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A Paipo Interview with John Elwell

Continuing the Simmons Legacy.
August 9, 2010. San Diego, California, USA
  Questions and e-Mail interview by Bob Green

1. Surfing was far from a mainstream activity in the late 1940s – how did you first become involved in surfing?
The Elwell's came from England with a mixture of Scottish, Irish, Scandinavian, Roman, and Iberian blood lines. There seems to be some Flemish ties to the wool guilds and later to the iron business. Robert Elwell was an early immigrant, shortly after the Mayflower, and was in "servitude to the King" as the Elwell's were outspoken against taxes and for religious freedom. He landed and stayed in Gloucester and started generations of fishermen and whalers, and sailors for the military. I owe my interest and background to the sea to my ancestors. Most illustrious was Issac Elwell who fought on the ship Old Ironsides, the Constitution, and other ships during the War of 1812, across the seas to fight the Barbary Coast Pirates. He returned and retired to Gloucester as a fisherman.

Although direct lines are from the original Elwell's, my father was born in Boston, but brought up on the beaches of Rye, New Hampshire, and enlisted in the Navy at age 16 in 1916. He made a career in the Navy and travelled the world for over 30 years spanning two world wars. My father was a swimmer and amateur photographer, a voracious reader with time on long voyages to read books. He collected photos and articles of his travels. He was in the first Naval Squadron to France in 1917, and cruised the Mediterranean, South Pacific and Asia in the 1920's. He visited Hawaii and picked up body surfing and some classic surf post cards. He swam every day in the surf when he was home and took me along.


John Elwell - a life spent on, in or under
the water. Photo courtesy John Elwell.

Body surfing was jumping in the soup, holding your breath, with your arms outstretched. It was in the late 1930s, I remember seeing some big surfboards and paddle boards. I can remember sometimes seeing an ironing board being used by kids in the soup [ridden prone]. Not really knowing then what I know now, no one understood anything about waves, the science of swimming and surfing. My father said when he was in Hawaii in the 1920s, he was told that surfing was a skill that Hawaiians were born with and others did not have. Beach boys were telling tourists that they were from Royal Hawaiians. I marvelled as a little boy looking at the photos of surfing like it was a miracle!

It was also a struggle to swim against waves and currents in the ocean. Those who travelled on the sea had fearsome stories of drownings, shark, and deadly stinger (jelly fish) attacks. Still those that lived around the sea flocked to the beaches and loved it. Beach cultures appeared who loved sun, water, fishing, living on the seashore.

The most remarkable change came from swim fins for body surfing and belly boarding. Surfboards were only for big men who could carry over-sized pieces of heavy wood, shaped like ships. Usually these watermen had early paddle boards for rescues but found they were too heavy and not reliable for surf rescues. Dories were used by the Coast Guard and lifeguards. Only after George Freeth, the Irish Hawaiian, came to the California coast in the 1900s, after some terrible and repeated beach drownings in heavy surf, did life saving equipment and organization help the situation inspired by Freeth.

It was the Italians during WW II and the legendary X Flotilla of underwater commandos with rubber suits, fins, breathing apparatus that brought nations to organize elite athletes who became assault swimmers. Rubber molding for fins and masks, and finally superior rubber suits allowed swimmers more access and freedom in shallow waters. I know Pirelli in Italy was developing specialized water equipment, and know Owen Churchill developed some fins after seeing Tahitians in the 1930s, doing oyster diving with palm frond woven fins with carved coconut eye pieces with glass.

After WWII the fins and rubber masks hit the market for the public. Skin diving and body surfing soared in popularity, along with spear guns. During the war there was a great surge in research on developing high speed boats and no one knew exactly how they worked as it was a new naval science to plane on the water. Lindsay Lord, an MIT naval architect, took the lead during the prohibition of alcohol in designing high speed load carrying boats for rum running from Cuba. He was commissioned as an officer to design high speed military boats that could get up fast and go with maneuverability. He was sent to Hawaii and he began to experiment with simple plates resembling high aspect ratio body boards. A lot of new data never before known was discovered with a remarkable new engineering device called the Simmons Electric Strain gage, that measured minute degrees of resistance in tested hulls.

The gage was invented by Dewey Simmons, Robert Simmons's brother, both brilliant students at CALTECH in Pasadena. Bob would eventually be a surfer and would use Lord's work with the strain gage, combined with Walter Munk's pioneering wave research studies, to build a better surfboard he defined as a "hydrodynamic planing hull."


John Elwell presenting 'The Simmons Effect' at the Surfing Heritage Foundation, July 2010. Photo: Ben Siegfried.


2. How and when did you first meet Bob Simmons?
During WWII surfing just about all but ceased. Able bodied men were called into the armed services, except for those exempt or disabled. The beaches were left to a few kids and were mostly vacant. My age group which included Pat Curren and others, were just too young to go into the military for WWII, but would not miss the Korean War.

