Aloha and Welcome to this chapter of LEGENDARY SURFERS, detailing the life of one of surfing's greatest contributors, Tom Blake. This is one of the longest chapters in my collection and is based on the definitive Blake biography Tom Blake: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, which I co-wrote with Blake biographer and friend Gary Lynch, published in 2001.
Malibu First Ridden with Sam Reid, 1926
Hollow Board Evolution, 1926-29
Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships, 1928
Carved Chambered Hollows, 1929
Surf Photography, 1929
Ala Wai Canal Contests, 1929-1931
Further Board Developments
Surfer Lifestyle Pioneer
Longest Rides, 1930 & 1936
Early 1930s Innovations
The Sailboard, 1931-32
Collapsible Surfboard, 1932
Santa Monica Guarding, 1932-33
Catalina Crossing, 1932
USA East Coast
Nassau, Bahamas, 1934
Long Island, New York, 1934
The Skeg & Other Innovations
Palos Verdes & Miami 1939-41
World War II and After
Surfing’s End, 1955
“Voice of the Wave,” 1968
“When I was a young man, I fell from social grace, or rather was pushed into deep water. Thereafter I became a rebel of the society that had so taken advantage of a well meaning youth. I soon found that even deep water supports a rebel, if he has the will and ability to swim, regardless of race, color or creed. At times I found the water good, better than the land I was cut off from; the blessings of nature, superior and more honest and productive to happiness than the striving to conform: was thus I came to know my god.”
-- Tom Blake, July 16, 1968
After the Father of Modern Surfing, Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, there was no other surfer more influential to surf culture in the first half of the Twentieth Century than Tom Blake.
Written around 2003, this chapter in the LEGENDARY SURFERS series is based on Tom’s definitive biography: Tom Blake: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, by Gary Lynch and Malcolm Gault-Williams, first published in 2001.
Tom Blake was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on March 8, 1902. He wrote that his earliest days in the water consisted of was when he “Swam, self taught, before 1910; dog paddle. Later, about 1912, swam side and breaststroke. However, some kid won a 50 yard race swimming the freestyle crawl in Washburn [Wisconsin]”1 and Tom consequently switched to that style. Asked when he first started racing in swim meets, Tom replied, “I believe it was in Detroit [Michigan]… Got into a race across the river… no coach, no entry – told to get off the course…”2
When he was out of high school, Tom decided to move out “West.” He was inspired by swimming and surfing great Duke Kahanamoku, whom he had already accidentally met. “I took up swimming in earnest, after migrating to California later in 1920, and worked out at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.”3
“In the early days, 1920, along in there,” Tom recalled, “Los Angeles was a much smaller city. I think there were three or four hundred thousand people then; very few cars. And the air was... clean and clear most of the time. And from Los Angeles you could see the mountains every day, before that smog started to build up. Down at the beaches, the air was real good. It was, really. Wind was off the ocean and the beaches were quite open. There weren’t many buildings around. It wasn’t settled very heavily then. Santa Monica was just a small community.”4
Word of Tom’s swimming began to appear in local newspapers. His first newspaper picture ran in the Herald Express, Los Angeles, March 3, 1922. “In those early days – right after 1920,” Tom wrote, “Los Angeles was expanding, and it was easy to get employment if you wanted it… So I went up to the Athletic Club in Los Angeles, it was a big social club there then, and they had a swimming pool up on the sixth floor, full of fresh water.”5
Tom persuaded the Los Angeles Athletic Club (LAAC) night watchman to let him train in the pool during the evening hours. Eight weeks later, he approached Fred Cady, the head coach of the club, asking to try out for membership. “I went up to the L.A. Athletic Club,” Tom recalled. “Coach Fred Cady was there. He was a good diving coach; very good diving coach; not much of a swimming coach. I said, “I’d like to try out for your swimming team…’’6
The Los Angeles Athletic Club was LA’s first private club. Founded in 1880, when Los Angeles was a town of only 11,000 people and the preferred mode of travel was the stagecoach, LAAC joined a downtown core of businesses that included saloons and shooting galleries. Forty prominent Angelinos made up the founding fathers of the club. Its membership roster read like a “Who’s Who” of the city, with famous local family names like Chandler, Dockweiler, Doheny, O’Melveny, and Slauson. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, stars of the silver screen congregated at “The Club,” among them Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Harold Lloyd, and Johnny Weissmuller. The club’s best-known resident was Charlie Chaplin, who lived at The LAAC during his formative years and cherished the privacy the club afforded. Over the years, other guests included luminaries like writer Jack London, newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst, World War I flying ace Eddy Rickenbacker, and aviation pioneer Glenn Martin. 7
“He presented himself to Fred Cady,” told later-era surfing great Tommy Zahn, “who was the coach at the Los Angeles Athletic Club at that time. He wanted to swim for him. Cady said he just didn’t have any time… At the time, he had Walter Spence, who was the national champion. The story goes that Tom went back at night and got to know the night watchman and told him he wanted to swim there and wouldn’t cause any problems or anything. The guy was easy and said, ‘OK.’ Blake trained in the pool at night, by himself, at the LAAC one hundred foot pool. He showed up later, to Cady, and told him he’d still like to try out. Cady still said he didn’t have the time; his team was loaded and didn’t need any more talent. He thought he had it made. Spence was standing there and said, ‘Give the kid a chance.’ He said, ‘I’ll swim a few laps with him.’ And he [Blake] jumped in and cleaned up Spence! Cady immediately grabbed onto Tom and took him everywhere; went back East with him; took him to all the swims. And, until Wally O’Connor and [Johnny] Weissmuller came along, he was the best in the nation in all the events; not just distance….”8
“I first rode California surf in 1921,” Blake wrote proudly in his 1935 classic Hawaiian Surfboard, the first book ever written about surfboards and surf riding.9 “The idea in my mind started when I was a child, maybe nine, ten years old. I saw a newsreel from Hawaii that was a Hawaiian surfing Waikiki. Just a short clip, but it left a very strong impression. [Much later,] I saw my first surfboard in Santa Monica Bay there,” he said of his first surf, in 1921, at Crystal Pier, “and there were not more than a half dozen surfers in existence then in California... I remember I was… 20 [years old]. Took a surfboard out – belonged to Haig Priest, who was then in the [Hawaiian] Islands. He had it there in the Peterson’s bathhouse in Santa Monica. Took it out, tried to ride it, caught a wave, took a big, mean, nasty pearl dive in a three-foot wave. Got shook up, put the board away and forgot about it for awhile.”10
Tom would not take to board again until 1924.
He visited Miami, Florida, area shortly after he won the Amateur Athletic Union’s Ten Mile Open National Distance Swimming Championship in 1922. He doubled for Ramon Navaro in Rex Ingram’s film Where The Pavement Ends. While in Miami, Tom got an extra job with a bootlegger.
Bootlegging in those days amounted to the making, transporting, or selling of alcohol. Prohibition of alcohol in the United States was law during the period 1920-1933. “That must have been after the national distance race,” Tom recalled of his time with the bootlegger. “I was going to make a living there [in Florida]. Oh, that was a hungry place! There was no money floating around at all. I met a bootlegger there. He was kind of a sport, too. He used to bootleg liquor from Florida into the States. He had a big Packard car and he’d plant it under the floorboards. He opened a little speakeasy in Miami, Florida; put some fruit in the front window and it was supposed to be a little fruit store. Somehow, I met him. I don’t remember how, but he trusted me. He said, ‘You can work for me.’
“I was in the back, dispensing the liquor, as the people would come in for a drink, you know. It was illegal, then, to do it. Finally, one day, police come in there. We had a signal. We wouldn’t open the door until the signal was right. When the signal came that the police were here, we had a bottle of whisky there and I took that over the toilet and busted it. There went the evidence, you know. Police finally come in there and see the busted bottle. They knew he was running a speakeasy, see. So, they arrested and fined him something like twenty bucks; something like that. That was their take on it and then they let him go again. In fact, it [the fruit store speakeasy] opened up again. I made a little money there. I accumulated about thirty bucks… The crazy things that kids do! That I did, anyway…”11
It was almost a toss-up, which place he could make a living at – Florida or California. Contrary to what Tom at first thought, very little financial support was available from the Los Angeles Athletic Club, or any athletic club, at that time. The harsh reality was that swimming competitively meant lean times unless one had a day job. If you did, then you were at a disadvantage to the non-working swimmers who could train more often. Blake recalled many years later, “We sacrificed everything just to swim. If you did that, you got ahead of the other boys that had to work [to make a living]. They didn’t put in the time or the training. That put you ahead, right away. That was the reason I got to the top in a year’s time; from an amateur swimmer into the top ranks, the nationals.”12
The contradictions of a competitive swimmer’s lifestyle in the 1920s soon became apparent. Tom discovered that his life would continue to be lean as a swimmer. “It turned out that they used you,” he remembered. “You swam for them, put on shows every couple of weeks, and they had crowds and they’d charge them. Took in a few dollars, but didn’t help you any. So they left you hanging on the limb, trying to make a living, trying to get something to eat, and swimming at the same time… I got on top very quickly there, but I had to sacrifice working in order to do it. So I turned to the beaches and I found that being a swimmer you could get a lifeguard job when they hired lifeguards, which was only in the summer time. And that got me into the water rescue, and so forth.”13
Following a trend among health-conscious people in Southern California at the time, Tom turned vegetarian in 1924. He was probably introduced to diet and nutrition through the Los Angeles Athletic Club. An early LAAC athletic director noted marked improvement in his athletes’ condition after substituting a diet mainly of fruits and vegetables for the three pounds of raw beef they had been eating daily up to that point. In part due to this wider picture of physical health, the LAAC emerged as a center for physical fitness and culture in Southern California.14
“There were adobe houses and buildings still being used and many unpaved roads,” remembered Blake of this time. “Wildlife was plentiful (on) the edge of town…The San Fernando Valley had many fruit orchards and the owners would let you have all the fruit you could find after the pickers went through. It was at this time I was introduced to the personal health movement and became a vegetarian. I depended on my health for my swimming and life guarding work.’15
“I stumbled along during those early years, in ignorance of proper nutrition,” Blake recalled many years later, “and took quite a beating in doing so. However, I persisted, having blind faith in the first commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ and the Golden Rule, as taught by Christ, as well as the writings of the ancient philosophers and Hindus; the work of Eherat and Jackson also had their influence. Now, all those good teachings blend with the findings of the Science of Nutrition, proving in fact that which man has known by instinct from time immortal… My own philosophy is embodied in these few lines:
‘What God has given to the Earth,
‘Let them the Earth enjoy;
‘And by the Grace of God,
‘Let not my hand destroy.’”16
Because of his encounter with Duke Kahanamoku several years previously and his seeing newsreels of the Duke and others surfing Waikiki, Blake headed for Hawai‘i to see what it was all about. His first visit to The Islands, at age 22, began a love affair that would last at least until the mid-1950s. Waikiki was to become for Blake a sacred place. He wrote of his relationship with it and the Hawaiian people in his book Hawaiian Surfboard: “Waikiki beach has been kind to me. The native Hawaiians have been kind. I have had the honor of riding the big surfs with these Hawaiians – I have sat at their luaus – watched their most beautiful women dance the hulas – I have been invited into their exclusive Hui Nalu surfriding club – a club for natives only. I have held the honor position (bow seat) riding waves in the outrigger canoe – the honor position on the sailing canoe. I have been initiated into the secrets of spear fishing far out on the coral reefs.
“I have learned much from these people...”17
Blake’s first introduction to Waikiki, in 1924, was brief – less than a year. Before he left, however, he took a close look at the ancient Hawaiian olo and alaia boards at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Consequently, Blake “got [the] idea of a surfboard as a ‘speedy rescue board.’” He “Was sold on [the] rescue potential of surfboards for life guarding at beaches.”18
“In the early days of Waikiki – I’m talking about my first trip there, 1924,” Tom said, “the beach wasn’t crowded – one, two hotels on the beach, the old Moana Hotel was there, the Royal Hawaiian had not been built yet. The surfers were… probably less than a hundred of them altogether, lived in Honolulu and Waikiki. They got to love this surfing so much, the young fellows, that they made a career out of it. They wouldn’t take a job or go to work. They’d spend all their time on the beach at Waikiki. They made a few bucks from the tourists who used to come over there, the rich people from all over the world, teaching them how to surf. That’s the way the thing got established, and they were able to exist. I got into the same routine over there with ‘em when I went over, because I was about the first fellow from the Mainland to do it, to actually go over there and live there. It was a very free and open life; healthy life. You forgot. You didn’t think about smoking or drugs or anything like that, or alcohol. Surfing took up your time and your energy, and it was all positive.”19
“After getting to the Islands,” Tom said of his first trip, “I roamed around there and didn’t know [anyone]. Having been a swimmer, I knew the Kahanamoku boys, Duke and his brothers, and I was accepted at the beach on the strength of my swimming past records, you know? Not record, but past records. They treated me like a king, and taught me about Waikiki and the surf.”20 Tom later remembered, “Duke was not living there at the time, but his brother Sam (one of five brothers, all great surf and water men) took me out on his board, riding tandem, and introduced me to other surfers around Waikiki Beach. Sam was also a swimmer of Olympic caliber and a great surf-rider. From those days onward I was fascinated by surfing.
“With this came an ever-growing interest in the design and building of surfboards which might make possible greater rides. I went to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu and there began to study the enormous old boards preserved from the days of the ancient Hawaiians, who had been master surf-riders long before the influence of foreign nations took over the life of the Islands. Among these were the long, narrow giants of the kind called olo boards by the natives.”21
For the next thirty years, except for the war years between 1942 and 1945, Tom would either live in, or travel to, Hawaii every year. 22 “When I first used to travel to Hawaii, the old steamers took six or more days,” Tom recalled. “The food was plentiful on board and I would eat well. The ocean air was clean and the journey quite enjoyable. After World War II, flying to the Islands became fashionable. The air inside the plane was thick with cigarette smoke and the noise of the engines was loud. The pollution was great. For that reason I never flew if I could help it.”23
“Later in 1924,” Tom recalled the time after his first Hawaiian trip, “I returned to Southern California and was engaged as a lifeguard by the exclusive Swimming Club on the beach of Santa Monica, a little south of Santa Monica Canyon.
“Next door to the Swimming Club stood the also exclusive [Santa Monica] Beach Club. One of the guest members there was Duke Kahanamoku. “About a year later, in 1925, Duke became lifeguard for the Beach Club. This meant that he and I were guarding stretches of sand and surf side by side. We saw each other every day and became constant surfing and swimming companions...” Later on, “Duke left his lifeguard position at the Beach Club and I moved up to that position in his place.”24
“The lifeguard business didn’t amount to much then,” Tom said of the 1920s. “They wouldn’t hire a lifeguard in the winter, anybody, because there were very few swimmers. The water got a little colder. The summer, when spring came, the people of Los Angeles started coming down to the beaches, and half a dozen of them would drown before anybody’d hire a lifeguard...”25 Even so, Blake was able to get some lifeguard work. “And I loved the beach and the ocean. It was positive, the whole thing, and that led me to stick with it and go over to the Islands and hang onto it for all those years. When you’re leading a life of surfing like that, exercise, and hungry all the time, you didn’t have much money because you didn’t work. You’d spend your time surfing. You’d build a surfboard to make a little money, and travel back and forth to the Islands.”26
While still living in Santa Monica, Blake made the transition from swimming to life guarding in the summertime, working as lifeguard and swimming instructor. Competitive swimming would remain part of the plan for the rest of the decade, along with film industry work. It was while working as an ocean lifeguard at the Santa Monica Swim Club that Tom uncovered the redwood plank on which he would take surfing up a second time.
The typical surf board of the time, according to Tom, was a 9 foot, 10 inch redwood. It was likely that the board he used at the Santa Monica Swimming Club was of similar dimensions. “My swimming took me into lifeguard work,” Tom said, “and I remember the first board that I saw was an old beaten-up board that somebody discarded at the place where I worked, and there was surf near by Santa Monica Canyon. Took that old board out and tried to ride it, and I didn’t have any luck. Next day, days later, I took it out [again], and finally one day I caught a little two-foot wave and stood up on the board, and found that I was actually riding a wave. It was one of the biggest things that you remember about surfing is your first ride. A little ride, the board kept going and going before the wave for about fifty feet. That’s a thrill in the early, first start of surfing. That was before I ever hit the Islands.”27
A decade later, Tom would write about the surfers whom he knew when he began. He wrote that Gerry and Arthur Vultee started around the same time he started. He remembered seeing Preston “Pete” Peterson ride a first break wave at Ocean Park when Pete was only nine years old. Tom noted that Pete had already been riding for several years at that point. By 1933, Pete Peterson was recognized as the best surfer on the Pacific Coast and, as Tom put it, “his cleverness is equal to the best at Waikiki.”28
In Hawaiian Surfboard, published in 1935, Tom gave special credit to those surfers who distinguished themselves both on the Mainland and in Hawaii during the 1920s and early 1930s. These were “charter members” of what he called the Kalahuawehe Surfboard Club.29 In addition to himself, honorary members included: Duke Kahanamoku, George Freeth (deceased), Haig Priest, Preston “Pete” Peterson, Chauncy Granstrom, Wally Burton, Bob Sides, Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison, Gene “Tarzan” Smith, the Vultee brothers, Lee Jarvis, Rusty Williams, Grant Leonhuts, Rothwell, Willie Gregsby, Bill Herwig, Sam Reid, Keller Watson, Mullahey, Braithwate, John Smith and Sunny Ruppman.30 Tom recognized these surfers as the pioneer Mainland surfriders of the Twentieth Century – and not all of them were from California. Out of the group, rookies included “the new crop of boys from California, Whitey Harrison, Gene Tarzan Smith, Bob Sides, Chauncy Granstrom and Wally Burton.”31
It was in 1924 that Tom got married – very briefly.
Wally Burton, eight years younger than Tom and a beginning surfer in the late 1920s, recalled his own impressions and what Tom had told him: “You know, he married the daughter of somebody that worked in the film industry. She was a very attractive girl. For their honeymoon – he told me this, himself – on the honeymoon they went over there [to the Islands, for Blake’s second trip there] and she saw very little of Tom. He was surfing all the time. Well, the marriage didn’t last, I don’t think, a month. She came back to the States and they were separated. Now, what kind of a divorce or separation it was, I never was able to find out. But that was typical of Tom Blake. Surfing meant more to him than anything, and the ocean meant more to him than anything. And all the experience that I had with Tom, I was very much impressed with his knowledge of the sea. He watched the tides; he watched the sunrise, the sunset, whatever. And he worshiped the ocean. That’s the kind of guy he was.”32
Malibu First Ridden with Sam Reid, 1926
While in Santa Monica in 1925, Blake started building his own surfboards. One of the first people to own a Blake surfboard was Sam Reid. Although accounts differ and others claim to have been the first, it is most probable that it was Sam Reid and Tom Blake who had the honor of being the first surfers to ride California’s most central of surf Meccas, Malibu Point, on September 1926.
Dramatic lines of demarcation existed between Santa Monica and Malibu at the time – much more so than today. Going to Malibu from Santa Monica was the equivalent of going from one county to another. Inn the 1920s, Santa Monica was still an appendage of the City of Los Angeles. Going to Malibu was going to the countryside. Outside of one ranch, there was very little other development of the area. Malibu had originally been home to the members of the Chumash and Gabrielino tribes for approximately 7,000 years. The word “Malibu” is a corruption of the Chumash word Maliwu, the name of the Chumash village located at the mouth of Malibu Canyon near Malibu Point. In 1805, the Spanish government granted 13,316 acres of shoreline and adjacent mountain land to Jose Tapia, a former soldier. The rancho was subsequently named Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit.33
Anglo Americans Frederick and May Rindge purchased the ranch land in 1887, following the American takeover from the Spanish.34 The Rindge family soon began an intense struggle with the new State of California to seclude Malibu by preventing the construction of the public highway planned to run along the coast.35 When Frederick Rindge died in 1905, Rhoda May Rindge continued with development of the ranch. Under her direction, a private railroad was built that ran from the pier in Malibu to the northern end of the ranch to the Ventura County line. She hired armed guards to keep out trespassers and was even responsible for a number of dynamiting attempts to halt construction of the state highway. She eventually exhausted her financial resources in unsuccessful court battles. In 1926, out of necessity, Rindge gave up her opposition to the public right-of-way. The state subsequently built the highway through Malibu. First known as the Roosevelt Highway, it is now known as Highway 1 or the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), and is still a beautiful stretch of coast.36
The Coast Highway from Santa Barbara to San Diego, including the Malibu property, officially opened in 1929.37 The same year the Santa Barbara to San Diego section opened, Rindge’s Marblehead Land Company started selling lots and acreage up to 640 acres.38 What became known as the “Malibu Colony” began when May Rindge began leasing her shoreline property to writers, movie stars, and musicians. Not surprisingly, entertainers and other celebrities still comprise a large portion of the area’s residents.39
Toward the end of the period of Rhoda May Rindge’s battle with the State of California, in September of 1926, Tom Blake and Sam Reid made their foray into Malibu. Reid recalled the day vividly:
“Visualize, if you can, a beautiful September day in California. On this day, the first wave was ridden at what was then Malibu Ranch, stretching from Las Flores Canyon to Oxnard, and owned by Samuel K. Rindge. The coast highway was then a two lane road, dirt most of the way. Tom Blake had stopped by the Santa Monica Swimming Club to pick me up. In those days, cowboys with guns and rifles still rode the Malibu Ranch, and the gate at Las Flores Canyon had a ‘Forbidden – No Trespassing’ sign on it. We took our 10’ redwoods out of the Essex rumble seat and paddled the mile to a beautiful white crescent-shaped beach that didn’t have a footprint on it. No buildings and, of course, no pier! There was no audience but the seagulls.”40
Tom’s memory of the first time at Malibu was a little less glowing than Reid’s, but still appreciative:
“The surf was less than 3-foot, but the pristine, natural beauty of the place stood out; pelicans, sea gulls, clean beach.” Did he think it would become the center of California surfing? “No,” he replied easily. “With 3-foot surf, I had never seen it running well. However, I was determined to try it later and did.”41
The boards ridden that day were of varnished solid California redwood. Reid’s board was a rockerless plank, 10’ 1’ x 22’. The nose was later laminated with post World War II fiberglass and is on display at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, Santa Cruz, California.42
Hollow Board Evolution, 1926-29
In 1926, Tom returned to Hawaii for a longer stay. At Waikiki where he surfed, ancient creeks still ran clean water into the ocean, and one hundred year old outrigger canoes made daily voyages out to sea for fish. Motivated by all he saw and was part of, Tom began researching Hawaiian culture.
Ancient Hawaiian Templates, 1926
Tom Blake was the first surfer to visit the Bishop Museum of Honolulu and give the museum’s surfboards serious study. He was fascinated with Chief Abner Paki’s boards that had hung on the museum’s outside walls for twenty years. “It is apparent to me,” Tom later stated, “that it remained for the old Hawaiians to put the art of the surfboard on the highest level of development and popularity it had ever reached in the world.”43
Drawing on his previous but brief studies in 1924, Tom took a closer look at Hawaiian chief Abner Paki’s boards. Not only a dreamer, but a doer, Tom thought extensively about how the old boards handled in the surf. “Strange as it may seem,” he wrote, these “three old-style Hawaiian surfboards of huge dimensions and weight have hung on the walls of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu for twenty years or more without anyone doing more than wonder how in the world these great boards were used, and were they not too long and heavy to be practicable.”44
According to the Nineteenth Century Hawaiian historian David Malo, the material used for olo construction was wili wili, a soft, lightweight wood. This contradicts the reality of Paki’s boards. The only true olo boards in existence – Paki’s – were constructed of hard wood. To Blake’s knowledge, the olo “or long type board, was not usually made of the hardwoods from koa and breadfruit trees, but of the soft, light wood of the wili wili tree. Those koa boards of chief Paki’s in the Bishop Museum are really a bit too heavy, although handling well in the water, and riding the big swells in a good manner.”45 Blake’s eventual restoration of Paki’s boards is of great historical importance, not only for restorative reasons, but because it ultimately lead to Blake’s development of the hollow board, and our greater understanding of Hawaiian surfing prior to European contact.
“I... had the privilege, and hard work, of restoring Paki’s museum boards to their original condition,” Tom wrote. “For twenty years or more they had been hanging or tied with wire against the stone wall on the outside of the museum, covered with some old reddish paint and rather neglected.
“My inquiries into the art of surf riding disclosed to me the true value of these two old koa boards. They are the only two ancient surfboards of authentic olo design known to be in existence today.
“I made an appeal [in 1924] to Mr. Bryan, curator of the museum, to restore the boards to their former unpainted finish and begged a more worthy location for their display in the museum. Permission was refused by the directors on the grounds that I might injure the evident antiquity of Paki’s boards. After two years [probably 1926], I made a second appeal, and was granted permission to restore them and given promise of a more suitable location inside the building to keep them.
“In the restoration of Paki’s old boards, I discovered that they are undoubtedly much older than anyone suspected. In fact, they were probably already antiques when Paki acquired them...
“Underneath the old red paint was several coats of blue paint, and underneath that were hard layers of a sand colored paint, and underneath that in many spots was marine deck seam compound filling in worm eaten parts of the board. On the largest board, part of the tail was rebuilt of California redwood to give the board its original shape.”46
Blake continued: “Paki, according to Stokes, was born on Molokai in 1808, and lived until 1855. It was probably around 1830 when Paki was man enough to handle these big boards. The old whaling ships were sometimes seen in Honolulu harbor then and the several kinds of paint underneath the old red surface, also the ship’s deck seam compound and redwood tail patch were available even before 1830.
“Therefore, I assume that Paki dug up these two fine old discarded worm-eaten boards, had the redwood patch put on one, then deck caulking compound and paint on both, and painted them, so he could use them himself.
“In their restored condition, the worn holes and patches show clearly under the varnish finish. Two fine examples of a now extinct design are these two old boards on which Chief Paki once rode the Kalehuawehe surf at Waikiki.”47
“It is said,” Blake went on, “that Paki would not go surfriding unless it was too stormy for anyone else to go out. His reputation of going out only in big surf is the natural thing when a man gets beyond his youth. Today, it takes big waves to get the old timers out on their boards.”48
Coincidentally, Tom’s restoration of Paki’s olo later would result in his further development of olo-inspired hollow paddleboards and surfboards that became predecessors to later-era big wave “guns.”
The restored olo boards were in stark contrast to the surfboards of Blake’s time, which were built mostly “by Caucasians who fostered the revival at Waikiki,” wrote Ben Finney and James Houston in their 1966 landmark work Surfing, The Sport of Hawaiian Kings. “They [the revivalist boards] were some seven feet long and resembled the short alaia. They were two-to-three inches thick, flat on top, with a slightly convex bottom and rounded edges. The native woods, koa and wiliwili, were replaced by redwood, pine and other imports. As a finish, marine varnish was used, rather than burnt kukui-nut juice. Although soon superseded, these short pioneer craft mark the beginning of the transition to modern boards, using the old alaia as a departure point.”49
By the time of surfing’s revival at Waikiki at the beginning of the century, only belly boards and modified alaias existed – and even these were few in number. Tom Blake was the first surfboard shaper in the Twentieth Century – and one of the very few, even to this day -- to shape boards from the ancient olo design. By 1926, belly boards, modern alaias, and planks comprised the surfer’s quiver at Waikiki. Without Tom’s seeing what his work would eventually mean, he changed everything by restoring Paki’s boards. Hawaiian newspapers traced his subsequent advances in design as well as the record-setting paddling races he won using derivatives of Paki’s ancient design. Never shy of the media, Blake himself would use newspapers, magazines, books, and photographs to get the word out about the wonders and thrills of surf riding.50
While it is true that Tom’s work replicating the olo was a significant act and, later on, his attachment of a keel – or “fin” – to the bottom of a surfboard forever changed the dynamics of surfboards themselves, it was probably Blake’s development of hollow rescue and paddling surfboards for which he is best known.
After restoring Chief Paki’s boards for the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Tom went on to build replicas for himself. In an article entitled, “Surf-riding – The Royal and Ancient Sport,” published in a 1930 edition of The Pan Pacific, he wrote: “I... wondered about these boards in the museum, wondered so much that in 1926 I built a duplicate of them as an experiment, my object being to find not a better board, but to find a faster board to use in the annual and popular surfboard paddling races held in Southern California each summer.”51 Tom had stumbled onto the hollow board in the process of shaping the olo design. During the 1920s, surfboards weighed between 75 and 150 pounds. Paki’s olo was considerably heavier than the heaviest Waikiki board of the day, all of which were of solid wood construction. On a whim, he took his 16 foot olo replica board and, in his own words, “drilled it full of holes to lighten and dry it out, then plugged them up. Result: accidental invention of the first hollow surf-board.”52
Tom had bought a solid slab of redwood 16 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 4 inches thick. Initially, it weighed around 150 pounds. He subsequently drilled hundreds of holes in the surfboard, from top to bottom. Each hole removed a cylinder of wood four inches long. He then left this many holed board to season for a month. After the wood had fully dried, he covered the top and bottom surfaces with a thin layer of wood, or veneer, sealing the holes. He then shaped the board in a design similar to the Bishop Museum boards. Blake’s “holey” board ended up 15 feet long, 19 inches wide and 4 inches thick. Because it was partially hollow, this board weighed only 100 pounds.53
Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships, 1928
The July 16, 1928 Long Beach Press-Telegram announced: “SURFBOARD CLUB WILL HOLD TITLE MEET AT HARBOR.” The article read: “The Corona Del Mar Surfboard Club, which claims to be the largest organization of its kind in the world, will hold a championship surfboard riding tournament at the Corona Del Mar beach at the entrance to Newport Harbor on Sunday, August 5.
“Some of the most notable surfboard riders in the world are expected to compete, including the famous swimmer and surfboard rider, Duke Kahanamoku, Hawaiian champion; Tom Blake of Redondo, who won two championships, and Harold Jarvis, long distance swimmer of the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Some of the surfboard riders are predicting that new world records will be made here during the meet. So far fifteen surfboard artists have signed up, including some from as far away as San Francisco. It is planned to make it an annual event.”54
On the day of the Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships, the Press-Telegram reported: “PLANS COMPLETED FOR SURFBOARD RIDING TILT.” It went on: “Preparations have been completed for the Pacific Coast surfboard riding championship tournament, to be held at Corona Del Mar, the entrance to Newport Harbor today. Part of the entrance to the harbor is said to be only surpassed by some Hawaiian beaches for surfboard riding.
“Duke Kahanamoku and other well-known surfboard artists will compete. Besides surfboard riding the program will include canoe tilting contests, paddling races and a life-saving exhibition by surfboard riders. In addition to Kahanamoku, other well-known members of the club include Tom Blake of Redondo, Gerard Vultee and Art Vultee of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, Clyde Swedson of the Hollywood Athletic Club, and others.”55
The big story of this first-ever surf contest on the U.S. mainland was the unveiling of the hollow surfboard. Tom Blake brought his drilled-hole hollow board innovation and a regular 9-foot 6-inch redwood surfboard back with him by boat to the U.S. Mainland. Armed with his partially hollow olo replica, Tom subsequently won the first Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships – which he had also helped organize.56
Held under direction of Captain Scheffield of the Corona del Mar Surfboard Club, the championship’s main event was a paddle race from shore to the bell buoy break, followed by a surf ride in. “500 yards and back; 1st back to win,” Tom remembered.57 In later documenting the event for his protégé Tommy Zahn in 1972, Tom wrote: “Situation: about 8 or 10 men, including Gerard Vultee (late co-founder of Lockheed; an aeronautical engineer; designer of aircraft and surfboards). He had the longest board; 11-feet. I had a 9’6’ broad riding board. I figured he would be 1st out at the break and therefore should get the first wave in.
“I had this (1st one only) 15-foot paddle board with me for the paddling race (115 lb.). So I decided to use both boards in the surfing race. Had them both on the beach as the starting gun went off. Everybody got a good head start; Vultee in the lead. I slowly proceeded to put the 15’ P.B. in the water, then went back to get the 9 ½ job; placed it upon the P.B. and started after the field, now 50 yards out. Slowly caught and passed them at 300 yards and arrived at the starting break [the bell buoy break] alone with a minute to spare – discarded the long board and lined up for the 1st wave. They were about 6 or 7 feet high; not large, but strong.
“Vultee arrived first, then the rest; we all had to wait a few minutes for a set of waves. Vultee and me took after the first one. He got it and took off on the left side, for shore. But, the second wave was a bit bigger. I got it and slid right. Vultee’s wave petered out in the channel; mine carried me all the way in, opposite the jetty and to shore for a win. There was a movie outfit there; a news reel deal. I later saw the ride and had a close-up [made]; someone probably still has it.”58
Tom used two boards that historic day, the drilled-hole hollow board for paddling and the more conventional board for riding waves. A board strictly for paddling was unheard of up to this point.
Everyone competed in paddling races on surfboards. Some old-timers recalled that it was the first time they had ever seen a surfboard turned. Dragging either the left or the right leg in the water accomplished this. Board length was 16 feet; the weight was 120 pounds.59 Blake recalled his huge drilled-hole olo design paddleboard: “When I appeared with it for the first time before 10,000 people gathered for a holiday and to watch the races, it was regarded as silly. Handling this heavy board alone, I got off to a poor start, the rest of the field gaining a thirty-yard lead in the meantime. It really looked bad for the board and my reputation and hundreds openly laughed. But a few minutes later it turned to applause because the big board led the way to the finish of the 880-yard course by fully 100 yards.”60
“Later,” after the main event, “they held a 440 yard board race, paddling. I let Vultee lead for most of it, then breezed by him on the new semi-hollow paddle board. Received a statue of a swimmer and a cup. Still have the statuette of a swimmer; the cup is held by some club; don’t know who. It has Pete’s name on it for many later winnings.”61 A picture of the cup can be seen in Doc Ball’s California Surfriders 1946.
Next day, the Long Beach Press-Telegram printed: “LOS ANGELES MAN, TOM BLAKE, WINNER OF EVENTS OF SURFBOARD CLUB.” The article continued: “The aquatic powers of Tom Blake, bewhiskered athlete of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, enabled him to win over an assemblage of swimmers in the meet held yesterday afternoon in front of the Starr Bath House on the Corona Del Mar beach. Blake took two of the first places, winning easily the surfboard contest and the paddling race. He was awarded silver trophies for his championship.
“Several hundred people lined the beach to witness the contest held under the auspices of the Corona Del Mar Surfboard Association. The fact that Duke Kahanamoku, famous surfboard rider, could not be present did not detract from the excitement of the day.
“The Corona Del Mar Surfboard Club has been sponsored by Captain D.W. Sheffield, manager of the Starr Bathhouse. It is said to be the only organization of its kind on the Pacific Coast.
“The results of the contest were as follows: Quarter-mile surfboard race, won by Tom Blake, L.A.A.C.; second, Gerard Vultee, Corona Del Mar; third Dennie Williams, Corona Del Mar. Paddling race was won by Tom Blake; second, Dennie Williams.”62
Top surfers were to compete for the Pacific Coast Championships eight times between 1928 and 1941, until World War II.63 And, although he met with competitive success on the U.S. mainland, Blake’s eyes were on the Islands. “My dream was to introduce, or revive, this type of board in Hawaii where surfboard racing and riding is at its best,” he wrote in his 1935 edition of Hawaiian Surfboard. “This seems to have materialized...”64
Carved Chambered Hollows, 1929
Following his win of the first Pacific Coast Surfing Championship at Corona del Mar in 1928, Blake changed the construction of his drilled-hole hollow boards. It was in the later part of 1929, after three years of experimenting with his hollow approach, that Tom switched construction to a chambered-type construction. “I introduced at Waikiki a new type of surfboard,” Blake wrote of his innovative hollow surfboard. It was, “new so the papers said, and so the beach boys said, but in reality the design was taken from the ancient Hawaiian type of board,” his 1926 replicas of them, and “also from the English racing shell. It was called a ‘cigar board,’ because a newspaper reporter thought it was shaped like a giant cigar.”65
Of Blake’s hollow olo-inspired design, Dr. D’Eliscu of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin wrote in 1929 that “The old Hawaiian surfboard has again made its appearance at Waikiki beach modeled after the boards used in the old days. A practice trial was held yesterday at the War Memorial Pool, and to the surprise of the officials, the board took several seconds off the Hawaiian record for one hundred yards.”66 Blake referred to this modern olo design as the racing model; in essence a paddleboard. He built what he termed the riding model surfboard, “Okohola,” a month later, in December 1929.67
The hollow paddleboards and surfboards Blake now made, “differed from the olo in that they were flat-decked, built of redwood, and hollow,” wrote Finney and Houston many years later. “They were excellent for paddling and also successful in the surf. Like the olo they were well adapted to the glossy rollers at Waikiki. A man could catch a wave far out beyond the break, while the swell was still a gentle, shore-rolling slope, and the board would slide easily along the wave, whether it grew steep and broke, or barely rose and flattened out again."68
Duke Kahanamoku told his biographer, Joe Brennan, in 1968, in their book World of Surfing, that Tom Blake “proved to be one of the finest board men to walk the beach. Daring and imaginative he always was…”69 “Blond Tom Blake... was a haole who accepted the challenge,” Duke added and then added some more: “He was the one who first built and introduced the paddleboard – a big hollow surfing craft that was simple to paddle and picked up waves easily but was difficult to turn. It had straight rails, a semi-pointed tail, and laminated wood for the deck. For its purpose it was tops.”70
Another impressive win for Tom was the Catalina race, which he did not really consider a race as much as a test of endurance. “Blake did not consider the Catalina paddle a race,” clarified his biograher Gary Lynch. “He said it was a demonstration of the ability of his new Rogers [manufactured] paddleboards. To prove how they could perform in long distance rescue work. Also it was to prove the stamina of men who paddled then... He said it was not a race and unfair to call it one. Wally and Pete did Tom a favor really [by helping him promote his boards].”71 Blake admitted that some would term it “a race from the California mainland to Catalina Island over a 26-mile course, across open water.” He made the trek in 5 hours and 53 minutes. “There’s an average of about 5 miles per hour,” Blake continued, “with only the hands and arms to propel the hollow surfboard.” The two other paddlers that went out with Tom – Pete Peterson and Wally Burton – came in later, at about 6.5 hours.72
Tom Blake’s innovations inspired others to experiment, including Duke Kahanamoku. Some builders began “using alternating strips of laminated pine or redwood, instead of one or several planks of the same wood,” historians Finney and Houston noted. “These striped boards combined the strength of pine with the light weight of redwood and were believed to be more functional as well as more attractive. About this time lightweight balsa boards were first tried, but were dismissed as too light and fragile for practical use.”73
Duke told Tom that the 10-foot redwood planks he and the boys rode at the beginning of the century had been “in vogue until 1924 when Lorrin Thurston, one of Hawaii’s most enthusiastic surfriders, appeared with a twelve-foot board. To Thurston also goes the credit of introducing the balsa wood board in 1926. It was really a revival of the wili wili boards used by the old Hawaiian chiefs except for design. The ten to twelve-foot boards were used exclusively until 1929 when I built a successful [Blake inspired] sixteen-foot board, which is handled quite the same as the old Hawaiian boards, and I feel sure will put surfriding on much the same scale as it was before the white man came.”74
Duke went on to say that Blake’s first experiments had been initially “predicated on the belief that faster rides would be generated by heavier boards. But the turning problem became bigger with the size of the board; a prone surfer was compelled to drag one foot in the water on the inside of the turn, and this only contributed to loss of forward speed. If standing, he had to drag an arm over the side, and with the same result of diminishing momentum.
