The Legacy of Bob Simmons

Bob Simmons at Malibu.

“It was the winter of ’49 after a big epic perfect swell. I went to the IB (Imperial Beach) County Life Guard Station early waiting for the others to head for the Sloughs,” recounted Coronado surfing historian John Elwell. “This figure strode by who had clothes of a laborer.

His wool plaid jacket was full of fiberglass fibers that sparkled, his long pants were well worn and stained with resin. He was going up on the boardwalk in front of the station to talk to the Master of the Sloughs, Dempsey Holder.”

Elwell was talking about Bob Simmons, the eccentric genius who helped influence modern surfboard design.

The Surfer’s Journal published this description in Elwell’s article, “The Enigma of Simmons” in 1994.

Simmons died during a big swell in La Jolla at Windansea in 1954. His use of aerodynamic principles and incorporation of Naval architect Lindsey Lord’s research on planing hulls to build short foam-based twin-keeled surfboards back in the early 1950s, influenced the work of groundbreaking surboard craftsmen such as George Greenough and Simon Anderson.

I talked with Elwell at the opening of Richard Kenvin’s exhibit on Simmons, “Hydrodynamica: Remember the Future” at the Loft 9 Gallery and Space 4 Art last Saturday.

Kenvin, the legendary San Diego surfer, has spent the past decade documenting the influence of Simmons. He collaborates with shapers such as Daniel Thomson and Carl Eckstrom, using Simmons’ foundation to reinvent the modern surfboard.

Kenvin wrote on this website that,  “Accounts of Bob Simmons riding short foam and balsa boards at Windansea in the early ’50s inspired us to build a series of short Simmons planing hulls for Hydrodynamica in 2006.

Another stimulus was a 5’6” Simmons-inspired planing hull that Al Nelson built and rode at Windansea in 1956. Simmons was employed by Douglas Aircraft in 1952, as were famed California modern designers Ray and Charles Eames. Simmons’ planing hulls are functional examples of aerodynamic form being used as a central element of mid century modern design.”

“Bob Simmons played ping pong and researched waves at Scripps, and made surfboards in the station (IB Lifeguard) when the surf was down. Bob and Demps (Dempsey Holder) talked for hours on end on wave and surfboard theory,” Elwell said.

According to Elwell, Simmons often said, “My surfboards are hydrodynamic planing hulls. You don’t need much fin as they are for directional stabilization.”

Pioneering La Jolla surfer John Blankenship once told me that, “Simmons used to show up at Windansea and tell everyone, ‘If you guys had any guts you’d be out with us at the Sloughs.’”

Simmons used the Sloughs, a winter big-wave spot down in Imperial Beach at the mouth of the Tijuana River, as a testing ground for his twin-keel design.

“He lived in the parking lot of the IB Lifeguard station in his car and made boards at the station,” Elwell said.

Carl Eckstrom is a surfboard shaper and designer who helped pioneer asymmetrical surfboards. He was also there Saturday night. His unique boards were on display along with those of Aussie shaper Daniel Thomson of Tomo Surfboards.

Carl Eckstrom

To Eckstrom, Simmons’ boards were, “Designed for speed and not high performance. These things,” he said, pointing to the Simmons boards on-display, “are beautiful pieces of sculpture.”

Former world surfing champ and shaper Peter “PT” Townend was on-hand at the exhibit. He was studying Kenvin’s collection of twin-keeled surfboards including many by San Diego’s own Steve Lis.

“I got beat by these back in the 1972 World Championship in OB,” PT said. “Jimmy Blears and David Nuuhiwa won the event. I rode a traditional single fin along with Larry Bertlemann, but on the day the of the finals, the waves were tiny and Blears and Nuuhiwa had their fishes which worked perfectly in the lefts coming off the pier.”

PT examines the collection.

Thomson is originally from Lennox Head, Australia. He used Simmons’ and Lord’s ideas about planing hulls to make modern high performance surfboards. A couple of his boards were on-display including an ultra-modern thruster, he calls the “Fractal Design.”

“The Simmons Planing hull has always made sense to me because of it’s scientific applications of low drag control and dynamic lift,” wrote Thomson. “I have been gravitating more and more toward the parallel rail lines because it naturally allows the design to be ridden smaller without compromising stability and paddling ability, not to mention the performance potential is greatly increased.

The ‘Fractal Design’ is an architectural or functional art piece, based on Simmons’ platform with Fibonacci and Phi mathematics designed into eight unique measurements of the board. The relationships with ‘Phi’ proportions is not only very pleasing in theory, but is very close to my ideals of the perfect high performance surfboard.”

