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.

The Pure Joy of Surfing

From my Imperial Beach and Coronado Patch columns from January 12, 2011.

The groms after their first session at Lowers.

The groms woke up early Saturday morning. Israel woke up first followed by Shane Landry, Jake Stutz and my youngest son Daniel. It was Daniel’s 13th birthday, and we celebrated with a surfari to Trestles.

By 6:30 the groms were in the lineup on a 3-4 foot day at Lowers.  The surf was firing. “It’s perfect,” Daniel yelled as I paddled by him.

A biting offshore wind whipped out of the Santa Margarita Mountains, east of Camp Pendleton, reminding me how lucky I was to be in my 4-3-2 toasty Matuse Hoplite and hood.

South Bay Union School District Board member and IB ripper Dave Lopez, his son Loukas along with Vincent Claunch, joined us in the lineup. Dave surfed in his new X-Cel 4-3 Drylock, which he said, “Keeps me almost dry.”

The Grom Squad had a blast. The inside waves peeled both left and right, were hollow and provided just enough face for awesome grom snaps and cutbacks.

Daniel attempts something...

I was able to test-drive my new Novak EPS-epoxy 6’6” squash quad (now called the “Potz” by the groms due to its lime green and electric orange colors) with new Futures “Rusty” lightweight foam hex core glass fins. The board and fins worked amazingly well.

As usual I sat just to the south of the hardcore local crew (who are always friendly). I snagged a few wave sets that swung wide and was able to push my new board to see what it could do on the perfect peeling rights.

In the lineup I said hello to International Surfing Association Director Bob Mignogna, who as a board member of the SIMA Environmental Fund is a big supporter of WiLDCOAST. I also chatted with Greg Hulsizer, the CEO of the Southbay Expressway about his homemade 5’6” min-Simmon’s hybrid that he ripped on.

After a solid three-hour surf, the south wind picked up and we headed back to San Diego. On the way home we stopped for a second session at Scripps Pier, where the sideshore and uncrowded A-frames provided a treat for the groms.

Saturday was the culmination of the best week of swell in about a month.

A clean northwest groundswell created lots of barrels in both Coronado and Imperial Beach. Due to the beach closure in the early part of the week in IB, I surfed Coronado last Wednesday and scored a few waves.

On Thursday IB was open and I surfed the south side twice with a small crew including Terry Richardson, Alex Ypis, Billy Huddleston, John Tolmosoff and Ben McCue.

Kyle Knox was out ripping and was recently featured on

Unfortunately, the quality of the waves was marred by the poor quality of the water.

“I surfed for more than two hours on Thursday and enjoyed the brief high pressure/no wind warm period,” said Jay Novak. “Later that day I came down with body aches and a flu type condition. By Friday AM the beach closure signs were back. That’s IB.”

Silver Strand Lifeguard Captain Mike Martino scored the session of the week.

“I took my five-year-old nephew Ian surfing at La Jolla Shores where it was low tide and 1-3 foot,” he said.  “When we saw the waves my nephew blurted out, ‘Uncle Mike the surf is great!’ After his last wave that was overhead for him, Ian said, ‘Uncle, Mike I rode the face the whole way.’ I rode eight waves with my nephew, never got off my belly and had one of the best surf days in a year.”

See you in the water.

My New Surfboard: The Jay Novak Quad Squashtail– 80s Retro

My new custom Novak Surf Designs squashtail quad. 80s colors!

Just picked up a new board from Jay Novak of Novak Surf Designs. It is a 6’6″ x 2″ 3/4 x 21 3/8. This is really an old school squashtail template-the type of Simon Anderson designs I fell in love with when Thrusters first came out in the early 80s.


I’ve been riding Jay’s squashtail quads for close to 3 years, and he has helped me really get the shape I want dialed in.EPS foam along with Epoxy really helps me on the flotation and the key for me is width + thickness. I’m a big guy at 6’4″ and 201lbs so the extra flotation is key, especially with a full suit on.

I have another very similar 7’0″ shaped by Jay. It works incredibly well in bigger surf, especially waves with big open faces. I’m looking forward to surfing this one in Baja.