“Paddleboards are still with us today, and they are obviously here to stay. Some fantastic records have been established with them. And the sport of paddleboarding has naturally drawn some outstanding men to its ranks. It is a long list, a gallant list.”75
Recapping the evolution of it all, Blake said his first hollow board “was purely for racing, and I soon followed it with a riding board sixteen feet long. The new riding board model was a great success [‘Okohola’].” Blake added with some pride that “Duke Kahanamoku built his great 16-foot hollow redwood board along about the same time. He is an excellent craftsman and shapes the lines and balance of his boards with the eye; he detects its irregularities by touch of the hand.
“I feel, however,” Blake added in deference to the Father of Modern Surfing, “that Duke has some appreciation of the old museum boards and from his wide experience in surfriding and his constructive turn of mind would have eventually duplicated them, regardless of precedent.”76
Surf Photography, 1929
Tom’s hollow board development was his first and perhaps greatest innovation. In 1929, he produced another in a line of further innovations. He came up with a waterproof housing for cameras used for in-water surf photography. Until this time, all close-up water shots were taken by sitting in a canoe, riding in a boat, or by wading in shallow water. With the waterproof housing, Tom made it possible to take photographic images from a surfer’s perspective and closer to the action. The camera housing weighed ten pounds plus.
Much of Tom’s surf photography can be seen in his book Hawaiian Surfboard, published in 1935 and later reprinted under the title Hawaiian Surfriders, 1935. His surf photography can also be seen in the May 1935 edition of National Geographic. Interestingly, Tom’s efforts to get both his writing and pictures into the National Geographic did not come easily. In 1930, after first taking pictures with a camera inside his waterproof housing, Tom queried the editor of the magazine, Gilbert Grosvenor. He was in Santa Monica at the time: “Dear Sir: I feel that the type of this article comes within the policy of your acceptance.
“Surfriding in Hawaii has been of interest to millions, but never, to my knowledge, has anyone who understands it, written on the subject.
“With great effort and patience I took the illustrations. They include some of the finest surfriding pictures in existence; those studies taken directly in front of the riders are the first taken from that angle, as I used a special waterproof camera.
“Tinting or coloring brings out the real charm of the pictures, as the water is a greenish blue, and the sky very blue…”77
The National Geographic wrote Tom back on December 20, 1930, acknowledging: “Your illustrated manuscript, ‘Surfriding in Hawaii,’ has been received in these offices and is being given editorial consideration.” The editor added: “As soon as a decision is reached, I will communicate with you.”78
The decision, itself, was not long in coming; dated January 13, 1931: “Your article ‘Surf Riding in Hawaii,’ though well written and interesting, is over-long and hardly the type of material used in the National Geographic Magazine. However, I have made a selection of 11 pictures from those you submitted with the article and for these, together with a covering manuscript of 1500 to 2,000 words, The Society offers you $100.
“I am holding the 11 pictures and returning herewith the original manuscript and the 10 remaining photographs. If you are willing to accept the offer for the selected pictures, please notify us at once. If the offer is not acceptable, I shall return the material I am holding.
“Such a brief covering article as we desire could be gleaned from your 7,000-word manuscript but I feel that you might prefer to sell the original article to some other publication and prepare a new manuscript for use with the pictures I have chosen.
“If you decide to sell us the 11 pictures, please prepare for us a 2,000-word covering article describing the thrills of surf riding, outlining a bit of the history of the sport, and describing the surf boards – how they are made, what they are made of, and what sizes, shapes, and styles are best. With it all, of course, should be included something of the geography of the favorite surf riding beaches in Hawaii and elsewhere (if the sport is followed to any extent elsewhere).
“We should need fuller descriptions of the 11 pictures we are holding. For example, the photograph of yourself with the six surf boards could be made much more interesting to the reader if you would give us a little more information about the surf boards. From what sort of wood are these boards made? Why is No. 3 your favorite? What are the main points of difference between the tandem board and the single riding board? What difference do you note in the handling of the different types of boards? Are the latest model riding boards easier or harder to ride than the other types?
“Doubtless you have extra copies of these pictures and can give us just the information we need for legends to accompany them. Please go into some detail, explaining everything in each picture.
“The covering article should be written from the personal experience point of view and the style should be that of descriptive narrative rather than pure description. Tell, if you will, something of the thrill of the sport – how it feels to try a new feat, how one masters the tricks, how an unexpected tumble effects the rider, etc.
“I await your decision in this matter…”79
Tom wrote Gilbert Grosvenor right back, on January 18, 1931: “Received your letter and returned manuscript ‘Surfriding In Hawaii.’
“Thanks for your consideration, time and trouble, also for your offer of $100 for 1500 to 2000 covering the subject, and legends for pictures.
“Having a definite outline of what you want, I feel confident of pleasing you in a 2000 word article, which I shall send along as soon as possible.”80
That being written, however, it took several years before Tom’s contribution was seen within the pages of National Geographic. In May1935, Tom’s surfing images were included in the monthly edition, but not his text. Some of what he wrote found homes in publications like Hawaii’s Paradise of the Pacific and his book Hawaiian Surfboard, so it was not a wasted effort. Certainly, however, it must have been frustrating for the process to have taken so long and not to include the narrative description.
As for the waterproof housing, Tom remembered, “I bought a 4x5 Graflex camera from Duke Kahanamoku in 1929. I built a big wooden box about two foot high around it and placed the controls on the outside. The idea was to shoot surfing photos from my board. It was crude and clumsy. The lens would fog up so I placed a wiper on the inside of the box’s lens. I managed to get some pretty good shots and everybody wanted their photo taken. It really took off when I sent the L.A. Times some images. In January of 1931, they ran a full-page spread in their Sunday rotogravure section. It was called ‘Riders of the Sunset Seas.’ This image got Doc Ball and Dr. Don James so excited they both eventually became well known surf photographers.”81 When Doc saw the Blake photograph printed in the January 1931 edition of the Los Angeles Times, that was it for him. Images of Tom grace the pages of Doc Ball’s photographic book, California Surfriders, 1946.82
The first time Tom took the Graflex out with the glass and wood housing, he “shot all day, got some good pictures – that is, good shots – come in and there’s nothing on the film. Of course, that was highly disappointing to the riders.”83 Tom then adjusted his design, started getting good close-ups,
“And… everybody on the beach wanted their picture, because it’d never been done before, except from a speedboat. Instead of giving them all away, I wanted to hoard them myself, and send them into – put them in a book I was writing. So that started creating a little ill will over there. Something that I would avoid if I had to do it over again; these pictures.
“I finally put a windshield wiper inside the box, inside the front window, and I could use that, get that steam off the thing. I got a few pictures, and they were pretty good. The boys on the beach went wild over them. They couldn’t get enough of ‘em. I didn’t want to give ‘em away and there was a little difficulty in that score. And I’d send ‘em around. Remember, I sent some to Los Angeles Times and they printed them in their newspaper. Whole page Rotogravure, I believe they called it then. And that’s what got Doc Ball started. I soon discarded that old, clumsy camera and built a new one, and Doc Ball started building a waterproof camera. He built a good one. I built a good one, but [Ron] Drummond finally got it from me. And this picture thing started spreading the word more than my first book did, because the newspapers had wide circulation. I got it in the National Geographic and that spread it all over the world. That was – it really started to grow after that...”84
Tom’s best-known photographic image is the self-portrait he took of himself and his surfboards in front of the Outrigger Canoe Club, late 1929. He lined up all his surfing and paddling boards. As he stood in front of the massive display of wood, he tripped the shutter. A version of this image was published five years later in the National Geographic and now can be seen around the world, inspiring new generations of surfers. The boards in the background tell a story rich in ancient design and modern craftsmanship. The graphic nature of the image relates history in the making.
In 1931, Tom wrote in his personal notes (these notes were later published in the 1961 edition of Hawaiian Surfing): “The culture of early Hawaii had no written word; instead, song-like chants were memorized and handed down from generation to generation. They served to record the deeds, history and environment of the race. By this means we learn that many centuries ago, the art of surfriding was a national pastime in the Islands. References to surfriding have survived; first via the chant, later in writing and now most eloquently, by the medium of the camera.”85
Ala Wai Canal Contests, 1929-1931
When Tom set his first world’s record in paddling in 1929, it came after years of discipline and development of skill in racing under stress. He had swum in hundreds of races during the eight years previously and had won the first official California surf contest the year before. When he raced in Honolulu at the Ala Wai canal on his new improved paddleboard, he was in top form and on a board he knew well. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin from December 2, 1929, reported the event the day after:
“BLAKE SETS 100-YARD SURFBOARD PADDLE MARK. Big Crowd On Hand To Take In Sunday Races; Outrigger Club Clean Sweeps In Ala Wai Program of 18 Popular Events.” The Honolulu Star-Bulletin went on: “Demonstrating the possibilities of such a surfboard, Tom Blake of ‘cigar surfboard’ fame, yesterday paddled his pet water rider to a new 100-yard Hawaiian record (world’s record) at the Ala Wai where he negotiated the distance in 35 1-5 seconds, bettering the old mark by five full seconds in an exhibition witnessed by a crowd of 1000.
“The former record was 40 1-5 seconds made last year by Edric Cooke. More plumes are added to his [Blake’s] achievement when it is considered that he had to paddle through the water against a stiff wind and a tide.
“The ‘cigar surfboard’ just glided through the water without a splash and it was an uncanny sight. Blake was in excellent shape and worked his arms tirelessly to set the new world record.”86
“The exhibition,” continued the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “was the feature to a program of surfboard races staged by the recreation commission of the city. The events were put on to prepare those interested in surfboard paddling for the big races to be held during the Christmas holidays.
“The number of automobiles and the large crowds that gathered on both sides of the canal surprised the officials who helped revive the interest in an activity which typifies the islands…
“Sixteen paddle events were conducted in two hours and the timers, judges, clerks and other officials were kept running up and down the banks following the start then taking the finish…
“The Outrigger Canoe club, under the guidance of George (‘Dad’) Center, romped away with all the honors, as the other organizations did not believe that a contest of this kind would be successfully held.
“The appearance of the smoothness of the cigar-shaped board, and the quiet, reserved and impressive showing of its maker and paddler, Tom Blake, attracted more than usual interest. Everybody wanted to use that type of board and the success and speed of this board showed itself in the number of races that were won by the individuals using it.
“Never before in any open races have so many boards been collected in one place. It required a private truck to haul all the surfboards from the Outrigger and Hui Nalu clubs to Ala Wai where the races were held.”87
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin noted some resistance to this new type of watercraft: “The question was raised by the officials as to a standard board to be required in all future open competition. The feeling was against this proposal. The officials felt that no board designed to ride the surf could be barred from any of the races scheduled.
“The result of Sunday’s special events assures a number of new records on Christmas Day, when a special program will be held for surfboard followers…”88
“This board was really graceful and beautiful to look at,” Tom wrote proudly of his carved chambered paddleboard, “and in performance was so good that officials of the Annual Surfboard Paddling Championship immediately had a set of nine of them built for use during the 1930 Hawaiian Paddling Championship races.”89
In the beginning, not everyone enthusiastically embraced hollow paddleboards and hollow surfboards. Even later, when hollow boards became the standard at many beaches, solid boards were often preferred. A quick perusal of the pictures in Doc Ball’s California Surfriders, taken during the 1930s, reveals the large number of solid boards in use. Ironically, Blake’s world record-breaking wins in both the 100-yard and half mile paddling events of the Hawaiian Surfboard Paddling Championships put him into disfavor in some Hawaiian surfing circles. Resistance to Blake’s new designs had started to show in the December 1, 1929 race. At that time, there had been an attempt to disqualify Blake, some saying that he was not using a surfboard. They were correct. Up until that time, there was no such thing as a “paddleboard” especially used for racing. All paddling races had been made using surfboards. The disqualification attempt not only failed, but officials even prepared for the January 1930 races by having nine Blake boards built for the event so that more people could use them.
Popular local Tommy Keakona, the 1929 champion, refused to compete against Tom in the 1930 race in protest over the type of board he was using.90 Other “purist” Hawaiian surfers and distance paddlers cried “foul” and demanded that only traditionally shaped and solid paddleboards be valid for racing. Still other paddlers lobbied for the new design, claiming, rightfully, that it “marked the beginning of a new era in surfing and paddling.”91
Referring to his board as “The Cigar Water Conqueror,” a Honolulu Star-Bulletin article written by Francois D’Eliscu documented Tom’s win with this headline: “3000 WATCH SURFERS RACE UPON ALA WAI CANAL. Every Record in History of Sport is Shattered; Cigar Board Comes Into Its Own.” D’Eliscu went on to write: “More than 3000 spectators crowded the banks of the Ala Wai this morning to witness the championship surfboard races in which every record in the history of the sport was shattered.
“Never before was such a contest so keenly fought. Remarkable times were made in the 10-event program.
“The cigar-shaped board was supreme. Each paddler showed speed, smoothness and wonderful control in handling the thin, light, fast-moving planks.
“Tom Blake, originator of the cigar shaped board, staged a surprise unknown to even his coaches when he appeared with a hollow carved cigar board. In the first event on the program, the half-mile men’s open, Blake won in 4 minutes 49 seconds, beating the old record by 2 minutes 13 seconds.
“T. Keakona, last year’s title holder, refused to enter the races, due to the type of board used by Blake.
“The feature event of the morning was the 100-yard open championship. Eight men from three of the best surfboard organizations started. Tom Blake, O.C.C.; Sam Kahanamoku, Hui Nalu; and Fred Vasco of the Queen’s Surfers, finished in the order named.
“The race was exciting from the gun. Tom with his powerful, easy, mechanical stroke and perfect balance found Sam a real competitor. The finish found Blake just a few inches ahead of the versatile swimmer. The time of 31 3-5 seconds for this race was better than last year’s 36 1-5 seconds.”92
Another Honolulu newspaper article, written by Andrew Mitsukado, also documented Blake’s wins:
“EIGHT RECORDS LOWERED IN MEET. Cigar-shaped Board Is Big Hit, Tom Blake Is Big Star.” Mitsukado continued: “Eight old records went whirling into oblivion and two new marks were established at the sixth annual Hawaiian championship surf board paddling races, sponsored by the Dawkins, Benny Co., yester morn in the Ala Wai before a monstrous crowd which was kept on the well-known edge throughout the ten event program.
“The newly devised cigar-shaped surfboards assisted tremendously in creating the new marks.
“Tom Blake of the Outrigger Canoe Club proved to be the big star of the meet, winning two individual events – the 100 yards men’s open and the half-mile open – and paddling anchor on the triumphant Outrigger team in the three-quarter mile club relay. He used a cigar-shaped board of his own invention and came through with flying colors.
“All of the races were hard fought and competition was keen, furnishing thrills after thrills for the spectators…”93
“The half-mile record of seven minutes and two seconds was cut that year,” Tom wrote of the 1930 Annual Surfboard Paddling Championship, “to four minutes and forty-nine seconds and the hundred-yard dash was reduced from thirty-six and two-fifths seconds to thirty-one and three-fifths seconds. This made me the 1930 champion in the senior events and, incidentally, the new record holder. But as is true in yacht and other similar racing, I won because I had a superior board. This was the first cured or hollowed out [paddle] board to appear at Waikiki. As the racing rules allowed unrestricted size and design, I staked my chances on this hollow racer whose points were proven for now all racing boards are hollow.”94 Even though Tom set two world records for paddling, “it was a ‘hollow’ victory,” underscored his friend Sam Reid, who also competed in the Championship. Playing on words in a detailed surfing memoir published in a 1955 edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Reid wrote: “Blake had hollowed out his 16-foot cigar board to a 60 pound weight, compared with an average 100 to 125 pounds weight of the other 9 boards in the 100.”95 The loss of weight was followed by an increase in numbers of surfers and paddlers who were opposed to the new design, and there was another effort to disqualify and discredit Blake. This one was more determined.
“Oh, yeah!” exaggerated Santa Monica lifeguard Wally Burton, who nevertheless exhibited the common perception. “He was very innovative. Yeah, he had a good, active mind and… when he was over in the Islands there, he was winning everything. You know, the Duke was the all-time great over there, at that time. And he [Tom] went over there and he took everything away from the Duke. As a matter of fact, they didn’t like Tom too well over in the Islands, because Duke was the hero.”96
Yet, Blake’s superior designs were not the only factor in his winning. He was also a tremendous swimmer and paddler. Two decades later, his protégé Tommy Zahn paddled the Ala Wai, for practice, with Hot Curl surfer Wally Froiseth’s protégé George Downing. At first he thought his watch was off because he could not achieve Blake’s times on an evolved paddleboard with superior training.97
Beginning in late 1929 and early 1930, “Reverberations of the ‘hollow board’ tiff were heard from one end of the Ala Wai to the other,” recalled Sam Reid, “and echoes can still be heard at Waikiki even today – 25 years later. At a meeting of the three (surfing) clubs, Outrigger, Hui Nalu and Queens, held immediately after the disputed races (of 1930), it was decided that henceforth there would be no limit whatever on (the design) of paddleboards.”98 It is a sad fact that much resentment over his lightweight designs remained after his 1930 Ala Wai wins. Because of the 1929-30 Ala Wai controversies, Tom only entered the race one more time, the following year.99 Impressively, Tom’s half-mile record of 4:49:00 stood until 1955. It was broken by George Downing, who covered the course in 4:36:00 on a 20-foot hollow balsa board. Blake’s board had been a 16-foot hollow redwood.100 Other long-standing records held by Tom include the world’s record for the 1/2 mile open and 100 yard dash in paddleboard racing. They were held for twenty-five years.101
It is unknown whether Tom competed in the 1931 Hawaiian Surfboard Championships. Sam Reid recalled that he did, but there is no record of it. If he did not, then he was at least contemplating it. A Honolulu Star-Bulletin January 1, 1931, article indicates this and tells some of the history of the race and of surfing: “Announce List of Officials to Handle 1931 Surfboard Races,” headlined the article written by Francois D’Eliscu. “Any Type of Board Can Be Used This Year; Races Will Be Held at the Ala Wai on January 4; New Kind of Board Will Be Introduced.
“The seventh annual surfboard paddling Hawaiian championships to be held Sunday morning, January 4, 1931, on the Ala Wai canal, promises to be the most interesting event ever held for the paddlers of Oahu… All of the titleholders of last year are entered and the ruling permitting any kind of board in the various races means new records, especially for the century.
“Tom Blake, who startled the community with his cigar-shaped hollow board and smashed all existing records, is reported to have another new type board that is faster and lighter than the one he won with so easily last year.”102
Under the subheading of “‘Sport of Kings,’” D’Eliscu continued: “Surfboard racing in Hawaii is known as the ‘sport of kings’ on account of its association with the history and tradition of old-time Hawaii when the chiefs competed on large heavy boards.
“Many of these relics are on exhibition in the museum and it is here where Tom Blake spent many an hour studying the shape, weights and speed of the boards, which prompted him to build his cigar-shaped board…
“Committees and officials have been selected to conduct the meet. The group in charge of the events are: Honorary chairman, ‘Dad’ Center; sponsors, C.G. Benny and H.L. Reppeto; Gay Harris of the Outrigger Canoe Club; Charles Amalu from Queen Surfers, and David Kahanamoku, representing the Hui Nalu swimming club.
“The officials in charge of the meet are as follows: Referee Duke P. Kahanamoku; clerk of course, David Kahanamoku; starter, G.D. Crozier; timers, Dad Center, A.H. Myhre, R.N. Benny, C.A. Slaght, R.J. Thomas and William Hollinger.
“Judges, Dr. Francois D’Eliscu, T.C. Gibson, Henry Sheldon and V. Ligda; recorder, H.L. Reppeto, and Gay Harris will be in charge of the equipment…
“Cecil Benny, who has been responsible for the continuation of the surfboard races and competitions, deserves a great deal of public commendation for his interest in keeping the Hawaiian sport alive.”103
During this period, Tom was coming out with a new board every year. He was driven to refine his designs, and by the end of the 1930s, both his surfboards and paddleboards were very different from what he started out with a decade before. As far as the controversies at Ala Wai were concerned, Tom learned that good intentions do not always breed good feelings. Because of his competitive wins, he later said that he became a version of “The Ugly American.” Specifically, Tom recalled, “I discovered too late that beating the locals at their own game, in front of their families, could sour relations with my Hawaiian friends.”104
When he had first come to Hawai’i, he was accepted at the beach, welcomed by the Kahanamoku’s and the beach boys, and “treated… like a king.” Even so, he was an outsider and consequently “… they paid no attention to you,” recalled Tom. “You roamed around there, nobody knew you, and it’s a wonderful way to live, when you keep a low profile. Like, nobody’s shootin’ at you, you know? That went on for years, and it’s just like, I got interested in their sports, surfing and paddling, and managed to build a little better board than they had, and beat them in their contests. And then they began to look at you. There’s something we don’t like, and that was the end of the real good days.”105
It may have been the end of the “real good days” for Tom in the Islands, but he still had many good Hawaiian days to come. He would continue his love affair with the Islands for another 25 years.
Further Board Developments
Despite the bad feelings surrounding Tom’s wins at the Hawaiian Surfboard Championships, there were positive effects. Women and kids could get into the hollow boards since they were lighter and could be transported more easily – at least compared to solid wood boards. Also, soon after lead the way, surfboard shapers began experimenting with the hollow board concept, too. “Imagination of design,” Sam Reid remembered, “ran riot.”106
Duke Kahanamoku gave Tom high credit and respect for his contributions. “Blond Tom Blake... was a haole who accepted the challenge,” related Duke to his biographer Joseph Brennan in their 1968 book World of Surfing, “and proved to be one of the finest board men to walk the beach. Daring and imaginative he always was. He, like myself, was driven with the urge to experiment.” Addressing Blake’s hollow racing paddleboard, Duke acknowledged that, “He was the one who first built and introduced the paddleboard – a big hollow surfing craft that was simple to paddle and picked up waves easily but was difficult to turn. It had straight rails, a semi-pointed tail, and laminated wood for the deck. For its purpose it was tops.”107
Duke’s shaping of a hollow made Tom unabashedly proud. He later wrote: “Duke Kahanamoku built his great 16-foot hollow redwood board along about the same time. He is an excellent craftsman and shapes the lines and balance of his boards with the eye; he detects its irregularities by touch of the hand.
“I feel, however,” Blake added in deference to the Father of Modern Surfing, “that Duke has some appreciation of the old museum boards and from his wide experience in surfriding and his constructive turn of mind would have eventually duplicated them, regardless of precedent.”108
Duke’s Blake-inspired design, made around 1930, was a 16 footer, made of koa wood, weighed 114 pounds, and was designed after the ancient Hawaiian olo board, as Blake’s had been.109 “With his rare expertise and outstanding strength,” Joseph Brennan wrote, “Duke handled it well in booming surfs. He used to defend his giant board and kid fellow surfers with, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff. Reason? Because it’s small stuff.’”110 Duke went on to say that Blake’s first experiments had been initially “predicated on the belief that faster rides would be generated by heavier boards. But the turning problem became bigger with the size of the board; a prone surfer was compelled to drag one foot in the water on the inside of the turn, and this only contributed to loss of forward speed. If standing, he had to drag an arm over the side, and with the same result of diminishing momentum.
“Paddleboards are still with us today,” Duke continued, “and they are obviously here to stay. Some fantastic records have been established with them. And the sport of paddle boarding has naturally drawn some outstanding men to its ranks. It is a long list, a gallant list.”111
After Tom’s win at the Ala Wai, some surfboard and paddleboard builders who had not gone hollow began “using alternating strips of laminated pine or redwood, instead of one or several planks of the same wood,” historians Finney and Houston noted, obviously influenced by Blake’s direction to lessen the weight. “These striped boards combined the strength of pine with the light weight of redwood and were believed to be more functional as well as more attractive. About this time lightweight balsa boards were first tried, but were dismissed as too light and fragile for practical use.”112
The 10 foot redwood plank that Duke and the early Waikiki surfers had ridden since shortly after the beginning of the century had been “in vogue until 1924,” Duke recalled, “when Lorrin Thurston, one of Hawaii’s most enthusiastic surf riders, appeared with a twelve-foot board. To Thurston also goes the credit of introducing the balsa wood board in 1926. It was really a revival of the wili wili boards used by the old Hawaiian chiefs except for design. The ten to twelve-foot boards were used exclusively until 1929 when I built [after Tom Blake] a successful sixteen-foot board, which is handled quite the same as the old Hawaiian boards, and I feel sure will put surf riding on much the same scale as it was before the white man came.”113
Asked in an interview about the longer boards of that time, champion surfer and beach boy Rabbit Kekai remembered his boyhood on the beach: “That was only Duke and the real old guys who rode those sixteen footers. Of course, there was Blake [who invented the board] and that other guy, Sam Reid…” Rabbit estimated that there were well over a couple of hundred surfers riding Hawaiian waves toward the latter part of the 1920s. “Way more,” than a couple hundred. “They were all over. Queen’s, Canoes and every place you can think of. Publics was the most noted spot for big wave riding at the time. Duke and those guys would start way outside and just go. They were trimmers. They’d pick up the wave on those sixteen-foot boards and stay out in the green all the way, they never stayed close to the white water, and they would go a long distance. As kids we watched Tom Blake and all those guys do their trim jobs. Duke and those guys used to just stand and do what we called ‘pose.’ They used to hold their pose for a mile. At times you’d see them bend down to just take a little drop, then pick up speed again and that’s how they’d go. But they never did cutbacks; it was all angle. They’d shout, ‘Comin’ down’ or ‘No drop-in!’ if we looked like we were thinking about going in front of them.”114
Step three in the hollow board evolution came in 1932 with Blake’s use of the transversely braced hollow hull. By using ribs for strength, much as in an airplane wing, Tom brought the weight of the hollow boards down even further. It is not definitively known for sure, but it is possible that Tom’s friendship with aviator Arthur Vultee influenced him in this further development of the hollow board. At any rate, the result of this design was a strong 40-to-70 pound board, depending on length.115
A final refinement to the Blake hollow board would not occur until the end of the decade, when the board rails began to be rounded. Initially, Tom’s hollows were built with 90-degree flat-sided rails. The whitewater would catch these and knock a board out from under a rider, sending him or her sideways. With the rounded rail that was an original component to the olo board, water could move over and under the board with much less resistance. 116
After 1932, the Blake hollow surfboard and paddleboard could be found worldwide – from Hong Kong to Brazil. The most important use of the hollow paddleboard became its utility as a rescue device in oceans, rivers, and lakes. In the later half of the 1930s, the hollow paddle rescue board was adopted by the Pacific Coast Lifesaving Corps and used by the American Red Cross National Aquatic Schools for instruction. Today, the rescue paddleboard can be found on almost any ocean beach protected by lifeguards.117
Surfer Lifestyle Pioneer
During his greatest period of innovation and creation, Tom Blake continued his love affair with the Hawaiian Islands: its people, its culture, and its environment. He found he could “live simple and quietly here. I can live well, without the social life. I can dress as I please, for comfort; usually it’s a pair of canvas sneakers, light trousers and a sleeveless polo shirt with swimming trunks all day. I like the Islands because I can keep one hundred percent suntan here the year around, rest and sleep for hours in the wonderful sunshine each day... In my yard [I] grow bananas, avocados, mangoes, papayas and luxurious ferns and flowers including a stately Royal palm, which is majesty in itself in the moonlight.
“I like it because of the natural beauty of everything here,” Tom continued, “the very blue sky, very white clouds, very green mountains, clothed in foliage to their ridges... The coco palms waving in the clean trade winds, the colors of the water on the coral reef, greet my eyes each day as I near the beach and when the giant waves of the Kalehuawehe surf are breaking white, far from shore, it means royal sport is waiting and I actually break into a run to get to the Outrigger Club, don trunks and get out my favorite surfboard of teak wood. I like the opportunity of studying and seeing the great mixture of races gathered here, each one retaining many of their old customs of eating, dress and living. I pick a custom or two from each race to use at my convenience... It’s a great place to be a bachelor.”118
In the process of adapting to a Hawaiian beach style of living, Tom pioneered key elements of the surfer lifestyle that endure to present day. In fact, Tom’s self-created lifestyle was the prototype of “the beach culture” as we know it today. The traveling, diet, dress, and more made up a style he introduced to California, Florida, New York, and visiting mainland surfers in Hawaii. This style was a combination of how the relaxed actors dressed at the beach, what was practical at the beach, and what was financially viable. Photos of Tom in different modes of dress always suggest style. The clothes themselves had to travel well because he was always on the move. Even so, he always kept it simple.119
Tom advocated eating natural foods long before it became fashionable. There was a strong underground health movement going on then, and Tom was exposed to it first through the Los Angeles Athletic Club. In stark contrast to Tom’s basic approach was “the Roaring ‘20s” popularity of drugs, alcohol, and sex.120
Tom was able to relate to multiple cultures and people from different walks of life. He dealt with the strong bias from local Hawaiians on the beach and at the same time had intellectual conversations with the directors of the Bishop Museum, retracing the history of the sport and equipment of ancient and historic surfing. “Above all,” wrote surf writer Sam George in a tribute to Blake published after his passing, “he was the first Mainlander to develop the attitude – the commitment to a way of life – that all real surfers have adopted since.”121
While he was still fine-tuning his lifestyle in 1930, Tom Blake was living in Hawaii, working as a lifeguard and developing his innovative surfboard and paddleboard designs. His swimming friend, Aileen Riggin, visited Tom during this period. Years later, when Tom was still alive, she wrote: “I met Tom here in Honolulu when I was on a trip around the world; 1930. He took me out on his board and showed me his favorite spots on Diamond Head to sun bathe. Strange, I now live on Diamond Head and still swim there, almost every day… Tell Tom that I still have the ukelele he gave me when I sailed from Honolulu in 1930. It is a beautiful instrument – a Martin, inlaid with ivory.”122
Aileen Riggin Soule, interviewed in 1994 by Sanda K. Hall, said that Tom was quite introverted. He would love to just watch clouds, waves, and ships. He would even watch the lights of ships in the black of night. In 1930, he was living in a hut on the Makai side of Diamond Head and had decorated it simply with tatami mats. She remembered him as extraordinarily handsome.123
“Acquaintances on the mainland have asked me why I bury myself in the Hawaiian Islands,” Tom wrote. “The reason is because it fits my nature, it is life’s compensation for such a nature as mine. I can live simple and quietly here, live well, without the social life. I pick a custom or two from each race to use at my convenience. Perhaps it is the Buddhist religion of the Chinese, the poi eating and surfriding of the Hawaiians. The raw peanut eating of the Filipinos or the happiness, enthusiasm and appreciation with which the Japanese meet their daily duties. I like it here because I can live conservatively and find the habit interesting and pleasurable.”124
“Above all,” wrote surf writer Sam George in another tribute to Blake published after his passing, “he was the first Mainlander to develop the attitude – the commitment to a way of life – that all real surfers have adopted since.”125
Tom spent much time in and around the Outrigger Canoe Club. Whether he ever became a member is unknown. Certainly, later on in the 1930s, he worked for the club in his capacity on the club-sponsored Waikiki Beach Patrol.126 First established in 1907, the Outrigger was the center of surf culture at Waikiki for many years afterwards. Tom described the boards that were stored at the Club during his tour of the beach:127 “At the club is to be found a row of some two hundred upright surfboard lockers, filled with boards of all sizes, shades and colors; the average being ten feet long, twenty-three inches wide, three inches thick; quite flat on top and bottom, with edges rounded and weighing up to seventy-five pounds.
“They are made of California redwood, white cedar, white sugar pine and a few of balsa wood. Ninety per cent being of redwood because of its lightness, strength and cheapness. Ten dollars will buy the rough plank to make a redwood board. Some of the boards are hollowed out and decked over to lighten them.”128
Surf riding was certainly different in Blake’s day, but there were many things that remain the same, today. Aspects of surfing important to Tom included tandem riding, surfing at night and – of course – friendly competition. Tom wrote a description of tandem riding, circa early 1930s Waikiki:
“Take Sunday; good surf running, not big surf, and plenty of action is to be found out in the breakers... The surfers gather around a certain dark patch of water. This is because the coral is higher there and the wave breaks steeper and is easier to catch. In the lull of the surf they have drifted with the tide and wind some ten or fifteen yards from the proper position and when a set of ground swells are sighted a few hundred yards outside general commotion prevails as they all maneuver for what they consider the best position to catch the wave.
“As the swells approach they get steeper and most of the riders paddle for the first one but only seven manage to get it. They stand up on their boards and speed shoreward at an angle. About one hundred feet back is the second wave. Everyone left paddles for this. It proves very steep and easy to catch. Nearly all catch it, including two of the tandem parties.
“Starting at the extreme right to describe the different riders here is what one sees. The first boy is no doubt inexperienced for he was too far over in the break which caused him and his board to ‘pearl dive,’ or go straight down towards the bottom, giving him a severe ducking and some valuable experience. This dive was caused partly because he did not slide or turn his board at an angle soon enough and partly because the wave was too steep and about to break at that point. The second rider just squeezed out of the steep part by a sharp tack to the left. He straightens out a bit to avoid colliding with the third board – a tandem. The boy on this board has a passenger. He stands up first, then assists his partner to her feet.” 129
“The fourth board also contains a tandem party,” Blake continued. “On this one the girl rises first, then the boy stands up with her on his shoulders – very thrilling, indeed, for the girl. The next board has two girls for riders. They ‘jam up,’ after a short fifteen-yard ride, with an inexperienced surfer and all three lose their boards and get ducked, barely missing getting hit by the loose boards. Rather brave these girls to be out there. The rest of the riders have pulled away some twenty yards. They are on the same wave and all manage to hold their boards, as this is one of the first rules of surfing. To loose a board means to swim maybe a hundred yards for it and also a loose board is dangerous to the other surfers. Of the dozen or so on this wave only two on the extreme left ride through the various breaks and do not get caught in the foam. Their ride has been a good one, perhaps two hundred yards long at a speed of about twenty-five miles an hour – eighteen miles an hour for the wave and seven for the slide.
“There is another lull and all gather outside again to repeat the performance. It is good sport and the time flies. The water is so warm one is not conscious of it. The view of the palm trees on shore, the hotels, the mountains and clouds is marvelous and to me it is part of the pleasure of surfing. The hour before sunset is best of all for then the mountains take on all the shades of green imaginable while the clouds near them assume all shades of white and gray. Gayly colored rainbows are often seen in far off valleys.”130
Writing about the prevailing paddle boarders of the day, Blake wrote, “Among the best known at surfboard paddle racing since 1915 are: Edric Cook, Tom Keakona, Fred Steere, Buster Crabbe, the Kahanamokus – Duke, Sam and Sargent, Sam Reid and Jack May. Among the women: Beatrice Newport, Dot Hammond, Marchien Wehselau, Babe Gillespie, Olga Clark and Mildred Slaight. In California, [Preston “Pete”] Peterson, [Wally] Burton, [Chauncy] Granston, [Lorrin “Whitey”] Harrison and Watkins have been outstanding in surfboard paddling. When standard size surfboards are used, surfboard paddling races afford keen sport. In Hawaii and California championship titles in various classes are contested each year.”131
Special to Blake was surfing on the full moon. “Moonlight surfing is enjoyed for a few nights each month in the summer time when the big yellow tropical moon is at its fullest,” Blake wrote. “It is truly a rare sport. In the moonlight incoming swells creep up like great shadowy creatures. One cannot realize the silence of the ground swells until waiting for them at night.