During this time we hung out at a military beach next to Coronado, North Island Naval Air Station, that had a pool above a beach that had a window of wave swell directly south. It used to get huge and dangerous only in a crescent of two hundred yards. On this beach they had military personnel who were lifeguards and they had some big paddle boards they did not use. In fact they were useless big heavy boxes of air, that leaked and had drain plugs, of Tom Blake design.

At the pool we were considered "pool rats," deeply tanned spending our time between the beach and pool. The lifeguard was a surfer named "Storm Surf Dick Taylor," who told us surf stories and showed his photos of the Point Loma and Mission Beach early surfboard culture, while sipping beer in a paper cup while on duty.

He really stoked us and we headed for the beach and asked the guards if we could borrow their "kook box" paddle boards and they did. After a few minutes they would leak and when you tried to paddle into even a little wave the water would rush to nose and it would bury then hit the bottom and bounce back up overhead. We would go off the back end and cover our head with both arms under water and could hear the impact of these near 100 pound boards. That was dangerous and discouraging.

We went back to the pool and told Storm Surf that we were doing something wrong and asked if he would come down to the beach and watch us. His eyes got very big and he said.... "You are not trying to surf those things down there!" Then explained that there were special rolling wave breaks like Sunset Cliffs and San Onofre. This was in 1946. He also said down at the end of the Silver Strand was a San Diego County Lifeguard friend by the name of Dempsey Holder who became legendary (a pioneer surfer surfing the mile long winter ocean break at the Tijuana Sloughs), which we did and we were lucky to have Dempsey's guidance and assistance, shortly after that Bob Simmons showed up on the scene with the first modern high performance surfboards.

Up to this point we borrowed and shared very poor heavy boards and struggled. It was trips to San Onofre and Windansea that really turned us on and we met some older mentors who were superior water men and gentlemen who helped struggling kids. The life style was very appealing and addictive. They had bonfires at night, played ukelele's, cooked, had late night drinking parties and beautiful women they would curl up in the sand with them in their sleeping bags.

A few old timers came back after the war to the beaches. Many did not or were killed. A new breed of youngsters showed up that were hot and eager. Simmons took many of them surfing before they learned how to drive like Buzzy Trent, Peter Cole, Matt Kivlin, Greg Noll, Kit Horn and others. Velzy also was allowed into Simmons' shop to chat and work together. Simmons helped kids and set a precedent of helping the next generation of surfers. Bob Simmons was an impressive person. Casually dressed would be speaking mildly. Simmons cared not for bathing except for surfing. He wore a wool plaid jacket, or wool flannel shirts that were covered in fiberglass dust and resin. Never wore underwear and socks. Would eat seed gruel cereal when at home and fresh fruits. On the road he would eat can soya beans and fruit and sleep in the back of his car, which had boomerangs and oceanographic charts. He carried an adze and some tools for shaping. He would also eat cottage cheese and loved sherbet ice cream. He was an avid boomerang thrower and ping pong player. Extra time was spent at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography studying wave research.

La Jolla January 9, 1954, the day towering waves of 20 feet or more battered the coast of California. Simmons had just come back from the North Shore of Hawaii. The photo below shows his 1937 Ford Tudor, with a 60hp V8, back windows darkened for privacy, back seat gutted out with a plywood deck into the trunk which had a sleeping bag. The passenger seat was removed for leg room when sleeping and a wooden milk crate was used if there was a passenger. Canned soya beans and usually a boomerang or two were in handy reach. Note his bathing suit drying on the front bumper to be ready for the next surfing stop.


Photo by John Elwell. 

The surfboard is one of the most unusual ever made and has vanished. It has flow slots in the nose, and near the tail to direct resistant water along the rail then direct it off the rail. This board was an incredibly fast paddler and was for big waves. He cackled a laugh and said you don't go any faster if one of those slots catch on a slow wave turning. The board was designed and built in 1949. It also had a concave bottom and dual fins. In this photo you can see the rope handles to roll through giant soup. The rack is custom made from two pieces of 2x4's. The color is primer gray. The photo is rare because it is the only one of his car with this surfboard, his favorite big wave board. He further added that the nose is sticking out of the water when it surfs AND that blew away any criticism about the nose. In fact the belly or cambered nose directs the water to rails to increase faster lift and planing briefly for an advantage AND if it comes in contact with the water such as chop it "lifts" and does not slap like a flat nose. More turn up solved the problem of pearling and nose diving. The thinner tail also helped to bring up the nose when you stepped back on it. But it was the rails that Simmons said were really surfing on, combined with high aspect ratio, and reasonable weight with proper flotation for load, the rider. Simple but complex in achieving the whole.... a well balanced planing hull that is fast and maneuverable.

Tom Carlin is at the left watching the big waves. Tom was a lifeguard who became a Navy Seal and did a number of underwater films in the Caribbean, including the James Bond thriller, Thunderball. He still has his original Simmons and is a retired professional diver. Tom was great surf character and known world-wide for his antics. A good surfer and of course and all round waterman.

