The period covered is roughly 1945-54.


Contents

  • Shapers of the Modern Surfboard
  • Simmons Surfing Beginnings
  • War Developments
  • 1945 & War's End
  • 1946: Scarfed Nose, Fiberglass & Resin
  • 1946: Peterson, Goldsworthy, Thal, Quigg & Sweet
  • 1947 & Radical Changes
  • 1948: Hydrodynamic Planing Hulls
  • 1949: Sandwich (Styrofoam core) Boards
  • 1949: The Simmons Spoon
  • 1950: Simmons Retreats to San Diego
  • Greg Noll Recalls
  • Rochlen Manor, July 23, 1949
  • Tijuana Sloughs, Christmas time, December 1949
  • Sunset Cliffs, January 1951
  • "A Day When Legends Die," June 9, 1951
  • A Roust, October 10, 1951
  • Orange Peels
  • Simmons on the North Shore
  • The Death of Simmons
  • "Interpreting the Simmons Board"

  • "The greatest single contribution to the evolution of the modern surfboard was the introduction of the light board by Bob Simmons"
    -- Bev Morgan

    "Simmons' major contribution to surfing was the transition to lighter-weight boards and the use of fiberglass. He provided the link between the redwood board and the modern surfboard. It would have happened eventually, but without Simmons coming along at that time, board design might have gone through another ten years of stagnation. Simmons has earned himself a niche in surfing history, but very few surfers have ever heard of him"
    -- Greg Noll

    "If anybody was ever to get the credit of being the 'Father of the Modern Surfboard,' 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..."
    -- Reynolds "Rennie" Yater

    "Simmons was like a missionary who traveled the coast promoting his ideas. He was a catalyst for all of us. I loved Bob Simmons and deeply wish he was here, I miss talking to him. 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 planks again."
    -- Joe Quigg, 1995

    "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."
    -- John Elwell


    More than any one person, Bob Simmons is the man most responsible for the modern surfboard -- the lightweight design made from materials undreamed of a century earlier. This surfboard, made of light weight material with skegs and rocker, superceded the redwood surfboard that had been the dominant vehicle for the half century following surfing's revival at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Yet, Simmons was by far not the only one. Joe Quigg and, to a lesser degree, Matt Kivlin must be credited for the development of the Malibu Board, the direct predecessor of today's longboards. Also important were the earlier contributions of Bud Morrisey and Gard Chapin. Individually, all of these surfers and others like Whitey Harrison and Pete Peterson helped to develop the modern surfboard.


    Shapers of the Modern Surfboard

    The period following World War II was a time of great experimentation in surfboard design. Bud Morrisey, Gard Chapin, and Bob Simmons "were tireless inventors," wrote Nat Young in his History of Surfing, "constantly experimenting, trying every idea they could dream up, shaping it and surfing it as quickly as possible." On the advent of the '50s, Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin proved themselves as worthy Simmons disciples. "Ideas overlapped during this period; every conceivable design concept was tried, including multi-fins, hollow boards, short boards, concaves, low rails, almost everything you could possibly think of."

    "Bud Morrisey was the oldest and therefore the first of this push," wrote Young. "He was a loner who surfed around Redondo up to Topanga and is one of the first surfers Joe Quigg saw ever walk the board instead of the strike a pose Jack Dempsey-style of surfing instigated by Blake and Peterson."

    Morrisey built boards for his friends in the Redondo Beach area; guys like Adie Bear and Tule Clark, two of the Palos Verdes Surf Club's hottest surfers. Bud married one of the original California surfer girls, Mary Ann Hawkins, and raised his family in Venice, only a few miles from where he himself had grown up and first surfed. "Bud Morrisey worked from the old school pretty much; 'the plank rider' and a very good one, too," recalled Rennie Yater."

    Gard Chapin was another member of the Palos Verdes Surf Club, at that time the most well-known of all surf clubs. "He was considered one of the best surfers on the coast. He was agressive, very vocal and not very well liked." Rennie Yater agreed that, "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." Chapin would later gain renewed notoriety as the step-father of Mickey "Da Cat" Dora. In the 1930s and '40s, however, he was known for his surfing and as one of the very best in his club. 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. 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.

    A native of Southern California, Joe Quigg was born in 1925 and "began body-surfing, bellyboarding, and fashioning crude boards at the age of 4 in Santa Monica."