“From the shore surfriders in the moonlight look strange and unreal when riding in on a breaker. One is never sure what it is until a rider lets out a yell. At night it is easy to yell because a person’s nerves are on edge in spite of the fun and beauty of the scene.”132
Blake wrote of the crude state of affairs competition was still in, in his day. “Surfriding contests after the ancient rules have never been held in modern times in Hawaii. The sport has been confined to paddling races. On one occasion, about 1918, a riding contest was held, the winner being judged on form, etc. Everybody disagreed and that let them to believe surfriding contests were impracticable. One more riding contest was held [before 1935] but the surf failed to run on that day and it turned out to be a paddling race. These two contests have discouraged riding races. Now, however, I have met with success in talking up a revival of the sport under old rules, which would make a good contest and worthy champion.” 133
“The summer of 1935 will mark the revival of the once popular surfriding contest under the ancient rules,” Blake continued, “to decide the champion of the Hawaiian Islands. Duke Kahanamoku has put up a cup, a genuine Hawaiian koa calabash,134 as a perpetual trophy, emblematic of the surfriding championship of the Islands to be contested for each year in first break surf at Waikiki beach.
“The main object is to hold the race when first break, or big surf is running.
“A simple point system of scoring will be used to decide the championship. It will favor and give the many who still have the solid redwood board an equal chance, by eliminating the paddling elements of the race. The rules will be as follows:
“Contestants gather outside of buoy at first break. As a good set of waves appear starter fires a gun and the race begins. Surfriders then must ride (at least half way standing) to a second buoy inside canoe surf or about where the waves end. The first contestant in to the buoy will be credited with 10 points, the second with 9 points, the third with 8 points and so on until the tenth one in gets 1 point. Contestants then leisurely paddle out to the starting buoy and the same performance is repeated until five rides over the course have been made. The contestant who has the highest number of points wins...”135
“Besides the Duke Kahanamoku perpetual trophy,” Blake went on, “gold, silver and bronze medals will be awarded. There also will be a junior race, a women’s race, a tandem race and novice race over a shorter or inside course.
“Intense rivalry between the Queen’s surfers, Hui Nalu club and Outrigger Canoe club will burn anew, as it has with competitions in the past. The Hui Nalu boys will be favorites in the senior events, however, as their club has among its members most of the oldest and cleverest riders on the beach. The field of entrants will be chosen from among the best riders of each club to avoid the course being over-run with the less experienced surfers. To win, the man will have to have a bit of luck, as there are so many riders who are top.
“As big surf is good only two or four days at a stretch, a 24-hour notice will be given as to the date of the races. The time will be announced by radio, newspaper and the ever efficient word of mouth. News reels and still cameramen will be on hand to shoot the thrilling rides that always accompany big surf, so that the rest of the world may see the ‘sport of kings’ by picture.
“Since 1918 riding contests have been held in Southern California, but often without proper selection of rules and judges. This condition encouraged the foundation of the new Kalahuewehe Surfboard Club, an honor society.”136
Tom Blake took modest pride in his associations. Of course, he was proud of his membership in both the Hui Nalu and Outrigger Canoe Club, but he wrote of a particular fondness of his being a charter member of the Kalahuewehe [sic] Surfboard Club. “To be eligible one must have ridden first break surf in the mainland U.S.A. The charter reads: ‘An honor society whose object is to encourage the art of surfboard, with due respect to its originators, the ancient Hawaiians.’
“The charter members are: Duke P. Kahanamoku, George Freeth, Haig Priest, Tom Blake, Preston Peterson, Chauncy Granstrom, Wally Burton, Bob Sides, Whitie Harrison, Tarzan Smith, Jerry Vultee, Arthur Vultee, Lee Jarvis, Rusty Williams, Grant Leonhuts, Bothwell, Willie Gregsby, Bill Herwig, Sam Reid, Keller Watson, Mullahey, Braithwate, John Smith, Sunny Ruppman.
“These boys are the pioneer surfriders in the United States, all having ridden Balboa, California, surf,” with the exception of three. Mullahey rode on Long Island, New York; J. Smith and Braithwate rode off Virginia; and in addition to riding Balboa, Duke Kahanamoku rode at Atlantic City and Ocean City, New Jersey, and in Nassau County, Long Island, New York, between 1912-18.137
“Among the new crop of boys from California, the best surfriders are: [Whitey] Harrison, [Gene] Tarzan Smith, [Bob] Sides, [Chauncy] Granstrom and [Wally] Burton.”138
Longest Rides, 1930 & 1936
Tom Blake and Duke Kahanamoku held records for the longest surfboard rides in the Twentieth Century. As for Tom’s, his were in 1930 and 1936, the later one being the record-maker that even surpassed Duke’s. It was in August of 1930 that Blake had his “longest ride on a surfboard,” at least up to that time. “I was surfing at first break Kalehuawehe out there alone that day,” Tom wrote, “the waves running about 25 feet high [probably 8-9 foot, Hawaiian]. After an hour or so of fine riding I was waiting for a real big one to ‘go home on.’ I caught the sixth of the next set; rode straight towards shore for three hundred yards, then to my surprise saw that the wave was steepening up to my left. This offered a chance to get by the end of the shallow coral and ride parallel to it; which I just barely did, having to squeeze to make the breaks, for a ride of about eight hundred yards or into Cunha break.”139 Tom identified Kalehuawehe as beyond Outside Cunha, the furthest break off the beach at Waikiki.
“Today Kalehuawehe surf is coming into vogue again,” continued Tom. “It breaks only when big swells are running but is the aristocrat of all surfs. However, as yet, not ten per cent of the surfriders are familiar with its hazardous, thrilling rides. The fact that the old Hawaiian chiefs gathered at the beach to ride it sets their standard of sportsmanship up. The prevailing custom of using short or ten foot long boards until 1930 had much to do with not riding this surf. It is a mile paddle from the Outrigger Club and with a short board the rider has to get dangerously near the break to catch these big waves, with the result [that] when one mentioned [about] going to Kalehuawehe [to] surf, excuses come thick and fast. However, my new hollow board makes the paddle out there simple and the swells can be easily picked up, just as the ancients could do with their olo boards of wili wili and koa. So those who have hollow boards are taking to the big Kalahuewehe surf more and more each year and eventually will have the sport of big wave riding as popular as in olden days.”140
“A great danger at Kalehuawehe,” continued Blake, “is losing your board and having to go in over the shallow coral reef to the quiet water after it. The rider then has to locate a narrow channel, about one hundred feet wide to get inside the reef. There are three places out Castle way to easily get inside and it is wise to become familiar with these channels in quiet, calm water. These channels through the solid coral are created by nature. The fresh water streams from the mountains, which run into the ocean at these points, keep the coral from growing in such places, thus the channels. Fresh water kills coral. Boys sometimes get cut by crossing the reef for their boards instead of locating a channel to swim through.
“There is little variation in the tides at Waikiki beach; however, at extreme low tide the jagged coral reef is exposed in many places. Disturbances at sea sometimes draw the water off the shallow reefs and it returns with various degrees of force and occasionally to amount to a tidal wave...”141
“I still remember the day [also] in 1930,” Tom added, when “Duke caught the big swells of Kalehuawehe surf with his new long hollow board. I had told him about my luck with the new [solid] sixteen-foot ‘Okohola’ and knew he could duplicate it with the new long board he was making. It lay around half-finished for months. He finally finished it and we went out to Kalehuawehe on the first good day. About this time Duke had gone stale on surfing over here. The ten-foot board held no thrill for him and besides he had been in Los Angeles much of the time. There we had often surfed Balboa together. Here on Canoe surf he had found his new long board O.K., but was a bit skeptical about Kalehuawehe surf where we were now headed.
“The first big swell Duke caught went to his head like wine. He yelled and shouted at the top of his voice as he rode in. He was happy. It put new life into him and ever since his attitude towards surfriding has been as keen as when he was a boy. And why not? He came into his heritage, the big green swells of Kalehuawehe, and the olo board of his ancestors, the chiefs and kings of old Hawaii... five years later -- Duke still rides the same board. He handles it so carefully on land, washes it off with fresh water always after use. His duties as the sheriff of Honolulu, and his gasoline station business keep him very busy. But not too busy to ride a few fast ones outside when they break.”142
The other longest ride Tom had was documented in the Guinness Book of World Records, under “Surfing, Longest Ride.” On June 1, 1936, Tom rode a wave from First Break South Castle north and east of Waikiki Beach, O’ahu, Hawai’i, an estimated distance of 4,500 feet.143 Tom referred to this ride as “First break Castles to shore at Stonewall (now Storm Drain).”144
“Duke, Tom Blake and all those guys were trimmers,” observed surfing legend Rabbit Kekai, who began surfing in the Waikiki area in the 1920s. “They used to stand, pose and get up and just go for miles. That’s how they’d go. They’d pick up the wave on their 16 foot boards and be out in the green the whole way, and never stay close to the white water... just maybe a little drop down to pick up some more speed. It was all angle, they’d never cut back.”145
Reading of Tom’s carefree but hungry life, one might lose track of what the average American and many people in the developing countries were experiencing at this time. U.S. President Herbert Hoover had declared: “We shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty shall be banished from this nation.” Yet, just two months before the December 1929 Ala Wai paddle race, “Black Friday” hit New York. The Stock Exchange crashed October 29, 1929, after several days of confusion. Stockholders panicked and sold more than 16,000,00 shares at ruinous losses, resulting in the collapse of the United States Stock Exchange and the beginning of a worldwide economic crisis.146 United States securities lost value in the amount of $26 billion at a single blow.147
What would later became known as “The Great Depression” immediately followed the crash and permeated American and European lifestyles for a decade afterward. The crash itself was caused by a number of factors including overproduction of goods; a tariff and war-debt policy that curtailed foreign markets for American goods; and easy money policies that led to over expansion of credit and fantastic speculation on the open market. At the very depth of the Depression (1933), sixteen million people in the United States – one third of the labor force at that time – were unemployed.148
In contrast, with his “low overhead” lifestyle and no family to support, Tom was affected by the Depression less than many others. Surfers, in general, tended to be less affected by the poor economy. John “Doc” Ball, who started surfing in the late 1920s in the Hermosa Beach area and then later at Palos Verdes Cove, Southern California, was to become one of Tom’s good friends. When asked about the Depression and what kind of impact it had upon him as a surfer, Doc responded in a way many surfers responded to this question: “Well, as far as surf was concerned: not really,” Doc replied. “Of course, we had a little trouble getting’ gasoline, but then it was 7-cents a gallon in those days… It [the Depression] kept us kinda limited in certain ways, but we had surfin’ to take care of everything. Long as there’s waves, why, you didn’t have to pay for those. All we had to do was buy the gas to get there.”149
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies later relieved much of the crisis of the Depression. Complete recovery, however, came only with heavy defense spending that began in the later part of the decade.150 Industrial production to meet the challenges of the Second World War pulled the world economy out of its mire. The tradeoff was unequal, however, as WWII had far greater negative impact than the Depression ever did.
Early 1930s Innovations
Tom was autodidactic, self-taught with a high degree of discipline. His successes with the hollow paddleboard, surfboard, and waterproof camera housing were followed up with more innovations and inventions throughout the 1930s.
The Sailboard, 1931-32
Tom invented the sailboard in 1931. Actually, that year was the start of the invention of the sailboard. As with the paddleboard, Tom’s work on the sailboard was gradual and evolutionary. He used an umbrella at first, then a crude sail and so on until a first version of the first complete “sailing surfboard,” as he called it, was up functional and even in competition by 1935. The year 1940 saw the first production models by the Los Angeles Ladder Company.151
“The idea started one day at Canoe surf, Waikiki,” Tom recalled. “An east trade wind was blowing offshore. While waiting for a set of waves, I stood up on my 14-foot cypress board and found it moved toward First Break; actually sailed slowly; next came the umbrella.” Tom also credited the influence of the sailing outrigger canoe: “The outrigger canoes (larger) were of ancient origin. The Royal Hawaiians arrived in them. Then there was the incident of the Hawaiian boy who challenged the canoe-paddling fishermen to a race to shore. They bet their day’s catch and lost when the boy raised a sail over the small canoe and reached shore first.”152
Tom recalled years later, “There were different aspects to surfing. The excellent wave riding, and the freeboard riding behind a speedboat, and also the paddle boarding; which is very strenuous exercise and that keeps a lot of people from it. But it leads into water rescue, lifeguard work. The big sleeper of them all was the development at Waikiki, in the early ‘30’s, of the windsurfer, sailing surfboard. We got that going over there, and had one contest, I think. There were about half a dozen boards in it by that time.”153
“After others started building sail rigs like mine,” Tom continued, “a race was held at Waikiki. I won it fairly, by about 100-yards. However, the beach fellows moved the finish buoy about 50-yards while the race was on, to a spot over some shallow coral where no one ever went. I stopped or finished the race where the buoy first was, at First Break, and went ashore only to find I was disqualified because of not going to the new finish buoy. The trophy went to the second-place man. When they told me I failed to round the newly placed buoy, I simply told them (John D. Kaupiko): ‘You can’t beat that kind of competition’ and walked off and never sailed my rig again. The deal set the wind surfing back years.”154
About the first sailboard race, a Honolulu newspaper headlined: “Surfboards to Sail at Waikiki Beach Sunday.” The article, written by Richard Weinberg, went on: “A sport which the ancient Hawaiians overlooked will come into its own Sunday, when the first official surfboard sailing race in yachting history will be held off Waikiki.
“Propelling surfboards by sail is a comparatively new sport developed by Tom Blake. He is that husky chap who came here from Wisconsin, built streamlined, hollow surfboards and proceeded to break all surfboard paddling records.
“He says the ancient Hawaiians put sails on their canoes but did not bother to rig sails on surfboards.
“The first race will begin at 10 Sunday morning in front of the Outrigger club with about 10 of the Iwa class, as the sailing surfboards are called, answering the starting signal.
“Iwa is the Hawaiian name for the frigate bird which glides effortlessly across the sky with wings shaped like a ‘w.’
“A race will be held each Sunday in March with the highest point winner receiving a trophy donated by John D. Kaupiko Sr. Tom is one of the entrants.”155
“He got the idea for the streamlined surfboard,” continued the article, “back in 1924-25, when he noticed old Hawaiian surfboards in the Bishop museum that were streamlined to a certain extent…
“[His first prototype] ran well before the wind. When he got out to sea, he turned around and tried to sail home. He couldn’t sail against the wind. So he paddled back.
“Four years experimentation in California enabled him to build a surfboard that would sail against the wind. He added a rudder that he worked with his feet and a fin keel to keep the board from side-slipping.
“Last summer came the most important development of all, the ‘hiking boards.’ These are sticks extending on each side of the plank and one which the sailor rests his weight to keep the surfboard right side up.
“The first sailing surfboards were used in Hawaii last year. They are also being used in Southern California…”156 In 1940, the first production models were manufactured by L.A. Ladder.”157
“That’s all there were in the world, sailing surfboards, then,” Tom emphasized. “That thing folded up, and [was then] absolutely unheard of for years; decades after that. Then some fellow come along – what’s his name – that invented the knock-down mast, and it caught on from then. Now that thing is greater than surf riding even. More people riding windsurfers than there are surf riders.”158 Tom added, “Many have cashed in on it. I never cashed in on any of my ideas.”159 Nevertheless, “After that bitter Waikiki race, my satisfaction for inventing it is great. As with all life, time is the element and wind surfboard sailing is a worthy diversion.”160 Tom expressed “Personal satisfaction in having a part of so many people’s fun. The early [sail] boards were fun in a stiff breeze, but would then capsize. The stand-up approach solved that problem and enabled a rider to control the wind and ride it out.”161
Hawaiian Hot Curl surfer Wally Froiseth, who started surfing at Waikiki in the late 1920s as a kid, remembered when someone wanted to take credit for inventing the sailboard: “He [Blake] put the first sail on a surfboard... Somebody in Germany [later] tried to patent that. The lawyers came down here and they’re asking me if I know anything and I told ‘em, ‘Yeah, I got pictures. I’ll show ya the first board with a sail on it. This guy wasn’t the first; Tom Blake was.’”162
Collapsible Surfboard, 1932
In 1932, Tom came up with the collapsible surfboard. It was 11-feet long and weighed in at 20-pounds. It was made out of canvas, but had some wooden bracing, as well. Chambers were inflated with air. One of its biggest assets was its ease in carrying. Eventually, Tom got the weight down to nine pounds. Interestingly, both Virginia Eberling and Johnny Weismuller posed with the board as part of its promotional campaign. Also modeling for its promotion were Miss Lou Barnes of Hollywood and George Burggman, lifeguard at the Bel-Air Bay Club. They modeled with the board in Santa Monica Canyon for a 1936 article entitled “Guards Say It Will Aid Life Saving”:
“SANTA MONICA, March 2 – All a fellow has to do to get this ingenious and very seaworthy collapsible paddleboard to the beach is to fold it up and put it in the rumble seat of his car. At the beach, it is filled with air and away go the surfboard riders for a dash on the crest of a comber.
“Thomas Blake, former lifeguard, is the inventor of the rubber ‘board.’ Ed Carroll, chief of the Los Angeles county beach service, declares it is destined to become one of the most widely used pieces of equipment for life saving.
“Recent rescues with paddleboards, and tests made with expert swimmers, have proved a lifeguard is 50 per cent more efficient when equipped with a paddleboard. He does not have to slow down to conserve his energy for a difficult rescue, and he can carry from one to a dozen persons ashore on the buoyant rubber board. More than twenty paddleboard rescues were made in the Santa Monica Bay area last season. In riptides they were paddled out to the danger point with the current, and with the rescued aboard were towed back to safety with shore lines.”163
Tom was also the first person known to use a surf leash. “Nowadays, on these small boards, everybody has what they call a surf leash,” Tom explained, “a line attached to their ankle and on the board, so they lose the board it doesn’t get away from them. Well, that idea originated in Waikiki way back in the ‘30’s. I started it with the idea of holding the surfboard close to you when you fell off or were dumped off, so it wouldn’t go in over the coral, which was very dangerous and hard to swim over. I had, maybe, a ten-foot leash of cotton rope tied to the stern of my board. Instead of putting it around the ankle, I had it attached to a belt around the waist. Because the board I had was too heavy, it’d pull too hard if you put it around your ankle. And it was for Waikiki, you’d fall off at Waikiki, or Canoe Surf, or Blow Hole Surf, you’d have to swim 100 feet, 150 feet, to get your board. The waves’d take it [the surfboard] in, and that wasted a lot of time, a lot of good surfing time. So that was the inspiration for the leash. And it worked well there. It worked. It wouldn’t get away from you. But for big surf, I had to forget the idea, because that’s too powerful, and a big board on a leash attached to you, you could get killed with it. So, if you got caught in a big surf – I put metal handles on the board; the front or the back – you’d get off the board and hold it into the wave. And the wave would – you’d be able to hang onto your board in a fifteen-foot break, you know. I never used it any more at Waikiki, and nobody ever picked it up. It was lost for years and years, until they started attaching them to these small balsa boards, or foam boards [in the early 1970s].”164
Before leaving Waikiki for an extended period on the Mainland, from 1932 to 1935, Tom proposed a different kind of surfing contest than the kind that had been in place since The Revival. Tom’s proposal was similar to what we have, today. In a newspaper column, “Waikiki Willie” wrote:
“Wonder how Tom Blake’s plan for a surfing contest is coming along? Tom has the idea that a surfing contest can be staged at the beach when there is some ‘first break’ surf. The competition would be for distance and skill.
“The idea is really good and I would like to see it worked out. Let’s get a little kokua [aid, assistance] into it – would be good publicity for the beach. And it could settle the highly controversial subject of the best surfer on the beach. This may not be the most infallible method but it is worth trying. It might put the kulikuli [tell to keep quiet] on some of the chaps on the beach inclined to a bit of blowing.”165
Santa Monica Guarding, 1932-33
Tom returned to the United States Mainland in 1932, probably to oversee the production of his Thomas Rogers boards. While he was in Santa Monica, he did some lifeguarding, even working for the Santa Monica City lifeguards for a very short time. “Oh, he came down there,” Santa Monica lifeguard and early California surfer Wally Burton remembered of Tom at Santa Monica Beach, “and he worked at the lifeguard station there. He worked as what we called an ‘as-needed guard.’ But, he wasn’t the most dependable guy when it came to showing up for time and all. He was an independent sort of a guy.”166
Tom made better money at private beaches and swim clubs, so perhaps he was not all that interested in working for a municipality. Also, Tom was not a regimented 9-to-5 man. He would never have gone for the military style sworn-in guard atmosphere working for the city. Tom was a free spirit and could not be tied down.
Asked about Tom, personally, Wally Burton replied, giving some of his own personal history: “Well, there’s one thing that’s deeply impressed in my mind. I worked for the County of Los Angeles before they had the Santa Monica lifeguard service. I worked for [the] first LA guard system, and it was at the mouth of the Santa Monica Canyon, where we had our first station there… [This dates back to when I was] nineteen. Let’s see. I got canned from the L.A. County guard service because I wasn’t old enough. They deputized you at that time. You had to be twenty-one. And I worked for them for a year before they found out I wasn’t twenty-one. So, there were three of us they let go.”167
“So, I worked at that Santa Monica station when I was nineteen years old… I was nineteen [in] 1929. I remember sitting on the doorsteps of that guard station there. And I vividly remember Tom Blake, because as the sun was setting one evening, he was standing there motionless looking out at the ocean. And I betcha he stood there just absolutely motionless, his silhouette etched against the sunset. And when it was all over, he finally walked away. And you could just tell he was just dreaming. He was a dreamer. And I walked up to him after it was all over and I said, ‘What were you doing there, Tom?’ He said, ‘I was just thinking about what’s beyond that sea, you know.’ Just like that. And he just stood, kind of looked at me for a minute, and he just walked off quietly. He wasn’t the kind of guy to talk very much… But when he said something, you had to listen, because it was something that was, you know, sincere from his heart. I was very much impressed with Tom, but I always considered him a dreamer.”168
“I liked the guy a lot,” Wally said of Tom. “I admired him an awful lot. I guess he was one of my heroes, really, and I looked up to him. And I also looked up to Pete Peterson. Pete, I think, was a better surfer than anybody ever gave him credit for. He surfed in the Islands, did things, you know, when they take these gals and put them on his shoulders? Pete did an outstanding job in surfing and won so many trophies... I don’t want to take away from Tom, but I think he was, actually, a better surfer than Tom… Although I admired Tom for a lot of other things – the dreaming aspect of it all and his innovative deals. Pete was equally innovative in a quiet sort of way.”169
Tommy Zahn, Tom’s protégé later on, liked to tell a story about when Tom was still lifeguarding at the Santa Monica Beach Club. It had to do with his mentor, who was a bit past his prime as a competitive swimmer, and a quart of ice cream: “Blake was working at the beach club when Al Laws was still there,” Tommy recalled the story that had been told to him. “Al was talking to this one guy and he said, ‘Hey, there’s this great swimmer… [who’s] a lifeguard down at the beach club.’ So, he takes him down there and he introduces him to Blake. At that time – in fact up until quite recently – the beach club used to put out a lifeline; a buoy line. It used to run out 300 yards into the water with a buoy on the end. And this guy said, ‘Well, I like the lifeline. I can jump in there and pull myself out to the end of that line and back faster than you can swim it.’
“Blake didn’t say anything. You know. Al Law says, ‘I bet you, you can’t.’ So, they were making a money bet on the thing and Al asked Blake if he’d participate and what he wanted of the piece of the action. And Blake thought around for a while and said, ‘Well, I’ll do it for a quart of ice cream.’ [Tommy snickered]. So, they set these two guys off; Blake swimming and this guy pulling himself hand over hand out to [laughs] the end of this lifeline. You can imagine how that all ended-up, eh? I think Blake was back on the beach, dry – his hair was dry – before this guy ever got back to the beach.”170
The Great Depression continued to take its toll. Before the year 1932 ended, 1,161 banks would fail, nearly 20,000 businesses would go bankrupt, and 21,000 people would commit suicide in that year alone. The Tom Blake hollow paddleboard and hollow surfboards had been available, commercially, for less than a year. To underscore their utility in ocean rescue, Tom made the first of such on July 17, 1932. The Los Angeles Times reported: “Lifeguard Uses Surfboard in Rescuing Pair.
“SANTA MONICA, July 17. – Enter the surfboard rescue! It was effected here late today before the astonished gaze of thousands of bathers.
“Healy Kemp and Henry Wise put out from the Santa Monica Beach Club in a skiff. The sea was choppy. Three-quarters of a mile off shore a swell swamped the frail craft and the men found themselves floundering in the water. Tom Blake, municipal lifeguard and reputed world’s champion surfboard rider, saw their distress signals and struck out for them aboard his Hawaiian surfboard. He found them clinging to the capsized skiff, took them upon his board and brought them to safety through the breakers. Capt. Roger Cornell, head of the lifeguard crew, declared it to be the first surfboard rescue of record.”171
The next day, a newspaper article, “Lifeguard on Surf Board Saves Two from Drowning, Boat Capsizes Three-Quarters of Mile from Shore with Two Occupants” reported: “Tom Blake, world’s champion surfboard rider, was today receiving the thanks of two victims of a near-disaster who found themselves floundering in the water yesterday when their skiff overturned…”172 Before paddleboard rescue, the rescue dory had been the norm. The dory took a long time, in comparison, to launch and reach the victim. It also often took two men to row it. The paddleboard rescue technique completely changed ocean rescue. It is used even today, although jet skis are now taking the majority of duty in larger surf areas or where it is easy to launch them.
Catalina Crossing, 1932
Tom won every paddleboard race he entered throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s. One of his most impressive was the Catalina Crossing, September 30, 1932. However, Tom did not really consider this a race. He said it was a demonstration of the ability of his new Rogers rescue paddleboards, to prove how they could perform in long distance rescue work. In addition, the crossing’s intent was to prove the stamina of the men who paddled.173 There was also the unstated promotional aspect of it all.
The Catalina paddle “was my idea,” California surfing pioneer Chauncy Granstrom recalled. Pete [Peterson] and I paddled together quite a bit and [at that time] there were two fishing barges out there [off shore from the beach]. We paddled out to the barges one day and I said, ‘Listen, let’s see who can paddle to the [Channel] Islands.’ So, Gary Halten [a lifeguard lieutenant] got a hold of the idea and made a big deal out of it. We started training harder [as a result]…”174
Out of all the paddle races, the Catalina paddle was the one that held the most memories for Tom.
“My motive was to prove the paddleboard a good rescue devise. It [the Catalina paddle] reached into unknown territory and was well worth the pain. I trained for it by securing a paddleboard to the edge of the Corona del Mar [jetty] and paddling up to three hours [a day]. The trophy I won was a blue urn; for my ashes.”175
Tom’s board for the crossing was a 14-foot hollow board weighing 75 pounds.176
Originally, there were four paddlers entered in what some people termed “a race from the California mainland to Catalina Island over a 26-mile course, across open water.” However, it was more a marketing tool to prove the open ocean capabilities for rescue using the hollow board.177 Tom, Pete Peterson, Wally Burton, and Chauncy Granstrom were the original entrants. Chauncy pulled out, leaving the field to just the three. Out of the trio, Tom trained the hardest for the feat and was first to cross, making the trek in 5 hours and 53 minutes. “There’s an average of about 5 miles per hour,” Tom wrote, “with only the hands and arms to propel the hollow surfboard.” Pete and Wally came in later, at about 6.5 hours.178
The crossing was well publicized in area newspapers. “Blake Takes Paddle Board Catalina Race; 5 Hrs. 23 Min.” began one article that went on to print: “Battling rough and choppy seas most of the thirty-six nautical miles between Point Vicente, on the mainland, and Long Point, Catalina Island, Tom Blake crossed the channel on a paddle board yesterday in five hours and twenty-three minutes actual time.
“En route he took thirty-two minutes for rest and refreshments.
“Preston Peterson was second, covering the distance in six hours and twenty-nine minutes, and Wally Burton third in six hours and fifty minutes.
“Blake is the Hawaiian paddle board champion and Peterson and Burton are members of the lifeguard crew of the city of Santa Monica.
“The contenders were accompanied by the 40-foot cruiser Gloria H. under command of Capt. O.C. Olsen with timers and a physician aboard. They were taken to Avalon, where they were awarded prizes.
“The object of the contest, according to Capt. George Watkins of the Santa Monica lifeguards, was to show the efficiency of the paddleboard in life-saving work.”179
Another newspaper printed: “GUARDS CONQUER CATALINA CHANNEL. Blake, Peterson, Burton Make Trip to Island on Paddle Boards.” The article continued: “Fighting choppy waves during the last five miles of the hazardous trip, three Santa Monica lifeguards yesterday bested the 29 mile stretch of open channel between Point Vicente and Catalina Island by crossing it on paddle boards.
“Tom Blake, Hawaiian champion in 1929, and club guard here, made the fastest time in the unique contest, which originally was planned as a demonstration of the use of paddle boards in the open sea. Blake made the crossing in five hours and 53 minutes.”180
Under a sub-heading of “Peterson Second,” the newspaper report continued: “Second place went to Lieut. Preston Peterson, of the municipal lifeguard service, who made the crossing in six hours, 31 minutes. Lieut. Wally Burton was third, finishing in 6 hours and 53 minutes.
“The three men were exhausted when dragged from the water by Guards Pat Lister and Bob Butts, who rowed a dory alongside the paddlers the entire distance, quite a feat in itself. The Capt. O.C. Olsen Co. boat, Gloria H., chugged ahead as a convoy.
“The participants reported the crossing uneventful, except for the last few miles, when they were forced to battle through water made choppy by a brisk wind.”181
Under the sub-heading “‘Shot’ for News Reels,” the article went on to report: “News reels ‘caught them’ when they arrived at Avalon and were greeted by city officials and prominent yachtsmen of the island colony.
“Dr. J.S. Kelsey Jr., chairman of the lifeguard committee, which authorized the event, and J.H. Blanchard, a member of the committee, were among the Santa Monicans aboard the convoy boat.”182
“It started out as a test, not a race,” Tom underscored. “It really put the board across as a rescue device... During the paddle, starting just after midnight, all of us separated. The convoy boat stayed with Pete and Wally. I moved on, alone. Finished alone, at Long Point.”183 Unfortunately for Tom, Pete and Wally, everyone on the escort boat Gloria H. ate whatever food was available on the way to Catalina. By the time the three paddlers reached the island, there was no food aboard to feed the weary ones. To make matters worse, despite their weakened condition, the convoy boat headed back for the mainland right after the finish of the race. All three paddlers were sick. Sadly, after getting back to Santa Monica and being congratulated, Tom could not find a ride back home and had to walk back.184 “The L.A. County and S.M. guard services,” Tom noted, “installed them [hollow boards] soon after.”185
In recapping the event two weeks later, in an article entitled “Guards Rewarded For Water Feat,” sub-titled “Mayor Pins Medals Upon Men Who Paddled to Catalina Island,” a reporter wrote: “Paddling one’s way across 29 miles of windswept and tumultuous ocean is no mean feat, Santa Monica city officials and civic leaders believe, so the three lifeguards who made the dangerous trip on paddle boards last Sunday were awarded medals yesterday for their ‘courage and accomplishment’ in an impressive ceremony at the municipal auditorium. Band music, commendation speeches and the cheers of the crowd of onlookers made the presentation a colorful affair.”
Under a sub-heading titled “Without Parallel” the article went on to quote that: “’It was an accomplishment without parallel in the world of aquatic sports,’ Dr. J.S. Kelsey, Jr., chairman of the beach commission declared, as he introduced Mayor William H. Carter, who, in turn, introduced the recipients of the medals and lauded their efforts.
“Tom Blake, club guard, who won the paddle board race; Lieut. Preston Peterson of the Santa Monica service, who made the second best time, and Lieut. Wally Burton, who arrived third, stepped up to the mayor, bowed slightly as they received the medals, and then stepped back to the chairs on the rostrum of the bandstand.”186 The day after the feat, “Gold, silver and bronze medals were ordered struck by the” Santa Monica “city council today for members of the Santa Monica lifeguard service who yesterday finished the world’s longest paddle board race by paddling from the mainland to Catalina Island.”187
“‘The feat is destined to bring world wide renown to the Santa Monica lifeguard service,’” Dr. J.S. Kelsey declared. The short article ended by announcing that “Arrangements were made by the [Santa Monica City] council to have the Santa Monica municipal band… play at the celebration…”188
A local Santa Monica newspaper featured two photographs of the winners, one on boards and the other receiving awards. “‘To the victors belong the spoils,’ city commissioners and civic leaders said,” printed the paper, “as they presented three Santa Monica lifeguards with medals and boards for the paddle board crossing of the 29-mile Catalina channel.”189 In the awards photo, Tom is referred to as “Guard” Blake and is sporting a Santa Monica lifeguard jacket, the same as City of Santa Monica lifeguard Captain George Watkins, Lieutenant Pete Peterson and Lieutenant Wally Burton.190
“Well, I didn’t see it exactly like that,” Wally Burton responded when told Tom did not consider the Catalina a race as much as an endurance test, “because we paddled constantly there, training for this thing. He along with Pete, myself and a guy named Chauncy Granstrom. There were four of us [who] were going to paddle over there; not as a race, but to see who could get there first. It was a competitive thing, really. And Tom was the best of the bunch of us, there was no doubt about it. He arrived there first. And Pete was second and I came in third. Chauncy refused to make the trip, so that’s the way that ended up.”191
“We were more or less advertising that thing for Rogers. And it was my understanding at the time that we were actually trying to make the best times, all of us, all three of us. And, of course, Tom made the best time, Pete was second, I was third. There were only three of us that actually completed the paddle over there, but the time he made was pretty darn good.”192
“That’s when Rogers began that deal,” Wally Burton remembered of 1932. “And from my memory, Rogers used to come down to the guard station there in Santa Monica. George [Watkins] and he would talk about how to make a board for rescue work. And how it ever came into being I don’t claim any knowledge about that accurately, but it seemed to me like he worked with George with this idea about having struts like in the wing of an aircraft, and making hollow. And the first ones he built had plugs in the end of them because they leaked so bad. Then we’d have to stand them up on end and let the water pour out of them, after we got through with using the board. And those that we paddled to the Island [Catalina] were actually of that type.”193
“Well,” Wally Burton answered about how he felt after the Catalina paddle, “I’ll tell you, I was pretty pooped. At one time there [during the paddle], I thought, ‘I’m going to duck this whole thing.’ I got sick, seasick really, rolling around on that board. And the chop was such that you lay on your stomach for that length of time, or get on your knees a lot of the time and paddle. But I forget what the time was… I was sick and so was Tom. I’ve got pictures of Tom and myself on the boat, after we’d come in, there. We’re both sacked out in bed, and we’re both sick.”194
“He told me,” Tommy Zahn wrote, “the Palos Verdes to Catalina paddle was arranged so that the seaworthiness of his newly patented board could be demonstrated (By the way, they all three paddled the Rogers ‘Model #1’). He won numerous races on the coast, but after the Ala Wai Canal, there was so much bitterness and hard feeling among the [Waikiki] locals (which persists to this day!) that he backed off. He was trying to make a living on the beach at the Outrigger Beach Services of the Outrigger Canoe Club. Tom… is a very sensitive person; a great competitor, without all the fury of the manifest ‘killer’ competitor. Tom had too much class for this. His method [was] simple: complete preparation and dedication in every aspect. In short, he accomplished what he had set out to do: establish his boards. He residualized some financial returns, as well as the satisfaction of the humanitarian rewards of inventing a piece of lifeguarding equipment that has rescued thousands.”195
When asked who was the main shaper of the 1930s that he best remembered, Tom replied that it was Peter Markea, “a Hawaiian boy who took the time and interest in design and fine finish.”196 It is not known, but can be presumed, that Markea had a hand in building Blake boards. When his boards started to become popular, Tom sub-contracted the work out, as he would later do with other inventions and innovations. The year 1932 marked a significant change in the production of Blake boards. From this point on into the early 1950s, Tom had various production companies make and market his boards. From 1932 to the early 1950s, there were four major builders of the Blake hollow board: Thomas Rodgers Company, Robert Mitchell Manufacturing Company, Los Angeles Ladder Company, and the Catalina Equipment Company:197
Thomas Rodgers Company, Venice, California: “Tom Blake Hawaiian Paddleboards,” 1932-1939 – These were built for the West Coast of California, Canada, and Europe. Thomas Rodgers built his own boards under the name Hawaiian Paddleboards during World War II (1941-1945), without the Blake plug, and was not licensed to build any more with Tom after 1939. The hollow board, by this time, had evolved to transverse bracing.198 Blake’s chambered hollow boards were no longer cigar shaped, but rather a “lighter, point-tailed model, built up of hollow compartments,” documented Finney and Houston. “Because of its ease in paddling and in catching waves, it became a favorite in Hawaii and California,” especially among beginning surfers. This refined hollow compartment board was used until the late 1940s.199
Unknown builder, 1934 – Prior to Robert Mitchell production, a set of 10 paddleboards were built in Florida under the instruction of Tom Blake. Possibly Peter Markea or Abel Gomes. These were used to start sales on the East Coast.
Robert Mitchell Manufacturing Company, Cinncinati, Ohio, 1934-1939 – Built for the East Coast and Hawai’i only. An influential worker at the Robert Mitchell Company, who happened to be blind, was instrumental in getting the company interested in the boards. After feeling the lines of Blake’s watercraft, when both men met each other in Florida, he became fascinated by them. The Robert Mitchell Manufacturing Company went on to produce the finest of the Blake commercial boards. Essentially a furniture company, Robert Mitchell crafted the boards like fine pieces of hand built furniture using African Mahogany. They produced one made of teak for Tom. Tom’s personal boards had cross-hatched decking for traction. The Robert Mitchell Company came up with the traction idea, and the company cast the first brass vent plugs for the Blake hollow board.
