Friday, January 30, 2015

Bob Simmons

"You don’t need much. A deep fin can cause some real problems.”

I started to build a traditional Hawaiian/Polynesian surfboard last month.  These are not made like the boards that have been familiar since the mid-20th century; they are not a Styrofoam-like material carefully shaped to be hydrodynamic and coated in layers of fiberglass.  Instead, traditional boards, known as alaia, are made from the woods of the South Pacific: 'ulu, koa, wiliwili, and paulownia.  The early boards were little more than planks of wood without any sort of deliberate planing.

Ideally, it should look like the boards on the right rather than those on the left

The problem with traditional boards made from traditional wood is that they weigh between 60 and 100 pounds, which makes it a chore to lug them to the beach and back; not to mention that a runaway board is a deadly weapon.  Some board shapers experimented with balsa wood, but that proved to be far less stable in holding a rider, especially those who were on the tall side.

One of those tall riders was Bob Simmons who, at 6'2", found the balsa wood boards completely resistant to the rules of balance and for whom the standard heavy board lacked the nimbleness he desired in order to ride waves.  So, in pure American style, he decided to make something completely new.  He didn't do so, of course, so that he could create an industry and thus transform a hobby and sport, but simply so he could shred waves in a way that made sense to him and him alone.

Born in 1919, Simmons was a middle-class kid from early 20th century Los Angeles; the son of a postal worker.  When he was sixteen, he developed a cancerous tumor on his ankle that almost resulted in amputation.  His limb was saved from that fate due to his parents being unable to afford the surgery and the cancer knocking itself into remission.  Unfortunately, this resulted in a weakened condition that he attempted to rectify through cycling.  This lead to his next physical challenge when he was struck by a car while riding his bike, necessitating the fusion of his smashed elbow.  Not yet out of his teens, Simmons was now significantly compromised physically.

So, of course, he took up surfing.

The only thing was, with the loss of mobility in his ankle and elbow, his balance was, well, "non-standard".  This was exacerbated by the fact that he was left hand oriented, what's known in the sport as "goofy-footed".  Frustrated by his inability to finesse a standard, heavy board while in a wave and unable to balance on the lighter balsa wood boards, Simmons began to fixate on improving a surfboard's handling through mathematical re-design and material innovation.

While Simmons' injuries removed him from high school so often that he eventually dropped out before graduating, he nevertheless passed the entrance exam to Caltech where he was an exemplary student of engineering until, after the Pearl Harbor attack, he left school to serve his country.  While not qualified for military service due to his physical condition he nevertheless worked as a machinist for Douglas Aircraft.

After the war Simmons took some published studies on air wing design and aerodynamics and began to apply them to the hydrodynamics of the surfboard.  What he created was known as a Simmons Board, originally an unusually wide surfboard [for its era] that sported a square tail and spoon-shaped nose. Over the next decade, and with no small amount of awe, many of the up-and-coming shapers copied and built upon that design.

Simmons also experimented with foam sandwiched between layers of balsa, anticipating the construction method of fiberglass boards that exists to this day.  In order to test his developing theories of board craft and shaping, he would surf the various, and rather different, beaches and breaks of the West Coast.  Since he was an introvert intent on his board's dynamics and not a loquacious competitor in local surf cultures, he remained mostly a stranger.  Thus, he was known up and down the coast as "The Phantom Surfer", a figure of mystery and legend.

New ideas are rarely welcome, however, as students of history know well.  When Simmons began to create some early wood/fiberglass hybrids, he also began to out-surf the locals on their own turf.  Er, surf.  This lead to several violent incidents, especially when Simmons would ride so quickly on his self-designed boards that he would literally knock the other surfers out of the way.  He would be assaulted, dunked, and have his boards vandalized.  He wasn't a shrinking violet, though, and tended to retaliate, including on one occasion demolishing an entire beach's worth of surfboards with an axe.

Not exactly Frankie and Annette, is it?

Simmons was also the first surfer/shaper to visit the famous North Shore of Oahu and realize, when his own boards proved inadequate to the surf, that boards would have to be further customized with a particular beach's topography in mind.  Again, while this is common today, it was a revolutionary notion. Since every sport or social movement needs its pioneer, what Walt Whitman described as "the comet", Simmons filled that role and took surfing from its purely native roots and merged it with the burgeoning technology of his century.  The fact that the activity and its tools can retain both Polynesian nature mysticism and serve as a medium for developing hydrodynamics is credited to the Phantom Surfer.

Although rarely remarked upon, Simmons also introduced another rather important accessory to surfing. Namely, the surfmobile.  Legendary Surfers describes his as thus:
"The 37 Ford had a V8, 60 HP engine. Simmons had gutted it except for a driver's seat. He had a wooden milk box for passengers to sit on. The passenger side, all the way back into the rear, had a ply wood deck. He liked sleeping on floors and never a mattress. He carried a boy scout sleeping bag, cans of soya beans and fruits for food. He had a place to carry hydrographic charts of the coast and the world, to locate surfing reefs. He also had bags of fresh fruit that were in season [that] he got free from trees from friends and his Aunt and Uncle in Norwalk. The top of his car he had cut and padded two by fours that were bolted on his roof for a surfboard rack. His bathing suit, as you see, is hung on the front left bumper to dry. It was a surplus wool Navy tank suit with moth holes eaten in it. Inside on the dash, in the ash tray, he had a string of papered wooden ice cream spoons he got free from stores and would discard after using. He ate out of cans on the road. He used to top off a meal with a pint of ice cream."

Well, it's no 2001 Ford Ranger complete with a scrap wood surfboard carrier, ventilated wet-suit drainage bucket, and welded hidden key/phone locker, but it'll do.  [Yes, that's mine.]

Unfortunately, the practice of surf research would bring Bob Simmons to his meeting with mortality.  At the age of 35, while experimenting with yet another design development, he suffered head trauma when struck by his own board and drowned in the ordinarily pleasant waves off of San Diego.  As Greg Noll, another accomplished surfer/shaper and protege of Simmons' noted, "The irony of it is that it was only a six-or-eight-foot day. That's the way it always goes.  For the most part, it's not the big waves that get a guy. It's always some quirky thing."  Yes, and not just in surfing.

Simmons is now considered the "Father of the Modern Surfboard" and is memorialized by some of the lesser "halls of fame" associated with the avocation, but has yet to be placed on the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach, an oversight that may be due to his notoriously taciturn and stand-offish personality.  Perhaps that will one day change.

Numerous sites on the Internet may give a more complete picture of Simmons and his influence; they are easy to discover.  The best testimony to his importance may be viewed, live and in person, on any surf beach in the world.  There one will see the pure product of his highly internalized vision, one that has enabled both a billion dollar sport and the quirky hobby of an upper-middle-aged preacher.