    Simmons Surfing Beginnings

    Robert Wilson Simmons was born in Los Angeles on March 29, 1919. In his early teens, Bob developed a painful tumor on his left ankle. The prognosis was cancer and the doctor's recommendation was amputation of the leg to save his life. The pain was intense and he was forced to drop out of high school. His mother was anguished over the thought of her younger son without a leg and so sought a second opinion. Dr. Murphy, the 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 six months, the tumor disappeared. Bob remained on this diet and visited Dr. Murphy for the rest of his relatively short life.

    Because Bob's body had been weakened by what turned out to be a long period of immobility, he took up bicycling to strengthen himself and speed up his recovery. Even though he actively read and studied, he missed two years of high school, was technically a "drop out," and certainly had no high school diploma. Compounding the adversity of this situation, in 1936 at age 17, Simmons suffered a serious collision with a moving automobile while riding his bike. 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 -- and that wasn't much -- 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!'"

    His hospital doctor remarked that Simmons had hard 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 overheard the advice hobled up on crutches with a casted broken leg. "You ought to try surfing," this unidentified surfer told Simmons, "because you paddle and swim a lot." As Simmons would recall the story, years later, this Palos Verdes surfer told a lot of tall tales, one of which particularly interested Simmons. "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!"

    Big wave legend Greg Noll recalled that when he started surfing at 11, he listened daintently 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," retold Simmons, "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." Little did Simmons know that for most surfers, time spent in "the green room" is but a fleeting moment. Far from a normal occurrence, tube time is a special achievement and, for the average surfer -- especially in that period, with its surfboard design and materials restrictions -- a rarity.

    Noll added, though, that "Simmons' first indirect exposure to surfing really captivated him. 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.'"

    A few years of another long recovery passed before Bob Simmons first hit the surf. Already, he had lost some of his formative years as a young man. They were years of physical suffering without normal associations and the experiences young men of his age typically had. Summarizing the pluses and minuses, John Elwell wrote of Simmons that "He became very self reliant, frank, outspoken and lacked social skills."

    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, Simmons 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.

    During this 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!"

    At this time, also, he tested for and passed the admittance exams for entry to Caltech. Having had to drop out of high school, Simmons 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. "I had always wondered about Bob," recalled John Elwell, "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 judgement to identify a position of lineup in any surfing area." Apparently, Simmons was idectic and possessed a photographic mind. "There was no doubt Bob Simmons was a gifted genius," Elwell went on to write, "with precise coordination, tenacious will, programmed to interpret things mathmatically 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!" Elwell added, "Like most geniuses, he would be difficult to understand, and like most in history, would often be rejected."

    It was 1939 when Bob Simmons first got on a surfboard. While visiting his sister and her husband on Balboa Island, Simmons was towed into the waves along Newport Beach, by speedboat, riding an old Tom Blake paddleboard.


    War Developments

    When war broke out in 1941, Simmons dropped out of the California Institute of Technology. Dave Rochlen recalls that Simmons always insisted that he had attended, "Not for credit, but for knowledge, he used to say." His purpose, apparently, was to learn all he could about aero and hydro dynamics. 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." 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."

    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 coast that way.

    During the war, Simmons "went to work for Gard Chapin building garage doors," wrote Nat Young, "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." Simmons started to spend a lot of time with Gard Chapin in his wood shop. Early on, Gard sold him a huge wooden plank that some say weighed 150 pounds. Simmons hollowed it out, then gave up to make and modify his own planks. Meanwhile, with Chapin, he repaired other people's boards and made new ones, too. Gard became his mentor and Simmons picked up his woodworking skills from him -- as well as a lot of attitude.

    Simmons and Chapin built traditional surfboards for mostly younger surfers who could enjoy the sport without the the war coming between them and the waves. "To make money," Joe Quigg testified, "he had started remodeling old-fashioned boards for people."

    Kit Horn was a youngster at Malibu during the early days of World War II. He remembered the first time Simmons showed up at the "Bu." He swam a huge 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.

    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."

    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. On surfari with the 1931 Ford, Simmons racked up repeated tickets for speeding and vehicle violations.

    Both Simmons and Trent were on surfari, during the war, while Simmons still had his flatbed. Simmons and Buzzy rode "up the coast in [Simmons'] old Model A flatbed," wrote 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."


