The history of our sport is filled with tinkering oddballs who’ve spent big chunks of their lives making the surfboard a better tool. God bless each and every one of them. Where would we be without them? Sliding around on alaias, I suppose. The horror.
Today, when he would have turned 99 years old, we celebrate Bob Simmons, one of our most cherished tinkerers, and a man whose legacy ought not be defined by poor surfers poorly surfing on mini-Simmons boards all summer. While the short-ish, wide, thin, bellied-out mini-Simmons are a nod to his designs from seventy years ago, virtually every part of your surfboard that touches the water was modernized in Simmons’ Santa Monica garage in the early postwar years.
In those mid-40s, Simmons, nose buried deeply in Lindsay Lord’s obscure book Naval Architecture of Planing Hulls, began to rethink everything about surfboards—all in the name of speed. Most surfers at the time rode long, skinny, hollow “cigar boards” popularized by Tom Blake, or thick, heavy-as-shit solid boards made from planks of redwood and balsa. Simmons—who didn’t learn to surf until he was 20 years old— was dissatisfied by both. Simmons decided that ol’ Lord’s ideas about improving boat hull design would translate well to surfboards.
He was right.
Simmons began making boards mostly from balsa, for lightness, and dramatically shortened their length; his boards were typically around eight-feet long, two feet shorter than contemporary surfcraft. He made his boards wider to capitalize on planing speed. The rails were thinned out. Nose rocker was incorporated. He added bellies to the bottom of his boards to give them a hull shape, the hallmark of his design theories.
Simmons slapped keel fins on the rails—becoming the inventor of the multi-finned surfboard—to help hold a high line and increase trim speed. Curious about how a layer of air between the board and the water would also increase speed, Simmons began carving concaves into the bottom of some of his boards. Flat-out speed was seemingly the only thing Simmons ever really cared about, performance-wise. Turning was not his thing.
Simmons also realized that the newly-developed technology of coating fiberglass cloth with resin would create a strong waterproof shell for surfboards, and became of the first shapers to experiment with glassing balsa surfboards. Not satisfied with that, he also started futzing around with styrofoam core surfboards a full decade before Hobie Alter started selling bushels of polyurethane foam boards.
When he wasn’t reading about hydrodynamic theory or revolutionizing every aspect of board design, he was rolling around sparsely-surfed Southern California lineups in a beat-up car living off oranges and cans of beans, putting his out-there theories to the test. That is to say, he was trying to make a surfboard go as fast as possible.
Simmons’ immediate shaping successors looked at what he’d done, incorporated some elements of his rail design, rocker concepts, and foil, not to mention the balsa and fiberglass combo, then slapped huge single fins on their boards and proceeded to make turning and noseriding the performance standard for the next two decades.
But today’s modern hi-fi surfcraft are shot-full of Simmons’s theories, incorporating concave, hulls under the nose, refined rails, high-speed twin-fin setups—you name it. A straight line can be drawn from Simmons’ eight-foot rocketships to the fanciful designs Daniel Thomson dreams up in his most hydrodynamic fantasy shaping sessions.
He was ahead of his time and did it his own way, two crucial ingredients of genius.
Raise a glass to Bob today, wherever you are—he’s earned it.