Bob Simmons, Gnarled Genius

Bob Simmons, Malibu. Photo: Bob Prosser
Bob Simmons, 1953
Simmons board, 1951. Photo: John Elwell
Bob Simmons (below) and Joe Quigg, Malibu

Surfboard design rocketed forward in the postwar years. It was a group effort, but Bob Simmons, a knobby misanthropic engineer from Pasadena, was the person who got things started. Simmons was strange, brilliant, and experimental, permanently ungroomed, and often angry—he once answered some bullying by a group of Palos Verde Cove locals by splitting open the decks of their hollow boards with an ax. He died by surfing misadventure at a young age, which helped secure his place in the top rank of the boardmaker’s pantheon.

After a bicycle accident as a teenager, Simmons’ left elbow was fused at a 90-degree angle, which left him unfit for military service. A Caltech dropout, Simmons nonetheless found work during the war as a mathematician with Douglas Aircraft, where he impressed and spooked coworkers with his flat-affect recall for numbers and formulae. (Older brother Edward, a Caltech grad who remained in Pasadena until his death, at age ninety-three, was equally bright and eccentric: a strain gauge he created earned honors from the New York Academy of Sciences, and in his senior years he became locally famous for conducting his daily business—lucid as ever—wearing tights, dance slippers, and a tutu.)

Simmons was twenty when he learned to surf in 1939 on a borrowed Tom Blake hollow board. He hopped freight trains to get from Pasadena to the beach. Later, he roamed Highway One looking for waves in a gutted primer-gray ’37 Ford Tudor sedan provisioned with a Boy Scout bedroll, canned soy beans, bagged oranges, rolled-up bathymetric charts and coastal maps, a few porn magazines, and a set of homemade boomerangs. Surfing was an empirical pursuit for Simmons. He never daydreamed about Waikiki,  or strummed a ukulele, or wore a Hawaiian shirt—the Polynesian romance of the sport just didn’t register—and while he quickly developed into a technically adept surfer, he did so with an aggressive lack of wave-riding style and artistry. Schoolboys ruled the mostly-empty lineups during the war, and while Simmons had nothing to do with their banter and roughhousing and endless sex talk (Simmons never married and apparently never dated), he nonetheless became an accepted fixture in the water. A few younger surfers even befriended him; Simmons had a car, after all, and knew how to mix kerosene into his weekly war-rationed supply of gas so as to get every last mile out of a road trip.

Simmons did an informal boardmaking apprenticeship under Gard Chapin, an older surfer who was just as prickly, but louder and more aggressive. Before the war, Chapin was arguably the most progressive surfer in the state, having developed a technique where he’d drop his back knee to the deck of his board and use the lower center of gravity for added turning leverage. His line of attack was so much higher and sharper than that of his peers that he often made a slanting pass across their wakes, shouting expletive insults the whole time. A carpenter by trade, and one of the coast’s finest boardmakers, Chapin invited Simmons to his Hollywood workshop in 1945, and the two worked on surfboards together after hours; nothing too radical, often just reshaping redwood planks. Simmons became one of a tiny number of shapers working in the Los Angeles area—or anywhere on the coast, for that matter. Surfers began to look him up.

In 1946, Simmons bought a copy of Lindsay Lord’s Naval Architecture of Planing Hulls—a daunting three-hundred-page technical manual filled with graphs, tables, and equations on hydrodynamics and structural mechanics. Lord, a naval engineer and architect, was interested in building faster, more maneuverable boats, but Simmons believed that much of Planing Hulls would apply to surfboards, and he kept the book nearby, Koran-like, at all times. Thus armed, Simmons advanced from boardmaking tradesman to full-fledged designer. Other boardmakers owned Planing Hulls, but no one else could really make heads or tails of it. Simmons liked to deepen their bafflement with long flat-voiced orations on aspect ratios, chord values, and Bernoullian flow. “It was all over my head,” fellow boardmaker Dale Velzy recalled with a shrug, adding, “and who gives a shit anyway?”—thus making the case for all shapers past and present who work more by intuition than calculation.

Simmons had a low opinion of the hollow boards, which he dismissively referred to, regardless of use, as “paddleboards.” The solid-body plank design was better, he thought, but not by much. Hollows and planks both had blocky rails and flat decks. Hull design was never really considered; all boards were similar in this regard, marginally thicker in the middle than at the bow and stern, creating a soft nose-to-tail curve along the bottom surface. A big advantage the plank had over the hollow, Simmons noted, was that it could be stripped and reshaped. Keel-shaped fins were now in use, however, and this was a big improvement from a decade earlier. As for the Hawaii-developed hot curl board, California surfers, Simmons included, thought it was a “sinker”—not floaty enough—and left it alone.