The past is the future. Eckstrom and Thomson

Kenvin worked on the exhibition with Mark Weiner. Both deserve to be commended for turning an interest about Simmons’ historical legacy into an opportunity to provide greater understanding about the cultural and design influences of modern surfing.

Thomson's interpretation of Simmons. One of the most interesting boards I've ever seen.

Hydrodynamica Exhibit Opening

An eclectic crew of surfing legends, shapers, and historians from Coronado and around Southern California attended the opening Saturday evening of Hydrodynamica: Remember the Future at the Space 4 Art in the East Village (325 15th Street, San Diego)

The exhibition on the surfing legacy and influence of Bob Simmons, was curated by Richard Kenvin and Mark Weiner, includes pieces from the collection of Coronado resident John Elwell, and is on display through March 9th.

Surf historian John Elwell witih pieces from his Simmons collection.

Curator and San Diego surfing legend Richard Kenvin.From left to right, Kevin Stuckey, Jeff Knox, John Elwell and Israel Dedina.

Surf designer and innovator Carl Eckstrom with legendary surf photographer Tom Keck.


Kevin Stuckey, Jeff Knox, John Elwell and Israel Dedina

Surf Books by Local Surfer Scribes

From my Imperial Beach and Coronado Patch Southwest Surf Column of December 22, 2010.

Looking for some last minute gift ideas to brighten up the cheer of the surfer on your holiday list? Luckily we have a collection of local authors who have published excellent books that are near and dear to our waves and beach.

Tijuana Straits by Kem Nunn

Nunn’s masterpiece is arguably the best novel ever written about surfing. The well regarded novelist and author of books such as Tapping the Source, Dogs of Winter and Pomona Queen, Nunn, a San Clemente resident spent a lot of time hanging around Imperial Beach, Tijuana and the Tijuana River Valley to get the details in his story about Magdalena, an environmental activist from Tijuana who is rescued by Fahey, a former surfer and ex-con, near Border Field. The character of surfing pioneer Hoddy Younger is based on Dempsey Holder.

Every local surfer should own this book. I guarantee you that once you start reading, you won’t be able to put it down.

Surf Food: The Ultimate Surfers Cookbook by Nava Young

Nava Young is part of Australia’s first family of surfing. The daughter of surfing legend Nat Young, Nava is an incredible surfer and musician in her own right and now an author. She is also the significant other of Taylor Jensen and can be found surfing Coronado and Oceanside where the young couple recently purchased a home.

Surf Food is a collection of tasty and easy to make recipes from some of the world’s best surfers including Kelly Slater’s Avocado Smoothie, Dane Reynolds’ Tortilla Soup, Julian Wilson’s Tango Mango Chicken and much more.

“I wrote Surf Food because I thought it was an interesting idea that had not been done before. I had a great time writing it and really learned a lot about my heroes in the surfing world,” Young said.

“I am so grateful to all the incredible surfers that agreed to participate. Without them there would be no book.”

According to my son Israel who is a fan of Surf Food, “Kelly’s Avocado Smoothie is delicious. And Ian Cairn’s Garlic and Rosemary Lamb reminds me of our trip to Australia.”

Lifeguards of San Diego County by Michael “Mike” Martino

As a former Imperial Beach and State of California lifeguard, I know that the history of surfing and ocean lifeguarding in San Diego County are intertwined.

Michael Martino, a lifeguard supervisor at Silver Strand State Beach and Imperial Beach resident, wrote and organized an amazing photographic history of lifeguarding in our region including chapters on Border Field, Imperial Beach, Silver Strand and Coronado.

I love reviewing the images of local lifeguards like Dempsey Holder, Jim Voit, Russ Elwell, Richard Abrams, Chuck Chase, Greg Abbott, Chuck Quinn, Larry Cartwright, Mike Neil, Rob Rand and Jim Cahill.

“I wrote the book because I saw Arthur Verge’s book on the LA County Lifeguards and I said, ‘I can do that,'” Martino said.

“I went to all the lifeguard services up and down San Diego’s coast. Their historical records were usually a bunch of newspaper articles and photos in a cardboard box. I organized a lot of lifeguard history.”

Surfing in San Diego by John Elwell and Jane Schmauss

Coronado native and longtime surfer John Elwell is one of the deans of surfing history. He helped focus new attention on the role of Bob Simmons in surfing and surfboard design. His link with Richard Kenvin and his Hydrodynamica project has opened the door to the Mini-Simmons design.

In Surfing in San Diego, John and Jane do an excellent job of providing a comprehensive look at the history of surfing in our region. Local surfers who appear include Chuck Quinn, Dempsey Holder, Tom Carlin, Jim Barber, Mike “Duck” Richardson, Jim Renfro, David Chalmers and his surfing dog Max, Dennis Downs as a grom and boat builder Dennis Choate.

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