    1945 & War's End

    By 1945, Simmons was working 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. Simmons took over the family garage for surfboard development and research. The war was winding down and suddenly it was over. In August 1945, a big surf came up the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Pat O'Connor, an LA 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."

    In December 1945, Simmons collided with another car at San Onofre, totalling 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, hydrographic charts, canned beans, fruit and boomerangs, he wandered and surfed the southern and some central parts of the California coastline.

    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." 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."

    His nephew Rick recalls one particular day that demonstrated Simmons' penchant for the big, gnarly stuff despite his handicap. It was after Simmons got known for his surfing and shaping. Bob 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."


    1946: Scarfed Nose, Fiberglass & Resin

    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 processs 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."

    Quigg admitted that, in those days, he wasn't too impressed by Simmons. However, Dave Rochlen said that, "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." Importantly, Simmons was just about "the only guy anybody could buy boards from during those [war] years."

    In 1946, many of the technological developments used during the war to enhance our 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 PHD 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 bodyboards. 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. 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, used in wing design...

    "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."

    Simmons was also 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. 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. Munk and colleagues published their research and it was from these that, "Simmons found out what he was really dealing with in surfboard design."

    At this point, both a decisive technological advance took place and things got ugly. A little while after getting his hands on Lord's planing hulls study, both Simmons and Chapin were modifying their planks 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 paddleboards that were lying around; ostensibly belonging to the stoners. "Vandalism to the boards on his car by Palos Verdes surfers occurred in retaliation." 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.

    Those surfers who were more open to Simmons' first significant contribution to surfing -- the scarfed nose -- acknowledged that the nose lift helped keep boards from pearling. "As you can see by the photographs of that era," notes Nat Young, "many surfers were reluctant to give up their old San Onofre-type boards." Those who saw the wisdom in Simmons' modifications would have him "scarf another piece on the nose and fair it in to create nose lift."


    1946: Peterson, Goldsworthy, Thal, Quigg & Sweet

    "Preston 'Pete' Peterson was actually the first person to build a fibreglass surfboard," wrote 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." Goldsworthy's plastics company may have been the same place Simmons scored his fiberglass and resin from.

    "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. Experimenting with resin and glass was a frustrating experience. Because of his diligent enquiries to every chemical company in Los Angeles, Joe Quigg was suspected of being a German spy! Another time 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."


    1947 & Radical Changes

    "Simmons was a wealth of new information for surfers," remembers John Elwell. "We were astounded listening to him about wave origin, second intervals, exact wave heights and where the best waves were in the world, although he had never been there. He had many charts of the world with notations on them. He wanted to build a sailboat, sail away and surf them. He said that all he would need was a hundred pounds of soya beans, some water and fishing gear. Then he told me, 'Do ya know you can almost eat nothing but soya beans to live on?'

    "His remarks were often arcane. He told us, 'We are surfing almost as fast sideways to the beach as we are forward.' 'We are really surfing on our rails.' 'We are not going fast, you just think we are... maybe we might hit 30 mph in a big drop. If you don't believe me, get on a hood of a car and find out!' About surfboard fins, he said, 'You don't need much. A deep fin can cause some real problems.'"

    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. At this point, 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. "Some surfer-observers of that period," wrote 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."

    Along with research and development came the testing. Simmons tested his boards all over Southern California. He was seen in Solana Beach, in the San Diego area, throwing his boomerangs on the cliff. 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.

    One such ping pong session is one Craig Stecyk pin-points as occurring on September 16, 1947. Supposedly a Tuesday night at the Hollywood Tables on Highland Boulevard, Simmons battled it out with 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.

    "Witnesses and photographs exist," wrote 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," continued Elwell, "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."

    Meanwhile, in 1947, Joe Quigg and his friend Matt Kivlin left for the Hawaiian Islands. They were excited about the prospect of surfing consistently good waves in warm weather...


    1948: 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.

    "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 hydrofoiled 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."

    Simmons called these "hydrodynamic planing hulls." He did not elaborate further, but it was obvious they combined elements 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 eave 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."

    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...

    "If anybody was ever to get the credit of being the 'Father of the Modern Surfboard,' 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. 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, 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, balsawood 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."

    Bob 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 had a long legal battle over his invention of the electrical strain gauge and this was probably ever-present in his 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."