Los Angeles Ladder Company, 1940-1942 – World War II put an end to LALC production. After World War II, the foreman for LALC started making boards under the name Catalina Equipment Company.
Catalina Equipment Company, 1946-early 1950s – After a series of business problems, the foreman-builder took his own life.
“Always interested in getting back to the beach, and surfing,” Tom explained, “I didn’t care to spend all my life trying to commercialize these boards, so I had different companies – talked them into making them. Rogers Company of Venice made them, and they sold them to lifeguards around California. And then Mitchell Company, Cincinnati, sold them… They sold them to the Red Cross, and I helped them sell them all over the country. That helped spread it. And then it went back to California. The L.A. Ladder Company – talked them into manufacturing boards and a few other items. They started out, [then] their engineer left and started out [and] made a company of his own; Catalina Equipment Company. They took it up and sold to the American Red Cross (chuckle). And finally, the war come along, World War II, and all the waterproof glue they were putting the boards together with, sealing them up with, was taken up with the war effort, and they couldn’t get any of it. The Catalina Company put some waterproof glue in the boards that did not hold, went to pieces quickly after they were put in the water, and the boards leaked and come apart. The Red Cross got mad and quit buying them, and that was about the end of the commercialism, as far as I was concerned. I never did make any money on it. When royalties would mount up to thirty-forty dollars, or maybe a hundred, I’d take out a few boards and use them for myself, or give them to friends. That’s the way it was then.”200
With refinements to the hollow paddle and surfboard came the recognition that Tom’s innovations needed protecting. “After development of the hollow boards in 1929,” he wrote in Hawaiian Surfboard, “an acquaintance of mine advised me to have the idea patented. He unwittingly opened up a new field of experiment in the construction of a board of light pieces of lumber, instead of hollowing out of the solid timber. The first one appeared late in 1929. Although being allowed a U.S. Patent on the hollow surfboard, it was 1934 before a really good model of that [light wood pieces] construction was perfected.”201
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin featured this further refinement of transverse ribbed bracing of Tom’s hollow board design in an article on September 28, 1934: “Tom Blake, surfboard expert of Waikiki beach, has just returned from a year’s tour of the mainland introducing his development, the new Hollow Surfboard, to the public on the mainland United States for lifeguard work, surf riding, paddling and aqua-planing purposes.
“Blake holds the U.S. patent on the Hollow Surfboard and has been fortunate in interesting eastern capital and a large Cincinnati, Ohio, manufacturing concern in the making and distribution of his board.
“A very enthusiastic reception of the Hollow Hawaiian Surfboard in the States is reported. Important lifeguard services throughout the country have adopted the Hollow Surfboard as standard equipment for rescue work, and, of course, lifeguards are becoming good surfers.
“Extensive surf riding is already to be seen in Southern California and from Florida to Maine on the Atlantic coast.
“The American Red Cross officials believe that the Hollow Surfboard is the greatest piece of life saving equipment ever developed and are giving him great help and support in his work, the inventor states.
“In the new 1934 design, Mr. Blake feels he has at last produced an excellent riding board. It is short, broad, and buoyant; very easy to catch a wave with and paddle fast. When standing it goes into a slide or out with the slightest pressure of the feet.
“The board is made of genuine African mahogany, the equivalent of Hawaiian koa wood.
“The Robert Mitchell Mfg. Co., of Cincinnati, Ohio, are the exclusive manufacturers of the invention.”202
The chambered hollow boards now averaged 60-pounds total weight, due to the utilization of the wood frames instead of drilled holes. The frame was covered with a thin layer of redwood. Departing with the drilled holes was the cigar shape.203 “And now in 1935,” wrote Blake in that year, “it is with pleasure I see the surf riders at Waikiki, led by a keen young surf rider, Waldo Bowman, building their own hollow surfboards after my new, perfected, riding design... My prediction of 1932 is already materializing. The hollow surfboard is popular throughout the United States for pleasure and water life saving. It is to be seen from Maine to Florida and from Michigan to California... Already surfboard racing is popular in Hong Kong, China, I am told by Bill Butt[s] who carried the idea from Waikiki. He says that there are about sixty boards there, built after plans I had published in a national mechanical magazine several years ago... There is surfboard racing in Italy. South America, Peru, has taken it up for lifeguard work. Also Canada.
“Australia has also taken up the hollow surfboard, solid boards have been used there for many years. I have heard surfboards are used on the East Coast of Africa...”204
“The man responsible for Blake’s hollow style of construction being introduced to Australia was Frank Adler, a Maroubra surfer who got the idea from an American magazine which showed Blake’s board,” corroborated Australian Nat Young. “Adler first used his hollow board in surf club competition in 1934 and easily out-paddled other surfers who were using solid boards. It didn’t take long for the new hollow style of board building to catch on, and hollow boards began to dominate the Australian east coast surfing scene.”205
Blake boards were manufactured by Robert Mitchell beginning in 1934. Having the first signature model surfboard, Tom also had the first decals put on a board. Robert Mitchell designed a fancy patented brass plug for the Blake boards under his production. Before the Mitchell-produced Blake boards, the plugs had all been plain. The Robert Mitchell Company was an established builder of fine hand-made furniture in Cincinnati, Ohio. The deal with Tom and Robert Mitchell began in Florida when Tom met the owner on the beach in 1933.206
Although Tom designed many of the early production boards that bear his logo and name, in fact, he did not do most of the hands-on work to these boards. He was more involved with other aspects of his life, such as traveling, inventing/innovating, writing and, of course, surfing. Not only was he too busy to get too deep into production work, he just was not inclined to do so. Some of the much later Blake boards were not even of his own design. So, it is not surprising that a custom hand-built Tom Blake board is very rare and only a few exist, today.207
Once boards went into production, they came from the hands of others. A good example of Tom’s delegation of his work can be found in the boards sold at Waikiki after 1934. Exclusive agent and outlet for the Robert Mitchell Tom Blake boards was Elmer Lee’s Grass Shack in Waikiki. In Hawaii, one of the board makers was wood craftsman and noted surfer Abel Gomes. Hot Curl surfer Wally Froiseth remembers Tom and his hollow framed production boards. “Tom Blake…and I were really good friends; my brother and him, especially… [but] Tom Blake didn’t actually make those hollow boards down there [at Waikiki]. This guy Abel Gomes made the boards. He was a woodworker. Tom wasn’t… he had the ideas, you know. He knew what he wanted.
“Abel Gomes worked for a place they called Honolulu Sash and Door and they made all this kind of stuff. He was an expert carpenter and woodworker. He made the boards for Tom Blake – of course, to Tom Blake’s calculations. Maybe all of them weren’t framed [hollow].”208
The hollow surfboard became very popular and the board-of-choice at Waikiki and on the Mainland from 1932 to 1941. Viewing Waikiki surfing postcards and tourist photos of the period, hollows outnumber redwood planks. A 1937 photo of the Waikiki Beach Patrol reveals that every guard except two had hollow boards of Blake design. For rescue work, especially, they were the state of the art. As for the Mainland, Doc Ball photographs of surfing in California during the 1930s and beginning 1940s also show the popularity of the hollow board. Duke Kahanamoku, who had a slightly different view of this time, told his biographer in 1968: “Those paddleboards were quite an innovation at first, but were finally relegated chiefly to lifeguard work on account of their extreme buoyancy… Some surfers, by the way, still prefer them. Most, however, still searching and experimenting, turned to redwood and balsa for better stability and easier turning capacity. Ten- and thirteen-foot redwood square tails were developed, and many of them ran well under one hundred pounds.”209
“The life saving possibilities is what will carry the hollow surfboard to future world-wide use,” predicted Blake. He was partially right. As surfboard design continued to evolve outside the sphere of his own experiments, the hollow paddle board was mainly used to the lifesaving services, officially adopted by the United States of America Red Cross Life Saving Division as the best method of saving lives in surf far from shore.210 Significantly, hollow boards became a branch of the tree of surfboard design, not the trunk from which all other designs stemmed from afterwards. Even though Blake would produce “plastic” boards (fiberglass coated wood) in the 1950s and further develop rescue and paddleboard designs that continued in use through the 1950s and ‘60s,211 “His olo-inspired shapes led to no further board development,” wrote Finney and Houston. Although big hollow boards dominated Hawaiian beaches for many years... the surfboard’s evolution continued from the solid, wide-tailed designs that preceded Blake’s experiments.”212
That being said and understood, it is nevertheless important to recognize that, surfboards aside, the rescue board and racing paddleboard of today resemble Tom’s original shapes more than that of a solid plank board design.213 Additionally, the similarities in shape between the big wave boards of today and Tom’s hollow boards are not accidental.
In the early 1930s, Tom Blake’s influence stretched from Hawaii to Southern California. In the latter part of the decade, while the Depression was still underway, his influence would be felt all along the East Coast of the United States and into Australia. Eventually, Tom’s contributions went worldwide.
Tom recalled his first days surfing in Florida: “Florida was virgin territory as far as I was concerned. Someone had brought a board and left it behind and I got fooling around on it in 1922. Later on I went back, in the early 1930s, trying to spread the idea of surfing and rescue boards. There were no surfers at all then, for years. The surf was pretty good and I enjoyed riding it. Slowly in the mid-1930s it started catching on. But it didn’t catch on for rescue work for a long time.”
Dudley and Bill Whitman, Florida’s first known native surfers, began on belly boards around 1932. Around 1933-34, the Whitmans were exposed to “the famous Tom Blake hollow board,” which was “fairly well accepted at that time,” recalled Dudley Whitman. “Of course, eventually it became the most popular board in Hawaii...”214 While touring in Florida, Tom “came up to see my brother and me because he understood we were riding Hawaiian surfboards. He became one of our lifelong friends.”215
By the 1930s, Mainland USA surfing was no longer confined to California. Following Duke Kahanamoku’s introduction of the sport to the East Coast in 1912, surfing had slowly gotten underway in Florida. The first Florida surfers hit the waves around 1932. These were Gauldin Reed, Dudley and Bill Whitman.216 “My brother Bill,” recalled Dudley Whitman, “who is five years older than me, and I started surfing in Miami Beach in about 1932 on belly boards. My brother’s quite a craftsman, and we made some belly boards that were quite beautiful. John Smith and Babe Braithwaite of Virginia Beach came to Miami Beach with the typical, 10-foot redwood Hawaiian surfboard about that time. My brother and I, being belly boarders, were totally amazed. So, my brother built the first Hawaiian surfboard that was ever built in Florida. It was 10 feet long, and made out of sugar pine. A year later, I followed... I was only about 13 years old at that time.”217 In Tom Blake’s book Hawaiian Surfriders 1935, he named a number of well-known East Coast surfers who, in the beginning of the 1930s started surfing. Prominent among them were Dudley and Bill Whitman. Later, as members of the Outrigger Canoe Club, the Whitmans went on to patent the underwater camera, make movies, and pioneer the sport of slalom water-skiing.
Dudley vividly remembered meeting Tom Blake for the first time: “I was about thirteen years old, something like that. My brother Bill had built an exact copy of a Hawaiian surfboard. A few months later, I went to work to build one for myself. We had a very nice shop that happened to be right on the Atlantic Ocean. I was just finishing up the surfboard… and, well, it was eleven, eleven and a half feet long, and it was laminated out of three or four pieces. It was a solid board, and it was like the traditional Hawaiian-type boards. It was carved, you know, using draw knives and all that kind of stuff; and a plane that was close to 36 inches long; huge wood plane. The shavings are about knee-deep in the shop, and I’ve got it almost shaped, which is a pretty big job out of solid wood; not like shaping foam or balsa or anything like that. I looked out the window, and here goes this chap paddling by on a surfboard like I’d never seen before. It was a Tom Blake-patented surfboard and it was Tom himself. He was coming up to look for us, because he heard that we were surfing and we were the only ones in south Florida surfing. And so, from that time on, we had an acquaintanceship, and we became lifetime friends.”218
“We knew Tom from about 1932 or ‘3 for the rest of his life, virtually,” said Dudley. “Last few years I kind of lost track of him, but we used to exchange correspondence occasionally.”219
“I always thought of Tom as a person about 35 years old, or something like that,” Dudley Whitman stated, philosophically. “And, of course, he did age as we all do, but he always kept his youthful appearance. The amazing thing was that, finishing this particular board off, it was outmoded just before it was finished! So, very shortly after meeting Tom, my brother Bill built the first hollow board ever in Florida.”220
“Well, it’s been documented, I think,” Dudley Whitman said of the first surfers in Florida, “in some of the magazines, Surfer Magazine and so forth. The first people that came down here with Hawaiian surfboards were John Smith and Babe Braithwaite from Virginia Beach. They had an actual Hawaiian redwood board. They looked us up because we were fooling around, riding belly boards and things like that. They allowed my brother and myself to ride their boards, and they, incidentally, became lifetime friends as well.
“So, my brother Bill built his board, and then I told you about myself building my solid board. So, my brother Bill built the first Hawaiian surfboard ever built in Florida, and I built the second one – not that that matters. And then my brother Bill built the first hollow ‘Blake board’ that had ever been built in Florida. I still have that one that I built over sixty-some years ago, and that’s kind of an interesting story, in that it was, of course, mahogany and all of that. It was run over by an automobile up in Daytona. Actually, it was patched so good that when I look at it today I can hardly tell that it was patched. I had to have another board, of course, and so we built numerous Blake boards. I don’t have to tell you that the Blake board dominated the scene in Hawaii from about 1935… all through, until after World War II. There were a few square-tail hollow boards, too, but Tom, of course, is the father of the pointed tail, cigar-shaped one, and hollow boards.”221
“Well, of course, Tom was physically fit, a pretty handsome man, and as a person that knew him, he was a little different than a lot of surfers that you know,” Dudley said of Tom and his early impressions of him. “Some people might say, or like to think, that maybe he was a hippie-type or something. No. He was a type of person of his own kind. He was always immaculately dressed with excellent clothes, excellent taste, and never far-out... He always, always presented well; not a rundown-looking, sloppy bum like you and I know some surfers degenerated to.”222
“Miami Beach, back in those days, was not developed to much of an extent at all,” Dudley Whitman responded when asked what the beach was like back in the 1930s. “It was just starting its development. We had a home on the ocean… [on] Collins Avenue… also known as A1A. When I was a kid and born here, there were crocodiles all over the place. Very, very few people know that, but… we have photographs of it... Our home was at Thirty-second Street and Collins Avenue. The closest home to us was about a mile and a half away, and that was the Firestone Estate. Of course, today, there’s a dozen hotels in between where our home was. We could hear them [the Firestones], on a Sunday, start up their Pierce Arrow automobile and come down, pick us up, and take us to Sunday School. Miami Beach was just getting going, and the publicity department was running pictures nationally of bathing beauties in those ‘gorgeous bathing suits’ they had in those days; which are pretty much a big laugh to look at… Of course, during my lifetime I saw Miami Beach slowly build to be the premium resort of the world. Then, in time, [it] had a big slide in the sixties and seventies, and looked like it was going nowhere. But now it’s had a reverse [it’s getting prosperous again]. So, I’ve seen the city built. But, Miami Beach [when I was young, was a place where]… some of the roads were paved; there were few hotels and a sprinkling of homes; and virtually everybody knew each other. Today it’s a huge city, and is redeveloping as a too-popular of a resort – and also, really, a terminal for Central and South America.”223
Dudley Whitman said of the surf spots back then: “We probably surfed more up in Daytona than in Miami Beach, especially when Bill and I went to college. We went to the University of Florida, so every weekend – bam! – we were over in Daytona surfing. We introduced the sport there, and I think we started a lot of people surfing. Some of our friends are still surfing there, like Gauldin Reed.”224
“I was surfing before the Whitman brothers came up from Miami and joined us in the mid-’30s,” recalled Gauldin Reed, in his home at Daytona Beach. “We had a pretty strong group early on. I have a picture with 25 boards on the beach that we built ourselves. The boards were hollow and weighed about 40 pounds. We built nose and tail blocks and side strip bulkheads every foot and then nailed the plywood down on top of it. Of course, this was providing we could save $3 to buy all the materials.”225
“Nobody knew what we were doing,” Dudley admitted. “We carried our boards on the cars, these hollow Tom Blake boards that were 12 feet long, and people just didn’t understand it. Daytona was the focal point in Florida for surfing in 1936. Every time we surfed we had a crowd watch us, but it didn’t really take off until after World War II.”226
The hollow boards they built were “rounded… off a little bit more like the modern boards of today. They were put together with wooden pegs instead of screws like everybody else had.”227 The wooden pegs created quite a stir at Waikiki when they were first seen, there. “Well, that’s a pretty good story,” Dudley Whitman declared when asked about his connection with the Outrigger Canoe Club and the story of the wooden pegs. “I don’t know how long we had known Tom; maybe for a year or two. Yes, at least that; maybe more. Definitely more. We were going to Hawaii and he [Tom] wrote a very nice letter to Duke Kahanamoku to introduce us to the Outrigger Canoe Club. And so, when we went to Hawaii, we saw Duke. Of course, he stood about six foot four at least, and he looks down at us haole white boys, and reads the letter and says, ‘Sorry, we don’t have any room at the Outrigger Canoe Club.’ Well, my brother Bill is a tremendous craftsman and he’s really great at lofting and stuff of that nature. So, we had built pretty nice-looking boards… and we were right there at Waikiki. So, after Duke had shoosed us, why we immediately started to unpack our boards that were wrapped up in canvas. After they saw our boards, maybe ten or twenty Hawaiian surfers gathered around. By the time we got them unpacked, there must have been at least a hundred or a hundred and fifty standing around. They took us to the Outrigger Canoe Club, gave us the racks of honor! I’ve been a member of the Outrigger Canoe Club ever since.”228
“My brother Bill’s probably been to Hawaii almost every summer of his life; at least certainly every other summer, and I’ve not been that fortunate. I’ve been over there about once every six-to-ten years; something like that. But, we had a lot of experiences with Tom. Incidentally, I have a beautiful – had a beautiful – little sailboat I had built, and Tom happened to name my boat. And he sailed with me on it. It’s called the Kahiki… It means, over the horizon, or in the distance.” 229
In early 1934, Tom again guarded at the Roman Pools, located on 23rd Street and the Atlantic Ocean.230 Over the years, he went back and forth between California and Florida “several times,” he noted.231
Nassau, Bahamas, 1934
In Hawaiian Surfboard, Tom mentioned briefly a trip to the Bahamas with his surfboard along; quite probably the first surf safari to the Bahamas: “In a seaplane, (Pan American) trip from Nassau, the English possession, I carried a full-sized hollow surfboard as baggage without trouble or inconvenience. Had we been forced down and the ship sunk in the Gulf Stream, I could have maintained the two pilots, steward, three passengers and myself from sinking for many hours, or until help came.”232 Dudley said they also “surfed the island of Eleuthera,” at some point; probably much later.”233
Long Island, New York, 1934
Reviews of Tom’s book, published in 1935, reference his previously working in New York – even New York City. This was, no doubt, following his stint in Florida. Perhaps Tom’s first time working in New York, since the time he worked in the carnival at Jones Beach in 1921, was the Summer of 1934. Tom tells it like this: “One time in Florida,” Tom recalled, “I had a job at the surf club. That was the most exclusive beach club at Miami. The rich come down there from all over the country. I worked for Richard Ricardi…This rich man named Feldman was at the club one day and he had a big estate up in New York; Long Island… He had some kids. He used to have someone take care of the kids; teach them in the summer, you know. Steve recommended me. I heard him discussing it with his friend once. He said, ‘That’s the guy who beat the Hawaiians at their own game.’ Well, I didn’t say anything. That wasn’t what the Hawaiian’s game was, you know. They’re game was winning! [laugh] Anyway, Feldman said, ‘Come work for me this summer.’”234
Tom returned to Long Island, New York and instructed the Feldman children. It is likely that he also did some lifeguarding in the area, possibly New York City. He certainly was in touch with the guards at Jones Beach and credits “Mullahey of Honolulu and Valley Stream, N.Y.” with making lifeguards at Jones Beach, on the South Shore of Long Island, N.Y., “surfboard minded.” Mullahey “battled for several years, as a lieutenant in the famous Jones Beach Lifeguard Patrol, to show them the value of the surfboard in rescue work. So when I came along with the improved hollow boards they were ready and eager to accept them.”235
“I went up there,” Tom continued of his New York summer. “That summer was fantastic for me… [My costs] were very little and they paid me $500 dollars a month. It was fantastic. I took care of these kids, taught them to swim, had good luck with them. Good luck for their parents, too, because they were all individuals and they were hard to get along with. We did get along… I came out of it with about $1500 bucks, well fed and everything, and heading for the Islands, again, for some surfing.”236
The Skeg & Other Innovations
After Tom Blake returned to O’ahu in the Fall of 1934, he went on to produce his most enduring innovation. All his other inventions and innovations would be overshadowed by Tom’s application of fin to surfboard. The surfboard skeg – or “fin” – eventually caused a quantum shift in surfboard riding and development.
As Blake told it, in 1935, he tore a fixed keel off a washed-up speedboat and reattached it onto the bottom of a surfboard. Although not readily adopted by most surfers until a decade later, the skeg has gone on to become an integral part of surfboard design.237
“When I first went to the Islands, they used wide-tailed boards and they used to spinout on a steep, critical slide,” Tom recalled. “I figured it would be easy to correct that problem, just add something – a keel. Finally, I got around to it. You didn’t hurry things up over there. You were having too much fun surfing every day.” Speaking of the first wooden skeg he made, Tom said, “Finally, I put a fin on the board and it worked fine. It was a shallow fin, about 4” deep and a foot long. It took ten years for that thing to catch on and then the boards kept getting lighter and smaller and [then] the fin became more effective for steering.”238
“Regarding that fin business on the board,” Tom went on. “Kind of a strange way in which it came about… there were no fins on boards. The boards at Waikiki were mostly squared tail. You’d get into steep slide on a four, six foot wave and your tail would spin out. You’d skid out. Tail sliding, they’d call it. It spoiled a great many rides. I got the idea of trying to correct that, because I’d seen skegs on small outboard motor boats, and when they’d go around a turn in racing, they had a skeg four inches deep, six inches long on the bottom, right on the bottom, made of aluminum, mostly, cast aluminum. And that would keep them from skidding out, and they would be able to make, hold the water on the turn, when they weren’t going too fast.
“Of course, I figured it’d work on a surfboard, and I finally found one, a skeg, and took it off a wrecked boat and it was pitted from the salt water, and it was too sharp to put on a surfboard. So I had to cover it with a piece of hardwood, koa wood, and, to try it on a surfboard...”239
“I finally put it on a board, a fourteen-foot paddleboard,” continued Tom. “Took it out in the surf, paddled it out. In paddling out, the board had an entirely different feeling with this skeg on it, and it wasn’t exactly a likeable feeling, and I remember… having the thought, well, this board is – this thing’s no good. And I probably would have discarded it. I took it out and caught a pretty good wave on it, a six-foot wave, maybe, and it was remarkable the control you had over the board with this little skeg on it. It didn’t spin out, it steered easy, because the tail held steady when you put the pressure on the front, and it turned any way you wanted it, and I knew right from that moment it was a success. But that was the only one in existence, and nobody else paid any attention to it, and it took ten years before that thing really caught on.
“I used to make different ones [and] pretty soon everybody else started making their own design. Eventually every board you see has one fin on it. [Bob] Simmons come along finally and he needed two fins, the way he surfed. On account of his arm, he couldn’t paddle too fast. He was hollering about boards spinning out, so he put two fins on, and that worked fine. That didn’t catch on for a long time, and nowadays, I understand three is normal for a board. The fin, it wasn’t in existence yet when I wrote my first book around 1930, and 1935 was the date of the first fin.”240
“When I first paddled out,” Tom reiterated, “the board felt like it was much easier to keep in a straight line although I thought I might be imagining it. My first wave revealed the truth. Never before had I experienced such control and stability. There was much to work out but the seed had been sown.”241
The first picture of the first fin, published in a Honolulu newspaper, shows a “Close view of stabilizer fin on hollow surfboard, which helps control the board on a fast wave.” The picture also shows a metal ring at the tail of the board. “The handle enables the rider to hold his board in the largest of breaks,” explained the caption.242 Tom later moved the ring to the front of the board and introduced a more refined fin to surfers in Florida. “I think I was one of the first persons that he asked to test it for him,” Florida surfer Dudley Whitman said. “We put it on my board, and if I sketched it for you, you’d be amazed what it looked like… Tom was always great on having everything polished and chrome plated to perfection. This fin, I’ll bet it weighed ten or twelve pounds. Unbelievable. More than my son’s surfboard weighs today. It was, oh, about sixteen inches long and it was only, oh – let’s say – four inches deep. Everything was rounded off, so that if you were touched by it or hit by it you wouldn’t get hurt. I think Tom was quite concerned about that. So, the thickness of the fin itself must have been at least a half an inch. It was solid bronze or brass, I don’t know which. And then the base was cast. It was a casting. The base must have been at least a quarter of an inch thick. So, it was a heavy kind of a clunky thing and it didn’t do really much of anything to improve the ride of his Blake board. Of course, it was tremendous on other boards. I don’t have to tell you that.
“We fastened it on with screws [and] I probably tested it for a week or two, or some short time, in the Florida surf, which is usually pretty sorry stuff. And I might have taken it up to Daytona to test it, but I don’t believe I did. We weren’t terribly enthusiastic about it.”243
Ron Drummond’s wife Doris wrote about the invention of the skeg in an article published in the early 1970s, entitled “Tuning in to Fins: Fashioning the First Fin.” She wrote: “This generation of surfers has probably given little thought to the idea of riding a surfboard without a fin, and of what the invention of the fin has meant to the ancient and royal sport. Less than forty years ago, no one had even thought of the fin, but in 1935 a young man from the midlands of America, a young man who had been inspired by Duke Kahanamoku and became a famous surfer in his own right, put the first fin on a surfboard. That was Tom Blake, who has become a surfing legend in his own lifetime.
“Surfing is being out on the surging ocean, a man with his board alone against the sea, and with the sea. There is no artificial power, just a man with the quickness of his brain and the strength of his body combining with gravity and the forward motion of the wave. That is the strange thing about the invention of the fin, for Tom got his idea from power-driven racing speedboats.”244
Doris Drummond continued: “When Tom first went to Hawaii in 1924, surfboards had wide tails, straight across at the back. In a critical slide, he found that the board would spin out and he would lose everything.
“Surfers were complaining all the time. They would say, ‘Had a beautiful wave, but my tail spun out!’
“He noticed that racing power boards had skegs, and he asked a speedboat skipper about this. He was told that the skeg kept the boat from skidding out when it made a sharp turn rounding the buoy at high speed. This was Tom’s inspiration...”245
Less than a year after he introduced the skeg, “others were trying fins, mostly crude items, but some were using two and three fin setups,” wrote surfwriter Chris Ahrens. “Blake himself experimented with all types of fin shapes, and used a variety of materials, including metal. Still, it took a full ten years for the fin to gain acceptance with most surfers.”246
It seems that Tom stayed in constant movement between the geographical poles of Waikiki, Santa Monica, Miami, and even Long Island, New York. During the later part of the 1930s, he focused most of his movements on promoting the hollow board. While so doing, he came up with some other innovations, most notably the spun aluminum torpedo buoy in 1937, the spun aluminum rescue ring in 1940, a motorized surfboard, and the hollow board as rescue board used in water safety.
The main flotation devise used by lifeguards for ocean rescue has been devises they have been able to take into the surf and swim with. Initially, at the beginning of the century, there were the 5-7 gallon crude can rescue float; then there were the 2-3 gallon bronze and steel cans. These “diamond can buoys” had a tube-shaped body with conical bronze ends. The can buoys were large and heavy and would often smack the guard on the body. Tom refined this most basic tool of lifeguarding further by inventing the spun aluminum torpedo buoy in 1937.
The torpedo buoy was a great invention that really helped lifeguarding. It was smaller and lighter than the diamond can buoy, yet buoyant and durable. It was later replaced by the rubber rescue tube that Preston “Pete” Peterson invented and sold. Captain Watkins and Wally Burton of the Santa Monica lifeguards were also involved with Pete in this endeavor. The Peterson rubber rescue tube was in common use until the mid-1960s, when Pete introduced foam rubber tubes. After these came the plastic/poly buoys that preceded the tough poly buoy that is used today at ocean beaches throughout the world.
The spun aluminum rescue ring came out in 1940. It was never adopted as a standard piece of equipment, as had been the hollow board and torpedo buoy, but is an evolutionary link to the rescue rings used today. Tom was philosophical about how his innovations caught on or didn’t, but was determined to make the case for bouyant hollow boards as a major tool in water safety at beaches.247
“The surfboard… was used in Hawaii in the early days, and probably prehistorically for rescue work,” Tom supposed. “I, being a lifeguard… got the idea of spreading it to California and the rest of the country for rescue work. And I made a few rescues offshore in California. I remember I started out making one sailboat turned over offshore, two guys were spilled in the water, and they didn’t know whether to leave their boat or try to swim to shore. They were about a half-mile out, at least, and I was a lifeguard on the beach. I took out a small board, ten-foot riding board, went out there to see what I could do to help them. One guy was afraid, and the other guy could swim pretty well. So I took the guy that was frightened, put him on my board. The board barely held two people. The other guy swam back, close by the board, and we made shore all right. And it was a fairly good rescue, and it got quite a bit of notoriety, but it gave me the idea of making a board bigger, so I could carry a person easier, or even two people.
“That was the beginning of the rescue boards, there. It spread up and down the coast, and Rogers started to make them... We put demonstrations on for the lifeguards, and paddled the board to Catalina to show what it could do, and the lifeguards began to buy them, then. The rescue paddleboard and surfboard really started then in California.”248
“I had the idea that the American Red Cross” might get interested in it, Tom said. They “were teaching water safety around the country every summer to different schools; maybe a half dozen different schools. I might get it started with them. [Tom’s board manufacturer] Mitchell fixed me up a nice board and made a cover for it. I had a car, and I fixed that up to camp in... Started a route. Whenever a camp would open – they’d open at different times in the spring – I’d find a camp. I didn’t even know where they all were at the beginning. I’d find one, and show them the board as a rescue device, and it went over great. They’d tell me about another camp that was nearby and I’d go there. Finally made a half dozen camps, and the Red Cross picked it up. Of course, they always had money and they started to buy them from Mitchell. They sold quite a few boards that way. But it did die out sooner or later, because the war came along...”249
Around this time, in February of 1937, Tom met with officials of the Bendix company in New York to demonstrate the motor surf board for life saving.250 Tom thought that there were real possibilities of a motorized surfboard. He thought of them in terms of radio-controlled hollow surfboards as standard issue, along with lifeboats and life preservers, on all steam and airships. This, obviously, was not to be. Yet, it is provocative to think that out of Blake’s ideas, today’s jet ski can be considered a further evolution of his motorized surfboard idea. Veteran Waikiki surfer Wally Froiseth agrees: “Turns out – look at these jet skis, man! That’s a takeoff on Tom Blake’s concept of a motorized surfboard, which he predicted would be the wave of the future. The only thing was, they just didn’t have the jet deal perfected back then.”251
That summer 1937, while in New York, Tom was employed as a Jones Beach, Long Island lifeguard.252 It’s probable that 1938 was the year he took his hollow rescue board on the road in an effort to get official endorsement by the American Red Cross, which came in 1939. Afterwards, Tom wrote about the hollow board for that organization’s national magazine. In “Surfboards For Fun and Safety,” he gave some background to the hollow board as a rescue device: “Far-off Hawaii has given the United States an ingenious modification of their ancient surfboards in the new hollow, streamlined, air-chambered board, which, but a few years old, is now recognized as a most efficient means of water rescue by the country’s leading life-guard organizations. And its use is one of the most joyous of water sports, too.
“Twenty years ago, W. E. Longfellow of the Life-Saving Service of the American Red Cross, visited Waikiki Beach, and carried back the news that the surfboards of Hawaii had possibilities as a means of rescue. Today , Captain Longfellow has seen his dream fulfilled. While the old boards of the Islands were made of a solid piece of heavy timber, were slow to paddle, and difficult to carry a second person on, the modern hollow board invented in 1929 is light, fast and buoyant. By 1934 it had been introduced to many parts of the United States, and today there are many hundreds of these boards in use and the number [thousands by 1942] is increasing constantly.”253
“In Southern California,” Tom continued, “where some of the nation’s crack life-guard corps operate, Captain George Watkins, of the Santa Monica organization, says of the hollow board:
“‘Hollow surfboards are standard equipment on our beaches; every guard must be able to handle one. About thirty per cent of our rescues are made on boards; every tower had one or more boards at hand.’
“Captain Watkins favors the surfboard over the dory in many cases, because it can be so easily and quickly launched by one man and is efficient in all weather in which a boat can be used.
“Besides their use in life saving, hollow boards are popular as a recreational device at boys’ and girls’ camps, and along the sea coasts and lake shores. They provide a foolproof, healthy exercise and pastime.
“Handling the board is as simple as riding a bicycle: a little practice is all that is necessary. A board may be rigged with a small sail, and also makes an excellent aquaplane for freeboard riding.
“The hollow board is manufactured by Thomas N. Rogers Company, Venice, California. They are available in several models and may be had in knock-down kits (build ‘em yourself).”254
Providing plans and instructions for do-it-yourselfers, Popular Science magazine printed all the information anyone needed to build their own hollow board. Tom authored the article published in the June 1939 edition.255 Paul W. Gartner had been the first person to publish plans of a Blake board, in “Hawaiian Water Sled is Easy to Build,” Modern Mechanix and Inventions, June 1933. Gartner referenced a letter to the editor of the magazine, “allowing every reader to build from these plans. Mr. Blake felt it would better serve the aquatic world to make the plans public than to try to ‘farm’ them in some other way. Of course, it is understood you are not to build a sled for sale.”256
Palos Verdes & Miami 1939-41
“Blake Rescues Drowning Man,” a short September 15, 1939 Southern California newspaper article announced. The article continued, “Tom Blake, one of the Pacific Coast’s outstanding paddleboard authorities and lifeguard at the Hollywood Riviera Clubhouse pool, rescued a man from the surf near the clubhouse late yesterday afternoon. The man had attempted a longer swim than he was capable of performing and became tired. Blake’s quick action saved the man’s life.”257 The Hollywood Riviera Clubhouse, part of the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, was built by the Los Angeles Athletic Club in 1927.
During the summers of 1940 and possibly 1941, Tom switched from the country club and was lifeguarding at the Palos Verdes saltwater pool. Newspaper articles tracked his whereabouts and doings as part of swimming events publicized at the pool: “Throngs Attend Palos Verdes Swimming Meet,” announced one short sports announcement in a Redondo Beach newspaper, 1940.
“Under the capable direction of Tom Blake,” the announcement continued, “the Palos Verdes Swimming Club Thursday afternoon presented its first annual swimming championships.
“A large crowd, plus a competent group of athletes, made the affair a colorful Fourth of July event. Bill Neale handled the announcing while Bob Norman and Jack Bauman served as timers…”258
A July article in the Palos Verdes News focused on Tom specifically: “In 1925 the original surf-board organization, the Del Mar Surf Board Club had among its limited membership Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian swimmer and present sheriff; Gerard Vultee, the aircraft designer, and Tom Blake, present guard at the Palos Verdes pool, who later invented the hollow surf-board commonly known as the paddle board.
“At this early date there were about a dozen boards in America. They were of the solid, heavy type, averaging about 10 feet long and hued out of a slab of redwood.”259
“With a background of wide aquatic experience throughout the United States, Blake foresaw the tremendous use of his new hollow surf-board as a pleasure device for the millions of swimmers throughout the United States. Then followed years of discouragement in the promotion of the hollow board in this country. Finally after personal tours in the eastern states, the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. enthusiastically adopted his board as a rescue device to be used by lifeguards along our beaches. Recreational uses of the board were soon recognized and today there are thousands of hollow surf-boards throughout the world. Along the seacoasts, surfing affords a healthful pastime. Inland surf-board racing, sailing and free board aquaplaning may be seen from Maine to California.
“Paddle board clubs have sprung up by the dozens, as groups of boys and girls band together to build teams for the numerous races of the summer season.
“Palos Verdes, known for its excellent surf-riders because of our Bluff Cove and its ideal wave formation, has arrived at the paddle board club stage.
“Tom Blake, who is guiding the aquatics at the Palos Verdes Swimming Club this summer, has founded the Malaga Cove Paddle Board Club.
“Members in the club now include the following: Tom Blake, Jack Bauman, Virginia Bauman, Chilton Moore, Bob Norman, Dendy Sadler, Mary Bieling, Jimmie Damon, Curtis Burks, Roberta Mull, and Larry Stone.