Simmons was older and handicapped from a bicycle accident and his diet was because he had leg cancer and was threatened with amputation. He was declared unfit for the war because of his limited use of a broken arm in a bicycle crash. When the war started he quit CALTECH in his last semester of his senior year and became an expert machinist working at night so he could surf days. He then was hired at Douglas Aircraft as a highly valued mathematician in aircraft design, but often called in to say he had to quit because the surf was up. Company officials, the CEO of Douglas was a San Onofre surfer, replied to come back after the surf went down! Simmons died being employed at Leiberscope a top secret aerospace lab in Los Angeles where other bright CALTECH former students worked. Howard Hughes also attended CALTECH and students from there were also favored in his company.


Kit Horn (left), Bob Simmons (middle), and Buzzy Trent (right), Malibu, Ca. 1946. Simmons is quite thin in this photo. He was 6'1" tall and developed more shoulder strength and size with powerful thigh muscles from bicycling the following few years. 

Photo courtesy of the John Elwell Collection (photo by a friend of Kit Horn with Kit's camera).

Simmons was a motivating force among the better surfers in his time. He was known to surf the most and biggest waves. No one really understood his surf board designs even though he left the basic clues of "hydro dynamic planing hulls." Before his death he surfed the North Shore sometimes alone. He praised Banzai Beach which he rode in 1953 as having "real possibilities". He told the local surfers at Makaha, riding the bowl instead of the point, that they were "shoulder hugging chicken". Such was Simmons, as he offended some, was admired by most, and surfing the point of Makaha became the choice of the best surfers.


Bob Simmons surfing Big Malibu, 1947.
This is a rare photo supposedly taken by Bob Prosser, unknown and long gone, thought to be a Hollywood porn photographer who just came along that day. It is the biggest wave ever photographed with any rider getting in so early demonstrating great speed not before seen. It is unusual to see Simmons with his feet together and looking down and evaluating his trim balance. Not unusual for Simmons. He later gave Simmons copies of this photo which Simmons was very proud of. He gave personally gave me this copy as his friend. The ride and size of the wave has not been replicated to this day. Note: not another surfer can be seen, nor could they surf anything like this on the old planks and paddle boards.
This is a rare photo supposedly taken by Bob Prosser, unknown and long gone, thought to be a Hollywood porn photographer who just came along that day. It is the biggest wave ever photographed with any rider getting in so early demonstrating great speed not before seen. It is unusual to see Simmons with his feet together and looking down and evaluating his trim balance. Not unusual for Simmons. He later gave Simmons copies of this photo which Simmons was very proud of. He gave personally gave me this copy as his friend. The ride and size of the wave has not been replicated to this day. Note: not another surfer can be seen, nor could they surf anything like this on the old planks and paddle boards.

Photo courtesy of the John Elwell Collection.
3. Some surfers take a very systemic, scientific type approach to what they do – be it weather, design or surfing. What was Bob Simmons approach to developing designs?
Bob Simmons was an expert in boomerang history and construction and a master of Daniel Bernoulli's Law or principle that describes how things fly and plane on the water. Bob was also a ranked champion ping pong player, who applied Bernoulli's principle by putting a spin on the ball with a gripping surface on the paddle. No one really understood Simmons as he was too far ahead of his time, and intellectually out of touch with the average person. He travelled and surfed mostly alone and constructed surf boards mainly in secrecy, mass producing some and refusing to do the dirty work of sanding and glassing. Some radical things appeared on his boards like twin fins, concave bottoms, increased rise in the nose that had camber, foiled rails, with a final product that was balanced with a designed "attack angle". This and fiberglass, foam, and resin flow slotted noses were just too much to swallow in the late 1940's. Pieces of this whole would be copied to the Malibu board and carried through to surfboards today without fully understanding what it was about. Simmons also could make surfboards exactly float the rider or load by using Archimedes equation or law for displacement. This is still ignored today. He never gave up on "high aspect ratio" hulls, maintained width, and maintained different degrees of roundness on high pressure Bernoulli rails.

   
Poster for 'The Simmons Effect' presentation held at the Surfing Heritage Foundation.

Caption by John Elwell: "It provides a great view of a board. This figure shows his concave and dual fins. He says the concave was to break the suction and fins were set at the rear of the board toed in 10 degrees in the flow of the water being spead coming off the hull, which is at an angle called "Transpan Flow."

Note the degree in thinness of the tail which took a great deal of weight out of surfboards with the rounded Bernouilli rail for life. The thinner tail induced a better attack angle which was previously ignored in all surfboards and are copied today with rounded rails. Bob was adamant that we're surfing on our rails and going almost as fast sideways as forward.... on these points he designed surfboards with a few more things as part of the whole."

Photo courtesy of Barry Haun, Surfing Heritage Foundation.