    1949: Sandwich (Styrofoam core) Boards

    In 1949, a fairly famous photograph was shot of Simmons streaking across an outstanding wave at Malibu. "He was riding a foam core, veneer laminated, dual fin concave," wrote his friend John Elwell. "The picture is historic for the reasons of his early position and increased angle across the wave. His wake is long and flat, indicating great power and speed for slow Malibu."

    Elwell says Simmons had started messing around with styrofoam, a new material at that time, back in 1947. 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," 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. He did a lot of research and development there, keeping tools and utilizing a large work space.

    Joe Quigg confirmed that it was 1949 when Matt Kivlin began talking to Simmons about the idea of making lighter, hollow plywood rescue boards. "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. He had gotten some samples of styrofoam after the war, and had always dreamed of making a board with styrofoam." 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. "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."

    Joe Quigg was still in the Islands when Simmons wrote saying that he 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. "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." Simmons "was familiar with a light fibreglass cloth which gave him the possibility of making lighter boards, but he didn't use it until 1949. Ironically Simmons delayed using the cloth because he believed that heavier boards were faster and he fastidiously stuck to this idea."

    Bob Simmons, like Tom Blake before him, had began 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.

    "The lifeguards, unfortunately, never would buy them, but the surfers -- Simmons' followers -- thought they were neat and started buying them," recalled Quigg. Demand for Simmons boards increased. He sold about 100 in the Summer of 1949 alone -- a record at that time.

    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." Simmons' new board-building business became too big for he and Kivlin to handle alone, so they asked Joe 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."

    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."
     

    1949: The Simmons Spoon

    "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.'" Nat referred to one of the many other ideas to pop out at this time. Simmons, with Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin working for him, carried their board-building into further realms. As an example, Quigg fashioned the first fiberglass fin during this period and made further board innovations of his own. All three scooped their noses, dropped the rails and shaped tailblocks in various experimental ways. Out of these design sessions came most notably the Simmons "Spoon." It was a 10-foot solid male balsa board with a full belly, kicked up nose, thin rails and a glassed and foiled wooden fin. It's 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. Rennie Yater pointed out 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." In essence, 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."

    Simmons, however, did not go for ultra light weight, as did his helpers Quigg and Kivlin. He still believed it was necesary to have a degree of weight in the boards he built. "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 were making at the same time."

    Quigg, bringing back some of the Hot Curl spirit with him from Hawai`i, started to make his own Hot Curls along with other designs, including pintail fiberglassed balsa boards.

    A friend of Kivlin's, Dave Rochlen was now a Los Angeles county lifeguard and he, too, began building boards. "I used to play around with tints to make the boards look a little bit different," admitted Quigg, "but Dave was the first person I recall who began applying modern-style, colorful designs onto surfboards." Rochlen remembers building custom boards for actors Gary Cooper and Peter Lawford, "and other movie industry people."

    "At one time," recalled Greg Noll, "Simmons' boards were in such demand that the pressure of meeting orders almost became too much for him. 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 in person.

    "Going to Simmons' shop was just 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."

    "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." By 1950, at Laguna Beach, Hoffman had, "one of the very first boards featuring a foam core, with plywood deck and bottom, balsa rails, fully glassed, built by Matt Kivlin and Joe Quigg. 'It was a great board!'"

    "Simmons' stuff was not good craftsmanship; not pretty to look at; not well done," Rennie Yater recollects. "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...

    "Kivlin and Quigg were from Malibu and they worked together... Joe always made boards that rode better. They were much easier to ride. He wouldn't be as radical as Bob. Kivlin's boards were even quite a bit different. His style of surfing -- you ever seen in the museum, the real thin 90 rails? Boy, he could really ride 'em, too. Really good. So, he just went off and did his own thing. You know, Kivlin and Simmons didn't like each other, either. But that was the admiration part of it, too."
     

    1950: Simmons Retreats to San Diego

    As rumors and word of Simmons' boards continued to spread up and down the California coast, Bob Simmons suddenly shut down his Santa Monica shop. He had a falling out with Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin over their development of what would later be known as the Malibu Board. He moved his operation out to the family's Norwalk ranch for privacy and seculusion. No doubt he also wanted to spend more time on R & D. He surfed mostly in the San Diego area and it was during this time that the best and last of a series of boards were made by Simmons.