Planing Hulls made note of two new building products: a silica-based filament cloth called fiberglass, and polyester resin. These were used in combination: resin-saturated fiberglass, squeegeed on most surfaces, dried to become a light, strong, durable, waterproof shell. Both products were invented during the 1930s, but it took wartime development before they had a commercial rollout. (“Development,” here, included a bit of industrial espionage, as British spies stole the latest and best resin formulas from Germany and passed them over to the Americans.) Simmons was greatly interested in fiberglass and resin. When he and Chapin began putting Lord’s book to use on surfboards, the first thing they did was strengthen the tips of their boards—always the first place for dings and cracks—with a layer of Owens-Corning fiberglass and Bakelite resin. It took more than a year for the boardmakers to take the next obvious step and “glass” the entire board, top and bottom, front to back.

Simmons and Chapin eventually had a falling out. By late 1947 the younger surfer was working alone, first out of the family garage in Pasadena, and later in a single-room industrial zone workshop in Santa Monica. By then, Simmons was obsessed with the still-new branch of oceanography called wave science; he realized that to produce a better board he needed a better understanding of the dynamic medium it would be used in. He drove to Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and poured over stacks of navy-related research papers, becoming the first surfer with a systemic knowledge of wave formation and interval, swell decay, and how incoming swells respond to points, shoals, and reefs.

The more he learned, the more Simmons appreciated just how much was being asked of a surfboard. It had to perform at speeds ranging from zero to thirty miles per hour, on a surface that at any give moment could be flat, canted, or convex; solid or churned; glassy, rilled, or chopped. It needed to grip one moment, then turn “slippery” the next. On a medium-big day of surf, a board might be ridden on waves ranging in size from three to ten feet, and the difference between the two, in terms of speed and power, was huge. Tom Blake had always kept a few boards at the ready, believing that different conditions required different equipment, but for the majority, carrying multiple boards was neither practical nor popular. Most surfers as a rule had just one.

Simmons began adjusting the prevailing design components—length and width, rocker (the nose-to-tail curve, as viewed from the side), foil (nose-to-tail thickness), weight, rail curve, fin shape and placement—to see how each variable affected speed, bite, and maneuverability. More often than not, change made to a single feature would ripple out and affected all the others. Flatten the bottom curve for speed, and the board rode “long” because it had more planing surface in the water. Reduce the fin size to increase responsiveness, and the narrow tail started to lose grip. In addition to these complexities, progress was slowed by the fact that handmade boards were impossible to duplicate. A sixteenth-inch variation along the hull, or an undetectable low spot on the rail line, or an ounce of extra resin in the finish coat—any little thing, and the copy board rode differently than the original. Boardmakers, in other words, never had a dependable baseline.

Simmons nonetheless attacked furiously with numbers and formulae. As it turned out, solving the design complexity inherent to surfboards was for the moment beyond applied science alone, and the craft would long continue to be a mixture of both art and engineering. But Simmons was right to take a more analytic approach. Not least among his accomplishments was the idea that surfboard specs and dimensions should be carefully measured, noted, and logged.

For all the long theoretical flights of fancy and endless hand-scribbled calculations, Simmons design goals were straightforward. First, more speed. Second, a longer ride—which was mostly a function of speed. Turns and maneuvers weren’t important, except as a means to draw a higher line on the wave, which would allow him to go faster. Simmons didn’t so much want to ride the wave as skim pelican-like over it. His first big design change, in an effort to cut down on “pearling,” was to scarf-joint a block of balsa wood to the front end of a new board, which allowed him to shape a few crucial inches of “kick” into the nose. Because the added wood wasn’t just foiled and blended into the deck, but also concaved across the top, Simmons’ board had a spoon-like appearance—“Simmons spoon” quickly became a common expression among California surfers. It was thought that a raised prow would push water and slow the board down, but that wasn’t the case; once a surfer was up and riding, the board’s nose generally hovered a few inches above the surface. When it did drop to sea level, the extra lift was a godsend, as it often kept the board up and running, instead of nosing under.

Simmons also tapered, thinned, and rounded out the rails, nose to tail, again with the idea of increasing the board’s slipperiness. Deck design wasn’t as important, Simmons believed, but he added a slight crown anyway, thinking that it might help keep water flowing to the rear. Most of Simmons’ boards were gently convex along the bottom, but he experimented with concaves, intending to further reduce friction by putting a cushion of air between board and wave. Also, the bottom surface was turned up slightly as it moved off the tail, which, combined with the nose lift, gave the Simmons’ board an early version of rocker.

Tom Blake’s design instincts had led to a longer, narrower, more pointed craft. Simmons reversed this; his boards were short and wide (one of his favorites was 8 feet by 24 inches), with a crescent-shaped nose, parallel rails, and a roomy squared-off tail. He believed that a broader tail was a key to higher speeds, but the added surface led to spin-out (“sliding ass,” to use the old Hawaiian phrase). To solve this, Simmons created the twin-fin board: instead of one long center-anchored keel, as was popular at the time, he put a 5-inch-high half-moon fin near each corner of the tail.