4. Surfboard designs come and go. I’ve read that you stayed with Simmons’ design ideas and developed them over your lifetime. What interested you about Bob and his boards?
Simmons was not into mass producing surfboards or money. His language was mathematics and the world was all science. He died at 36 years old at Windansea, after surfing Hawaii, doing a late take off and slipped on a poorly waxed new board, one he called "my latest machine." Think about this. Are surfboards simple machines that produce work like the Bernoulli's equation suggests?


Tom's Carlin's 9-foot Simmon's made in 1951, photographed in 1985, after it was refinished. This photograph represents a board without a rider (Simmons death) with a sun beam of light signifying the first modern hydrodynamic surfboard. It has not been retouched and is an actual photo taken into the sun.

Photo by John Elwell.

After Simmons death we surfed all the other surf boards that came out. It is interesting to compare the similarities and what others said. Joe Quigg said, "I copied his rails." Hobie Alter said, "I copied his boards." Noses and tails changed but similar rails remained. Simmons himself said bluntly that it did not make much difference changing the nose and tail, "because we are surfing on our rails! " He said you don't need much fin and said big fins could really get you into trouble. If you want to keep your surfboard, put two coats of glass on it and paint with a special fiberglass paint because the sun will destroy it. "These boards are really easy to make and can be built in any garage."

Much time has passed since Simmons and there has been a retake on his designs and the basis for them. Richard Kenvin one of the finest surfers in the world started to dig up and revisit Daniel Bernoulli, Lindsay Lord's early material and started to recreate the small version of the Simmons boards. They have found them exceptionally fast and manoeuvrable. Joe Curren told me it was the fastest board he has ever ridden. So it appears Simmons was on to something. His boards were copied to the favorite Malibu board, the Hobie's and others. The foiled hydrodynamic rail remains the most visible part and other parts have been modified.

It is fair to note what Lindsay Lord said about planing hulls: a lot of things work and every change is a compromise.


John Elwell and the "Lord Board" at the Surfing Heritage Foundation, July 2010. The board is called a "Lord Board" because it was drived from a 1940s photo and study by Lindsay Lord (see below). 

Photo: Ben Siegfried.
5. Can you explain what you understand by the term "hydrodynamic planning hulls" and how they work on a surfboard?
There are books and pages of complex equations and theories on hydrodynamics. Surfboard planing hulls would have to have an adequate aspect ratio (width and length) with proper distribution of weight for load and attack angle, some turn up on the nose, with some type of foiled rounded leading edge. This would be to lower the pressure on the top rail and increase the pressure on the bottom rail to get dynamic lift. Any design or design changes should be tested with an electric strain gage available at engineering supplies that are now available to do three dimensional stress resistance tests.
6. In an e-mail you mentioned that Simmons did not make bellyboards himself. If you were to design and construct a paipo/bellyboard today what would it look like?
Probably a body board paipo designed by Simmons would have a very thin but foiled rail, some concave, maybe tiny fins and look like a mild version with turn up on the nose with camber and a little belly. It would be high aspect ratio..... wide of course.
7. Have you done much bellyboarding (e.g., riding prone)? What types of bellyboards have you ridden and when/where was this?
I rode belly boards from time to time, more so when I lost my hearing and balance. These belly boards were stock pop outs. Those with rocker did not work well. I thought pop out plastic ones had poor rail design and were for the general public. We have some fine belly boarders in the area and the custom boards I see are far better. Some other good stand up surfers who got older also became good belly boarders. Stand up surfers and body surfers with experience have experience in bigger surf. It became obvious that fins were not essential for belly boards and a good hydrodynamic rail could track well in a steep wave.

I always have them around because the grand kids love them and all surfers should learn on them. It was watching Greenough on film that it was apparent that riding prone reduced air body resistance, and his body weight added more pound per square inch of pressure on the hull. Greenough and others get higher pressure on the rails with their arms and weight on the inside rail and can trim more precisely. This is the answer to increased speed belly boarders have, if they have a superior board. Increased inside rail pressure gives more dynamic lift. A good example is stand up board riders reaching under the outside rail and lifting it up as a lever to get a spurt more speed on the inside rail. The body boarder has a distinct advantage of having more control. The disadvantage is getting up to speed for a take off because his plate has less resurgence that a longer more high aspect ratio plate.

