As San Diego surfing veteran John Elwell tells it, someone spied a speck on the rough, rarely ridden outside break.
It was December, 1949, and the boys had just paddled out into the frigid water of the Tijuana Slough, a surfing spot just north of the border. A second take revealed that there was indeed a mysterious figure speeding across the face of a towering swell. Unheard of.
Nobody had seen him before, so they dubbed him the Phantom Surfer.
Later, local Chuck Quinn had the nerve to paddle up to the unknown. Quinn promptly took measure of the fiberglass-covered balsa-wood board. It had a turned-up nose, flow slots on the side, and--come again?--twin fins. Quinn knew about an L.A. surfer who made boards like this. “Say,” Quinn said in an accusatory tone, “that looks like a Simmons board.”
“I am Simmons . . . , " the stranger said, then paddled away.
Throughout surfing history, Bob Simmons has been just as elusive. He died 40 years ago today surfing the La Jolla spot now reverently called Simmons Reef. Averse to photographs, autographs and nosy people, he took much of his pioneering past with him when he died that hazy afternoon.
Until recently, he has been cast as a shadowy footnote in the sport--outdone in history by surf pioneer Duke Kahanamoku, early board designer Tom Blake and mass-production mogul Hobie Alter. (In “The Pump House Gang,” Tom Wolfe called Simmons “very mysterioso.”) Yet, surf scholars agree, he helped transform the pastime from the high-skill hobby of a few thousand to a sport that boasts 1.5 million participants today.
He was a horse-betting, crazy-driving, boomerang-throwing eccentric who happened to invent the modern surfboard, making the sport accessible to the masses. “Simmons had a profound effect on everything that came after him in surfing,” says Steve Pezman, publisher of the Surfer’s Journal.
Some of those boys who used to surf with Simmons have either died, dropped out or moved on. If it weren’t for the 20-year obsession of Elwell, the Phantom Surfer might still be faceless.
Elwell, a 62-year-old part-time schoolteacher who still hits the waves of his native Coronado every sunup, has revived the legend of Simmons. He has uncovered memorabilia, conducted exhaustive research and written a series of surf-magazine articles that he one day hopes to turn into a book or film. “Elwell salvaged all this information that might have been lost for surf culture,” Pezman says.
Using balsa and, later, foam, Simmons cut the weight of surfboards by more than half. (They were so easy to ride, some called them “girlfriend boards.”) Taking surfing from the wagon wheel to the tire, he transformed boards from what were basically sealed-up canoes that went slow and straight to a thin, wide plank that sliced through the face of a wave. He opened the way for the fast, rocking maneuvers performed to this day.
How he did it was half bad luck, half genius.
His legacy includes hot-dogging, Hawaiian big-wave surfing and some of the hottest collectibles in surfing today. Simmons boards, which mainly ranged between eight and 12 feet, can fetch $1,800 to $20,000, experts say. Asked if he’s ever ridden his Simmons, Lee Williams, former curator of Huntington Beach’s International Surfing Museum, said with a laugh: “Ridden? Nah! It’s too valuable.”
Robert Wilson Simmons was born in 1919 and raised on Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill and in Pasadena with an older brother and two older sisters. He was exceptional at athletics and academics, family members say, but a tumor in his left ankle kept him away from a diploma at Belmont High. After the tumor went away, Simmons attended community college and then Caltech, his brother’s alma mater, where he got straight A’s, says sister Ruth Hilts.
Simmons was an avid cyclist, traveling Olympic distances. In 1936, he got into one of many accidents that seem to haunt southpaws like him. According to Elwell’s research, Simmons smacked into a car that turned in his path at Beverly Boulevard and Vermont Avenue. He landed in the hospital with a fractured skull, a broken left leg and a shattered elbow. Worst was the elbow, which required a stainless steel loop that forever locked his left arm in an extended position.
A surfer being treated at the hospital told Simmons to give his sport a try, Elwell says. It would be years before Simmons hit the beach, but he would never forget the surfer’s story of the “green room.” It was described as the mystical place reached when surfers get covered by a wave.
It would later be the setting of Simmons’ death.
Around this time, Simmons’ older brother, Dewey, invented a strain-measuring device at Caltech called the SR-4 strain gauge. The device helped the aerospace and construction industries by allowing stress to be measured for such things as airplane wings and bridges.
According to a 1986 article in Caltech’s Engineering & Science magazine, Dewey Simmons sued the university for royalties. In 1949, the California Supreme Court awarded him the right to what amounted to $1 million in royalties over the 17-year life of the patent. Even before the decision, the school changed its rules so that all patents developed on campus become Caltech property. Dewey Simmons moved on to oil prospecting, skin-diving and 3-D photography.
The family last heard from him more than six years ago, says nephew Rick Hilts.
Elwell says the brothers had an argument during the war years and never talked to each other again. They were a lot alike: stubborn, reclusive and brilliant.
Simmons’ arm kept him out of the war. But he dropped out of Caltech anyway to become a much-needed machinist. It was around this time that he began developing his first surfboards. His first board was a 140-pound disaster, Elwell recalls him saying.
Simmons was a strong, tall man at 6 feet, 2 inches. But his left arm never got back to full strength. Traditional surfboards--weighing 100 pounds and more--were hard for him to handle both on his bike and in the water. So he combined his Caltech math background with newfound knowledge of hydrodynamics--aquatic aerodynamics--to lighten his load.