“Each young person of Palos Verdes has only to own a paddleboard and pass a test of paddling one-half mile, and make a surf-board rescue to gain membership in the club. Both boys and girls are eligible. There are no dues.”260
Just before the United States entered World War II, Tom had moved back to Miami Beach, Florida, as he was apt to do in the late 1930s, during the wintertime. A society column gives a glimpse into his life at this time: “Retired Lifeguard: Tom Blake, a sun-bronzed, tow-headed young man with statue-like proportions, sits at a rowing machine behind the Pan coast cabanas and doggedly rows. Tom used to be a lifeguard but he isn’t any more. He’s a retired lifeguard because he invented those hollow surf boards that took the country by storm and now he lives on the royalties from them. Tom looks a mere 25 but he is really 40. He is the youngest looking 40 you’ll ever see and Tom says he owes it all to being a vegetarian. Tom has led a varied life. He… married while young, separated soon after. Seventeen years ago he cut out meats, adopted an Indian philosophy, took up the lifeguard business. For 10 years he doubled for water shots in motion pictures; he spent a period in Honolulu, has in fact written a book called ‘Song of the Islands,’ which he is trying to have published. Tom has been offered a job at Miami Beach but he doesn’t think he’ll take it. The sun is hot on his back, a pelican swoops very low overhead. He resumes his rowing.”261
Tom Blake had already developed cult figure status. He was polite, but a mystery to most everyone. Except for a very few, no one knew what he was really all about. You could get close to him in physical terms, but his personal life remained far from grasp. His constant movement between different points on the Mainland and Hawaii only added to the mystery. Tom walked in his shadow instead of in front of it. You could see him coming, but not really get a clear image before he was gone. If he was not at Waikiki, he was in Santa Monica or, later, Palos Verdes. If he was neither in the Islands nor in Southern California, he might be in Miami or Jones Beach, Long Island. He lived outside, for the most part, and never settled down very long. All the while, he was either inventing or innovating.
World War II and After
After life guarding a bit at Miami, Tom went back to Hawaii for a brief time, living at Mauna-lua Farms, Koko Head, and Honolulu.262 He even put in some time with the motion picture industry in Paramount Pictures’ Devil’s Island and then Wake Island.263 Immediately afterwards, however, Tom enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, despite his being forty years old. He didn’t have to enlist in the Coast Guard, but he did so because, as he put it, “it was the thing to do.”264 Everyone was pulling for the war effort in the ways they thought they could make their best contributions and, for Tom, it was involvement in the ocean in some way. He enlisted as a temporary reservist on August 27, 1942.
After boot camp and training, he was sworn into the U.S.C.G. regular reserve. Shortly after that, he was appointed a squad and then a platoon leader. He continued to rise in the ranks for the duration of his enlistment, at one point commanding a company of 54 men.265
After boot camp and training, he was sworn into the U.S.C.G. regular reserve. Shortly after that, he was appointed a squad and then a platoon leader. He continued to rise in the ranks for the duration of his enlistment, at one point commanding a company of 54 men.265
Tom’s Coast Guard work amounted to coastal watch in California and Washington state and handling explosives. He left a two-page log of his various tours, written on the inside pages of his Bluejacket’s Manual. These pages reveal the following: He first went to boot camp in Wilmington, then to San Clemente Island, California. He spent the fall of 1942 and part of the winter of 1942-43 at Point Arguello, finishing the winter at Port Hueneme. At the beginning of the summer of 1943, Tom developed pneumonia and was hospitalized. Afterwards, he went to Dog Administration School in San Carlos, where he graduated and then went on to serve at the Naval Air Base in Oak Harbor, Washington, in September 1943. From there, he went for training at Ault Field in Clover Valley.
Later, in command of forty men and twenty dogs, he established a beach patrol at Swift Beach, located on the Rosarita Straits, in Puget Sound. Early in 1944, he took charge of the kennels at Oak Harbor and was stationed at the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island. In early summer, he was assigned to the explosive detail at Alameda and San Francisco. From there, he went on to explosives loading in Richmond by the end of the summer.266
“Knowing the beaches so well,” Tom said, “that’s how I got in… As usual, I took my work too seriously… Most everyone else was trying to get away from the Draft [meaning combat duty]… [My advice to you:] Don’t take it too seriously [anything]; spread it out… I worked day and night. I looked over 40-to-50 men; sent them out on patrols and checked to see that they were on patrol… Later on, we got in on the ammunition loading.”267 Ammunition loading “used to scare the hello out of me,” Tom admitted.268
While serving in the United States Coast Guard for three years during World War II, Tom not only gained training handling dogs and expertise in “the unloading of captured Japanese ordinance,” but also taught swimming and ocean rescue.269 Because of a Headquarter’s ruling on over-age discharges, all enlisted men over the age of 42 were allowed to return to civilian life in the summer of 1945. It was thus that, at the age of 43, Tom received his honorable discharge on July 7, 1945, in Long Beach, California.270
As soon as Tom was done with his military service, he headed for the beaches: first, Waikiki; then Palos Verdes; and finally Miami Beach. A Honolulu newspaper clipping noted his return to civilian life: “Also returning home Sunday was Tom Blake, who has come back ‘to do some surfing’ after an absence of five years. It was Mr. Blake who developed the hollow surfboard about 15 years ago, and for devotees of the sport who have found surfboards among the ‘shortages’ of these past years, he brought good news.
“’I can promise that we’ll have a supply of boards here soon – and at reasonable prices,’ Mr. Blake declared. He added that wood is still scarce but that satisfactory boards are now being fashioned of plastic [fiberglass] and aluminum. For the past three years, the local man has served with the coast guard from California to Alaska. He was released from the service a few months ago with the rating of specialist, first class, and said he plans to remain in Hawaii indefinitely.”271
For most people, “indefinitely” means for a long time – not so for Tom Blake. Through the rest of the 1940s, he not only logged time back on the Waikiki Beach Patrol, but he also put in summertime work in various aquatic roles at Palos Verdes. The Palos Verdes peninsula, situated between Santa Monica Bay and San Pedro Bay, Southern California, had once been an island during pre-historic times. Continued uplift of the land mass, combined with sedimentation in the Los Angeles Basin, caused the island to be connected to the mainland. A series of thirteen distinct marine terraces rise in succession from sea level to 1,480 feet. In the 1800s, the peninsula comprised the rancho of the Sepulveda family. It was developed in the 1920s as an elegant subdivision of residential estates, incorporating as the City of Palos Verdes in 1939.272
The San Pedro News-Pilot recapped Tom’s association with Palos Verdes in a 1949 article, writing: “At Palos Verdes peninsula, Blake is back on familiar ground. He was in charge of recreation and swimming at the Palos Verdes Estates Swimming Club in 1941 and 1946. During the war he served with the U.S. Coast Guard aboard an ammunition transport.”273
Three articles Tom wrote in the late summer of 1947 give a more detailed picture of his work at Palos Verdes in the late 1940s. He was mostly headquartered at Malaga Cove on the northeastern-most part of the peninsula, which is closest to the city beaches of Torrance and Redondo. In “’End of Season’ Swimming Pool Notes,” Tom recaps the summer, writing: “Signs of fall have appeared at Malaga Cove. A large flock of wild ducks circled the bay the other day and headed south; one of those clear days when the distant Santa Monica Mountains seem so close and the sea so blue. The ocean temperature dropped 70 degrees to 68 degrees, and the pool water from 79 degrees to 73 degrees. The season has brought many carefree, happy hours to the children of Palos Verdes. Some have added inches to their height and chest measurements, due in part to the deep breathing and stretching required by swimming. Well-fed and full of fire, they descended on the pool every day, each seeking a means of expression suitable to his age and experience. Some indulged in plain and fancy diving off the one-meter board; groups of a half dozen played tag by the hour. Tossing an unsuspecting person into the tank gives a great degree of satisfaction to the older boys but it is all in the spirit of fun and a girl feels neglected if not thrown in.”274
Tom went on to write about the “Mile Club” and the subject of dedication: “Still others swim laps, 52 or more, to make membership in the ‘Mile Club.’ This is a considerable feat, as evidenced by those who fail to swim the required distance… A handsome perpetual trophy is being readied to be given to the boys or the girls; whichever has the most ‘Mile Club’ members.”275 In describing the Mile Club in more detail, Tom wrote in a subsequent article: “The latest fashion at the Palos Verdes Swimming Pool is to achieve membership in the ‘Mile Club.’ This is an honor group, each of who must swim a mile to qualify. There are no strings attached, and with this goal in mind, kids who never had the incentive to swim the full length of the pool are now navigating a full 52 lengths or more, thereby gaining a greater measure of health and physical benefit that inevitably accompanies a vigorous swim in the open air.
“Boys and girls, some only 10 years old, have seen fit to make the club and various means of locomotion are resorted to in covering the distance. Means include the standard crawl and back strokes, with and without fins. The fins are definitely an asset to any swimmer, not because of the added speed but because they encourage swimming distance by making it easier to move through the water. Many have not been content with swimming one mile but have gone on to strive for a pool record. Mike Eaton and Walter Tilley, ages 12 and 13, have made the longest swims to date. Mike swam an even five miles while Walter chalked up three and a half miles. The rivalry is just beginning and indications are that Walter will slim down a bit before he accepts defeat. The charter members of the ‘Mile Club’ are: Stevie Voorhees, Walter Reese, Jr., Jack Burton, Skeet Stevens, Peppy Peppard, Eddie Riley, Mike Eaton, Buddy Long, Walter Tilley, Mike Neushul, Bill Hadley, Tom Blake, Corky Bjorklund, Peggy Stenzel, Rita Kennedy, and Louise Hastrup.”276
Tom’s third article from the end of the 1947 summer was entitled “Swimming Pool Closes After Successful Season,” and it was printed in the Palos Verdes News, September 1, 1947. “An unusually enthusiastic crowd attended and took part in the Labor Day races at the Swimming Club,” he began, “to finish the season with a sunny summer day that topped a perfect record of such days for the months of June, July and August. While highways and public beaches were jammed with city dwellers, the residents of our community found plenty of room to relax and cool off at the club, as well as enjoy seeing the children display their swimming prowess.
“Winners of the mile club cup for 1947 were decided three minutes before the deadline of 1:30 o’clock, when young George Powloff came through with the deciding mile swim, giving the boys 38 members to the girls 37. The girls will have another chance next season, as the trophy will be up again in 1948, the Lord willing. High mileage prize, a gold medal, went to Mike Nushul, age 13, for his total of 25 miles. Mike had the making and temperament of a future champion swimmer, if he gets the breaks. Jack Burton was second, in spite of hard luck, a recent three-day illness, with a total of 22 miles for the season. Ken Gardner won third medal with 7 miles. Other high milers among the boys were: Skeets Stevens, 6; Mike Eaton, 5; Walter Reese, 5; Ebbie Rechtin, 4; Walter Tilly, 3 ½; Corky Bjorklund, 3; Ed Hiesman, 3 in the pool, and an undetermined number in the ocean. It was 2 miles for Buddy Long, Stevie Voorhees, Bill Stewart, and Buzzie Thompson. With the girls, high miler was Virginia Lane with 3 ½ miles; Prusilla Eaton, Margot MacKusik and Louise Hastrip, 3 miles; Rita Kennedy, Leslie Ann Lebkicker and Joan Williams 1 ½ miles. This made a total of 150 miles; it all adds up to health, strength of body and character to those who did the swimming.”277
In his writing of pool competition, Tom referred to the importance of keeping to “the golden rule.”278 That Golden Rule was the one most of us, hopefully, live by: Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you. In his later years, especially after the war, Tom lived by the true Christian ethic, more than many church-going Christians did then and now. He was an example of a man who came to face life head on and was at peace with it. He made other comments akin to the Golden Rule, such as “Don't say anything if you do not have positive comments,” or “They are doing the best they can, with what they have.” He would also say, “Stick your head up and somebody will take a shot at it.” Tom’s meaning was clear: if one becomes too vocal about certain issues, he should be prepared to pay a price.
Tom’s domain was the Malaga Cove beach and the Roessler Memorial Swimming Pool, a salt-water pool built in 1926.279 The area had been one of the cradles of Southern California surfing in its earliest days. Redondo Beach, beginning in 1907, had been where George Freeth had demonstrated surfing the most and built up a core group of lifeguards and surfers that later pollinated the rest of Southern California. By the mid-1930s, just to the west of Malaga, Bluff Cove became the prime spot to ride particularly large waves. It was even sometimes referred to as “Little Waikiki”280 and became a favorite spot of those early Southern California surfers who were members in the Palos Verdes Surfing Club. By the late ‘30s, some of the men regularly surfing Bluff Cove included: Pete Peterson, Tulie Clark, Gard Chapin, Bud Morrissey, LeRoy Grannis, Doc Ball, Adie Bayer, E.J. Oshier, Grant Leonhuts, Jim Bailey, Johnny Gates, Al Holland, Fenton Scholes, Jean Depue, Hornbeck, Jim “Burhead” Drever, Hal Landes, Hal Pearson, Johnny Dale, Art Alsten and others like Tom Blake.281
Tom was certainly not the only surfing innovator the 1940s produced. Another was Jamison Handy, who remains relatively unknown to this day. Tom first met Jam Handy when Handy was an Olympic champion, many years before in Detroit, just before he began his life as a wanderer.
“It was [later] in California [before the war] that he got into some surfing,” Tom said of Handy. “I was making boards then and he come to me for a board and I sold him a board. It was a good board, too, a big tandem board. It was very heavy, though. And then he built his wife a balsa board, which is very light, so she could carry it down the Palos Verdes Cliffs. They used to drag’em [the redwood boards] or put’em on their back [in a sling].
“And that board he made for his wife was balsa and very soft. Every time she’d use it, it’d get a ding in it. He [Tom’s emphasis] got the idea to cover it with fiberglass. He knew about fiberglass before it even hit the [West] Coast [after the war]. He sent the board back to some friends of his – back East [on the East Coast of the U.S.] – who had fiberglass. And that was the first fiberglass board ever made. A lot of our guys have claimed that, you know, but he was the first.”282
In 1949, Tom made a switch from the Palos Verdes Swimming Club on the north side of the peninsula to the Portuguese Bend Club, further to the south. “Tom Blake,” wrote one sports columnist from the San Pedro News-Pilot, on April 11, 1949, “former national distance swimming champion and inventor of keeled surfboards and hollow paddleboards, is the new director of recreation and swimming at Portuguese Bend Club on Palos Verdes peninsula. Blake, who was with the Waikiki Beach Patrol in Honolulu for 10 years, was national 10-mile swimming champion in 1922. That same year, swimming for the Los Angeles Athletic Club, he finished second to Johnny Weismuller in the sprint and middle-distance events… For the past two years, he has been with the Waikiki Beach Patrol.
“At Portuguese Bend Club, Blake will teach and coach swimming and will be in charge of all swimming and recreational events, including pool swimming, surf and paddle boarding, sailing, shuffleboard, paddle tennis and croquet. Blake is planning club swimming and paddleboard races for the Fourth of July weekend. Blake developed the hollow paddleboard in the middle 1920s while working in Honolulu. He still holds the basic patent on the board, which has largely replaced the far heavier solid paddleboard. In 1935, Blake invented the keel-like stabilizing fin for surfboards. He also developed the aluminum torpedoes now used by beach lifeguards for rescue work. He reduced the weight of rescue torpedoes from 10 to two and three-quarters pounds.”283 Tom continued with the Portuguese Bend Club through the summers of 1949 and 1950,284 but he did not stay with the job beyond that. He said it was because he “couldn’t stand to see kids in trouble every day,”285 meaning children who would get in the pool without learning to swim, first.
If people who knew Tom or knew of him thought he was “out of the game,” traveling between Palos Verdes and Hawaii and doing little else, they found themselves highly mistaken on the morning of Sunday, June 20, 1948. It was on this day that Tom made a dramatic paddle across the Golden Gate, the opening to sea from San Francisco Bay. The board he rode was a Bob French hollow that Pete Peterson had reshaped. The environment in which he paddled was a very swift-moving and dangerous current. Following his feat, one San Francisco newspaper publicized: “Surfboard Ace Plunks Across Golden Gate in 13 Min., 45 Sec.” The article went on: “Tom Blake who twenty-odd years ago was national long-distance swimming champion, returned to old scenes here from Hawaii one day last week with an idea to sell. He sold it yesterday by paddling across the Golden Gate on a twenty-pound surfboard. (Nup, no oars.) Blake’s idea was that the Red Cross convention here might be interested in use of the paddleboard for rescue work. Cal Bryant, the organization’s national director of water safety, who looked on from the bridge as Blake plunked his way through more than a mile of choppy water in 13 minutes 25 seconds, said afterward that it looked like a good idea to him.”286
Tom returned to Waikiki during the non-summer months of the second half of the 1940s and also visited Miami. Dudley Whitman recalled that “Tom… had a hotrod,” a really well-built machine, in the years immediately after World War II; the machine was probably bought with his savings from the Coast Guard service. “I don’t think he ever did any of the construction himself, but he usually had an unusual vehicle of some type. I visited him when he was a lifeguard at the Palos Verdes Club in Palos Verdes… I didn’t really spend hardly any time with Tom in Hawaii. But… [at one point,] he was going to Hawaii with us, and we were driving out [across the U.S.] in a 1936 convertible with two surfboards on top. Of course, in those days you made your own surfboard rack. The car happened to be a convertible and we drove the whole way with the top down. We had to take a solemn oath that we wouldn’t allow three to sit in the front for insurance reasons. When we got, I think, to about New Orleans, Tom had had enough of riding in the back, and he decided that he would go it alone... We parted good company and he said he would make his own way. I guess he didn’t like driving 90 miles an hour, which was pretty fast in those days, and sounds kind of irresponsible. But, I guess at 17 years of age, and a brother who was four or five years older, those kinds of things could happen. I’ll never forget, he [Tom] had a beautiful, tremendous telescope.” Tom had been scanning the horizon and viewing the night sky for many years. “He made me a present of it at that time. We were good friends and we had a lot of fun; had a lot of experiences together.”287
“In the early days, as I remember it,” Tom put his post war return to Waikiki into perspective, “the most important surfer, and the most important admired surfer, and the hero of all of us was Duke, on account of him being an Olympic swimmer and so forth. He had brothers who were also good surfers, Sam and Sergeant. [His brother] Louis surfed, of course, and brother Little Bill. Also, in the early days, after… the ‘Kahanamoku Period,’ George Downing was one of the most outstanding surfers that I remember. He had no fear of the surf, small or large. He could ride any kind of surf, small or large. And there was Scoop Tsuzuki, who took the first big surf camera pictures over there. And there was Don James, with his long lens taking pictures. And Woody Brown, who developed the catamaran, which was not new, because the early Hawaiians came to the Islands in catamarans. But he developed a small one, about fourteen feet long. I remember he took me out on a ride on it and I was astonished at the speed of it. It was very fast. Woody would go up and down the beach… He'd ask somebody if he wanted a ride in his catamaran for a dollar. He made a few dollars that way. It was really worth it. It was absolutely astonishing the speed of that thing. Finally, Woody got the idea of commercializing on it and he built… a big one, forty feet long, and he took passengers out from Waikiki. They would go out in the deep water, way out around Diamond Head. He made a good living at it. Others started to copy it, and finally Joe Quigg started making catamarans, made some good ones. Joe was a great photographer, incidentally...”288
When Tom returned to O’ahu, he again “made boards under the Waikiki palm trees” and also engaged in “night surfing and swimming. My main work was obtaining food and shelter.”289 “We used to pull on an old wool, tight fitting sweater at Waikiki, in March, when the cool trade winds whipped off shore around Diamond Head.”290 It was during this period that he made a koa calabash cup for the Hawaiian paddling championships. “Carved it out of a solid block of wood,” Tom noted, “and hoped it would stimulate paddleboard racing between California surfers and Hawaii. Do not know who has it now.”291
Tom recalled some notable rescues he made at Waikiki after the war:
“1) Henry Lum, on a big surf day at Waikiki. Henry went out about 10:00 A.M. with Wally [Froiseth], George [Downing] and others. To Public. Henry was lost. He finally drifted in (Ewa side) by 5:00 P.M. way outside Popular break. A big set got him, but he managed to hold his board. He was about gone. I saw him through my big glasses from the Moana balcony. I got out my big Kalahuewehe board and went after him. Reached him outside First Break. He said, ‘I can’t get in.’ I put him aboard my fourteen foot board, turned his board loose, and made the Outrigger Club. Henry was cold, stiff and incoherent. Put him in a hot shower and he revived. His board was brought in by another surfer.”292
“2) Scoop Tsusuki (photographer). Got outside First Break, Waikiki, on a big day. Then, got tired and frightened and could not get back in. As usual, in the afternoon. I was watching from the Moana 7th floor balcony with my glasses... I spotted Scoop, watched him awhile, got my fourteen-foot board and went after him. Picked him up at First Break and made it in through the waves; his board brought in by another. He was very grateful for the assist. So was Henry.”293
About Tom’s famed board Kalahuawehe, Tommy Zahn said, “He was still riding that in 1951, when I was down there [at Waikiki]. It was cedar. It looked like it was a Rogers, except it was all cedar. 14-feet, 23 ½-inches wide…”294 Tommy continued: “Did he ever tell you what he did to it? You won’t believe this. I guess he was sentimentally attached to it, because he decided he was going to go to a short board, so he cut the thing down to 11-feet and all he used [from the original] was the deck and he built a completely new fiberglass hull underneath it. But he still used the same deck made of cedar. One of his experiments.”295
Of all the Blake manufactured boards, Tommy Zahn liked the Rogers the best. “The Thomas Rogers… were the best I have ever seen,” he wrote, noting the “’Tom Blake Approved’ brass drain plug positioning and ‘Hawaiian Paddleboard’ stenciled on the nose. I think these were the most beautiful (and desirable). I, myself, had the ‘Streamlined Lifeguard Model’ that I used for training and in actual lifesaving at my station… The Catalinas and L.A. Ladder Company models… are inferior to the Mitchells and Rogers. Ironically, Tom realized more royalties from Catalina and L.A. Ladder than all of the others… Every high school woodshop had the Popular Mechanics plans…”296
By the early 1950s, Tom was still living the prototypical lifestyle that some surfers were beginning to emulate and many more, years later. The summer 1951 saw him sharing a forty-foot converted Navy hull with Tommy Zahn at the Ala Moana yacht basin297 and surfing every day. “A lot of the original guys were still there when I first came over,”298 Tommy said of this time. A little later, around 1953-54,299 Tom lived by himself on a small-gutted boat called the Can Do on the Ala Wai for $3.00 a month mooring fee. The boat cost $50.300 It had no motor or rigging, housing just a bed and a stove. Tom did not eat his meals regularly on the Can Do, but instead he ate most of his meals in the Outrigger Canoe Club kitchen. “They had a kitchen, you know,” he reminded. The meals consisted mostly of rice and beans.301 Tom seemed to keep the old surfers’ lifestyle going. Some would call it austere. He called it “Lean and hungry. After surfing, you really got hungry.”302
Cards Tom carried at the time included his driver’s license; his Waikiki Surf Club card (1951); his membership card to the Maluhia Paddleboard Club, Paterson, New Jersey (1950); and the Screen Actors Guild card (1952).303 On a small piece of paper that he would save for the rest of his life, Tom wrote, “Realization is the understanding of the unity of life, and the living self, with the great law, or God.”304
Tom’s 1935 publication of his most notable work, Hawaiian Surfboard, was not what one would call a successful publishing effort. After paying Duke Kahanamoku to write the foreword, Tom put a tapa cloth cover on the remaining books in order to sell them. Today, original prints even without the tapa cover sell for thousands of U.S. dollars.
Even though he did not see much profit, if any, from Hawaiian Surfboard, he must have gotten other things out of it that had made it worthwhile to do because he took on another book after the war. This next one dealt more with the history of the Hawaiian people and their love of ocean sports. It is possible that Tom worked on this second book a little bit while in the Coast Guard. If he had no time, then at least he was writing the Bishop Museum and making inquiries into such things as available Hawaiian language dictionaries. Certainly, after the war was over, Tom put energies into the book that had been on his mind for a long time and that, ironically, was never published.
“My manuscript, ‘Royal Hawaiians’ or ‘Song of the Islands,’ was my attempt to idealize the early Hawaiians,” he wrote in a letter, years later. “However, I kept turning up so much development in the archives library [probably the Bishop], and it was so authentic [what he found there], I decided I could not improve [on] the works of those who were there, so put it aside. The last I saw of it was when I left it with Bill Butt, Jr., an Englishman. I believe he gave it to Tom Zahn, now it’s with you. Dr. Finney sure knows the early Hawaiian history and if he has a mind to help you, it’s a good move. One lesson brought out in the manuscript is that a man might be confined to his own valley for a lifetime, afraid to roam. Seems the people of our planet are coming back to that concept (stay home). A beautiful book could be made of it. Hope you can get it off the ground. Hold the Fort, Tom Blake.”305
“I remember a couple of things that may show something of his nature,” recalled surfing’s first commercial filmmaker, Bud Browne, speaking about Tom in the 1950s. “They do reflect on his good sense in being practical regarding safety and his dietary habits that decades later became fashionable. On the way to Makaha, at a seldom-breaking surf spot called Nanikai in 1953, the surf was about ten to twelve feet, with a long swim to shore for those losing their boards (pre-leash time). Tom joined the other surfers, but with a difference – he had his swim fins attached to his belt.” Another time, wrote Bud, “One day about noon, I walked into a small Japanese-run café in Waikiki to find Tom seated at a table before a bowl of (dried) rolled oats. Only recently has oatmeal and oat bran been found to significantly lower one’s cholesterol.”306
The following year, a Honolulu Star-Bulletin article “Surfing Has Had Changes, But It’s Still Royal Sport,” featured Tom and fell in step with the work he had been doing on Song of the Islands. “Movie stars, white collar workers, beachboys – even newspaper reporters and columnists – dot Waikiki’s waves these days in their attempt to master the sport of surfboard riding. Some centuries ago, you would have found royalty – it was Kamehameha I’s favorite pastime – outlined against the horizon in graceful harmony with the surging ocean. Until the conquest of Oahu by Kamehameha I, surfing was a sport that occupied the time of alii and commoners, men and women, so much that sometimes housekeeping would go by the board on days of good waves.
“Betting ran high on skill on the board. Canoes, poultry, clothing – even lives – were put up as ante. When the missionaries arrived, however, they brought admonitions against betting and sermons on the daily routines of life. By 1900, a number of factors served to make surfing an almost obsolete sport. To counteract this, two groups were formed; one, the Hui Nalu, and the other a group of men who drew up a charter in 1907. They named their group the Outrigger Canoe Club. Their boards ranged seven to eight feet in length – about half the size of the boards which ancient Hawaiians used in their mastery of the surfs of the Pacific Ocean.”307
“Among the ancient boards perpetuated at the Bishop Museum is a 16-foot, 168 pounder. In the old days, construction of a board followed close requirements of religious rites and systematic selection of the proper tree. Koa was a popular wood for boards, while wiliwili wood was only for royalty, according to one writer on the subject. The long boards of ancient Hawaii came in for revival in 1929 when Tom Blake introduced his version of the board – but they also were the forerunner of the ‘hollow board’ that was to become popular at Waikiki. Today, there are some 50,000 hollow boards on the Mainland, according to Mr. Blake. Tom, Duke Kahanamoku and ‘Dad’ Center are the names that are synonymous with the history of surfing at Waikiki. Today, Tom is working on a board of molded fiberglass that he says could well be the board of the future. The most popular board at Waikiki these days is the balsa board which is light enough for a young girl surfer to carry.”308
Along with the article are three photos, each having captions. The first one is a Tom Blake photo of three Waikiki beach boys riding at Kuhio Beach. All three appear to be riding Blake hollow boards. The second photo is one of Tom at the Bishop Museum with Chief Paki’s olo and alaia (possibly kiko’o). “These two types of ancient surfboards are preserved today at the Bishop Museum. The board on the left is the Alaia, or thin board, for waves sweeping over coral beds. The board at the right is the Olo type, a thicker board good for long, unbroken swells, and which was at one time the board of the chieftains. Holding the board at right is Tom Blake, who has been surfing for about 32 years. Behind the board at the left is E.H. Bryan Jr. of the Bishop Museum.”309 The third photo is of Tom, with close-weave straw hat on, hunched over surfboard materials. The caption reads: “New Surfboard – Tom Blake, veteran surfer, is working on a new type of surfboard that is all molded fiberglass, which he says may become the surfboard of the future.”310
Not long afterwards, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported “Fiberglass Canoe, Board Introduced To Waikiki Beach.” Below a picture of veteran beach boy Splash Lyons giving a surfboard lesson at Waikiki, using Tom’s newest board innovation, the article announced that “Fiberglass products are making inroads on the wooden surfboards and canoes at Waikiki Beach.” It went on: “Several weeks ago, Charles Yara brought out the first fiberglass-hull outrigger canoe. Last week, Tom Blake introduced his all fiberglass hollow surfboard. Both the board and canoe are lighter, faster, more durable and easier to paddle than their wooden counterparts. Right now, they’re also more expensive.
“Blake said his 10 ½-foot surfboard is primarily a ‘working’ board for beach boys to teach lessons with. The board is wide and stable on a wave and easy for the beginner to paddle because of its lightness and buoyancy. Blake claims the board won’t be harmed much from hot sun and salt water. Even the stabilizer fin, or skeg, used for steering, is made of fiberglass. He said the board, lacquered black with red and yellow stripes, is workable for persons of all weights and can be used for tandem surfing.
“Yara’s 28-foot eight-passenger fiberglass canoe weighs only about 500 pounds and is easy to paddle. It was built by Craig and Pulam, the same firm that made Blake’s surfboard. Just the hull of the canoe is fiberglass. The outrigger and rim are wood. The advantages of both board and canoe, aside from their lightness and buoyancy, include greater tensile strength and less trouble to repair, especially after bumps or cracks develop.”311
In late 1952, Tom wrote the following: “This I Believe: You cannot win, unless your goal is within the realm of the inevitable… accept what happens as inevitable, as nature’s justice; because things could not have occurred in a different way. It is the manly thing to accept the inevitable as the law of the Gods.”312 Tom wrote this after Makaha spit him back that year. He would never ride big surf again.
Although the breaks off Waikiki could occasionally produce waves of some size, Makaha, on the west side of O’ahu, replaced Waikiki as a big wave spot beginning in the late 1930s. The first group of surfers to seek big waves actively wherever they might be on the island was the Hot Curl crowd of Wally Froiseth, John Kelly, Fran Heath, Doug Forbes, George Downing, Woody Brown, and Russ Takaki. “We started going to Makaha all the time,” Fran Heath recalled. “We’d try to bring other guys out with us, but one of three things would happen. If the surf was good, they might go out with us and have a helluva hard time out there. If it was really good, they'd usually end up sitting on the beach. Of course, if it was flat, they’d give us a hard time about our ‘exaggerations.’”313
“So, we’d lose the guys in two ways,” Wally added. “One way, we’d take ‘em out there, brag about it and everything. We’d go out there and there’s nothing. Flat. ‘Ah! You guys are bullshittin’!’ You know, so then we come back. And then, the second way, we’d take them out there and it’s so goddamn big, they’d be scared shitless! So, they wouldn’t go surfing. They’d just sit on the beach. So, we’d lose ‘em...”314
One of the new surfers who neither sat on shore nor excused himself from the Makaha surfing scene was George Downing. He joined the crew in the early 1940s and recalled the time as an era when “Wally, Fran, Kelly and I were into exploring the other sides of the Island. We surfed all the other shores looking for more size and power. The bigger the face we could find to ride on those boards, the greater (the unwetted surface and therefore) the freedom we had on them.”315
Of the old timers, Duke came out to Makaha several times in the 1940s, even though he was in his early fifties. After the war, Tom also started “going Makaha.” By 1952,316 at the age of fifty years old, he got into trouble riding the cut-down Kalahuawehe at Makaha. Whether because of his age or inadequate equipment for the conditions, or a combination of the two, at Makaha Tom got into the second worst surfing situation of his life. “Makaha,” Tom recalled that time. “I got knocked for a loop on a big Makaha Bowl break, trying to ride my Kalahuewehe board there. John Toomey picked me up, just as I did to Scoop and Henry [before, at Waikiki] and paddled me ashore. After that, I lost faith in my big board. Really, it was myself that was slipping. I was over 50 then.”317
Tom later elaborated: “I remember especially Toomey, who came over there [to the Islands], a friend of mine. He was a good engineer, automobile engineer. We went out to Makaha and I was getting older at that time. I got in trouble at Makaha and got in some big breaks. Instead of getting mixed up with my board, I pushed it away and took the breaks and got ground around the bottom and almost passed out. For the first time in my life, I realized I was getting old. I must have been over fifty then. And Toomey was off to the side, and I swam over [to him]. I willingly and gladly got on his board and he paddled us into shore. That was the beginning of the end. I recovered my board on shore, but the coral had nicked it up.”318
Only once before had Tom had such a brush with death. It had happened years before. He wrote of it in a personal letter in 1988: “Sorry to hear you got hurt by the big ones. We all got it from time to time. My worst one, and closest to being killed, came at San Onofre on a modest 10-foot wave. [I was riding] A 14-foot long, heavy (over 100) [pound board] without a fin; failed to straighten out as we headed into the break. I braced myself and waited. The white water threw me off the board, then the heavy log [surfboard] crashed into my chest, breaking (crushing) several ribs and, I presume, missing my head by inches. It knocked me out. I came to, floating face down; cautiously moved, looked up for my board, 100-feet away. I was able to swim to it, get on and painfully paddle to shore. It took a full 30 days to recover my health. That was about 1930.” Speaking of possibly a similar accident, in 1954, Tom concluded, “Poor Bob Simmons, a good friend of mine, must have been hit in the head [also].”319
Unquestionably, this event at Makaha was a turning point in the life of Tom Blake. It was the first time he had to have assistance in the water. He did not stop surfing Makaha immediately, but this incident was a wake-up call for Tom and impacted him greatly. He would later say that concurrent with this event was a physical failure of his heart. It may be that the non-physical aspect of the heart was more the issue. Whether he was referring to his trouble at Makaha or not, he wrote at this time, “Only God can truly justly mete out justice.”320
Tommy Zahn considered himself a protégé of Tom Blake and one who “probably came the closest to realizing the ideal” of what was called for in that role.321 “I first saw him in 1946, at Malibu Beach,” Zahn wrote.322 “He arranged for me to move in with Gene Tarzan Smith, at Waikiki, in 1947.”323 And then “I [first] met him in 1949 when he was starter at a race in Santa Monica which I subsequently won.”324 The Zahn-Blake meeting occurred on “October 29th, 1949,” Tommy remembered vividly. It “was ‘Navy Day’ (now, it is all lumped together in something called ‘Armed Forces Day’ – like ‘President’s Day’ – all nice and anonymous – or everyone getting their fair share – whatever). Tom was the official starter and finish judge of the race – and it was then that we met. I had seen him (as I may have told you before) checking the surf at Malibu, 1946-47, and was well aware of who and what he was all about.”325
“I (all of us) knew of the legendary Blake for years previously,” Tommy emphasized.326 “Tom and I [later, after meeting] would occasionally informally race sprints (for fun and checking out our boards) at Waikiki in 1951, but no formal competition. He was long retired from competition [at that point]. I’m glad I never competed against him!”327
“We lived together for a time on his 40-foot sloop in Ala Wai Yacht Harbor, Honolulu, 1951. [Much later,] He has done house-sitting for us when I was in Europe.”328 When Zahn lived aboard Blake’s sloop with him, he recalled, “We surfed every day at either Waikiki or Makaha. I always thought he had the ideal paddling style and I imitated it as closely as possible. You might say I paddle the ‘Blake style.’ The Blake lifestyle is quite another matter. That is a very idealistic, pure regimen and – he will admit – not for everyone. In many ways I have lived according to many of his precepts – I wish more of them… It is true Blake is a most intriguing figure – a man of heroic dimensions – one man to imitate, but impossible to emulate.”329
“Tom has seen it all,” Tommy wrote. “He was the most significant link between Hawaii and U.S. [Mainland] surfing – much more than George Freeth or Duke. His contributions: photographs (National Geographic magazine); his 1936 book Hawaiian Surfboard (the first); the paddleboard; the swimming [races won]; the Catalina-Mainland Paddleboard Race; the Perpetual (California surfing championships) Trophy; the Diamond Head Paddleboard perpetual team trophy; and so many other accomplishments – as well as being a sterling example… and a gentleman.”330
“Blake,” noted Zahn, “in his lifetime, has emerged as a bonified cult figure, but in a most positive, salubrious way. This will increase through the years. In an era of increasing decadence, in a world seemingly gathering momentum towards self-destruction, Tom (and a few of his followers) have never wavered from his essential values.”331
“Tom was a lifetime innovator; tragic in a way, as you say,” Zahn wrote, “he didn’t cash in on it. But then, that is not his ‘way.’ He could have made it big in films, but that wasn’t his way either. He could have made it in a lot of other ways – or so his early contemporaries implied to me on various occasions.
“One [key] aspect of his lifestyle – as he put to me – was to ‘lower your overhead’! Thereby giving yourself more time, more freedom – and freedom is a big part of what Blake is all about. His life was not… cluttered up with all the garbage of the basic 9-to-5 trap. I’ve always envied him this. Although comparatively my lifestyle always has been rather simple and uncluttered, it’s not easy!”332
“I have so many mingled feelings about Tom,” Tommy went on. “He is certainly the strongest man I know, in every sense. A man for all seasons, he has… inspired a whole generation of watermen. I think I may know him as well (or better) as anyone. And, yet, I find him unfathomable; a monolith. Many of us have tried to live as he does – and failed; but, a good star to steer your ship by. The difference: Tom made it… He is among the watermen immortals and to the end of my days will continue to inspire me again and again.”333
When Tom got in trouble at Makaha in 1952, he blamed it on his advancing age, a failure of his heart, and the board he was riding. He had built his long-time favorite board, the fourteen foot Kalahuewehe, some seventeen years before in 1935. “Made of white cedar,” he cut it down in length as an experiment around 1950.334 Tom recognized the experiment had not worked, so he explored other designs. These were higher tech models based on the fiberglassed balsa board model pioneered by Bob Simmons, whom Tom met in the fall of 1953.335 By 1954, Tom – like most active surfers of the time who also made their own boards – had added balsa boards to his collection of surfboards. On May 1, 1954, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published a photo-laden article on Tom’s balsa board making, entitled “Surfboard Craftsman.” The author wrote the following: “Get some balsa wood, fiberglass cloth and about 20 hours of spare time, mix them up together and – presto! You have yourself a new surfboard. That is, if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t, you’ll go away from the mess a sorry gob of liquid plastic all itchy from the caress of glass on your skin.
