In the 1940s and early 1950s, when other surfboard shapers worked intuitively, legendary surfer Bob Simmons was applying mathematics and boat-building and aircraft technology to board designs. In 1954, he died in a surfing accident off Windansea at the age of 35. Many in the local surfing community still revere Simmons but none more passionately than his younger contemporary John Elwell. Simmons and Elwell met at the Tijuana Sloughs in 1949, and the two became the best of surfing buddies.
Simmons had designed a nine-foot surfboard for Elwell to give to his girlfriend, who returned it years later. By email, Elwell tells me that he eventually commissioned Joe Bauguess, a respected shaper, to restore the board.
I am sitting in Joe Bauguess’s shop on Pacific Highway north of Old Town as he recalls the restoration job. “That was 2001,” says Bauguess, “and the Simmons board Elwell brought into a shop where I worked looked like a piece of driftwood somebody found on the beach. I got to work and was very hands-on with the thing for about a month. When I got finished, I marveled at what was in the board and what Simmons must have been thinking when he designed it.”
Afterward, Elwell commissioned Bauguess to shape a replica of the balsa wood board out of Styrofoam. Bauguess then shaped several more like it for other people. Eventually, he continues, “Along comes this guy Richard Kenvin, who had been riding the replica I did for Elwell. And he said, ‘I want to make a movie about Bob Simmons, and I want a balsa wood replica.’ Sometime later, Elwell, who loved to tell stories, mentioned that Simmons had made a six-foot board. Suddenly, Kenvin wanted me to design one of the six-foot boards for him.”
But nobody knew exactly what a Simmons six-foot board looked like, except that it was wider and shorter than most boards of its time. Bauguess says he guessed that “it was like the nine-foot board with three feet out of the center. And Elwell said, ‘I don’t know, you could try it.’”
In 2006, Bauguess shaped the six-foot board for Kenvin and gave it the name Mini-Simmons. On that board — and on all 200-plus editions of it he has subsequently shaped — Bauguess wrote near the tail, “Simmons-Bauguess Design.” Kenvin, who is known as an excellent surfer, tested the board repeatedly and reported back that it was extremely good, both fast and maneuverable. “Kenvin then said to me,” claims Bauguess, “ ‘Let’s keep this under wraps.’ I was very happy to hear him say that.” About that time, Bauguess had to go back to Costa Rica, where he now lives between trips to San Diego.
While away, Bauguess says he received an email from Kenvin reporting that he had asked another shaper to copy the Mini-Simmons so that a number of surfers could be filmed riding it. Bauguess was outraged, feeling Kenvin had broken a promise. Over the next months, according to Bauguess, Kenvin shared the board several more times. And he had the shapers paint the boards white and eliminate the words “Simmons-Bauguess Design.” Meanwhile, lots of surfboard shapers started selling the board as a Mini-Simmons, making no mention of Bauguess.
To get Kenvin’s side of the story, I interview him in the East Village loft where he lives and works. He asks that I not record the conversation.
Joe Bauguess’s belief that the Mini-Simmons would be kept “under wraps,” Kenvin tells me, concerned only its use for Hydrodynamica, the film that he is still putting together on Bob Simmons’s influence in the surfing world. Kenvin maintains that he never profited from what shapers other than Bauguess did with the Mini-Simmons. “That was their responsibility,” he tells me.
Despite their disagreements, Kenvin and Bauguess collaborated on marketing the Mini-Simmons for several years. For each board sold, Kenvin says he paid Bauguess $150 for shaping it. Over the course of the relationship, Kenvin claims he paid out $14,000. What is making the board successful, he continues, has been how the Mini-Simmons is being presented by the ongoing Hydrodynamica project and its website, especially a photo on its main page. The photo shows the board in a brilliant ethereal white. In 2008, Kenvin also wrote in the Surfer’s Journal an article called “Remember the Future,” which highlights Simmons’s influence on contemporary surfing.
An experienced surfer who saw the first Mini-Simmons tells me that Bauguess “modernized” what Simmons had done in an “innovative” way. But an email Kenvin sent me before we talked calls Bauguess’s contributions “minor refinements.” Farther on in the email, Kenvin argues that “without the surfing done on it and the pure white finish and the writing and photographs, and especially the acknowledgment of Simmons, it would have been just another funny looking board.”
In September 2009, Joe Bauguess stopped shaping Mini-Simmons boards for Kenvin, who tells me that the decision hit him hard. “I’d still be working for Joe today if he hadn’t done that. I was completely loyal. And he has never once thanked me.”
“I deserve some credit for creating the Mini-Simmons,” Bauguess says, citing a flatter bottom and sharper outside rail as only two of the features he added that could not have come from Simmons. Earlier this year, Bauguess finally obtained a trademark for the board. “It’s not an ego thing. This last year, while the Mini-Simmons board was being sold everywhere, using the name I gave it, I often had no orders to work on. I’m 67 years old and receive $370 from Social Security and no retirement. All I want from the board is to be able to continue making enough money to live on.”