Our place for belly boarding is North Beach during south swells that become too powerful for most board riding and rides end up in collapsing tunnels at low tide. The rides end up in crushing violent maelstroms sometimes injuring riders seriously. A few have end up paraplegic. Accidents do happen to the best in any sport... mountain climbers have a saying about being too bold, and pushing the envelope too far.
You noted: "Greenough and others get higher pressure on the rails with their arms and weight on the inside rail and can trim more precisely." This is an interesting observation because, John Waidelich in Hawaii and the guys who rode small ply bellyboards in Australia rode with their inside arm outstretched. Unlike Greenough, these guys were lying prone, but they were obviously putting pressure on their inside rail, especially when dropping down the wave face. Unlike the refined rails you have been describing the rails on these bellyboards were usually hard edges, only 3/8" thick. The other technique on sub-4' boards was to be poised right over the front of the board, legs out of the water, reducing the wetted area and drag. Any further comment on this style of surfing?
Weight forward and lift aft is necessary for air planing and hydro planing. Plywood rails are not as thick but work with similarity, but not as efficient as a true foil. Keep in mind again of the number of variables and complexities of planing. The only observation of Bernouilli is that regardless how thick it is, that it is rounded. Most rails are rounded for safety. Real Bernouilli is rounded more down from the top. The action is from deflection and pressure from the down rail. Lifting the outside rail like a lever to transfer appropriate pressure to the inside rail is what gives the "transpan" flow. All these things are parts of a complex whole.

Width of the plate maintains the deflection pressure for a sudden dynamic release. Lord says good planing hulls adjust themselves to the speed. In fact as we all know they will sometimes leave the water and skip. It is difficult to summarize all the complexities and variables in all the parts of the whole.

We should note that body boarders adjust their weight for the take off attack angle and desired trim like all surfers. Body surfers very much extend arms and lean forward. I believe a taller body surf rider with fins may have an advantage for initial lift.
Approximately what year or time period were you losing your hearing/balance?
Losing hearing was progressive. Cold water does it and also loud noises. I was exposed to gun fire and loud submarine diesel engines, plus vacuums and pressures inside the submarine because we had "a snorkel." By age 40, old my hearing loss was more progressive and by 60, I was wearing hearing aides and frequently unbalanced. John Kelly of Hawaii, now deceased, and others who were very fine early surfers experienced the same physical malady of loosing their hearing and balance and returned to body boarding in their declining years. I maintained surfing until it became dangerous.

Jim Voit, a former lifeguard friend of mine, good surfer, and once an all-around athlete became very serious in his 60s in body boarding. Jim had always been an excellent body surfer and powerful swimmer. He is now 80, as I am also, and we have tapered off surf activity but put daily time in lap swimming waiting for warmer temps. This summer we have had many days in the 50s that hurt the whole body without a wet suit. Numerous youngsters and people who cannot afford surfboards become good body boarders, then seem to fade away into adult life of work and family.
8. Do you see any links being bodysurfing technique and bellyboarding?
Of course. Judgment from practice. The belly board reduces drag and has more rail to get the Bernoulli effect. I might add that belly boarders are doing more spectacular moves and doing more than ever. The sport has been greatly improved by style and equipment. We have some elite hand gun surfers who do some impressive stuff.
Can you explain what you mean by the Bernouli effect?
Bernoulli says if you raise the pressure on the down rail and reduce it on the top you will get lift and roundness helps on the leading edge like a wing. Weight helps as does gravity and the wave itself as it starts to break in shallow water. The plate (or board) is controlled by the rider by deflection changing the kinetic energy. Everything comes into play of many parts to a whole.

Bernoulli has been improved on by others. Magnus is another person who became concerned with trailing water and air that caused suction as it left the hull. Why good sport cars have spoilers. Lord says a good wake should be overlapping outward and not inward. Wide hulls with contiguous rails seem to deliver the best wake (parallel) as Lord photographed and tested. Like the Ryan Burch copy of Lord's model in the 1940s (see Note 1).


Naval Architecture of Planing Hulls by Lindsay Lord.



The inspiration for the Lord board.




Source: Lord, Lindsay. 1963. Naval architecture of planing hulls. Cambridge, Md: Cornell Maritime Press., pages 14-15. See an annotated summary of the book here.
9. In an e-mail you mentioned seeing Wally Froiseth ride a paipo standing-up, with swim fins on, around 1957, at Makaha.
Wally was impressive. He was right in with board surfers at Makaha. Stand up rides were on modest size waves, but it was startling to see a grown man on a small plate stand-up. Pat Curren jokingly said, "When it gets 20 feet Wally then switches to his surfboard." Of course, Wally was an expert and had been doing this when he was a kid. He was in superb physical condition and a master of wave judgement.
With Wally's stand-up paipo riding was he emulating the more straight-line trimming longboard style or was it a more short-arc turning style?
There is not much room on a body board especially with fins on. He stood up with perfect trim and astonished all around him. Everyone knew who he was and gave him plenty of room. I would say after all these years he was the most outstanding rider I had ever seen. Remember he was part of a group who were almost as equally good like George Downing, but George by observation stayed more with surfboards and that small group of excellent water men were regular all around surfers since boyhood until they got too old. Who did this stuff as kids in the 30s and 40s.
10. Are there any other paipo/bellyboard riders that you recall?
They were around in Hawaii but mostly kids. We had some impressive skim boarders especially around Laguna Beach. Skim boards of course work on the same principle and plane on a film of water. The best ones would skim out to the back wash and get air. Very impressive. Some good paipo/belly boarders have emerged around Windansea in the south shorebreak. Most surfers do not want them in the way in the regular break when it gets crowded. There is a whole new wave of paipo riders and belly boarders. That would take some research along the beaches. They are extremely good and very serious. Pop out boards seem in rare cases are getting better rail shapes, but the hard core riders who make their own are performing better. I have met some who made boards some years ago. It is a completely different sub culture to surfing.
11. How and when did you become involved in the Hydrodynamica project? What has been your role in this project?
Seven years ago Richard Kenvin contacted me at the Windansea Reunion about my article "The Enigma of Simmons," published in 1995 (see below). We had several discussions and I shared my research materials on The Naval Architecture of Planing Hulls, Daniel Bernoulli, Boomerangs, Archimedes, with Simmons' comments and surfboard designs that were all linked together.