“Among the masters of the craft at Waikiki is Tom Blake, whose ‘shop’ is underneath the monkey-pod tree on the beach in front of the Waikiki Tavern’s Merry-Go-Round Bar. Tom, who introduced the hollow board in 1929, bettering the planks that formerly answered for surfboards, has come up with a new First – the Makaha Wedge Board. The board has been reshaped five times since it was originally cut, and is a speedy, light, balsa fiber-glassed board designed for Makaha Beach’s large and swift waves. ‘It has a lot of curve and a lot of streamlining,’ Tom explains.
“It weighs 35 pounds, is 10 feet long, 21 inches wide and three inches thick, and is designed for fast paddling out of the ‘white water’ area that is death to surfboard riders after a wave breaks. A design of this new board, in creation for almost a year, will be printed in Tom’s book, which he is writing, to be titled ‘Royal Hawaiian Surf-Riders.’ He is author of the book Hawaiian Surfboard. The new board will be the proto-type for an all-fiberglass hollow board which Tom plans to build.”336
The captions to the article’s accompanying photographs reveal more of the detail of Tom’s board building: “Tom… spends most of his surfboard-making time now making balsa boards in answer to the current board tastes and demands. The balsa wood he uses comes from South Gate, California, and is originally from Ecuador. Shown above, leaning against the table, is a block of glued balsa, as it arrived from California. Examining the other block, a spruce plank on which Tom has already sketched a rough outline of a board for a little girl, is Harris Warren, president of the Waikiki Surf Club.”337
“After the balsa block has been cut to rough shape with a drawknife, plane and wood file,” continued the Honolulu Star-Bulletin article, “it is shaped according to the design that Tom creates to fit each individual surfboard rider. In this case, this board is for a 265-pound man, so Tom decided to make it 12 feet 4 inches long. It weighs 65 pounds. After the board has been roughly shaped, it is molded to form with sandpaper. The curve in the front end of the board gives a tendency to keep the board from ‘pearling’ or nose-diving into a wave. Balsa, a buoyant wood, is also very soft. You can make punctures in it with your fingernail – and it is also almost as good as blotting paper when it comes to absorbing water. To keep the board waterproof and to give it a hard cover to protect it from other boards that might hit it, or from getting scratched from the coral ocean bottom, a covering of fiberglass cloth is molded to the board. After the cloth is cut to shape, it is adhered to the board with liquid plastic, or ‘dope.’”338
“Do not know who did it,” Tom said of the first all-balsa board that he recalled. It “was made by a boy from Honolulu; was made of 2-inch by 4-inch strips of balsa, glued together; no glass skin available at that time. Cannot recall his name, [but it] was before fins.”339 Another early application of balsa was made by “A California man,” Tom said, who “built a racing olo board way back in 1928, using a redwood center strip or timber, flanked with balsa.”340
The Makaha Wedge board was the product of five re-shapings and created specifically for Makaha Beach surf.341 It was “My other favorite board,” Tom noted, “a Bob Simmons [Father of the Modern Surfboard]… redesigned from a square tail to a swallow tail design; extremely light and easy steering; fast paddling, also.”342 “I reshaped his personal square tailed balsa,” Tom wrote. It’s the best riding board I ever had,”343 adding, “He built it for himself. It was a square tail job; I streamlined, swallow-tailed it. It was very light. That board is the one my model girl surfer uses in my second book [Hawaiian Surfriding, 1961].”344
Tom held Simmons in high regard. He remembered “kidding him about his square tailed board. However, he needed a square tail to compensate for an injured arm.”345 “Bob Simmons,” Tom also pointed out in the early 1970s, “made the first double fin to accommodate a wide-tailed board, and that’s how some surfers use it today.”346
“He rode a bike around Oahu,” Blake wrote of Simmons, obviously impressed.347 He also vividly remembered Simmons eating a head of lettuce a leaf at a time. “He would peel it, you know, leaf-by-leaf.”348 Tom was asked, in 1988, if he thought of Simmons as the leading innovator of board design during the late 1940s and early 1950s. “One of them,” he replied, “along with George Downing, Woody Brown, myself; plus a few obscure riders.”349 “A great human being,” Tom noted of Simmons.350 “A fine, simple living, humble gentleman.”351
Surfing’s End, 1955
“After tasting of the charms of Hawaii in 1924,” Tom reminisced, “I was hooked… until 1955, when my health broke; the tropic sun, plain hunger for food, slow malnutrition – partly from ignorance, partly from poverty – [got to me]. Who wants to be tied down with a job, when the surf riding was so handy? It all was so much fun. I wrote that first book, Hawaiian Surfboard, to let the California boys know about it. Also had an article in the National Geographic (June 1935), illustrated with my photographs taken with the first water proof camera I devised (a 4x5 Graflex I bought from Duke Kahanamoku for $50. It used to fog up the lens and I missed a lot of good ones. The pictures made me quite popular with the beach surf riders. They all wanted pictures of themselves. I, of course, obliged.”352
Toward the end of the winter season, February 1, 1955, Tom was winding up his seasonal lifeguard work in North Miami. He returned to Hawaii, but it was not only a short one – lasting less than six months – it was his last one. Perhaps Tom still felt the effects of the 1952 Makaha incident and overreacted to them. “I followed the game over there between California and Florida and Hawaii for thirty years or more,” he looked at it. “I didn’t give up until I was 52 years old. I was getting too much sun over there and it’s a good thing I got out of there...”353
“Blake came and went, you know, all the time,” Tommy Zahn emphasized. “He never stayed in one place. He’d get disgusted with the Islands and he’d come back here [Santa Monica area] and then [after awhile] he’d go back there [again].”354 “My Island trips were not just seasonal,” Tom clarified, “but were [usually] of one or two years in duration.”355
When Tom finally decided to leave the Hawaiian Islands for good, he also decided to leave surfing behind. Although he did surf a few more times at Shelter Cove, north of San Francisco, when visiting his friend John H. “Doc” Ball, once Tom left Waikiki in 1955, his days of surf riding were basically over. Thereafter, Tom did not even return except for two short stays in the mid-to-late 1960s.356 A Honolulu Star-Bulletin article documented his leaving, describing how he lived: “Tom Blake, one of Waikiki Beach’s most familiar figures, left the Islands last night after admitting his 30-year romance with the white crescent of sand is over. The beauty of the surf, sand and sky never will die for him, he said, but the thrill of surfing that sparked the love affair is gone. ’I’m too old now, I guess,’ he smiled sadly. ‘I’m no longer happy here.’
“Quiet philosopher that he is, he’s headed for California, in hopes of finding that elusive state called happiness. Part of the end of his affair lies, he says, in age; part of it is the fading away of old surfing companions. And part is in the change at Waikiki. ‘It used to be so quiet, and you knew everybody on the beach.’” The Honolulu Star-Bulletin continued: “Tom, in the years he’s been in Hawaii, has become a familiar figure on Honolulu’s streets. He always walked about the city, his getas flapping on his feet, in knee length khaki shorts, a coconut hat jammed on his sand-colored hair. Late in the evening, he would seek his way back to his tiny boat in the Ala Wai yacht harbor, carrying a brown paper sack containing carrots, celery, a loaf of bread, some cheese, [and] ice cream for his lonely evening meal. Whenever the surf was up, whether at Waikiki or Makaha, Tom was always out where the big ones were…”357
The population explosion in the beach areas was a factor that kept Tom on the move. He had surfed Southern California when there were less than a dozen true surfers riding waves there. The ocean and beach conditions were still largely unspoiled. When he landed in Waikiki in 1924, few buildings stood upon that beach, and he easily got to know every surfer and beach boy by name. When he had first gone to Florida in 1922, it was much the same as Waikiki: clean sand, palm trees, and endless blue sky. Tom enjoyed all these places (and more) on just pennies a day. In essence, he had “Pioneered Miami Beach (1922) and Santa Monica (1920) when [they were] still beautiful.”358 Waikiki, too, was still pristine when he first arrived there.
The last picture ever taken of Tom surfing was on a small day at Queens, a shot taken by Clarence Maki. The picture shows Tom riding with young Joey Cabell in the background. The board he rode was his modified Simmons.359
When Tom came back to the Mainland, it was not to return to Palos Verdes or Florida, but to Malibu, near the area of his first entry into California and to surfing. Captain Watkins lived near the Bayless Ranch, and it was there that they renewed their friendship in the hills above Malibu. Tom wrote of what had occurred in Hawaii: “The old heart seemed to fail, but a good recovery occurred back in the U.S. Mainland.”360 He elaborated: “In 1955, I was 52 years old then. The Islands, the sun – especially the sun – and unknown causes, reasons – started to get me down. I thought it was a heart condition and it was probably a heart condition. I’d go after a big wave and I’d almost pass out. I knew I’d had it by that time. I gave up surfing and came back to the Mainland.”361 For the rest of his life, Tom would refer to his undiagnosed ailment as a heart condition, but it is unknown what he had exactly. Tom did not put much faith in modern medicine. Tom dismissed doctors for the most part, simply saying: “They are still in the dark ages.” For whatever reason, a heart condition is one of the explanations Tom used to justify his exit from surfing. Of course, he was not always correct in his own health assessments. He would repeatedly tell Tommy Zahn that his end was near, but ended up outliving Tommy.362
Tom’s letters from this period describe a still attractive Malibu. “There was a new deal entirely,” he wrote, having remembered “The Malibu” when it was part of the Rhindge ranch and very private. “Malibu was open and it had been split up into little farms and lots, and it wasn’t too expensive then. I roamed up that way… I never did surf after that. I just roamed up there and got up to a place called Bayless Ranch. It was about twenty acres on the mountainside overlooking the sea at Malibu. George Watkins lived there at Camp Watkins, and I lived with Bayless. I went up there to his ranch one day, and I said I was living in a camper, or looking for a place to camp, and I asked the guy: ‘could I camp in his area there?’ And he says, ‘I’m looking for somebody to do a little work around here.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s fine. I'll be happy to work for you.’ He was getting old and he had this beautiful ranch. He had a house on it and he used to have sheep around there; more as a hobby. I went up, camped at the ranch overlooking the ocean. It was a beautiful place...”363
Tom “did a little work for him, maybe a few hours a day if there was anything to do. There was a spring coming out of the limestone there. You could drink it, it was pure enough, but it didn't taste too well. There was a little too much mineral in it. That ran down to his home and into his swimming pool. The water was piped down into this pool and then it overflowed and ran out into the ocean. Over a period of time, the sediment in the water, the limestone, would settle in the bottom of the pool and form a couple inches of sediment in there. I remember clearing that out; that sort of thing I did around the ranch, working. And then, the lambs and the sheep that he had in the pasture; he just had them, not to commercialize on them or anything. He just had them, and it made a peaceful scene, you know.
“And I remember one of the sheep had two lambs and it discarded one; wouldn't feed the other. Left it to die. You know, they do that. And I was around the ranch. I knew what was going out in the field that time. I took this small lamb and got some milk. It was almost dead, but it revived when I gave it a little milk. I had that as a little friend, running around after me like a dog for a year. And I remember I took it down to Watkins, and he saw it. It finally grew up and got mean and somebody did away with it. But, that whole experience on the Bayless Ranch: I think it lasted several years...”364
“Around the 50's, up at Malibu, the air was always clear because it's so far from Los Angeles,” continued Tom. “You could stand up in the spring, high up in the mountain there, and you could look out over the ocean and see Catalina, and Palos Verdes, which were fifty miles distance, almost. And you could see Anacapa and those Channel Islands out there. Altogether it was a nice experience, and a beautiful part of those days.”365
During the most active period of his life, Tom had worked as a lifeguard, stunt double, and swimming instructor to earn a living. Paddling, surfing, writing, innovating life saving equipment, and refining his board designs had filled the hours that were not consumed by his other occupations. After 1955, this all changed, although some aspects remained. He substituted travels on the U.S. Mainland for what used to be travels to Hawai’i. And, he returned to life guarding. This time, however, he guarded exclusively in Florida. He returned to the hills above Malibu a couple of times thereafter, writing Tommy Zahn from 33603 Pacific Coast Highway in January 1959: “After watching your reaction to jobs, I think you ought to adopt an out and out policy of migration from place to place, like me. It is very satisfying to struggle for a spot, attain it, then try for another. It’s the struggle that is good.
“Beautiful clear, cool days here. From my mountain nook, I can see Palos Verdes, Catalina Island, Santa Barbara Island, Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands.” Tom knew this would not last forever. He ended the letter with this statement, probably referring to increasing population, “It’s the last frontier here and they are moving in fast.”366 From 1955 to 1989, Tom lived in various places, including Malibu, Boca Raton, the lower California desert, and finally back to Wisconsin from which he came. He always kept ahead of the pack, valuing his privacy highly. During this time, Tom lived in his vehicles – either vans or station wagons – camping short times in various places that he would return to.
Tom got back in shape and headed for Florida. On the East Coast, he worked as a guard periodically until he retired in 1964. Lifeguarding on the Atlantic was nothing like guarding at Waikiki or Southern California, but Tom nevertheless earned front page headlines on more than one occasion, using his twelve foot balsa as a rescue board. His most notable rescue of his late Florida period occurred at Boca Raton, November 14, 1958. A Miami Herald article described Tom’s rescue: “Boca Raton – A crowd of hundreds lined the banks of the inlet here Sunday and watched, powerless to help, as seven persons were being swept out to sea. Before a boat big enough to negotiate the treacherous inlet could reach the scene, Lifeguard Tom Blake had made two lightning-like trips with a surfboard and returned with a pair of six-year-old boys.”367
Another paper used this headline: “9 Persons Saved As Boats Capsize, Surging Sea Conquered by Rescuers.” The article continued as follows: “Boca Raton – Swift action by a privately-employed lifeguard set the stage for the dramatic rescue of nine persons whose fishing boats capsized in choppy ocean waters here yesterday. The gripping saga began unfolding about 3:45 p.m. when a small aluminum fishing boat occupied by three persons overturned in ocean swells about 300 yards south of the Boca Raton Inlet after an anchor line became entangled in the boat’s propeller… A second fishing boat with four persons aboard was flipped over by surging ocean waves after it slammed through Inlet breakwater tides in a vain attempt to rescue the Vallancourt family…
“Horror turned into hope for the nine  persons when Tom Blake, 47-year-old life guard at the Boca Raton Cabana Club, suddenly sighted them struggling to stay afloat as the pounding tidal waves began sweeping them further out to sea. Blake, after informing officials at the Boca Raton Yacht Basin about the emergency, hastily paddled his 11-foot Hawaiian surfboard toward the frantic group. He snatched the two five-year-old boys from the heaving waters and desperately battled hammering ocean swells in returning them safely to shore.
“Meanwhile, a small cabin cruiser, called the Millie D., operated by Dale Alexander of Lake Worth, raced to the scene and picked up the other survivors. ‘We thought we would surely drown,’ Mrs. Vallancourt told Boca Raton Fire Chief John F. Loughery as she and the other survivors were assisted off the Alexander craft. ‘We prayed all the time we were in the water,’ she said, ‘and we shall be eternally grateful to the people who saved our lives.’ Paul Frizzell, echoing Mrs. Vallancourt’s words, added, ‘We’ll probably get our names in the paper. But, thank God, they won’t appear in the obituary column.’”368
Several days later, The Miami Herald, printed this headline: “Heroic Lifeguard Praises Trusty Surfboard, Rescues 2 Boys From Boca Inlet.” Writer Bill Beck reported: “Boca Raton – Crowd of hundreds lined the banks of the inlet here Sunday and watched – powerless to help – as several persons were being swept out to sea. Before a boat big enough to negotiate the treacherous inlet could reach the scene, Lifeguard Tom Blake had made two lightening-like trips with a surfboard and returned with a pair of tired, but otherwise okay six-year-old boys. Captain Dale Alexander, a Deerfield Beach charter fisherman, hauled the five adults aboard his 22-foot inboard in what rescue workers called ‘a beautiful bit of boat handling.’ Emil Vallencourt, Wilton Manors, was fishing in the inlet with his wife and six-year-old son when the engine on his 16-foot outboard stalled. The boat was swamped when a racing tide carried it into the boiling surf at the mouth of the inlet. Another small outboard was swamped as it attempted to reach the Vallencourts…
“Back on the job Monday as a lifeguard at the nearby Boca Raton Cabana Club, Blake observed, ‘It’s just another example of surfboards saving lives.’ Using an 11-foot hollow, fiberglass board, Blake paddled through currents and waves that made swimming impossible for even an expert. With some help from the outgoing tide, Blake said it took him only three to four minutes to travel the 300 yards to where the youngsters were hanging onto the overturned boats. Blake, 46, has been promoting the use of surfboards for sport and rescue work for more than 30 years. He first encountered them in Hawaii, where he taught surfboarding for 15 years. He said he invented and developed the first hollow surfboard, which he introduced into this country [Florida] in 1937. He also claims to have developed the first ‘Sailfish,’ an oversized surfboard with a sail, which is currently a favorite of Florida sportsmen.
“A native of Milwaukee and the national amateur distance champion in 1922, Blake claims that surfboards are a ‘natural rescue device that every lifeguard should have. You can move twice as fast with a board as you can swim, rest when you want to, and if the rescued person hasn’t passed out he can help you paddle,’ he said. ‘In an emergency,’ he added, ‘you can hold up a half dozen people until a boat comes.’ Blake said there are some 50,000 surfboards in this country, but very few in Florida. ‘With all their advantages,’ he said, ‘I just can’t understand why lifeguards in Florida, particularly those in Miami Beach, aren’t using them.’”369
Tom said he had brought the two children in when it did not look like a boat would reach the rescue scene in enough time. He also added that he had to go back out because the second boat that had floundered had one man adrift in the water, clutching on to a floatation device. The ocean was so rough that the boater had lost his bathing suit and was out there, naked. “This poor guy was scared and it was a long way from shore,” Tom recalled. “That’s one reason why I gave up that job; too much stretch of beach to cover; that I was responsible for.”370 Tom added, “the whole thrust is to spread the use of equipment for rescue and the surfboard has been a help. But, as I kept telling Captain Bob Burnside at Zuma Beach, much remains to be done, away from the more sophisticated services. What each and every member contributes will eventually bear fruit in helping some kid yelling for help.”371
The Boca Raton Hotel News subsequently wrote this: “We at Boca are indeed fortunate to have among us the rare breed of man that will imperil his life, above and beyond the call of duty – to aid others. Such a man is our Cabana Club Beach Lifeguard. Last Sunday Tom Blake traveled over a half mile with his 11-foot surfboard to fight a fast out-going tide and a very choppy ocean to save two boys aged five and seven from drowning. Those of us that have seen Boca inlet under these conditions know how dangerous it is. As a lifeguard at Boca, Tom’s job is the protection of our guests. The fact that he went after someone who was not connected with the Club, the distance covered in an ocean that was rough enough to have the beach closed to swimming – all of these make Tom Blake a man we are glad to have!”372 Curiously, Tom said that of all the serious rescues he performed in Florida, California, and Hawaii – “Maybe a dozen true rescues”373 – not one of the almost drowned swimmers ever thanked him.374
Following a summer stint as swimming instructor and lifeguard for R. Feldman, in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1958, Tom life guarded at the Boca Raton Cabana Club in the fall and then for a short time in May and April of 1959 at the Surf Club in Miami Beach. He came back to the Boca Raton Cabana Club soon after, staying until May 1960, and then he went on to the Sunrise Beach Club in Boca. From a job application form of the period, it appears that his job base pay rates varied widely between $125 per month and $300. We also know, through this application form, that at age 59, Tom was 5 feet 11 inches, weighed in at 170 pounds, blue eyes and hair brown-gray. Curiously, he did not want people to know his true age, writing his birth year as 1912 and his age as 49, shaving off ten years. In case of emergency, the employer was to notify the police officer at Del Ray, Florida.375
Tom worked lifeguarding into his 60s, retaining a good portion of his swimming capabilities. He no doubt felt it important to age well and not lose the physical abilities he had struggled to perfect and maintain in his youth. It was a matter of personal pride.
While he worked in Boca Raton, he reconnected with the Whitmans while maintaining a modified vagabond lifestyle. “I visited him up there,” recalled Dudley Whitman, “and Tom stayed with us, off and on, for years; both in Michigan and down here in Miami Beach.”376 He did not limit himself to Boca Raton and Miami Beach, however, but surfed elsewhere on the East Coast, too, just as he had been doing since the 1930s. “Oh, he surfed the whole East Coast,” Dudley declared, inadvertently exaggerating. Being more specific and less broad, Dudley clarified, “I’m just sure that he stopped at every resort between New York and maybe even north of there; all the way to Miami Beach. He’d have gone further south if there was any place to surf.”377
“I knew a lot about Tom, but nobody ever knew everything about him,” Dudley observed. “I know hundreds of things about him because he sailed with me on my sailboat. Sometimes those trips would be a day or two in length, so forth and so on. Incidentally, my brother Bill knew him quite well, too, but he didn’t get involved with him like I did. Tom spent some time with me, more time than the rest of the family individually, for one reason: I was into water sports, too. And I’ll never forget when he came from California; he made me a gift of… a pair of [Kimball fiberglass water skis]… He spoke with me a great deal about [fiberglass]. He used to come to me because we were [Florida] pioneers in reinforced plastics… Like, we had lots of discussions about it.”378
Tom still kept in touch with his protégé, one of the few people to really understand Tom and his lifestyle. Blake wrote Tommy Zahn in 1959, responding to a letter Tommy had sent him. “Thank you for your letter about the D.H. races. They are sure out to beat you, regardless of the methods used. That is what I meant when I told you to beat them by retiring, while you were on top. Your performance on a stock 45-pound board is remarkable; kind of backs up our old theory that a little weight in a board, and a good man to paddle it, has the advantage of glide, over a lighter model. This rule seems to hold in the longer race over choppy water. You need less strokes per mile, as compared to the light board.”379
By the beginning of the 1960s, Tom and his legacy had already slipped into the unknown even among those who continued to see him occasionally at lifeguard headquarters in Santa Monica when he visited Tommy Zahn. He could walk down almost any beach on either coast or in Hawaii and the surfers would not know who he was unless there was a much older surfer around to identify him.
The Fort Lauderdale News and Sentinel announced his whereabouts in the area in an article published in 1960.380 Entitled “Surf Star Blake at Boca,” it read: “Boca Raton – The surfboard king of Hawaii and Southern California will be on hand when the Boca Raton Cabana Club opens today. He is Tom Blake, whose second book, ‘The Art of Surf-Riding,’ is due to be released in December. Now a beach lifeguard, he holds many cups and awards for his prowess in speed swimming and surf racing. He was the original designer of the hollow surfboard, and held a patent on his designs for many years. The wiry athlete’s latest board uses ideas from old models, and the 1960 version is hollow balsa, 12 ½-feet by 24-feet, and 4-inches thick, weighing in at a manageable 60 pounds. Often dining on raw vegetables, healthy Blake retires early to keep in good surfing shape. He has maintained workouts in the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge Pool, and may be seen bicycle riding along Camino Real.
“Blake knows the value in the surfboard, and feels it should be more widely adopted in Florida. Californians, to whom Blake is a major figure in sports circles, have gleefully taken to surfing, as over 10,000 dedicated riders head for the waves. But, says Blake, surfboards are excellent for lifesaving and skin diving. Area divers claim the board would take the place of the safety raft; traveling fast, and carrying supplies. For the lifeguard and the guarded, it is a good safety device. Launched quickly, the board can be paddled to a victim ‘twice as fast’ as a man can swim, declared Blake. The untiring guard can then place the swimmer-in-distress on a flat surface. Blake says, [then] ‘The panic is over.’ In an emergency several people can ride one board. Ability to save is ‘increased by 50 per cent,’ Blake feels. He thinks no lifeguard should be without one.
“Living in his screened-in station wagon, Blake carried his surf board across the country this spring. Here, children on the beach and adults often stop to listen to his stories of Hawaii, and to try out the sleek wave rider.”381 Before Tom was done with lifeguarding, he had chalked up a respectable list of spots he had guarded. These included but were not limited to the following: the Santa Monica Swimming Club; Santa Monica Beach Club; Outrigger Canoe Club; Palos Verdes Estates Swimming Club; Portuguese Bend Club; Cabana Club in Boca Raton, Florida; Roman Pools in Miami, Florida and; Jones Beach, Long Island, New York.382 “Often overlooked,” Dudley Whitman emphasized, “is the lifesaving facet of his life, which I think is very, very outstanding and very noble and successful.”383
The year 1961 saw the publication of Tom’s second book, Hawaiian Surfriding: The Ancient and Royal Pastime. Tom, in mentioning the booklet just returned from the printer, directed his protégé Zahn to the essence of the work: “Tom, that last line, in the fifth paragraph of the foreword, is the real message of the book. Study it during your lonely hours and you will become aware of new things all around you, especially the clean, sweet air of the sea.”384 The paragraph reads as follows: “In early times the art of surfing had a profound religious significance; it was called Ka Nalu, a study of the wave. From a lifetime in and around the ocean, a surf rider learned some of the immutable laws of nature. From the many hundreds of hours spent off shore on his surfboard, he became aware of a constant pattern that prevails in the forming and breaking action of the waves. Thus, he came to recognize the great harmony and rhythm that permeates all things. He acquired the patience to wait for things to happen rather than to try to make them happen. With each successful ride, he experienced a feeling of spiritual achievement; he had come into harmony with nature; and nature, for all practical purposes, is God.”385
In the forty-page booklet, Tom also put his own participation in Ka Nalu into historical perspective: “Early in the 19th Century, the established pattern of Hawaiian life was devastated by the influx of foreigners. A thirst for firearms and wealth was developed by the chieftains, notably Kamehameha I. The physical resources of the kingdom were strained; the commoner was taxed beyond his powers to supply sandalwood, food and labor; that the ruling class might trade these for gold and arms. Agriculture was neglected and widespread famine followed. Diseases, often of a virulent nature and for which the Hawaiians had no immunity, increased… Surf riding was all but forgotten. By the late 1880s the olo boards of the chieftains had almost disappeared from the many surfing areas…
“By the year 1900 Waikiki was a small isolated resort. A few young people often journeyed from Honolulu to that favored beach for surf riding with those who lived there. A great revival of the game was at hand. The famous Outrigger Canoe Club was founded about 1907 to further encourage surfing. A few men, Hawaiian and others were expert enough to again ride the big waves. By 1920 the skill and spirit of olden times was to be seen. The younger generation had precedents to look to; on the beach, they idolized the champions and in the surf, they learned by watching them. Many built their own boards, which led to much research in board design, always a good thing.
“The big ocean liners brought visitors from the four corners of the earth; Waikiki Beach became the world’s foremost surfing spot. As a young man in 1924 I, too, became one of the visitors, returning year after year from California, as the scenic charm of the islands, its then gracious people. And the magic of surf riding called me back. These were the good years of youth; satisfaction in the strenuous physical demands of surf riding; sacrifice of other things, but no regrets. Here is an invitation to all young surf riders: Come to Hawaii where you may ride the storm waves as did the chieftains of old. They are long gone but the surf is inexhaustible and waiting; the sun and sea are still warm and friendly, an unsurpassed view of land and sky is part of every day’s pleasure. From your surfboard and evergreen mountains, rainbow arched valleys and palm fringed shores are seen to advantage. Happy hours await you, for every day is a holiday in Hawaii. Ye Olde Beachcomber, Thomas Blake.”386
“The culture of early Hawaii had no written word,” Tom wrote. “Instead, song-like chants were memorized and handed down from generation to generation. They served to record the deeds, history and environment of the race. By this means, we learn that many centuries ago, the art of surf riding was a national pastime… And so on, down through the ages, references to surf riding have survived; first via the chant, later in writing, and now most eloquently by the medium of the camera.”387
In 1962, Tom returned for a visit to the land of his youth. Writing in the local Washburn, Wisconsin newspaper, Tom revealed key aspects of his life at that time. He lost no chance to counsel younger people based on his own experiences: “… my philosophy of life, carefully developed in my 60 years on earth, that all the answers needed for happiness are to be found in nature, that freedom from pain and a clear conscience are the ultimate happiness we can enjoy in life; that death is merely change, not annihilation; that we do, in truth, have eternal life; a comforting thought.
“To the fine youngsters of the community I have these words: you are lucky to live in a town like Washburn, with its spring and summer, fall and winter seasons, and the various blessings each brings. You are especially lucky to have smart parents who have the wisdom and the luck to live in a place that is not breaking at the seams with crime and delinquency, over-population and its resultant evils. I can also add: You kids are not missing anything important by not living in a large city. All that is good in life can be learned here by observing and studying nature, reading about far away places, and doing the things you know are right, at all times.” Tom admitted, “In a way, my homecoming was a lonely one; no kinfolk whatsoever in Washburn; but life has taught me that we are all of the same clay; that we are all kinfolk. Besides, nature has kept the place up, made it more beautiful than ever. The tall, straight evergreens of Memorial Park tell me, and those in the graveyard, and those who died in the wars, that all is well, and will be, forever and ever.”388
Shortly after Thanksgiving of 1962, Tom was already back in Florida, writing Tommy Zahn: “Time marches on. Having some storm waves from a blow up off the coast of Georgia – 10-foot. New surfriders are popping up here, just as they did in California after War II. Makes me feel good, as I started it in 1922 [surfing in Florida]. They are starting to make boards, too; mostly getting blanks from California… I am doing well, here; in good health. Am lifeguard and manager of a private beach club. A good surfing reef offshore, but the Bahama Islands shut off Atlantic ground swells, unless they come in from the northeast… Ye Old Beachcomber (60 years). Tom Blake.”389
The new surfers were aided by new surf-related businesses. “My company,” explained Florida pioneer surfer Dudley Whitman, “happened to be – we had the first surf shop on the East Coast of the United States. I’ve been in the marine business all my life… We were Hobie’s first East Coast dealer. I guess the only other dealer he had was maybe in Hawaii, and then ourselves. Incidentally, Tom was the one that interceded and had Hobie set us up. Hobie wasn’t too fast about it. It took him about six months or a year for Tom to convince him, but we sold a hell of a lot of boards for him... It was ‘Marine Complex,’” Dudley Whitman said of the first surf shop on the East Coast. “We manufactured the first fiberglass boats ever manufactured in the southeastern United States. And reinforced plastic has been my lifetime business… Anyway, I met Hobie in ‘55 and brought one of his boards back immediately and started riding it. Then Tom happened to come down and see me with a Hobie board, and of course, he knew Hobie. He thought we ought to have one... I told him that after I’d ridden one for a while and saw how good they were, that maybe we’d open up a surf shop. And so we did. But Tom was instrumental in that, too.”390
By 1963, Tommy Zahn was making the same kind of statements about Hawaii as Tom had made years before. He wrote Tommy about this: “Your Diamond Head victory was real neat. Only one drawback: the very name, let alone the sight, of Tom Zahn will make their fur stand up; and that will go on and on. However, we can live without them and, for sure, we won’t join them, as Buzzy [Trent] and Woody [Brown] did… I often wonder how [my book Hawaiian Surfriding: The Ancient and Royal Pastime] was received over there [in Hawaii], but nary a word. I presume it was lost in the rush of surfing stuff now on the stands. Your description of the beach [Waikiki] is how I found it way back in 1955. Now, aren’t you glad you pulled out?”391
A Honolulu newspaper publicized Tommy’s win: “Tommy Zahn Wins Paddleboard Race – Tommy Zahn, veteran surfboard paddling champion, yesterday won the annual Diamond Head Senior Open Six-Mile race off Waikiki Beach yesterday. He was a comfortable winner over Nappy Napoleon who was second and Blue Makua Jr. who was third. Jeff Chee triumphed in the Diamond Head Stock Board event over six miles in 59 minutes. Don Stroud was second and Fred Hemmings was third. Jimmy Blears, 13-year-old son of wrestler Lord Blears, turned in one of the finest efforts of the day when he won the half-mile race for Junior Men (17 years of age and under) in 12 minutes, 24 seconds. Mike Gaughan was victor in the Senior Men’s half-mile race, his time being 10 minutes, 29.5 seconds. Victor Lackman was second in the junior men’s race and Bruce McBaghten third. Bobby Ah Choy was second and Marty Hollman third in the senior men’s half mile race. In the Diamond Head Senior Open event, one woman paddler competed. She was Robin Smith.”392
Tom’s perception of his own image in Hawaii may have been off. As football star Russel R. Francis recalled: “Growing up in Hawaii in the 50's and 60's, and spending a good deal of time at the beach on Waikiki, I met or had heard about just about all of the guys that were part of the surf/tourist scene back then. Tom Blake's name was spoken with respect by the locals, of which my family and I were part of that group of people. Duke, Blue Makua, Coconut Willie, Rabbit, Sammy, Steamboat and all the rest of the beach boys weave a wonderful memory for me of good people, fun people who had life in clear perspective. Live, love, surf, and then share with others, the lifestyle that is so perfect for a life of tranquility, peace, and harmony with one another and with our planet.”393
By 1966, it had been over a decade since Tom last set foot on the sands of Waikiki. He was, as he admitted to his number-one student, longing to “ride some First Break waves. Nothing here [Florida] for months. Long to head westward again; maybe back to the Islands. Need the battle of the waves to make life worthwhile. As ever, Ye Olde Beachcomber. Tom B.”394 Consequently, Tom visited Hawaii briefly in 1966, still with hopes for his place in the scheme of things there, but also knowing it could never be. After he got there, Tom wrote Tommy Zahn: “Well, things are back in focus here, again, just as of old. I think it is because I feel well again. Everybody here is mellowed and nice – that quality being brought on by some degree of [my] financial independence and stiff exercise, swim, paddle, surf… Saw Gene Smith and Oscar, who is building a tri-maran. Gene is still living like a wild native, but OK and trying to make a comeback.”395
Two years later, in 1968, Tom went back to the Islands again. Just before going, he spent time with friends in Southern California. Doris Drummond, Ron Drummond’s wife, wrote about his visit in the San Juan Capistrano Coastline Dispatch: “Surfer-Writer Visits Valley – Visiting his old friends in the area is Tom Blake, internationally famous old time surfer and writer. Blake, who is staying in Capistrano Beach for several days, is visiting the Lorrin Harrisons, Ron Drummonds, Ed Proctor, and his many friends at the San Onofre Surfing Club. Blake, who was raised in the Mid-West, met Duke Kahanamoku in Detroit when Kahanamoku was returning from his swimming triumphs at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp. This meeting inspired young Blake, who went on to become a national A.A.U. swimming champion himself. In 1924, he went to Hawaii where he took up board surfing under the aegis of the Duke and later became one of its greatest exponents in those early days. He designed the first hollow surfboard and wrote the first book on board surfing.
“Blake spends his time now between California, Hawaii and Wisconsin, with occasional side trips to Florida, and does a great deal of writing, both on surfing and philosophical subjects, often tying the two together, as he has in an article in the latest International Surfing magazine. Also in the magazine is a reprint from the anthology of surfing literature, ‘Surf’s Up!’ – a tribute to Duke Kahanamoku, also by Blake. Following his visit in Capistrano Beach, Blake will go on to Hawaii where he expects to remain for some time.”396
Again, Tom wrote Tommy from Waikiki, this time a postcard addressed to him and his new wife, Dagmar, November 16, 1968: “Climate and scenic beauty still here, but population explosion, also. No good. Not for me. Back soon. Saw Gene Smith. He is well physically, but psyched [out]. Aloha.”397 In a subsequent letter to Tommy and Dagmar, on Leona E. Whitman’s stationary at Miami Beach on December 5, 1968, Tom wrote: “Good trip; good landing. Feel great. The tradewinds keep the air clean and fresh down here. Night temp 60-degrees; day, 76-degrees; water, 74-degrees. For health, I am walking, jogging and 2-20-pound dumb bells, plus eating sensibly. The whole world looks OK when you feel good. Don’t get out of condition. Hope you are OK and season’s greetings.”398
“My brother Bill,” Dudley Whitman recalled, “you talk to him and you’ll get a little bit of a negative thing [about Tom], because he saw Tom as a dreamer… He idolized the Hawaiians, and then when he’d go out there he would reverse himself to some extent. He was always a health nut and tried to stay in physical shape, experimenting with diet and things. Sometimes he’d be on such an extreme diet that he wouldn’t be as well as he should be. I wouldn’t say he’s an unhealthy person. Don’t get me wrong, but he did his own thinking. He was a loner. There’s no doubt about it. And there are very few people that were close to him. I’m sure of that.”399
Tom had first gone back to Wisconsin in 1962, after 43 years away. In 1968, he began to go back to the land of his youth on a regular basis. Given Tom’s extensive history as an ocean waterman, one could easily ask, “Why go back to Wisconsin, so far from salt water?” The reason amounted to a combination of things. Washburn then and now still has a small population -- less than 2,500 people. Situated on the Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior, Washburn is a beautiful spot on the planet, quiet and peaceful. The population of the West Coast, especially at the beaches, and the population explosion at Waikiki had become issues for Tom. His love affairs with both places had diminished long before. One can see by his travels in the 1960s and 1970s that he seemed to be searching for some safe haven or place to live that felt comfortable. It was a good thing he liked to travel, because he did a lot of it in this search. He was a private individual who lived in a secluded manner. He could not be at peace in a noisy, crowded, and polluted place. Crowds brought a superficial mentality that, for the most part, did not reflect the history of the areas where the crowding occurred and crowding ran counter to the Blake lifestyle.