I’m also a big believer in color. And all my boards right now are either electric 80s colors (think Potz!!!) or a cool 70s era forest green and yellow. I have the Futures Rusty quad fins in this one. Hope they work well. Experimenting with correct fin size is key to getting the quad dialed in.

I don’t know anything about surfboard design. I know what I like and what works. Luckily I have Jay to work with who knows how I surf and can work with me to experiment and get these right. That is the key to having boards work correctly. You have to work with an experienced shaper who really knows how you surf.


Novak Designs quad. These are the Futures Rusty quad fins.

Brett Bender’s Shaping Life

Brett Bender at work at the TNT factory in Imperial Beach.

From my Imperial Beach and Coronado Patch surfing column of Nov 15.

Brett Bender can be found most mornings surfing his modern longboard south of the Imperial Beach Pier. Brett’s son Noah is one the key members of the Imperial Beach Grom Squad, most of whom surf Brett’s ultra-modern and progressive Natural Selection custom shortboards.

Q: Why did you start shaping surfboards and when

A: I started shaping surfboards at the age of 14 in my mom’s garage, because the whole process fascinated me and I thought it would be fun to make money at something you love to do. At 19 I got a job airbrushing and shaping for Mitch’s in La Jolla, manufacturing them at Star Glassing at Brown Field.

I shaped for labels like Iron Cross, Dove, Airwaves and World Motion, Ezera, Marbella, Tony Staples, Bear, Gordon and Smith, Blue Water and others. The whole time I evolved my own Natural Selection Surfboards designs. I am also airbrushing at TNT and creating retro and 60’s style longboards in Japan. I airbrushed for shapers such as Rusty, Mike Hynson, Skip Frye, Nev Hyman and too many more to mention.

The heyday of surfboards for me was in the late 80s, early 90s when it seemed like everyone had lots of work before cheap imports from China and elsewhere and computer shaping machines.

Q: What shapers influenced you starting out and today?

A: When I started shaping I was interested in Ben Aipa’s shapes until Simon Anderson’s three-fin thruster came out. Simon was the man. I had the opportunity to work and learn from international shapers in the 80s and 90s including Almir Salazar, Paulo Cabral and Geraldo Rinaldi in Brazil, Grant Miller from Australia, Kim Purington and Steve Elliot from Hawaii. I learned their techniques and tricks of the trade.

Most of all, David Craig has influenced me the most because I have been watching him shape since I was a teenager and he is a true master of his craft.

Q: Where are you favorite places to surf?

A: I love surfing here at home in Imperial Beach. My favorite spots are point breaks like Byron Bay and Noosa Heads in Australia or Scorpion Bay, Mexico.

Q: What designs that you are working on?

A: Currently the boards I have been working on that have received excellent feedback have been shorter, wider and thicker using a modern version of the old fish blanks allowing for the extra volume with dialed-in modern rocker.

Q: What is happening with surfboard materials that are new and exciting?

A: All different board designs are being ordered in the epoxy medium, since they are lighter and more buoyant. Epoxy seems to be what a lot of people need because they love them. My favorite boards to make are actually 60s style with resin tints, traditional outlines and rails with modern high performance hidden in with lightness, bottom contours, step decks and a really good fin.

Q: Where did the collapse of Clark Foam leave the surfboard industry?

A: The collapse of Clark foam was devastating. Almost 50 years of experience gone, 100’s of rocker combinations, the special stringers, the famous molds all gone which were irreplaceable. Personally it was difficult because I do mostly handshapes. Dozens of blank companies popped-up only to quickly go out of business. A few good companies remain over five years later already.

Q: Is there a future for the small “handcrafted” surfboard shaper/manufacturer?

A: There is always a place for handshaped boards, the personalized custom board. But there will always be a place for the computer board, the highly evolved high performance shape that takes hours to achieve by hand and only takes minutes by computer.

Q: What it is about shaping that keeps you motivated?

A: The most rewarding thing about making surfboards is creating and surfing them with my son Noah whose love for the sport and interest in surfboard design has inspired me.

Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST and the author of Wild Sea: Eco-Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias.

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