Richard Kenvin Mini-Simmons, ca. 2007. Photo courtesy of Richard Kenvin.



Mini-Simmons, ca. 2007. Photo courtesy of Richard Kenvin.



Richard Kenvin Mini-Simmons, ca. 2007. Photos courtesy Richard Kenvin.



Richard Kenvin Mini-Simmons, ca. 2007. Photo courtesy of Richard Kenvin.


He has carefully evaluated the pieces of the Simmons enigma, interviewed many of my sources, read and researched, and became immersed in this story of hydrodynamic planing hulls. He had decided that this was indeed a very unusual and untold story. He then has done several stories with photography, and filming to make a movie in progress. Richard has identified me as project director because of the initial research I did and I have given my full cooperation to the Hydrodynamica project. "Hydrodynamica" has been copyrighted for the movie and book.

The aim of the project is to follow Simmons, an amazing man and the amazing story on his development of surfboards to bring awareness of the science to educate surfers about planing hulls. Richard then recreated replicas of my original Simmons board and tested them with his elated friends and sold a couple of hundred to start a successful business. Several other surfboard makers have come on board and have mutually agreed that the general concepts are superior (see Note 2). There has been international acceptance and many enthusiastic followers of these hydrodynamic, superlative performing boards.

"Hydrodynamica" is the title of Bernoulli's prizewinning paper submitted in Paris, which was one of ten in his lifetime. It is the name of the project from the book I am compiling on Simmons and related men and events that links to modern surfing.

We were very impressed with Simmons as a person and his boards. He was a lightning bolt. He was as Jim Voit said, "A very unusual man." He was like a passing wind. He was here and suddenly gone. There was a vacuum. When he died there were many unanswered questions and puzzling pieces. Digging around a bit, no one knew very much about this guy. He had a few favorite friends. His family knew very little about his surfing exploits.

Simmons cared little for money, fame, and material things. There are indications by his academic and personal life he was brilliant and a gifted athlete who was handicapped.

The picture was a devout surfer who made some radical boards, who also was a championship ping pong player, expert boomerang maker and thrower, plus a precision hatchet thrower...yes! He was a powerful endurance cyclist. Velzy said he was so good he could have gone to the Olympics and no one could touch him in bike sprints or distance. He had a photographic memory. He excelled in advanced mathematics and was employed as a precision machinist, engineer at Douglas Aircraft, and finally at a top secret aerospace lab, Leiberscope.

I first was puzzled by his claim that his surfboards were hydrodynamic planing hulls. He had Lindsay Lord's book on naval architecture. The trail began with hydrodynamic which immediately brought up Daniel Bernoulli and his work. The next question, "did boomerangs have a connection?" This was a big surprise as Captain Cook brought back the first boomerangs (throwing sticks that could fly). They could not be explained at first by the British Royal Scientific Society until one of the group went...."Oh?....this is Bernoulli." The big bells went off! The curve ball is the effect of Bernoulli. Bob's slice with a gripping surface on a ping pong ball that could change direction over the net was also Bernoulli.

I kept poking around writing letters and talking to people. Our USA boomerang society, who are mostly all aerospace and aerodynamic people, told me to get Felix Hess' doctoral dissertation done in Germany, in English, as the last word on boomerangs. I recommend this book as it is the history of boomerangs. He tested many boomerangs in the famous Dutch hydrodynamic tank, in Holland. From this research helicopter rotors were improved for the military. This is startling to surfers. Boomerangs, helicopters, and spinning spheres, all have a connection to surfing. To understand how a surfboard works you must know Bernoulli first then a few more pieces of a complicated whole that is still being refined.

What is embarrassing is that surfboard makers and surfers can't tell you how a surfboards surfs. They copy things that work.