    At this time, 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.

    "There was a huge vacuum left when Simmons quit producing boards," wrote John Elwell. It was natural that modified copies would be produced and these first started showing up in the Summer of 1950. Elwell says he and others asked Simmons about these. Simmons merely replied that "They are easy to make. 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 paddleboard! My noses are much more functional and stronger. The points break off too easy!" The most common feature to be seen in the modified boards, including the paddleboard types, was a Simmons-type hydrofoiled rail.

    "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."

    Quietly, Simmons slipped into an even greater legendary status while still alive -- basically by withdrawing from the whole surfboard production scene. His move down south marked the beginning of the end of what has been known as the "Simmons Era." 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 Hawai`i, where they started to put kick in the nose because of the big waves."
     

    Greg Noll Recalls

    By 1950, Bob Simmons may have been out-of-sight in the on-going development of the surfboard, but he was seen regularly at his favorite spots and remembered by many.

    "Simmons always paddled on his knees," recalled Greg Noll. "With his ginked-up arm he had one good dig on one side and a little scratch on the other. His boards were wide because of this handicap. His style of surfing was to just slide across the face of the wave without much maneuvering."

    "Simmons was a loner," continued 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...

    "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."
     

    Rochlen Manor, July 23, 1949

    Surf writer Craig Stecyk briefly sketched a word picture of Simmons at Dave Rochlen's family home at the end of the '40s:

    "July 23, 1949 -- Bob Simmons stands at the imposing entry to sumptuous Rochlen Manor attempting to summon his surfing friend Dave. The venerable family maid arrives at the front door in response to his knocking. After an instantaneous survey of Simmons ragged attire, general slovenliness and apparently emaciated state, she kindly imparts, 'If you come around to the back door, I'll see if I can find you some old clothes and something to eat.' It's in odd ways that true genius is sometimes rewarded."
     

    Tijuana Sloughs, Christmas time, December 1949

    Jim "Burrhead" Drever addressed Simmons' big wave riding:

    "I used to say to Bob Simmons, 'You're making a big mistake up here [probably San Onofre]. 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."

    Chuck Quinn can recall Simmons surfing the Sloughs in December of '49:

    "During Christmas vacation, 1949," Quinn said, "I met Dempsey on the beach near the rivermouth. 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 Ford 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 shorebreak. 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 shorebreak.

    "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 enough.'

    "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."

    "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.'"

    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 shorebreak. His board ended up on the beach and he ended up swimming in.

    "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."
     

    Sunset Cliffs, January 1951

    Leslie Williams, who was one of the very first Malibu Board standouts, vividly recalled Simmons at what now amounted to be his surfing backyard -- Sunset Cliffs, January 1951: "As stated earlier, Bob was gutsy and demonstrated that to Buzzy and I the morning after the 'North Bird' incident. 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."
     

    "A Day When Legends Die," June 9, 1951

    It was described by the old Chumash shaman at the mission as, "a day when legends die." Fast moving spiraling lines connected from outside the regular point all the way through to the pier at Malibu.

    On this day, Nick Gabaldon, the first black surfer and lifeguard, trimmed all the way to the pink house, by the pier, and attempted a "squatting island pullout." The impact of board, rocks, surfer and pier was "considerable and horrific." Nick's splintered surfboard was immediately retrieved, but it took much longer to recover his body.

    At this point, Simmons ran up the beach shouting, "That son of a bitch up and died and he owes me 20 fucking bucks!"

    "The refrain was repeated," wrote Stecyk, "with increased amplitude... his ridiculous spectacle caused laughter to return to the point."
     

    A Roust, October 10, 1951

    "October 10, 1951," wrote Craig Stecyk, "Simmons' window blacked-out 36 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."
     

    Orange Peels

    Billy Meng told a story to Dewey Schurman about the days before the 36 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."
     

    Simmons on the North Shore

    Bob Simmons was one of the first to tap into O`ahu's North Shore. "He spent about a year on the North Shore," recalled Greg Noll, saying Simmons "lived at Sunset Beach when everyone else was oriented to Makaha. I remember Buzzy Trent saying that he'd drive by Sunset and see Simmons sitting out there by himself. The story got around that, whenever you went to a surf spot, expecting to have the place to yourself, Simmons would already be there. Even if it was a stormy, rainy day, you'd see Simmons, sitting out in the water by himself."

