by Corky Carroll
Over the past couple of weeks I gave you a quick look back at some of the women who first pioneered what we like to call the “modern era” of surfing. This began in the 1950’s when the boards went from huge and heavy planks to shorter and lighter boards that allowed just about everybody to surf, if for no better reason than they got light enough to where the average person, including girls, could carry one to and from the water. Before that you had to be Joe Strongdude to even pick one up.
So, today I thought I would go back and take a short look at one of the dudes who had a ton of influence on this transition period. Bob Simmons.
Simmons was one of those kinda off the wall loco genius types, the kind that don’t exactly fit into the term “normal” all that perfectly. He started surfing in 1939 at Newport Beach, already 20 years old. Right off the bat he realized that what he really liked about surfing was the thrill of the speed, and he wanted more of it. The big heavy redwood “cigar” like boards could get up to exciting speeds when you got one into exact trim and on a direct line, but they were big and awkward and not all that easy to actually get into perfect trim. A lot of them did not have fins and holding a hard line was very difficult. You had to drag your back foot over the tail to make them angle very much, and spinning out was very common.
Bob began researching hull design and how to design surfboards to maximize planing speed. His started making his boards a lot shorter than what was popular during those years, many of them in the eight-foot range. He experimented with concaves, eager to find out what effect having air between the bottom of the board and the water would have. His shapes also had thinner rails and were, for the most part, wider in the tail area to take advantage of that aforementioned planing speed.
Simmons was also one of the leaders of bringing in balsawood as the main material to shape boards out of. To do this he found that the use of fiberglass and resin made a great covering to keep the soft wood from getting waterlogged. Due to the fact that his boards tended to be very wide from front to back he found that putting two fins on the tail, instead of one, would allow the boards to hold a high line in the fastest part of the wave without falling out. Most people consider him to have invented the first “twin fin” designs in the early 1950’s. This concept was pretty much ignored until about 1970 when boards got short enough and surfing got good enough to bring it back. The only thing was that none of us really were thinking of the original Simmons shape at that time, and for the most part thought we were coming up with something new all on our own. But, looking back at some of the early two fin designs that Simmons made you can see a direct correlation to the new designs close to twenty years later. Even today there are a number of surfers, especially in the San Diego area, that ride what they call “Mini-Simmons” designs. The guy was truly ahead of his time. For him it was all about going as fast as he could. Turning and all that was not his deal, he just wanted to get from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time as possible. If he could be a blur it was exactly what he was trying to accomplish.
Bob was also one of the early pioneers of surfing on Oahu’s famous “North Shore.” This was back in the days when it was a fairly long drive from Honolulu on a narrow two-lane road. Simmons rode his bike out there, steering with one hand and carrying his board over his shoulder with the other. Just think about that for a moment. It would be like riding from Long Beach to San Clemente with a board over your shoulder. How insane is that? See what I mean about the not exactly normal thing? He was a loner and did stuff his own way. To this day many of the designs he first came up with are still in play.
He died in 1954 while surfing near the spot called “Windansea,” in La Jolla. In his honor they call that area “Simmons Reef.” He was only 35. A bona fide surfing pioneer.