I became more interested about ten years after Bob died when I read in surf publications how some surfers claim to have done something special for modern surfing and were claiming what Simmons had done without mentioning hydrodynamics. They thought fiberglass, lightness, and foam were the major contributors.....not form. No mention of Lord's study or Bernoulli. Obviously no one understood what really happened. All kinds of theories popped up and design claims, and fin claims appeared. Things were really looking interesting and ridiculous and very contrary to what Bob had said, and what was known by naval architecture for planing hulls. Simmons had a few important supporters who knew all along and were silent witnesses like Peter Cole and Reynold Yater. Greenough knew Yater well, in Santa Barbara, and later spoke highly of Simmons as the greatest designer of surfboards. Greenough also was handicapped by serious heart surgery and still became a prone surfer of outstanding ability, plus construction of successful boards, and a award winning photographic maker.

There's more to this story and it will be part of the book on Simmons hopefully when Richard finishes his movie.

There is also the connection to all this with Bob's brother, Dewey', and his amazing invention of the electric strain gage used by Lord to test planing hulls. Dr.Walter Munk at Scripps, a classmate of Bob's at CALTECH became the world's wave expert. It all comes together for a most different type of surfing story. All this is being revisited and the Simmons replicas are doing a come back as extremely fast and manoeuvrable through better hydrodynamics.
12. What impact has Bob Simmons had on your life?
Sixty some years ago it was a struggle to surf because the boards were too heavy and not hydrodynamic. It was an ordeal for youngsters and women to surf. We had a very good surfer in our group who did very well in Hawaii, and has the finest ride ever filmed at Makaha, according to Bud Browne: Chuck Quinn one of my best friends. He summed Simmons up by saying, "Thank God he came along when he did!" Curren said after his death that it was too bad, "He might have come up with something better for Waimea."

Surfboards became dramatically faster and easy to turn after Simmons. Just after him came the modified Malibu and other boards, surf films and surf music and billions of dollars of surf industry.

For me, I greatly appreciate what he did because he gave me so many good surfing days in my life. I am indebted and because of my curiousity and admiration for him, I have met his family, learned more of the sport to be able to give back to it. It has been quite an education and joy. There have been several others like yourself that have become interested in this project.


John surfing San Onofre, 2009.



Photo courtesy of Tom Keck at http://tomkeckphotos.com/.

13. Any other thoughts on surfing or more generally?
Being from a beach area in the times I grew up we became all around water men who surfed as body surfers, belly boarders, surf boarders, skin divers, and lucky enough to be around at the right time and right place as things were really good with few people, pollution, and clean seas full of marine life. We were all lifeguards. Things have radically changed to better equipment and surfers riding bigger and better waves worldwide. Motorized rescue and tow-in are now popular, but good old fashion water and ocean experience, with fitness, is still a high priority.

Like others my age from diving and cold water my inner ear became affected and I gradually lost my balance. I can still body surf and body board. I can't dive as deep safely. My swimming instructor as a lad was eaten by a great white shark in La Jolla in two bites. I agree with my good and lifetime friend Pat Curren. "We were lucky to be born when we were!" I still enjoy doing underwater photography and surf photo hobbies.

(Right) John freediving. Photo courtesy John Elwell.



Follow-Up Questions, November 2010:
14. In an e-mail you mentioned that Simmons did not make bellyboards himself. So, the question that begs asking is: What would a "Simmons-design paipo board" look like? For purposes of discussion let’s assume the paipo board would be 46 to 50 inches long. How wide would the board be (i.e., what aspect ratio would be used)? How thick would the board be? What would the board template look like? How much belly would there be in the nose section and where would the concave begin? What would the rail template look like from the nose through the tail (sample rail drawings for the forward, middle, aft and tail sections)? How much thinness would there be in the rails? And for the benefit of the novice paipo designer, what is meant by the "turn-up in the nose with camber?"
One of Simmons friends told me that took some broken Simmons boards and used the forward several feet of the nose and they turned out to be excellent body boards. To my knowledge Simmons did not make any body boards, but he could have.

Keep in mind the maximum width allowable is what fits between your shoulder pits. That would mean it would be different for every individual, especially for women and kids.

Remember also that displacement is calculated with Archimedes equation for the exact load.... so dimensions would vary on
thickness and actual size of the plate. Rule of thumb "generalization" and  "guestimates" would not be what engineers and naval architects would be doing. Having said that, aspect ratio can be calculated by dividing the length into the width. It should be close to .5 for the ideal. Width and length will vary to load (weight of the rider) combined with buoyancy or displacement (Archimedes calculation).


It is the roundness of the rail which is not identified clearly. Old stuff written says it has to do with "roundness."  Simmons use what is called soft rails for stock boards, but not for his personal boards! His personal board had harder and more down rails, to thinner, and some 60/40 percent. This is an open area for more exact research and experimentation. It is very tough to measure the results. Maybe the new strain gauges can do it with engineers in a test tank.


So what you are asking is impossible to do unless you know the load (which is what the board will carry in weight). One also needs to consider the flotation characteristics of the board.  I understand that foam can calculated by the number of bubbles and density for displacement. (My son is a chemical engineer at Dow, a pioneer, and still leader in many different types of foams that surfers don't ever know about!)