Soon he was seen at the beach, Elwell recalls, with a copy of “Naval Architecture of Planing Hulls” by Lindsay Lord--a prewar study of hydrodynamics. One shape that did well looks like the modern bodyboard and undoubtedly influenced Simmons’ flat, wide planks. He spent time at a Caltech test tank, where he checked out the resistance of his boards.
The Simmons board was built on the sands of Malibu, in his family’s garage, and in a factory-cum-apartment in Santa Monica. He placed plywood and balsa on two wooden horses and carved ugly, utilitarian planks. He never signed his boards.
Early on he developed “flow slots” that channeled water over the top of the board to prevent lift. Some also had concave bottoms.
He later dropped those ideas and went with straight-ahead, flat-bottom boards that had turned-up noses and one or two fins. He was one of the first to use multiple fins (three fins are now standard). The sides, called “rails,” were all important. They were thin and rounded. They cut into the wave, proving, as he told Elwell, that “we’re really surfing on the rail.”
His materials were revolutionary. First, he cut weight by sandwiching balsa between plywood. Then it was foam. Then he became the first to jacket the whole thing in fiberglass.
All this was light-years away from the monstrous, round-bottom paddleboards that were the standard of the day. Simmons-style boards, later called the Malibu board, “made the present style of modern surfing possible,” states 1965’s “The Complete Book of Surfing.” Alter mass-produced the Malibu board and became a millionaire. “When I made my first board,” he says in a phone interview, “I copied a Simmons.”
Simmons began to develop mathematical formulas for production. A guy would ask for a board, and Simmons would ask how much he weighed.
He was also a pioneer surfer. “Before Simmons boards, the ideal wave was a slow-breaking wave like Waikiki,” Elwell says. “After Simmons, nearly every place that had waves opened up for surfers.” And Simmons wanted to try every place he could, telling friends about his desire to surf Tierra del Fuego.
In 1945, Simmons became the first to surf Point Loma in San Diego, a beach with restricted access because of the U.S. Navy’s presence. “We were just astounded that he got by the guards,” says Elwell, who found out later that Simmons had talked his way past the lighthouse keeper. In 1953, he adds, Simmons was the first mainlander to surf Banzai Pipeline, a monster break in Hawaii that is possibly the world’s most famous--and feared--surf spot.
In between, he logged miles up and down the Southern California coast, cruising in his ’37 Ford Tudor rust bucket, eating soybeans from the can and dozing off in a sleeping bag that lined his hollowed-out car. In a letter to Elwell, buddy Bev Morgan recalled a trip to La Jolla in Simmons’ Ford:
“A rock wall curves gracefully down with the road (to La Jolla’s Windansea beach). . . . As we entered the top of the drop-off, Simmons let go with a high pitched cackling laugh. . . . We were accelerating down the curve at 60 or 70. . . .
“Sure enough, he lost it. . . . It scraped into the rock wall with a loud grinding noise. . . . A shower of sparks was flying aft, lighting the eerie scene while Simmons cackled at his cleverness in scaring the crap out of me. . . . Simmons had practiced this before.”
Nevertheless, he sidestepped fame and fortune, Elwell insists. He would dress in resin-covered khakis and a jacket covered with fiberglass dust. He avoided sun rays when he could and had pale skin to show for it. He didn’t go far without his checkered flannel shirt and his distinctive red board. He had small, piercing eyes and a laugh that was triggered when he spied the competition’s boards. He could be abrasive.
“The last time I saw him, it wasn’t too long before he died,” Alter says. “He said, ‘Take me to Windansea.’ Simmons would hitchhike with his surfboard sometimes. I said I got to go to work. He said I was no surfboard maker, and what kind of surfer was I, working when the surf was up.”
Back in Malibu, Simmons enlisted the help of Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin. They put the finishing touches--sanding and glassing--on his boards. They made an estimated 100 boards before Simmons and Quigg split up in 1949. (Simmons used to charge from $15 to $55 for his boards, depending on whom he sold them to and how many of the finishing touches he had to do himself.)
Quigg, a surfing legend in his own right, says from his Hawaii home that the split happened after he decided to build boards on his own. He says he liked Simmons. But Quigg, 69, thinks Simmons isn’t worthy of the attention he’s been getting lately: “He really didn’t invent anything that’s in use today.”
After the breakup, Simmons starting surfing in San Diego County almost full-time. That’s when Elwell met him. Simmons liked him and built him a board. When Elwell pulled out his wallet, Simmons said, “Keep it, you’re a lifeguard,” Elwell recalls.
During his San Diego days, Simmons lived off horse betting at Del Mar and a board sale here and there, Elwell says. He had a betting system but would reveal it to no one. He also hung out at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, learning how to chart the ocean’s currents for use in wave prediction (he was already revered for his wave-size assessments). He took classes at San Diego State, too, with the goal of becoming a teacher, says sister Hilts. But his time ran out.
On Sept. 26, 1954, a strong Southwest swell hit the Southern California coast. Windansea was pumping. Simmons, with Hawaii still on his mind, was in a big-wave mood. When the conditions are right, it is said, Windansea breaks like the prized North Shore of Oahu.
He paddled out with Elwell and a few others, but the swells were too large and proved impossible to surf. Elwell saw Simmons stand up late on an ominous, overhead wave. It was low tide, and inches separated the water’s surface from the sandstone reef below. Simmons got pitched off his board and went down. The plank climbed up the wave and tumbled over the white water that crashed onto Simmons. Then it bounced into the air.
A few days later, Simmons’ body washed ashore.
After his death, his concepts were mass-produced, surf culture exploded and masses landed on Southern California beaches.
For the boys, Elwell says, “It was the end of an era.”