“Voice of the Wave,” 1968
In 1967, the local Washburn newspaper announced another Blake visit. “Thomas E. (Ed) Blake arrived from California about a week ago to spend the summer in his old home town.”400 A year later, while visiting the Whitmans at Crystal Downs in Frankfort, Michigan, Tom wrote Voice of the Wave. How he got there was a story in itself. It started with Dudley’s mother, Leona Whitman: “What a character!” Tom said. “Big woman; waddled when she walked.”401 On May 10, 1968, she had written to Tom: “Just learned from Dud that you are in Wisconsin. I am looking for someone to drive my sister and me to Michigan as we did coming down here in the fall. Both Helen and I were perfectly at ease with you at the wheel and we hope you will come. We want to take our time and visit scenic places. Would this interest you? I will send you money for the plane trip and you could leave your car at my place in Michigan. Fran will be there commencing May 15th. Dud says he will take you to Eleuthera while you are here. You can come anytime that suits your convenience. I shall be ready to leave whenever you say after the 15th of May. Please telephone me collect… Call me at night as I am generally home then. I hope this finds you well. With best regards, Leona E. Whitman.”402
“He sort of adopted himself to our family,” Dudley Whitman recalled. “[He] was very fond of my mother and we were involved in surfing. He never came to Florida that he didn’t look us up… Tom always would be pulling an Airflow trailer or something. But he’d be on your doorstep every morning. He used to take my mother to a piece of property she had up three miles north, or four miles north, of where I lived. They’d go off swimming probably five days a week together. He adored my family, that’s all. And we were friends.”403 So, after driving the Whitmans from Florida to Michigan and while he reposed there, Tom wrote Voice of the Wave:
“VOICE OF THE WAVE By Thomas Blake --A graybeard surfrider presents some ‘way out’ ideas for the younger generation to contemplate: There is more than meets the eye to the deep water swells as they march majestically across the sea, to the silent drums of the atom. Dedicated sailors of all times knew this. So do surf riders who have spent years of their lives viewing these waves at close range, as the locked in power is released upon the reefs and shores in a symphony of sound, and shapes of strange dimensions.
“All of this the surf rider has going for him, and he experiences a peculiar joy and inner satisfaction in putting this force to work under a board. This may be because that force is a spiritual, a divine force that has been in production by nature or God for a long time. Why say nature or God? Just this: over the years, the close association with waves of all kinds, coupled with a religious background, has convinced this old surf rider that nature is synonymous with God. So the word nature, for all practical purposes may be usefully used as an alternate to the word God, to better understand life, living, and the ocean wave, as part of the almighty and thus give due credit and respect for its mysterious hidden energy. The same formula applies to all things; each has a bit of the divine power to sustain it; be it an atom, a wave or man.
“For proof of this ‘Nature is God’ concept, we have but to analyze a wave. Its water molecules are composed of atoms of a specific kind. Namely, two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, H2O, a relatively simple and uncomplicated atom. Yet, the physicist knows all atoms to be of such a complex nature as to still defy the scientist, still harbor secrets. Each has within it that divine and godly principle, that minute part of the vast mass and energy system of the universe. Each water atom, and there are billions in the smallest wave, is a model of order, harmony and rhythm; thus, the atom becomes a key point of reference to logic, to right action, in judging the wave as well as all problems in life. Is it any wonder then, that the surf rider gets such satisfaction from riding a wave? For the brief period of the ride, he has this God-given energy going for him, instead of passing by him. One might rightly say surf riding is prayer of a high order, that the sea is a beautiful church, the wave a silent sermon.
“Ancient Hawaiian tradition tells us they felt likewise; they held their surfboards, canoes and their fishing art in high respect. But when asked where the storm waves came from, said: ‘They come from some distant place, we know not where.’ Today, thanks to improved communications and weather technology, the storm wave is recognized as a spin-off of energy, generated by gale or hurricane force winds, by earthquakes or underwater active volcanoes, aided and intensified by the moon's gravitational pull. These waves fan out, sometimes for thousands of miles from their source, until either water friction, an island or other landmass stop this power reaction. The word reaction is here significant, for it is the same natural law of ‘Action produces a like reaction,’ and the often-repeated biblical law of ‘sow and reap.’ It postulates that wave energy, all mass and energy, are subject to change of form and place, but still have atomic substance, are never entirely and comp1etely lost to nature or God. This fact, in turn, substantiates the truth of Christ’s immortality, or eternal life theme; proven by the life, death and rebirth of the waves. So it goes with the atoms, the mass and energy composing mankind. He, indeed is part of nature or God, regardless of race or creed; truly a thought to give him dignity beyond measure.
“From the standpoint of health, surf riding is constructive, if pursued correctly. To the mind it teaches one the wisdom of patience; the art of waiting for the right moment to act; for you cannot ride a wave until it comes along. So it is with life; there is a right time and place for everything; nothing good or right occurs contrary to this rule. This, in turn tells one to accept the vicissitudes of life as just and well, as being the inevitable reaction of mass and energy, to the law of compulsion in nature, God or the wave.
“Physically, the strenuous paddling and swimming associated with surfing, is obviously beneficial and appealing to young growing bodies, especially teenage boys and girls, judging by the popularity of the pastime during the last two decades, in Hawaii, Australia, South Africa, South America, France, England and Japan. Surf riding also carries enough built-in danger to give one a healthy respect for those beautiful waves. They can strike back, sometimes with death dealing force, if the rider commits too great an error, becomes careless in the judgment of their hidden power. So it is in dealing with our fellow men; that same principle also applies to our life; respect the rules and guidelines and enjoy the ride, disrespect the inner natural or godly power of anything, and reap sorrow and pain, in like measure.
“While on a board, either surf riding or paddling, one is truly free from land bound restrictions. For that hour, he is captain of his fate, of his miniature ship. The burden of city, school, job, as well as the cares and worries of the subconscious mind are erased and forgotten, until the tensions of living again build-up. The remedy again is obvious; go surfing. Next time you leave shore for some fun, look and listen for the muted voice of the atom, the voice of the wave, the voice of the good earth, and you, too, may hear the drum beat. Those who have, say it goes like this: ‘All is well.’”404
In January 1970, Tom had altered his nomadic wanderings somewhat and was living in Ventura, California.405 By 1971, he had moved inland to the Colorado Desert of Southern California, in the area of the lower Salton Sea. His plan was to return to Wisconsin for the warm months.406 This he did, going back to Wisconsin a little early in 1971. “Well, made it home OK. Still the winter scene up here; just as I remembered it 60 years ago. Still as beautiful as ever. Temperature 5-degrees last night; 20-degrees today… the snow country… is like a separate world, and good for the soul. Everything clean and sparkling. Visibility to the horizon.”407 He stayed in the Washburn area through spring and summer, returning to California in the fall. At the beginning of 1972, Tom was camped outside Niland, just southeast of the Salton Sea, in the Imperial Valley of Southern California. “All is well here,” he wrote Tommy upon landing. “Very cold nights – down to 25-degrees; but, I manage; plenty ski clothes and blankets. Sorry to hear of your colds. That continuous foul air must weaken the resistance of the lungs. Notice the difference out here. Air clear and dry. One can see Mt. Jacinto and Gergens, some 80 to 100 miles away – beautiful. Plenty retired people out here. The desert has a great future as a healthy retreat from the cities. Enjoy every day, as each day is all one is sure of. Let you know if I leave here.”408
Tom should have written “when” instead of “if,” for he was soon back in Washburn several months later, following the seasonal pattern he had sewn. “The fields are still white with clean snow,” he wrote Tommy and his second wife, Dagmar. “The lake still has 3-feet of ice; snowmobiles abound. Temperature last night: 20-degrees; today, about 30-degrees with a gale wind, which blows the snow along. Went by Santa Cruz on way here. Surf was 15-feet and a contest on. Sam Reid was there and showed me around. He knows everybody and seems to be important around the beach. Bud Browne was there, shooting another surfing movie. He took a few frames of film of me for posterity.
“Had thrilling trip home. Saw Doc Ball at Eureka, California; came by way of the Columbia River Gorge; good weather all the way. A snow blizzard hit the area after I got by.”409 Tom had been to Santa Cruz before. “Once, on an amateur swimming trip from L.A., swimming for [the] L.A. Athletic Club with Fred Cady (gave him my gold medal for the mile)… remember the natural beauty of the place.”410
During Tom’s desert years, 1971 to 1974, he and Tommy Zahn became increasingly worried about their friend Gene “Tarzan” Smith. Although ten years younger than Tom, Tarzan was of the same generation, more or less, and both harkened back to the late 1920s glory era of Corona del Mar as the epicenter of California surfing, before the jetty was taken out. Tarzan did not adapt to the changes of society as well as Tom and certainly not as well as Tommy. In April 1971, from Washburn, Tom wrote Tommy about him: “Thanks for your report on Gene Smith. You seem overly concerned about his welfare. Of course he is bewildered by the changes in So. Cal in the last 37 years, but all he really needs is your moral support. He will go his own way after sizing up the rat race, and end up back in the Islands, if he is wise. I only hope he does not get seriously ill from the change of climate, the smog, and the California bugs, or hit by an auto. Warn him. After all, someone else cannot eat, sleep and think for another. Anyone who, like Gene, beat the game in Hawaii for so long can take care of Gene. Tell him ‘good luck.’ Cold, light snow, 40-degrees and rain up here, but saw a beautiful flight of wild geese heading north, yesterday, so spring is coming.”411
Tom followed his early 1972 letter quickly with another, mostly about Tarzan: “This is to acknowledge the mail you so kindly collected and forwarded. About Gene’s note: he is telling John someone burned (fired) out his place twice recently and the fire wiped out all his personal effects (date February 27). As you know, Tom, all some of those people have to do is bug someone else. Gene can still take care of himself, via the welfare system. He is a pitifully lonely soul, however. So am I. A week ago a blizzard bit here. Today the snow is melting; robins and wild ducks are seen. Saw a flock of geese go honking by; first since about 1912 when I was a boy. Still do not know if I’d care to winter here. Too much indoors. So long and hello to Pete.”412
By the fall of 1972, Tom was back in the California desert at Niland. It was at this point that Tommy started pressuring him into writing down his accomplishments and those things he wanted to save for posterity. “With great effort I complied with your request for added info,” he wrote in a letter soon afterwards. “It is all still clear in my mind, but transferring it to words was hard. Strange, I’ve never mentioned these events to anyone before; no one asked me to. Please excuse poor script – tension… As ever, all is well when one can wake up and greet the new day.”413
Tom was greeting those new days in a healthy state in part because of his diet. “Here in the desert, I came to know several old timers; all surviving and in good condition by awful eating,” he half-mocked himself. “They have me eating soy beans, lentils, garbanzo beans, etc., fixed up with garlic and onions and cooked in a pressure cooker [for] 40 minutes. I must have been on the wrong track (too much grass, raw vegetables) because [I] am feeling my oats again; meat is out. Try it.”414
About Tarzan, Tom added this: “I think he would love it here in the desert. I found a Spanish man who has a 40-acre ranch here. He asked me if I would live on his place, sort of as a caretaker when he is away – offering a place to sleep. Of course I declined, but mentioned (Gene) a friend. The thing is still open. Mention it to Gene. P.S. No nostalgia for Waikiki, here; only [missing] a few old friends like Duke, Oscar, Toomey, etc.”415
Tommy wrote back quickly: “Gene says he is definitely interested in your Spanish rancher’s proposition, and was ready to leave for Niland at once! However, I suggested it might be wise for me to write you first (He is a bit out of letter writing ‘practice’), and if possible get more details, and learn from you just where and when he might meet you out there to look the deal over. He apparently has the means to handle his end in all this: he says he will get a bus out there and somehow make the necessary connections… I think this is what Gene wants and needs.”416
“All Gene has to do,” Tom wrote in a follow-up letter, “is to write me a couple of days in advance (mail delivery is slow) of his arrival, stating how he is coming and I’ll meet him at the Niland post office. I shall drive him to the place and explain the options… Warn him that the desert is a bit rough, but has its good points. Here, at night, a sleeping bag might be in order.”417 Many years later, Tommy still remembered what Tom had advised Tarzan back in the early 1970s: “Now, Blake had always advised him [if you need a sanctuary], ‘get out in the desert. You’ll be OK.’”418
“Very windy, today, in the lower desert,” Tom wrote in December 1973. “Have seen neither hide nor hair of Gene. I presume he is walking this way. That’s life. We must each find our way, alone. Hope you are getting some clean desert air at S.M. and hold the fort… For Gene’s information, I am trailer camped at the so-called ‘slabs’ camp, four miles east of Niland; bike to the post office at Niland daily.”419
Assuming Gene Smith was born in 1912, he was 61 years old in 1973. Tom was 71. Tarzan lived at Pete Peterson’s shop in Santa Monica for periods of time in the 1970s, but eventually made it out into the desert. It is unknown whether or not he and Tom finally connected there. All we know is that Tarzan disappeared in the desert around 1978.420 “Please tell Gene the desert will always be here,” Tom had written, “but each year finds it more difficult to locate. People are discovering it as a recreational area. In another one hundred years it will be crowded and world famous as a health resort; just as Palm Springs has been for fifty years.”421
By early 1974, Tom had made up his mind to leave the desert and go back to Wisconsin to live there most of the year, not just during the summer. He wrote Tommy Zahn in March: “Am leaving any day now for Wisconsin. Days are up in the 90’s again [here in Niland]. I hope to stay in the Northland, and believe I can make it. I feel so good and strong on the new diet. Learned it from some wonderful old fellows here in the desert; all confirmed vegetarians and in their 70’s and going strong.”422 The summer of 1975 saw him camped in Washburn, where he wrote Tommy and Dagmar: “Dear Friends – Your three cards received and thank you. One cannot say much on a postcard, but just being remembered is the important thing when you are old… This country, Wisconsin, is beautiful this year. Seems the older one gets, the more he loves nature and life.”423
Several years later, around 1979, he painted the picture of his camp surroundings in Ashland, Wisconsin: “My residence is small, compact, clean and mobile: a Chevrolet station wagon. My camp is in a tall stand of evergreen pines and birches, carpeted with pinecones, yellow flowers, clover, and overlooking Chequamegon Bay, Wisconsin. The nights are cool, quiet, and restful, in contrast to the noisy metropolitan centers. Songbirds awaken me as the sun comes up over Lake Superior. The Bay is usually glassy smooth, the air so clean and fresh. Everything sparkles with new life and vitality, including my antiquated body. This is my home. Here I am in church and pray by taking stock in the good life of the moment.”424
An Ashland newspaper article, entitled “Tom Blake, World Expert On Board Surfing, Visits Here,” prominently displayed the classic photo of Tom and Duke, Tom with the first fin and Duke with a paddle from one of his canoes. The 1979 article exposed many area residents, for the first time, to the person they had in their midst: “Tom Blake, formerly of Washburn…who became one of the country’s top surfboard riders and an instructor in the sport, is spending part of the summer at Washburn. He is a son of the late Tom Blake, Sr., who for some years managed the Ashland Elks’ club.
“Blake is one of the authors of an anthology on surfboard riding. The chapter he contributed deals with his close association with one of the greatest surfboard riders of all time – Duke Kahanamoku of Hawaii. Tom now spends his winters in California and Florida. The portion of the anthology written by Blake is entitled: ‘The Duke Kahanamoku I Knew – the Life of One Master Surfer as Seen by Another.’ A foreword says: ‘A recent surfing magazine, reviewing the development of the sport, singled out two surfers as “the greatest” – Duke Kahanamoku and Tom Blake. This judgment is supported by plenty of evidence. If “great” is understood to mean widely influential and outstanding in contributions to the sport of surfing as a whole, then in any surfing hall of fame, whether real or imaginary, special places must be assigned both to Duke Paoa Kahanamoku of Waikiki, Honolulu, and to Thomas Edward Blake of Wisconsin, southern California, and the Hawaiian Islands.
“’Surfing, from his first acquaintance with it, excited and enchanted Tom Blake, yet he was never content to take the sport as he found it, and leave it unchanged. Time and again, during nearly 40 years of deep devotion to surfing, he introduced innovations. A list of his “firsts” for surfing includes a surprising variety of improvements and achievements. Beginning in 1924, he became the first visitor from the “stateside” (continental United States) to share the life of the “beach boys” at Waikiki. From that time, on and off during long periods, until 30 years later, Blake shared the surfing life of native Hawaiians and of non-Hawaiian natives of the island who were dedicated to surfing by day and dreaming about surfing at night. In 1926, Blake, back from Santa Monica Beach, Calif., designed and built the first hollow surfboard and hollow paddleboard – a great step in the direction of board lightness, in an era of massive, solid wood surfboards. A United States patent was issued to Blake in 1932 on his hollow-board design. Blake was the first to test out many a beach area as a surfing site, both on the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts of the United States.
“’The following summarizes a number of firsts by Blake: 1931 – First to manufacture surfboards for nationwide distribution in the United States. 1932 – First to make surfing action pictures by means of a waterproof camera box. 1932 – First to paddle a board from the California mainland to Catalina Island (together with Wally Burton and Preston Peterson). 1933 – First to create a sailing surfboard (with sail, rudder and centerboard). 1935 – First to write and publish a book on surfboards and surf-riding: Hawaiian Surfboard, Honolulu).’
“… In some of the good ocean spots the rides in Hawaii… are over half a mile. Blake has taken a ride of over 1,000 yards, which is considerably more than half a mile. This exploit of Blake’s, and countless other surfing experiences, are detailed in the book, ‘Surf’s Up,’ by H. Arthur Klein, published by Bobbs-Merrill Co., New York City. The chapters of particular interest are ‘My Ride to Remember’ and ‘The Duke Kahanamoku I knew’ – both chapters written by Tom Blake.”425
“On one of his transmigrations between Zuma Beach, the desert, and Wisconsin,” Tommy Zahn recalled what Tom did with much of his belongings, “he deposited many of (or much of) his personal effects with me.”426 Some of these may have referenced or somehow represented Tom’s competitive record, of which Tommy was in awe: “Tom’s record for the 880, Royal Hawaiian Surfboard Paddling Championships (as it was known), in 1930,” Tommy said, “4:49:00 was really astonishing in the context of the time – or any other time for that matter. This, on a hollow redwood board 16-feet long, weighing 60-plus pounds! This was broken in 1955 by George Downing on the same course; Ala Wai Canal, 4:36:00 on a 20-foot hollow balsa board. Estimated weight [was] 19-plus pounds; built by Wally Froiseth, Abel Gomes and George.
“A record that stood for 25 years! One has to try it to get the full impact; to just break five minutes for the 880 is moving. When [Joe] Quigg and I tried it for the first time on my 16-foot fabric Al Holland board in 1953, we thought something was wrong with our stopwatch. It took a long time to get over times near 4:49:00.”427 Downing, for his part, was very humble about the accomplishment. He said that he never really beat the record because you cannot beat a record unless you use the same equipment under the same conditions; at least, within reason.”428
“Competition is the American way of life,” wrote Blake. “So, when and where friendly competition exists, all’s well and good; mental and physical therapy.”429 Armed with this kind of attitude, he had won gold medals at the Ambassador Hotel in his early days of swimming for the Los Angeles Athletic Club.430 Even so, “Tom was too broke to pursue a swimming career,” Tommy Zahn noted. “The medals from the Ambassador Hotel,” predictably, were the medals Tom had saved. “I think he won the hundred and the 440. Got two gold medals. He said he hadn’t had anything to eat all week! He was broke! Nobody was paying his way. He said those medals always meant the most to him.”431
“For his outstanding contributions to the sport of surfing,” Doris Drummond wrote in 1973, “Tom Blake was unanimously elected to the Surfing Hall of Fame in 1967. Now seventy one years old, he has seen the surfing parade from the beginning, and remembers when there were only a very few surfers in California.”432
“Just got back in town yesterday, after three weeks away,” Tom wrote Tommy Zahn in July 1967, giving his perspective on such awards. “So, I completely missed word of the I.S. mag [International Surfing Magazine] thing, until I received their letter July 14th. However, I would not have showed up, anyhow. I worked too long and sacrificed too much to build the surfing image to spoil it by a personal appearance of an old man on his last legs. You know the actual joy is the surfing, paddling and all that goes with it, while you are still able to do it. I feel you had a major part in this happening… please thank the right person at I.S. mag when you get a chance.”433 “I may call for the trophy later, if I get a place to call home; please hold it and thanks.”434
His award did not escape the local paper in Washburn. “Tom (Ed) Blake Elected to Surfing Hall of Fame,” the article headlined and then continued: “Tom (Ed) Blake, a native of Washburn, was recently honored by being elected to the Surfing Hall of Fame. Blake was born and raised in Washburn, but left here around or shortly before 1920. He was an all-around athlete and after leaving Washburn became a champion long-distance swimmer. Later he went to the Hawaiian Islands where he took up the sport of surfboard riding or surfing, as it is known today. He is the author of a book on surfing, a copy of which is in the local library and he has also collaborated with other authors on books regarding the sport. In addition, he developed a new type of surfboard, which is in general use today.
“For the past few years Blake has spent his summers in Washburn and returns to California in the winter. Blake received the following letter from International Surfing Magazine informing him of his selection to the Hall of Fame: Tom (Ed) Blake, General Delivery, Washburn, Wisconsin. As you know, International Surfing Magazine established the Hall of Fame for the sport of surfing last year. This year the members of the Hall of Fame have selected you to join their elite group, and Duke Kahanamoku will be flying here to present the award to you. If you are unable to attend, your good friend Tom Zahn said he will accept in your place. I hope you will be able to participate in the awards ceremony, and personally accept this great honor. Sincere congratulations, and I am looking forward to meeting you in person. Best Regards, International Surfing Magazine.”435
“Recognition in the world of surfing means zero to me,” Tom said at one point. He still enjoyed the recognition from people who would seek him out; those who took the time to find him.436 Despite his attitude toward such things, another honor was offered, this time the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Association Lifetime Achievement Award. “He declined,” noted Tommy. “Told me to go accept it for him; said he detested being exploited on his ‘last legs’! When he declined, they dropped the whole thing. I think they were looking for a ‘guest of honor,’ [with] photos, etc. Wrong guy.”437
In 1972, there was talk of yet another award and honor ceremony for Tom, this time for lifeguarding. “My entire effort has been to help and further the art of rescue,” he wrote Tommy concerning lifeguard awards and recognitions. “Indeed, it has come a long way since Captain Watkins rode the white horse up the beach on a rescue, since the beach towns would not even hire a lifeguard in the spring until tragedy struck and people were lost in the surf.”438 He admitted to Tommy, however, that “I take this whole award thing with a grain of salt.”439
“I still cannot reconcile to the idea of the award they are kicking around, when so many [other] men devoted their entire lives to water safety… At present, have no intentions of coming to L.A., even if this award thing develops. On the other hand, if it would help in any way, I’d reconsider. What do you think? Have a paddle for me and good luck. Thomas Blake.”440 “It all adds up, there is more to it than meets the eye,” he wrote Tommy in the Fall of 1973. “A third party is behind it; behind me; as she was at Waikiki and all down the years. Lack of first hand communication is the problem; was the hang up; maybe we shall make it yet.”441
Whether he wanted an award or not, the National Surf Life Saving Association of America gave him one on May 8, 1974. The resolution read as follows: “Whereas, the National Surf Life Saving Association of America wishes by means of this resolution to commend Thomas Edward Blake for his outstanding contributions to ocean life saving; and Whereas, Tom was a national amateur distance swimming champion in 1922; winner of the first Pacific Coast surf contest at Corona del Mar, California in 1928, and Hawaiian surfboard champion in 1929; and Whereas, Tom’s competitive endeavors encouraged him to experiment with and invent the first rescue paddleboard and later develop the skeg; and Whereas, because of his contributions to the sport of surfing and his individual surfing accomplishments he was elected to the Surfing Hall of Fame; and Whereas, through experience gained while lifeguarding at beaches in New York, Florida, Hawaii and California, Tom proved himself to be an innovator and educator in ocean life saving; and Whereas, through lectures, publications, continuous suggestions to improve rescue equipment and life saving techniques, Tom Blake contributed immensely to many phases of aquatic safety.
“NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS OF THE NATIONAL SURF LIFE SAVING ASSOC ATION OF AMERICA that Thomas E. Blake is recognized for his impact in helping to establish a professional quality to lifeguard ranks, by his own personal accomplishments in ocean life saving; and most important, the thousands of lives saved because of his inventive contributions in the interest of fellow human beings.”442
Of the many dozens of medals, awards, and trophies Tom Blake won, it was this statement made by the National Surf Life Saving Association of America that pleased him the most.”443 Tom did admit, in 1993, that “the [1991 International] Swimming Hall of Fame thing, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is [also] moving. Had a pleasant visit from two of its people. It all started from my win of 1922, in the national distance swim at Philadelphia.”444 Duke and Tom were the only two surfers/swimmers to be inducted into both the Swimming Hall of Fame (Florida) and the International Surfing Hall of Fame (California).445
Tom also shunned reunions. “Recently had an invitation,” he wrote in 1990, “all expenses paid, to a San Diego get together of surfing old timers. I declined. The past is past.”446
In that past, he had once sold three of his medals for nine dollars for food. Tom was never sure how many gold medals he did win. “Well,” Tommy clarified, “he sold the one he won at the nationals and then, when he had more bucks later on, he bought a reproduction of the original.” In his last days, the only one he had left was the one he wore on his tie. That medal was for the 1929 citywide short paddle race in Honolulu. “The one he won at the nationals,” Tommy remembered, “he had made into a belt buckle.”447 At the time of his passing, Tom had only one gold medal left. It was made into a bolo tie.
Tom kept “the important ones,” Tommy explained, “… the ones that meant something to him.”448 He also had several trophies stored “at Bill Butt’s mother’s house,” Tommy recalled. “He told Bill, he said, ‘’I wish we could melt all this stuff up and give something nice to your mother.’ She was a real super lady. Bill’s brother… was a retired lifeguard at the time…” Tom said he gave Pete Peterson several trophies, too.449 “You can’t take ‘em with you,” he said of the metal, shortly before his passing.450
“Remember this about Tom,” Dudley Whitman advised. “He was a dreamer, and he was always designing and always dreaming… [For instance,] He always dreamt that young children would grow into surfers, or that teenagers or young people would surf and stay off the streets and out of trouble. Of course, there wasn’t the troubles in those days that there are now... My brother Bill likes to say that after it [surfing] became such a craze – which is what finally happened in the sixties, maybe the seventies – that he [Tom] felt a little disillusioned. But I don’t think my brother Bill is taking into consideration the fact that he was getting pretty old [by that time]. He never did think of Tom as being old. But, he [Tom] used to complain to me, he’d say, ‘I’m an old man.’”451
Tom had only a few real friends and the Whitmans were amongst them. The rest of the many people he knew were only acquaintances. Tom was a loner all his life, but not the kind who became desperately lonely, although in his old age he thirsted for company. Being a loner, one becomes lonely at times, but not driven by loneliness. People who are lonely either retreat into themselves or seek out others because they need others to feel complete. A loner Tom was, but he was also in the company of others often. Somewhat of an enigma, it was his combined qualities – including his loner aspect – that made him unique and great.
Throughout his life, he remained aloof. He was a thinker and doer. As such, he joined the number of other stoic and eccentric surfers who have been forgotten over time. They lived out of their cars, station wagons, vans or trucks. They were surfing pioneers who came and went without leaving a trace behind. Tom was different in that he left behind a well-written record of what had gone before.
After publication of an article on Tom in the Washburn newspaper in 1988, Tommy Zahn observed:
“I am sure he is well known in the area. [but] They probably don’t know what to make of him! I… don’t believe I have heard anyone describe him as ‘vagabond or drifter’ [before]. He always seems to have purpose in his various transcontinental and trans Pacific journeys.”452
“I am sure he is well known in the area. [but] They probably don’t know what to make of him! I… don’t believe I have heard anyone describe him as ‘vagabond or drifter’ [before]. He always seems to have purpose in his various transcontinental and trans Pacific journeys.”452
Tom “never had a place here [in California] or in the Islands,” noted Chauncy Granstrom. “He was always coming or going.”
“And he’ll go to a lot of trouble to see you,” Tommy added, “but then he’ll only hang around just a little while and then he’s, like, out of here. Like, he’s allotted just so much time. It’s like he’s really keeping to a tight schedule, but he’s not going anywhere.”
“Genuine glad to see you, too,” Chauncy said.
“Yeah, he is!” Agreed Tommy.
“He looks at me, in my house, and says, ‘Chauncy, you’ve got it made!’”453
One thing about Tom’s Hawaiian travels did not make sense to Chauncy Granstrom. “Why did he have such a big hang-up,” Chauncy wanted to know, “about the fact they were about to get him, out in the Islands? Where did he get that?”
“Cuz they were,” Tommy answered. “Well, they might have beaten him up and then he would have joined the club. You know? Well, I think they woulda. And they usually did [beat up on haoles encroaching on their territory]. Except, I think they were a little bit – there’s something; there’s an aura of Blake that probably put them off. ‘Can’t really work this guy over’ [kind of thing].”
“Well, he had that fixation all his life, practically,” noted Chauncy.
“Yeah,” agreed Tommy, “but you know, those guys were – that was a bad bunch of guys down there [at Waikiki during Blake’s time].”454
“There were three guys who went over there and took a stand,” Tommy elaborated. “Blake was one, Gene Smith is one, and I was one. And they put all three of us through it. Cuz, we all  had that one thing in common [white skin]… Smith went through terrible beatings, there. They really pounded him. Blake escaped it. I got in one pounding, out at Waikiki, but I survived it. If I’d run away from it, I would have had to leave the Islands. But, I was young and foolish enough to stand there and take it. After that, I didn’t have any trouble. Life in the jungle, I guess.”
“Oh!” Chauncy Granstrom spoke admiringly. “He [Blake] was a beautiful specimen of a man, at the time.”
Tommy agreed: “Cap Watkins said he’d never seen a guy on the beach who looked that great. He said, he’d [Blake] walk by and people used to turn and look at him when he walked by.”455 “…He was lean as a wolf,” Tommy declared.456 Capitalizing on his good looks, Tom was paid for being a male model in more than one ad. According to Mary Ann Hawkins-Midkiff, he was even in a milk ad. She said she used to laugh and joke with Tom about that.
“Some people considered me antisocial and so forth, a loner,” Tom admitted. “Doc Ball called me a loner. That's just the way life came about for me. I found my greatest interest in swimming, surfing, and camping, traveling around, and that – it's a lonely life, that's true. But your friends are the trees and the forests and the birds and the animals, and anything that you can see, and the different people that you meet briefly. Traveling by camper around the country, every state in the Union. Something new to see every day – every day was new. You forgot about the social life.”457
Despite moving several times a year, every year, Tom always traveled with two letters from his family and two photographs of his mother. It is certain that the loss of his mother at the beginning of his own life affected him even beyond what he recognized. Tom mentioned numerous times about his being a stranger in this world. He would tie this all into the loss of his mother. It affected him more than any other thing. He loved the idea of his mother, but he felt an orphan of the earth. He said that his stepmother made it clear through actions that he was second or third to her other children. He was “Taken care of, but [there was] no real love.”458
“I cannot speculate on the psychological aspects of his relationship with women,” Tommy Zahn said, “except perhaps to remark [about]… his keen awareness of his heroic/Olympian stature, the remoteness from the rest of us, the mainstream of 9-to-5’ers. I think his only regret – and it was keen – [was] not having a son.”459
Tom did not have to be a loner but repeatedly chose to be one. About marriage, he admitted, “I got scared-off, early.”460 However, Tom fell in love at least one more time, after his brief and ill-fated marriage in 1925. “A swimmer from New York, a national champion,” wrote Mary Ann Hawkins-Midkiff in 1989, was my houseguest one time. And she and Tom fell very much in love, and somewhere along the line, after she got back to New York, she must have written to me, and said that Tom asked her to marry him, and she asked if I thought that she should. Well, I’m very slow about writing letters… By the time I got around to answering her letter, and saying yes, by all means, I thought she should marry Tom, she was married to someone else. And I’m sure I never told Tom this, and I think that maybe I lost her friendship, because that is the last I have ever heard of her, except that a few years ago I saw a magazine where she was teaching swimming down in Mexico.”461
Thoughts of relationships must have crossed his mind often. One such possibility was Virginia Severe. Tom surfed tandem with her at Waikiki in the 1920s, when her family came over as tourists and later invited him to eat with them. “She would have been the one for me,” Tom said. “She was looking for somebody.”462 Viewing the classic photo Tom took of her one day when they were together, Tommy Zahn said, admiringly, “Sure a pretty girl!”463
Tom knew other women like Josephine McKim,464 Aileen Riggin Soule, Mary Ann Hawkins-Midkiff and Leona Whitman. Tom loved women. He said it was they who really ran the planet.465
Once in a while during his last years, Tom would be noticed. In “Tom Blake: Voice of the Atom,” by Bob Yehling of Surfer magazine, a whole new generation of surfers were introduced to the man who was responsible for much of that which they enjoyed. “The whole universe is a system that runs perfectly, and we’re all parts of it – links in the chain,” Tom was quoted. Bob Yehling continued from there: “Tom Blake considers himself a footloose wanderer, bound only by the unharnessed forces which account for his existence – and ours. He lives to share the experiences and philosophies nurtured through more than sixty years of intimate friendship with the ocean. Through it all, he sails on the trade winds of his two most precious possessions – peace of mind, and memories of his contributions to surfing.”466
“Ye Old Beachcomber,” Yehling continued, “resurfaces from his Wisconsin surroundings whenever he feels the state of surfing needs a guiding hand. His advisory mechanism clicked again in June when he ventured to Southern California to visit old surfing buddy Ron Drummond. Blake brought along a 46-page manuscript titled, ‘Voice of the Atom,’ his philosophy of life based on the atom, and its relationship to religion and man. A sensitive person, Blake sees himself knifing into the flow with the treatise, but he harbors a meaningful intention.” “I wouldn’t be intruding at this late date,” Tom said, “except there’s a message in that (treatise) I’d like to give to the kids. There’s so much confusion about the nature of things, and I think surf riders are in a good position to learn the truth, working so close to nature, y’know.”467
“Now it’s an open book,” Tom went on, “although there’s much mystery about the atom. It points to what God is and where God is. Especially important is, if God is part of every atom and the power of every atom… since we’re made of atoms, we’re all part of the Almighty.” Since we are all part of God, there was no need for wars, religious or secular, or for things such as localism in surfing.
“That’s been the case ever since the beginning,” said Tom, “for the simple reason we’re fighting one another in our home territory, and carrying it over into the surf. This feuding that’s going on is so strong now, not only in surfing, but everything. There’ll be a break if we know the truth. The truth… the force which we call ‘God.’ If a kid will learn that at an early age, he’ll have more respect for everything.”468
The Surfer article gave a brief glimpse of Tom’s life on the road: “Blake stretched his legs in the back of his VW van, which was cluttered with camping gear, magazine articles, and other condiments of a happy wanderer. He turned the conversation toward the inner spirit of surfing – his own bloodline, until a heart condition forced him out of the water in 1955. ‘Wow, it was tough to give it up,’ he said softly. ‘It was the end in a way. Really.’ Until then, Blake spent more than 30 summers in Hawaii, learning the ancient customs, religious beliefs and love for raw nature held by a people, which, through the influence of Duke Kahanamoku, accepted the mainlander as a brother. As he probed into the pulse behind ‘Voice of the Atom,’ Blake drew those Polynesian parallels between wave riding, religion, and nature.
“’It’s easy to learn in the ocean. I learned there because you’re very close to nature,’ he said, extending his arms fully and then spreading them. ‘You’re in it! You’re immersed in it! You learn to wait patiently. There’s a time for everything to happen. You’ve got to learn to wait for your wave. You can’t make it come to you. It teaches you about life. There’s a pleasure to riding a wave. You’ve mastered something that’s unknown and unseen there. It’s not only the ride you get, but using your wits to win. To win! Every good ride is a win. That’s the fun in life – to win. It goes up to challenge you, and when you put it all together you’ve got something.’