Simmons also continued to experiment with materials. Balsa was hard to find during and just after the war, but it remained the boardmaker’s wood of choice. Roughly half of the two hundred boards Simmons built between 1947 and 1950 were solid balsa, wrapped in fiberglass. Each weighed about 40 pounds—15 pounds less than the average postwar plank. (“Solid balsa” is kind of a misnomer. Boardmakers glued together several 12-foot pieces of 4-inch-by-6-inch balsa to make a rectangular “blank” from which the board was templated and cut. All-balsa boards were made before the war, but the varnish finish cracked and leaked as the soft wood beneath was dented. Fiberglass solved this problem.)

Simmons also made about a hundred of what he called “sandwich” boards. Starting with a lightweight rectangular core of polystyrene foam—better known by its trademarked name, Styrofoam, which was another multipurpose war-developed industrial product—he covered each side with a pattern-cut piece of plywood, bracketed this “sandwich” with a pair of solid balsa rails, glued it all together using a complicated hand-tightened clamping frame, then fiberglassed the whole thing. Originally, his goal was lightness, but after getting one of his boards down to 20 pounds, Simmons changed his mind and went back to the all-balsa boards, believing the added weight gave the board more stability at higher speeds. There were other drawbacks. Apart from being difficult to make, sandwich boards were notoriously flimsy. “You’d go out surfing,” a Malibu local recalled, “come in, stand the board up against a wall or something, and the thing would just sproing apart in the heat of sun.”

The Simmons board came without a logo, stamp, builder’s signature, or decorative touch of any kind, and its craftsmanship was passable, not great. Next to the elegant multiwood laminated planks made a decade earlier by Pacific System Homes, or the sleek mahogany hollows made by Robert Mitchell Company, Simmons’ boards looked raw, almost crude. The builder himself couldn’t have cared less. Engineered speed was all Simmons cared about—the rest was frippery. Simmons believed that by way of rigorous calculation and applied science he’d taken surfboard design from well-intentioned primitivism into the age of reason. Crowing to his less-enlightened fellows on the beach, Simmons would introduce his latest model as a “hydrodynamic planing hull.” In a more playful mood, he’d simply call it “my latest machine.”

But did the boards actually work? That depended on who was riding. On a long, straight line, they were the fastest things in the water, and for a few dozen speed-obsessed Southern California surfers, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Simmons was nothing less than a boardmaking messiah. But a Simmons board was as limiting in its own way as a rocket car tearing across the Bonneville Salt Flats. Maneuverability would soon be performance surfing’s main goal, and better turning meant the surfer not only had to occasionally sink the board’s tail into the water but ride closer to the curl in order to better tap the wave’s power. Both ideas disgusted Simmons. Surfboards, he believed, were meant to ride as high out of the water as possible, and the speed-line he followed often took him twenty yards out ahead of the curl.

The Simmons board also had a pokey look, with its rounded baby-rattle nose, ungainly width, and rough-hewn appearance. What was wrong with a glossy finish? Maybe even a color or two? As California’s postwar generation of surfers took shape, many wanted their boards to be functional and look sharp. Because of Simmons, boards were lighter and stronger than they’d ever been, the rails were now beautifully rounded, and bottom curves were in play. Innovation had replaced stasis in board design. Almost as soon as he revolutionized the surfboard, Simmons was out of step with the times. As one of his peers remarked, “Simmons thought that everyone should ride the way he did.” This arrogance kept him from making an even bigger mark in surfboard design. Limited by his injured arm, and a tunneled view of performance surfing, Simmons rode in the same point-and-shoot riding style that defined the previous generation—he just went a lot faster.

Simmons moved to San Diego in 1950 to finish college, and cut way back on his boardmaking. In late September 1954, he and a few other surfers paddled into a rough swell at a La Jolla break called Windansea. After about an hour, Simmons was pitched off his board on a ten-footer, came up bleeding from a cut on his head, and was last seen doing his crabbed one-armed sidestroke toward the beach. His twin-fin board washed around near the shore a few minutes later, and a group of kids ran down and pulled it out of the water. Simmons was gone. Three days later a lifeguard discovered his body, mottled and eyeless, floating in the shorebreak about a mile to the south.

Simmons’ legacy was built in part on his death. It’s bending the truth to say that he went down in pursuit of a better surfboard, but only a little bit, and his dramatic final act helped make him the embodiment of a dramatic period in surfing’s history. Even before Simmons died, a younger crew of Los Angeles shapers had in fact already pushed the design wheel in another direction—one that had an equal or greater bearing on future boardmaking. Yet for a long time afterward they were all grouped together as Simmons’ acolytes. The guy who caught everyone’s attention was the doomed antisocial genius. Fair or not, the other postwar boardmakers had to live in his shadow.

Surfing was an empirical pursuit for Simmons. He never daydreamed about Waikiki, or strummed a ukulele, or wore a Hawaiian shirt. He just wanted a better, faster board, and to that end he attacked furiously with numbers and formulae.