How would I make a paipo/belly board? I would copy key characteristics of a planing hull which would include a

  • high aspect ratio (wide and parallel: divide the length into the width -- it should be close to .5 for the ideal),
  • smooth uplift in the nose with "camber" (some roundness to try and capture how the water spreads it to the rail for quicker and faster lift for take offs),
  • shallow concave to break suction, and
  • foiled and rounded rail (and with more down rail).
Length is open to what you want and where you surf.  Keep in mind "resurgence," an important part for speed in different situations. And also what Lord said, "A good planing hull will adjust to speed." For example, a rider will automatically adjust the attack angle (tail squat) -- more that 20 degrees is stall and as the plate moves it comes up and the rider gets his weight forward to get over the "hump."

My personal feeling is the paipo creation is like the surfboard... an accident and came about from rule of thumb. The people of Oceania had no mathematics or written language or milled flat pieces of wood until the early western explorers arrived. When plywood veneers came out, especially marine type, things changed. It was once guessed by Ben Finney that the first things used by children were coconuts for buoyancy in the shore break. I would imagine ship wreck wreckage was used. Cutting out flat pieces with a stone adz seems awfully difficult but apparently done. No one knows for sure because historians guess. Wood does not last long in the elements.

One more thing that Pat Curren said and Simmons referred to, “You will know when you have a perfect board.... then you should keep it!”

15. Clarification on the statement, "Greenough also was handicapped by serious heart surgery and still became a prone surfer of outstanding ability." By prone, were you referring to his mat riding as opposed to him kneeriding?

I remember Greenough in early movies going like hell in Santa Barbara prone.... lying on the board. I think he did both prone and knee, but don't think I have ever seen a photo of him standing. He had tremendous speed and control with his weight adjustment for pressure with more square inches on the plate.... plus lowered his wind resistance which stand up surfers suffer a penalty!

16. Closing Words.
This you can get from Lord. Simmons applied it. Lord's work applies to straight flat running. Simmons adapted the hydro foil rail for waves which is rounded, and he changed the degrees of slope and roundness progressively sharper to about 60 percent down to 40 percent up. This is open to experimentation.

Simmons sarcastically use to say, "We don't need darts in surfing!"

A wise statement from Lord was, "Every change from the ideal is a compromise."

This is not rocket science but simple, plain, naval architecture of planing hulls. The outline is parallel with a rounded  nose and fared in slightly tail, mostly a smoothed up rectangle that is wide and with appropriate length. Tweaking the design with rounded foiled rails, turn up with camber in th nose, and modest concave certainly looks like these enhance performance. The jury is out on fins and is an option for the individual rider to evaluate to his skill and waves he is riding.

The boomerang too! It was an accident.  Some sticks thrown that were found in stream beds rounded and bent or what ever when thrown flew better than others. Those were copied.

Bernoulli described and put the effect of planing into a mathematical formula of numbers. It has been  improved on. Lord applied it to planing hull boats and Simmons applied it to surf boards in waves. From the evidence we have... Simmons was obsessed with Bernoulli,  probably from early experiences of being in a "flying club" which was seriously involved in "boomerangs."  All very basic in understanding aerodynamics and hydrodynamics.

Keep me informed how you and your  friends adapt this to your own boards and riding. Thanks. I feel humble you were interested in Simmons and this information. This is not new information and been in the closet and is becoming more apparent to serious enthusiasts. It is not what most have thought in surfing history.

Good luck and thanks for your good work in something we love and is so important in our lives.


Note 1. For footage of this board being surfed see http://www.korduroy.tv/2010/stranger-than-friction. See also Kenvin, Richard. (2010). Square One. Serious Fun with Linday Lord and the Yard Possums.The Surfers Journal, 19(5), 16-27. The Hydrodynamica Totem Pole further notes Ryan Burch's contributions, "In the late summer of 2009, a young surfer named Ryan Burch from Encinitas deconstructed everything when he created the “Lord Bord”, a basic chunk of unglassed foam that he shaped into a simple finless planing board inspired by the models used in Lindsay Lord’s “Naval Architecture of Planing Hulls.” Burch’s hyper-creative surfing on this simple planing board is a dynamic demonstration of how the surf/skate style ultimately has its roots in the paipo and alaia boards of ancient Hawaii."

Note 2. In addition to Richard Kenvin, others listed on the design team include Rusty Preisendorfer, Carl Ekstrom, Larry Gephart, Hank Warner and Daniel Thomson.
To read more of John Elwell’s work see
  • Elwell, John. (1994). The Enigma of Simmons. The Surfers Journal, 3(1). Read the article here.
  • Elwell, John, and Jane Schmauss. 2007. Surfing in San Diego. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub.
  • Hydrodynamica project. (Click here to read more above the Hydrodynamica project and related publications.)

Feel free to send suggestions, comments and additional information to: The Paipo Interviews.



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Last updated on: 03/23/13