“Blake put it together,” Yehling continued, “on his legendary ride of August 1, 1936. Using a 14-foot, 100-pound cypress board equipped with his newly designed fin, Blake caught a 15-foot wave on the outer reef at South Castles. He veered left, avoided the Public Baths reef, and milked the wave until its two-foot shore breaking remains pitched him some 4,500 feet north of his takeoff point. ‘It was just like making a million bucks in the stock market,’ Blake recalled, smiling. ‘What a satisfaction it was – nothing in it but pure satisfaction. I think every 10 or 12-year-old that gets a little 20-yard ride feels the same way, but you don’t quite understand it. You’re living. You’re living honestly and truthfully when you make a wave like that. You’re cooperating with the forces of the universe.’”469
“Blake continues to hunt the ‘priceless secret’ while living in a peaceful, contemplative state of mind. He cherishes the satisfaction of his contributions to surfing… ‘I don’t model my life after anything, or tie myself down,’ Blake says. ‘You follow your own star, y’know. You go surf riding and have a good day, and you think, “there’s something good in here someplace.” You should know from the start that you’re part of this Almighty thing… The atom’s the best base I’ve found. It takes God out of the wild blue yonder, and brings him down to Earth.’”470
“About that article in the Surfer Magazine a few years ago,” Tom said, “the article was about trying to bring out a concept of nature being the equivalent of God. The same thing. That thought has held up over the years, and still good and getting stronger all the time. When you look at nature as the God that everybody is talking about, and always has talked about, that's the only way you can understand what the word God means. You look at nature, you're faced with it every day of your life, every minute of your life, and you can understand it to that degree that you witness it and live it and feel it and enjoy it.”471
“Material (so-called) success has eluded Tom, it is true,” Tommy Zahn admitted. “So much depends on chance (luck) and timing. He had many ideas that may have connected in another point in time. He does appreciate nice things and has always had an unerring good taste in many things.”472 Even the residual income he earned from the manufacture of his hollow boards did not greatly increase his cash flow. Royalties from his hollow boards were paid off in surf and paddle boards. He gave many away to friends. After all, Tom did not need or have space for a full inventory of manufactured boards. All he had amounted to a little material baggage, often owning only a small collection of boards and a few boxes of clothes.473
“Teru Funai of the Sand Island Boat Works (Honolulu),” Tommy gave as an example, “built for all the beach boys at Waikiki – 1940s, ‘50s. Tom realized no royalties from any of these guys. He would have had it made, today.”474 Instead, “Tom was a lifetime innovator. Tragic, in a way… he didn’t cash in on it. But then, that is not his ‘way.’ He could have made it big in films [also], but that wasn’t his way either. He could have made it in a lot of other ways, or so his early contemporaries implied to me on various occasions.
“One [key] aspect of his lifestyle, as he put it to me, was to ‘lower your overhead’! Thereby giving yourself more time, more freedom. And freedom is a big part of what Blake is all about. His life was not/is not cluttered up with all the garbage of the basic 9-to-5 trap. I’ve always envied him this, although comparatively, my lifestyle has always been rather simple and cluttered. It’s not easy!”475
“Freedom to go and try things and shapes on each new board,” Tom wrote, “earned enough to exist on that way.”476
When asked to list his personal friends, Tom listed them in the following order: Duke K., Oscar Teller, Gene Smith, Tom Zahn, Ron Drummond, George Downing, Wally Froiseth, Woody Brown, Dr. J. Ball, Hobie Alter, John Lewson, Bill Butt, Capt. Watkins, Henry Lum, Buzz Trent, Rudy Choy, Scoop Tsusuki.”477 At other times, he had various things to say about other friends and fellow surfers. For instance, Pete Peterson “was one of the cleverest surfers I ever knew. Pete went out to win, [Lorrin] Harrison did it just for fun.”478 Tom wrote that he first met Ron Drummond when “Ron bought my second waterproof camera… about 1930s, at Santa Monica. [Peanuts] Larson took that fine canoeing picture of Ron at San Onofre, in a canoe.” Of Drummond specifically, Tom wrote that he was “a good two men in one.”479 “Adie Bayer was one of the best hollow board riders of his day,” Tom wrote.480
“I think what we’re talking about with Tom is the absolute uniqueness of the man,” Tommy Zahn emphasized. “Athletes come and go, but in any other given environment, Tom would have prevailed as well. At least, that is my feeling.”481 Not everyone felt so. While Tom attracted many, there were still others who felt slightly uncomfortable around him. One brother could speak glowingly of Tom, while another brother could easily dismiss him as being too much of a dreamer. A friend could praise him in every paragraph, while another veteran of the beach could criticize him for not keeping to a time clock. A protégé could refer to him in worshipful tones, while a peer could be whistling the theme from the Twilight Zone, suggesting that Tom was weird. Those who did not possess a spiritual “third eye” could not see and did not appreciate Blake’s world of infinity and natural balance. Many must have even thought Tom’s vision non-existent and fabricated.
Twentieth Century surfing lost its most significant pioneer when Tom Blake died in Ashland, Michigan, on May 5, 1994.
Along the shore I wander, free,
A beach comber at Waikiki,
Where time worn souls who seek in vain,
Hearts ease, in vagrant, wondering train.
A beach comber from choice, am I,
Content to let the world drift by,
Its strife and envy, pomp and pride,
I’ve tasted, and am satisfied. 482
1 TOM BLAKE: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, ©2001.
2 TOM BLAKE: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, ©2001.
3 Blake, Tom. “Duke, As I Knew Him,” as told to H. Arthur Klein, published in Surf’s Up! By H. Arthur Klein and M.C. Klein, ©1966 by H. Arthur Klein. See also Lueras, Leonard. Surfing, The Ultimate Pleasure, ©1984, published by Workman Publishing, New York, p. 81.
4 TOM BLAKE: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, ©2001.
5 TOM BLAKE: The Ucommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, ©2001.
9 In addition to Hawaiian Surfboard, later republished under the name of Hawaiian Surfrriders 1935, Blake wrote: Royal Hawaiians, Hawaiian Surfing (1961) and Voice of the Atom.
15 Tom Blake Surfing, 1922-1932, ©1999 by Tom Adler and Gary Lynch.
16 The American Vegetarian, January 1944. Letter to the editors.
17 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 40.
21 Blake, Tom. “Duke, As I Knew Him,” as told to H. Arthus Klein, published in Surf’s Up! ©1966.
24 Blake, Tom. “Duke, As I Knew Him,” as told to H. Arthus Klein, published in Surf’s Up! ©1966.
28 “First Break” is the line of breaking surf furthest from shore on any given day. There is only one break further out, and that is “Zero Break,” where the waves form on a particularly big day. See Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 61-62.
30 See Blake, 1935. Whitey Harrison printed as “Whitie” and Rothwell was typeset at “Bothwell.” Mullahey, John Smith, and Braithwate were all from the East Coast.
31 Blake, 1935, p. 62.
33 California Coastal Resource Guide, published by The California Coastal Commission and the State of California, ©1987, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, p. 282.
34 California Coastal Resource Guide, 1987, p. 282
35 Young, Nat. History of Surfing, 1983, p. 49.
36 California Coastal Resource Guide, p. 282.
37 Roth, Matthew W., Automobile Club of Southern California historian.
38 Roth, Matthew W., Automobile Club of Southern California historian.
39 California Coastal Resource Guide, 1987 p. 282.
40 Santa Monica Heritage Museum, “Cowabunga!” exhibit, February 1994. Reid misspelled Rindge as “Rhindge.” According to the California Coastal Resources Guide, Frederick Rindge had built a short 400-foot long pier. The pier that exists today was built in 1943, p. 285.
42 Santa Monica Heritage Museum exhibit, “Cowabunga!” February 1994.
44 Blake, Thomas E. ‘Surf-riding - The Royal and Ancient Sport,’ The Pan Pacific, 1930. See also Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 59.
45 Blake, Thomas E. ‘Surf-riding - The Royal and Ancient Sport,’ The Pan Pacific, 1930. See also Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 37.
46 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 38.
47 Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 37-38.
48 Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 37-38.
49 Finney and Houston, 1996, p. 74.
50 TOM BLAKE: Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, ©2001.
51 Blake, Thomas E., “Surf-riding - The Royal and Ancient Sport,” The Pan Pacific, 1930. See also Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 59. Blake wrote of his replica (with drilled holes): “This surfboard was sixteen feet long and weighed 120 pounds.”
52 Lueras, 1984, p. 82. Tom Blake quoted. See photo with annotations in Blake’s handwriting on p. 83.
53 TOM BLAKE: Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, ©2001.
54 Press-Telegram, July 16, 1928.
55 Press-Telegram, August 5, 1928.
56 Lueras, 1984, p. 83. See Blake’s notations. Notation has it at “Balboa Beach.”
59 Lueras, 1984, p. 82.
60 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 59.
62 Press-Telegram, August 6, 1928.
63 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 91.
64 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 59.
65 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 51.
66 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 1929, article by Dr. D’Eliscu, quoted in Blake, 1935, p. 59.
67 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 59. Incorrectly spelled in Blake’s book. Pictures of the board clearly have the name “Okohola” written on the board’s deck. “Okohola,” translated, means whaling or a variety of sweet potato introduced during the whaling era.
68 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 74.
69 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 75.
70 Kahanamoku, Duke with Brennan, Joe. World of Surfing, ©1968, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, NY, p. 38.
71 Lynch, Gary. Email to Malcolm, 29 November 1999.
72 Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 72-73. See also Lynch, Gary. Email to Malcolm, 29 November 1999.
73 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 74.
74 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 51.
75 Kahanamoku, ©1966, p. 39. Brennan seems to have confused what one did standing vs. prone. Prone, one dragged the arm; standing, the leg was the drag.
76 Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 51-52. See also Lynch, Gary. Email to Malcolm, 30 November 1999. Gary wrote: “Pure speculation that Duke would have built a Olo if Tom did not first. Blake was being nice by saying that but it is B.S… The Duke Olo that hangs at Duke’s Canoe Club in Waikiki is not a ‘29 board as far as I can see. I think it even has plywood covering the carved out sections… I doubt it is ‘29. More like ‘32-’34.”
77 National Geographic magazine, exact date unknown.
78 National Geographic Letter to Thomas Edward Blake, December 20, 1930. Editor via GRD.
79 National Geographic Letter to Thomas Edward Blake, January 13, 1931. Editor via GHF.
80 National Geographic, January 18, 1931.
81 Tom Blake Surfing, 1922-32. Rotogravure (roh-toh-gra-vyoor) is a photogravure printed on a rotary machine. A photogravure (foh-toh-gra-vyoor) is a picture produced from a photographic negative that has been transferred to a metal plate and etched in.
82 See Ball, John Doc. California Surfriders, 1946.
85 Hawaiian Surfing, 1961. See also Tom Blake Surfing, 1922-1932, ©1999 by Tom Adler and Gary Lynch, p. 11.
89 Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 51-52. See also Lueras, p. 82.
90 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 1, 1930. Article written by Francois D’Eliscu. T. Keakona’s name incorrectly spelled as “Kiakona.”
91 Lueras, 1984, p. 82. Quotations are presumably Sam Reid's.
92 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 1, 1930. T. Keakona incorrectly spelled as “Kiakona.” See also Lynch, Gary, “Thomas Edward Blake: Beyond The Horizon,” May 20 1989.
94 Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 51-52. See also Lueras, p. 82.
95 Lueras, 1984, p. 82. Honolulu Star-Bulletin from 1955, with Sam Reid's quotations.
98 Lueras, 1984, p. 82. Sam Reid quoted. Parentheses probably Lueras'.
99 The Santa Monica Heritage Museum, “Cowabunga!” exhibit, 2/94 and Young, p. 49, indicate Blake quit competing in the Hawaiian Surfboard Championships in 1930.
101 TOM BLAKE: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, ©2001.
102 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “Announce List of Officials to Handle 1931 Surfboard Races,” by Francois D’Eliscu, January 1, 1931.
103 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “Announce List of Officials to Handle 1931 Surfboard Races,” by Francois D’Eliscu, January 1, 1931.
106 Lueras, p. 82. Sam Reid quoted.
107 Kahanamoku, Duke with Brennan, Joe. World of Surfing, ©1968, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, NY, p. 38. “Haole” is a Hawaiian term for a white person.
108 Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 51-52.
109 See Gault-Williams, LEGENDARY SURFERS: Volume 1, “Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards,” for a detailed description of the differences between the olo, kiko’o, alaia, and paipo boards.
110 Brennan, 1994, p. 23.
111 Kahanamoku, ©1966, p. 39. Brennan seems to have confused what one did standing vs. prone. Prone, one dragged the arm; standing, the leg was the drag.
112 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 74.
113 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 51. Duke indicated 1929, but it was most likely 1930. A Duke Olo currently hangs at Duke’s Canoe Club in Waikiki, but it is a later model than his 1930 olo.
114 Stecyk and Pezman, 1995, pp. 65-66. Rabbit Kekai quoted.
116 TOM BLAKE: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, ©2001.
121 Surfer, Vol. 35, No. 10, October 1994, p. 89. See also Lynch, Gary. Email to Malcolm Gault-Williams, 7 December 1999.
125 George, Sam. “A Tribute to the Surfer Who Shaped our Soul,” Surfer, Vol. 35, No. 10, October 1994, p. 89. See also Lynch, Gary. Email to Malcolm, 7 December 1999.
126 Ahrens, 1994, p. 36.
127 See Gault-Williams, LEGENDARY SURFERS: Volume 1 for a detailed look at “The Revival” period.
128 Blake, 1935, p. 61.
129 Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 53-54.
130 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 54.
131 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 52. Buster Crabbe had a successful Hollywood career and is best known for his roles as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.
132 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 54.
133 Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 65-66. Blake’s parenthesis.
134 Calabash – a hard-shelled gourd, used as a container.
135 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 66. Blake’s parenthesis.
136 Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 66-67.
137 Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 66-67. Blake has J. Smith and [Babe] Braithwate riding “W. Virginia,” but this is not possible, since this state is land locked. I infer he meant Virginia.
138 Blake, 1935, p. 62.
139 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 57. Wave size estimation was probably trough-to-top, on the face, as opposed to the modern Hawaiian measurement from the backside of the wave.
140 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 56.
141 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 56.
142 Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 62. The Okohola was Tom’s first olo-inspired racing model and solid, weighing 160 pounds.
143 Guinness Book of World Records, by Norris and Ross McWhirter, Bantam Books, 1971-72, p. 535.
144 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, October 12 & 14, 1972, postmarked from Midland, California. At this time, Tom confused the date as being 1935.
145 Stecyk, C.R. “Hot Curl.” The Surfer’s Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer 1994, p. 71. Rabbit Kekai quoted.
146 Solberg, Curtis and Morris, David. A People’s Heritage, ©1984, p. 138.
147 Grun, 1991, p. 497. Grun has October 28.
148 HistoryChannel.com, February 2000.
149 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with John “Doc” Ball, January 10, 1998.
150 HistoryChannel.com, February 2000.
151 Lynch, Gary. Email to Malcolm Gault-Williams, 9 December 1999. Lynch, Gary. Email to Malcolm Gault-Williams, 9 December 1999.
152 Lynch, Gary. “Tom Blake Interview January 7, 1989.” Tom’s written notations.
153 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Thomas Edward Blake, April 16, 1989, Washburn, Wisconsin.
154 Lynch, Gary. “Tom Blake Interview January 7, 1989.” Tom’s written notations.
155 Honolulu newspaper, “Surfboards To Sail At Waikiki Beach Sunday,” by Richard Weinberg. Exact newspaper and date unknown. Tom wrote Gary Lynch on February 10, 1989: “In my other letter… I mentioned John D. Kupiko, Sr. as the one who moved the finish buoy. Please leave that out of your report; otherwise your welcome in Hawaii will be less welcome. Never mentioned it to anyone else. The changed buoy really fooled me. Always keep your guard up. T.E.B., and thank you for the offer to leave my ashes at the Lost Coast. Considering it.”
156 Honolulu newspaper, “Surfboards To Sail At Waikiki Beach Sunday,” by Richard Weinberg. Exact newspaper and date unknown. Original article had Tom getting the idea in “1930”; however, Tom made a handwritten note on the saved article in his possession clearly marking “1924-25” instead.
157 Lynch, Gary. Email to Malcolm, 9 December 1999.
158 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Thomas Edward Blake, April 16, 1989, Washburn, Wisconsin.
159 Lynch, Gary. “Tom Blake Interview January 7, 1989.” Tom’s written notations.
160 Lynch, Gary. “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake.” Tom’s handwritten notation.
161 Lynch, Gary. “Tom Blake Interview January 7, 1989.” Tom’s written notations.
162 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996. Wally has pictures of Waikiki Tom Blake gave him and that Blake used in his book, “before he went back that first time.” See also Gault-Williams, Malcolm, “Surf Drunk, The Wally Froiseth Story,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 6, Number 4, Winter 1997. Photos from the collection of Wally Froiseth, reshot by Steve Wilkings.
163 Newspaper clipping, “Guards Say It Will Aid Life Saving,” possibly 1936.
170 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
171 Los Angeles Times, “Lifeguard Uses Surfboard in Rescuing Pair,” July 17, 1932.
174 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
175 Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Interview, April 1988. Tom’s notations.
177 Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 72-73. See also Lynch, Gary. Email to Malcolm Gault-Williams, 29 November 1999.
178 Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 72-73. See also Lynch, Gary. Email to Malcolm Gault-Williams, 29 November 1999.
183 Lynch, Gary. “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake.”
184 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
185 Lynch, Gary. “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake.” Tom’s handwritten notation.
186 See photo of Tom, with paddleboard, cup, and presumably Dr. J.S. Kelsey, Jr.
195 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, June 2, 1988. Tommy’s emphasis.
198 Lynch, Gary. Email to Malcolm Gault-Williams, 1 December 1999.
202 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 28, 1934. See also Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 67-68.
208 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996. Wally has a picture of cigar boards with Dickie Cross, Gene Froiseth, and a board made by Tommy Keakona. See also Gault-Williams, Malcolm, “Surf Drunk, The Wally Froiseth Story,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 6, Number 4, Winter 1997. Photos from the collection of Wally Froiseth, reshot by Steve Wilkings.
209 Kahanamoku, 1968, p. 38.
214 Surfer magazine, Vol. 35, No. 4, p. 84.
215 Surfer magazine, Vol. 35, No. 4, p. 84.
216 Vansant, Amy. “Dudley Whitman, A Visit with Florida's First Surfer,” Surfer magazine, Vol. 35, No. 4, April 1994. Eastern Lines column, p. 84.
217 Vansant, 1994, p. 84. Dudley Whitman. Dudley was born March 20, 1920.
224 Vansant, 1994, p. 85. Dudley Whitman.
225 Vansant, Amy. “Goofing Off In God's Waiting Room,” or “Gauldin Reed: A Link to Florida's Surfing Past,” Surfer, Volume 36, No. 6, June 1995, p. 96. Gauldin Reed quoted.
226 Vansant, 1994, p. 85. Dudley Whitman quoted.
227 Vansant, 1994, pp. 84-85. Dudley Whitman.
230 See handbill, February 18, 1934
232 Blake, Tom. Hawaiian Surfboard, 1935.
237 George, Sam. “A Tribute to the Surfer Who Shaped our Soul,” Surfer, Vol. 35, No. 10, October 1994, p. 89.
238 Santa Monica Heritage Museum Archives, Courtesy of Mitchell Lachman, on exhibit at “Cowabunga!” 2/94.
243 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Dudley Whitman, May 10, 2000.
246 Ahrens, 1994, p. 36.
247 Lynch, Gault-Williams. TOM BLAKE: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, ©2001.
250 Honolulu Advertiser, February 28, 1937.
251 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996. Wally has pictures of Waikiki that Tom gave him. These Blake used in his book “before he went back that first time.” See also Gault-Williams, Malcolm, “Surf Drunk, The Wally Froiseth Story,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 6, Number 4, Winter 1997. Photos from the collection of Wally Froiseth, reshot by Steve Wilkings.
252 See picture in the Blake Collection, signed by Tom: “New York ’37 Guards. Tom.”
255 Popular Science, June 1939, p. 174.
256 Gartner, Paul W. “Hawaiian Water Sled is Easy to Build,” Modern Mechanix and Inventions, June 1933, pp. 116-118+. Gary Lynch wrote to me in July 2002: “I think this is important to note in your work. I’ve always wondered about it as TB states this was out before his book but never stated where. Maybe more than one place but as yet no one has found the other sources.” This one came to our attention thanks to David Maresh, July 26, 2002.
259 Palos Verdes News, July 1940.
262 See Tom’s handwritten note “1940-41, to July 15” on a “Surf Board Waikiki Beach” business card he had with the “Tom Blake Approved” Los Angeles Ladder Company hollow board logo affixed.
263 Newspaper clipping, May 19, 1942, “Waikiki To ‘Wake’”. Tom hand wrote on it: “June 1942.”
264 Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Interview, April 1988. Tom’s notations.
265 Blake, Tom. “Log of Thomas E. Blake, Sp. 1/c, U.S. Coast Guard,” Tom’s short personal log.
266 Blake, Tom. “Log of Thomas E. Blake, Sp. 1/c, U.S. Coast Guard,” Tom’s short personal log.
267 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
268 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
269 Lynch, Gary. Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake. Tom’s own written notation.
270 Blake, Tom. “Log of Thomas E. Blake, Sp. 1/c, U.S. Coast Guard,” Tom’s short personal log.
271 Honolulu newspaper clipping, “Tom Blake Back,” 1945.
272 California Coastal Resource Guide, ©1987, State of California, p. 302.
273 San Pedro News-Pilot, “Portuguese Bend Club Names Blake,” April 11, 1949, p. 9.
274 Blake, Tom. “’End of Season’ Swimming Pool Notes,” pubication “the News” unknown. 1947.
275 Blake, Tom. “’End of Season’ Swimming Pool Notes,” pubication “the News” unknown. 1947.
276 Blake, Tom. “Swimming Pool has ‘Mile Club’ Activity,” publication unknown, August 14, 1947.
277 Blake, Tom. “Swimming Pool Closes After Successful Season,” Palos Verdes News, September 1, 1947. Tom noted he was then Director of Pool Activities, working at a rate of $200/month, from June 15 to September 1.
278 Blake, Tom. “Swimming Pool Closes After Successful Season,” Palos Verdes News, September 1, 1947.
279 California Coastal Resource Guide, ©1987, State of California, p. 302.
280 Ball, John “Doc.” Early California Surfriders, ©1995, p. 41.
281 Ball, John “Doc.” Early California Surfriders, ©1995, pp. 39-64.
282 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, July 25, 1988, Washburn, Wisconsin.
283 San Pedro News-Pilot, “Portuguese Bend Club Names Blake,” April 11, 1949, p. 9.
284 See Portuguese Bend Club, Rancho Palos Verdes, announcement May 1950.
285 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
286 San Francisco newspaper clipping, newspaper unknown, June 21, 1948.
287 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Dudley Whitman, May 10, 2000.
288 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Thomas Edward Blake, April 16, 1989, Washburn, Wisconsin.
289 Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Interview, April 1988. Tom’s notations.
290 Blake, Tom. Postcard to Gary Lynch, October 29, 1986, from Washburn, Wisconsin.
291 Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Biography Interview, April 1988. Tom’s notes.
292 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, p. 7.
293 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, pp. 7-8.
294 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
295 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
296 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, June 2, 1988. Some Rogers boards had the drain plug aft, some in the bow. Most were on the bow.
297 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, June 17, 1988.
298 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
299 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, June 17, 1988.
300 Board of Harbor Commissioners, Territory of Hawaii, Mooring Request and Agreement, March 1, 1955. See also Bill of Sale, February 23, 1953.
301 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
302 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
303 Blake Collection.
304 Blake, Tom. Typewritten statement, marked “T.E.B., Dec. 1950.”
305 Blake, Tom. Letter to Gary Lynch.
306 Browne, Bud. Letter to Gary Lynch, May 27, 1988.
307 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, June 12, 1953.
308 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, June 12, 1953.
309 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, June 12, 1953.
310 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, June 12, 1953.
311 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, date unknown; most likely summer 1953.
312 Blake, Thomas Edward. Typewritten statement written in Santa Monica, 1952.
313 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Fran Heath, April 2, 1996. See also Gault-Williams, “Fran Heath: The Forgotten Hot Curler,” Longboard, Volume 5, Number 1, March/April 1997.
314 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996. See also Gault-Williams, “Surf Drunk: The Wally Froiseth Story,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 6, Number 4, Winter 1997.
315 Stecyk, Craig. “Hot Curl,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 3, Number 2, Summer 1994, p. 69. George Downing quoted.
316 Lynch, Gary. “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake.” Tom first wrote about the incident in a letter dated 1952.
317 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, pp. 7-8.
318 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Thomas Edward Blake, April 16, 1989, Washburn, Wisconsin.
319 Blake, Tom. Letter to Gary Lynch, February 6, 1988, Washburn, Wisconsin.
320 Blake, Tom. Handwritten statement, marked “T.E.B. 1952.”
321 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, May 8, 1988.
322 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, March 29, 1988.
323 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, April 20, 1988.
324 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, March 29, 1988.
325 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, June 17, 1988.
326 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, April 20, 1988. My emphasis.
327 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, March 29, 1988.
328 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, March 29, 1988.
329 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, April 20, 1988.
330 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, April 20, 1988.
331 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, May 8, 1988.
332 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, May 8, 1988.
333 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, March 29, 1988.
334 Lynch, Gary. “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake. Tom’s written notation in quotes.
335 See Elwell, John. “The Enigma of Simmons,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 1994. See also Gault-Williams, Malcolm. “Bob Simmons,” Volume 1, Chapter 24 of Legendary Surfers.
336 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “Surfboard Craftsman,” May 1, 1954. Saturday edition.
337 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “Surfboard Craftsman,” May 1, 1954. Caption 2.
338 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “Surfboard Craftsman,” May 1, 1954. Caption 4.
339 Lynch, Gary. “Tom Blake Interview January 7, 1989.” Tom’s written notations. Tom wrote “foam,” instead of balsa, but must have meant the later, not the former. Most probably Lorrin Thurston, in 1926. See Gault-Williams, “The Revival,” Volume 1 of Legendary Surfers.
340 Lynch, Gary. “Tom Blake Interview January 7, 1989.” Tom’s written notations.
341 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “Surfboard Craftsman,” May 1, 1954. Caption 1.
342 Lynch, Gary. “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake. Tom’s handwritten note.
343 Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Biography Interview, April 1988. Tom’s notes.
344 Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Interview, March 1988. Tom’s notes.
345 Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Interview, March 1988. Tom’s notes.
346 Dummond, Doris. “Tuning in to Fins: Fashioning The First Fin,” p. 66
347 Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Biography Interview, April 1988. Tom’s notes.
348 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
349 Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Interview, March 1988. Tom’s notations.
350 Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Biography Interview, April 1988. Tom’s notes.
351 Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Interview, March 1988. Tom’s notes.
352 Blake, Tom. Letter to Gary Lynch, November 16, 1987, from Washburn, Wisconsin.
353 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Thomas Edward Blake, April 16, 1989, Washburn, Wisconsin. Original quote has Tom saying he was 55 when he left surfing.
354 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
355 Lynch, Gary. “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake.” Tom’s handwritten notation.
356 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, November 9, 1966. Written at 701 15th Avenue, Honolulu, Hawai’i.
357 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 1955.
358 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, March 18, 1974, from Niland, California.
359 Lynch, Gary. “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake.”
360 Lynch, Gary. “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake.” Tom’s handwritten notation.
361 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Thomas Edward Blake, April 16, 1989, Washburn, Wisconsin.
362 Lynch, Gary. Email to Malcolm, 7 September 2000.
363 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Thomas Edward Blake, April 16, 1989, Washburn, Wisconsin.
364 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Thomas Edward Blake, April 16, 1989, Washburn, Wisconsin.
365 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Thomas Edward Blake, April 16, 1989, Washburn, Wisconsin.
366 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, January 15, 1959, from 33603 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, California.
367 Miami Herald, 1958. See also Lynch, Gary. Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake.
368 St. Augustine county newspaper, “9 Persons Saved As Boats Capsize, Surging Sea Conquered By Rescuers,” by Joe Sullivan, November 15, 1958. Note incorrect count. It was seven people saved.
369 The Miami Herald, “Heroic Lifeguard Praises Trusty Surfboard, Rescues 2 Boys From Boca Inlet,” by Bill Beck, Delray Bureau Chief, Tuesday, November 18, 1958, p. B1.
370 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
371 Blake, Tom. Correspondence with Tommy Zahn. Date unknown.
372 Boca Raton Hotel News, “Cabana Club News,” by John Ford, November 1958.
373 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, February 1988. Tom’s written notations.
374 Lynch, Gary. Email to Rick Frei, February 23, 2000.
375 Application for Employment, Tom Blake, date (probably 1960) and employer applied to unknown.
376 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Dudley Whitman, May 10, 2000.
377 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Dudley Whitman, May 10, 2000.
378 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Dudley Whitman, May 10, 2000.
379 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, January 15, 1959.
380 Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel, “Surf Star Blake At Boca,” by Ann Hutton, Sunday, October 9, 1960, p. 8-D.
381 Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel, “Surf Star Blake At Boca,” by Ann Hutton, Sunday, October 9, 1960, p. 8-D.
382 Lynch, Gary. “Beyond the Horizon,” Surfer, Volume 30, Number 11, November 1989.
383 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Dudley Whitman, May 10, 2000. Dudley Whitman was born March 20, 1920.
384 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, December 27, 1961. Written on Boca Raton Hotel and Club stationary, Boca Raton, Florida.
385 Blake, Tom. Hawaiian Surfriding: The Ancient and Royal Pastime, ©1961, Northland Press, Flagstaff, Arizona. Copy courtesy of Allen Kukel.
386 Blake, Tom. Hawaiian Surfriding: The Ancient and Royal Pastime, ©1961, Northland Press, Flagstaff, Arizona.
387 Blake, Tom. Hawaiian Surfriding: The Ancient and Royal Pastime, ©1961, Northland Press, Flagstaff, Arizona.
388 Blake, Thomas Edward. “Sentimental Journey Home,” published in the Washburn newspaper, June 1962.
389 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, November 28, 1962. Written on Arvida Oil Company stationary, 998 South Federal Highway, Boca Raton, Florida.
390 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Dudley Whitman, May 10, 2000.
391 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, January 8, 1963. Written on Arvida Corporation stationary, 998 South Federal Highway, Boca Raton, Florida. See also Gault-Williams and Lynch, “Pulling Seaward: Tommy Zahn,” The Surfer's Journal, Volume 9, Number 2, Spring/Summer 2000.
392 Honolulu newspaper, “Tommy Zahn Wins Paddleboard Race,” date unknown.
393 Russell R. Francis email to Gary Lynch, 27 December 2005.
394 Blake, Tom. Letter probably to Tommy Zahn. Date unknown, very possibly written from Santa Monica, California.
395 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, November 9, 1966. Written from 701 15th Avenue, Honolulu, Hawaii. See also Gault-Williams and Lynch, “Pulling Seaward: Tommy Zahn,” The Surfer's Journal, Volume 9, Number 2, Spring/Summer 2000.
396 Drummond, Doris. “Surfer-Writer Visits Valley,” Coastline Dispatch, San Juan Capistrano, 1968.
397 Blake, Tom. Postcard to Lieutenant T.C. Zahn, November 16, 1968.
398 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, December 5, 1968, from Miami Beach, Florida. Leona E. Whitman was Mrs. William Francis Whitman.
399 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Dudley Whitman, May 10, 2000.
400 Washburn, Wisconsin newspaper, April 29, 1967.
401 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
402 Whitman, Leona E. Letter to Tom Blake, May 10, 1968.
403 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Dudley Whitman, May 10, 2000.
404 Blake, Thomas. “Voice of the Wave,” June 18, 1968, written at Crystal Downs, Frankfort, Michigan.
405 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, January 7, 1970. Return address: General Delivery, Ventura, California.
406 Blake, Tom. Postcard to Tommy Zahn, March 10, 1971, postmarked from Essex, California. “Dear Friends – Thanks for mail. Heading home to Wisconsin. Hold the fort.”
407 Blake, Thomas. Letter to Tommy & Dagmar Zahn, March 23, 1971, Washburn, Wisconsin.
408 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy and Dagmar Zahn, January 10, 1972, from Niland, California.
409 Blake, Thomas. Letter to Tommy and Dagmar Zahn, April 4, 1972, from Washburn, Wisconsin.
410 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, February 1988. Tom’s written notations.
411 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, April 27, 1971, from Washburn, Wisconsin. Tom’s emphasis. See also Gault-Williams and Lynch, “Last Chapter: ‘Tarzan’ Smith,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 7, Number 4, Winter 1998.
412 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy and Dagmar Zahn, April 1972, from Washburn, Wisconsin.
413 Blake, Thomas. Letter to Tommy and Dagmar Zahn, November 15, 1972, from Niland, California.
414 Blake, Thomas. Letter to Tommy and Dagmar Zahn, November 20, 1973, from Niland, California.
415 Blake, Thomas. Letter to Tommy and Dagmar Zahn, November 20, 1973, from Niland, California.
416 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Tom Blake, November 23, 1973, from Santa Monica, California.
417 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, November 27, 1973, from Niland, California.
418 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
419 Blake, Thomas. Letter to Tommy and Dagmar Zahn, December 17, 1973, from Niland, California. Tom usually addressed Tommy as “Tom” and wrote Gene as “Jean.”
420 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. “Last Chapter: ‘Tarzan’ Smith,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 7, Number 4, Winter 1998. Written with Gary Lynch. See also Gault-Williams, “Tarzan Redux,” The Surfer’s Journal. For the most comprehensive biography of Gene Smith, see Gault-Williams, “Gene ‘Tarzan’ Smith,” ©2004, published as an electronic file in PDF format. Photos from the Smith Family collection.
421 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy and Dagmar Zahn, March 18, 1974, from Niland, California.
422 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, March 18, 1974, from Niland, California. Undoubtedly James C. Harmon (69 in 1974) was one of them. See “Harmony’s ‘Honcho’ Promises 100-year Life Span,” Imperial Valley Press, September 3, 1973.
423 Blake, Thomas. Letter to Tommy and Dagmar, June 28, 1975, from Washburn, Wisconsin.
424 Wisconsin newspaper, clip written by Tom, circa 1979.
425 Ashland newspaper, “Tom Blake, World Expert On Board Surfing, Visits Here,” date unknown; certainly on or after 1966.
426 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, April 20, 1988.
427 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, June 17, 1988. Tommy’s emphasis.
428 Lynch, Gary. Email to John Greenhalgh, February 26, 2000.
429 Lynch, Gary. “Tom Blake Interview January 7, 1989.” Tom’s written notations.
430 Lynch, Gary. “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake.” Tom’s handwritten notation.
431 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
432 Dummond, Doris. “Tuning in to Fins: Fashioning The First Fin,” 1973, p. 66. See also International Surfing, Volume 3, Number 5, November 1967, p. 17. Research courtesy of Matt Warshaw.
433 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, July 28, 1967. Written from Washburn, Wisconsin. Tom’s emphasis.
434 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, August 8, 1967, from Washburn, Wisconsin.
435 Washburn newspaper, possibly September 14, 1967.
436 See Gary’s Email to Malcolm, March 19, 2000.
437 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, March 6, 1990.
438 Blake, Thomas. Letter to Tommy and Dagmar Zahn, October 12, 1972, from Niland, California. Tom’s emphasis.
439 Blake, Thomas. Letter to Tommy and Dagmar Zahn, November 15, 1972.
440 Blake, Thomas. Letter to Tommy and Dagmar Zahn, January 20, 1973.
441 Blake, Thomas. Letter to Tommy and Dagmar Zahn, November 20, 1973, from Niland, California.
442 National Surf Life Saving Association of America Resolution May 8, 1974.
443 Lynch, Gary. “The Early Years,” original manuscript for Tom Blake Surfing, 1922-32.
444 Blake, Tom. Letter to Gary Lynch, October 27, 1993, from Ashland, Wisconsin.
445 Lynch, Gary. “The Early Years,” original manuscript for Tom Blake Surfing, 1922-32.
446 Blake, Tom. Letter to Bernadine Blake, March 5, 1990, from Ashland, Wisconsin.
447 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
448 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, June 2, 1988. Tommy’s emphasis.
449 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
450 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
451 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Dudley Whitman, May 10, 2000.
452 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, June 2, 1988.
453 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
454 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
455 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
456 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
457 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Thomas Edward Blake, April 16, 1989, Washburn, Wisconsin.
458 Lynch, Gary. “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake.” Tom’s handwritten notation.
459 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, June 2, 1988. Tommy’s emphasis.
460 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
461 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Mary Ann Hawkins-Midkiff, March 15, 1989.
462 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
463 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
464 Los Angeles Times, date unknown. Blake collection.
465 Gary Lynch.
466 Yehling, Bob. “Tom Blake: Voice of the Atom,” Surfer magazine, Volume 22, Number 11, November 1981, pp. 64-67. Tom quoted.
467 Yehling, Bob. “Tom Blake: Voice of the Atom,” Surfer magazine, Volume 22, Number 11, November 1981, pp. 64-67. Tom quoted.
468 Yehling, Bob. “Tom Blake: Voice of the Atom,” Surfer magazine, Volume 22, Number 11, November 1981, pp. 64-67. Tom quoted.
469 Yehling, Bob. “Tom Blake: Voice of the Atom,” Surfer magazine, Volume 22, Number 11, November 1981, pp. 64-67. Tom quoted.
470 Yehling, Bob. “Tom Blake: Voice of the Atom,” Surfer magazine, Volume 22, Number 11, November 1981, pp. 64-67. Tom quoted.
471 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Thomas Edward Blake, April 16, 1989, Washburn, Wisconsin.
472 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, July 5, 1988. Tommy’s emphasis.
473 Lynch, Gary. “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake.” Tom’s handwritten notation.
474 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, June 2, 1988. Tommy’s emphasis.
475 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, May 8, 1988.
476 Lynch, Gary. “Tom Blake Interview,” November 1988. Tom’s notations.
477 Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, October 12 & 14, 1972, from postmarked from Midland, California. Misspellings corrected.
478 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
479 Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Interview, March 1988. Tom’s notations.
480 Blake, Tom. Letter to Gary Lynch, January 4, 1989, from Washburn, Wisconsin.
481 Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, June 17, 1988. Tommy’s emphasis.
482 Author/composer unknown. Song lyrics quoted in Blake, Thomas E. Hawaiian Surfriders 1935, ©1983, published by Moutain and Sea, Redondo Beach, CA. Reprinted by permission. Formerly Hawaiian Surfboard, published in 1935, Paradise of the Pacific Press, Honolulu, Hawai’i, p. 40.
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