    How Simmons got there was that Walter Hoffman and company -- "a group of Simmons' friends," wrote John Elwell -- "surfed big Makaha. Walt Hoffman sent a message for Simmons" to "'Get over here right away.' Simmons packed up, with his bicycle and board and headed for the North Shore. He wintered there, surfing alone and with Flippy Hoffman. He came back with a wider view of the problems of big waves. He remarked that he surfed Banzai Beach [Pipeline]. 'That place has real possibilities!' He had also called a bunch of surfers at Makaha, 'shoulder hugging chickens!'" To add insult to injury, in true Simmons style, he also disgustedly complained, "'They're surfing paddleboards over there!' Such was Simmons, concluded Elwell."

    Leslie Williams, who came over with Simmons, listed the major aspects of the trip. "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 day.

    "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."

    "To us, 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?" Williams asked. "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).

    "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."

    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 Hawai`i 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."
     

    The Death of Simmons

    The picture at the beginning of this chapter on Bob Siimmons shows Tom Carlin standing behind Simmons' rusted out 37 Ford Tudor that was taken in La Jolla, January 9, 1954. The photograph hints at some things. You can clearly see that the back windows were painted out, which became a Simmons trademark. What you don't see is what's inside: the back plywood deck with just a sleeping bag thrown over it. Located elsewhere inside the '37 Ford were hydrographic charts, cans of beans and boomerangs. Carlin's 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, Bob Simmons had come to La Jolla to give it a go. What the photo doesn't show is that Simmons studied the La Jolla surf break all across the outer kelp beds. During a lull, he dashed in. Witnesses say that half way out a big set hit which he 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.

    Nine months later, Simmons ate it at Windansea. Robert Wilson Simmons, age 35 -- the "Father of the Modern Surfboard" -- died surfing on September 26, 1954. How he died, exactly is unknown. Greg Noll guessed that Simmons "Got slapped on the head by his own board and that was it." 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.

    Bev Morgan told Dewey Schurman about the day. "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."

    According to Greg Noll, it wasn't that big a day -- certainly not beyond Simmons' skills. "The irony of it is that it was only a six-or-eight-foot day," wrote Noll. "That's the way it always goes. For the most part, it's not the big waves that get a guy. It's always some quirky thing."

    Bob Simmons' body was found three days later, 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.'"

    "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."

    "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."

    "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 paddleboards."

    "Simmons was like a missionary who traveled the coast promoting his ideas. He was a catalyst for all of us. I loved Bob Simmons and deeply wish he was here, I miss talking to him. 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 planks again."

    "Once Bob Simmons got into surfing," declared Greg Noll, "his engineering background surfaced and he immediately started working on better ways to build boards. His boards were an instant success. He experimented with different materials, such as sandwiching balsa, plywood and Styrofoam together to try to get the weight down. Equally as important as his use of lighter materials was his use of fiberglass. He was the first to combine light weight and fiberglass, and this blew the whole thing wide open."
     

    "Interpreting the Simmons Board"

    In John Elwell's detailed study of 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:

    "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 erodynamicist 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 paddleboard 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."
     

    "Simmons was the most objective surfer I ever met" -- Dempsey Holder

    "Pat Curren referred to us as Simmons' test pilots" -- John Elwell

    "Simmons had such good wave knowledge, that I would watch him instead of waves. When he started moving out, I followed him" -- Phil Edwards
     


    Sources Used In This Chapter:

    Bev Morgan, Billy Meng, Chuck Quinn, Craig Stecyk, Dale "The Hawk" Velzy, Dave Rochlen, Dave Sweet, Dempsey Holder, Dewey Schurman, Flippy Hoffman, Fred Van Dyke, George Downing, Greg Noll, History of Surfing, Jim "Burrhead" Drever, Joe Quigg, John Blankenship, John Elwell, Kit Horn, Leonard Lueras, Leslie Williams, Lindsey Lord, Matt Kivlin, Nat Young, Pat Curren, Peter and Corny Cole, Phil Edwards, Preston "Pete" Peterson, Reynolds "Rennie" Yater, Ted Thal, The Surfer's Journal, Tom Blake, Tule Clark, Walter Hoffman, Woody Brown.


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