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The Modern Surfboard and the Legacy of Bob Simmons

‘Hydrodynamica,’ a gallery show, helps viewers understand the influence and innovation of surfing’s first creative genius.

“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, Steve Lis, 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.

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.”

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.”

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.

Hydrodynamica: Remember the Future, a show featuring surfboards, photographs and film clips connected to the surfing legacy and influence of Bob Simmons, will be at the Loft 9 Gallery and Space 4 Art in the East Village, 325 15th Street, San Diego through March 9.

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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