Tom Blake is without question one of the most important figures in the early years of surfing’s reemergence. Some of Blakes contributions include the first hollow-core wood paddle board, which was
responsible for saving thousands of lives, first sailboard, waterproof camera housing, first surfboard fin and the torpedo rescue buoy, who’s design is still in use today. But perhaps Tom Blakes most
enigmatic contribution, is as the father of the “surfing lifestyle,” a pursuit that has, does and will continue to give meaning, faith and spirit to countless surfers pursuing that perfect wave!|
The following article was written for Surfer Magazine in November of 1989 and has been reprinted on this web site for historical reference with the permission of the author Gary Lynch. For a more comprehensive and updated reference we recommend the following books written by Gary Lynch, Tom Blakes appointed archivist and historian: "Tom Blake Surfing, 1922-1932," "Tom Blake: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman" & "Tom Blake in Hawaii, 1924-1955." Beautifully written and filled with historic, never before seen photographs, this incredible collection will surely secure Blakes position as one of the most influential surfers in the history of the sport.
Story by and photos courtesy of Gary Lynch,
Surfer Magazine, November 1989, Volume 30, Number 11
(reprinted with permission)
I met many of the older California surfers while surfing places like Dana Point in the early sixties. From the moment I became acquainted with these people, I knew they were a breed apart. Later, I was amazed the revolution of changes and personal accomplishments that took place during the twenties, thirties and forties had never been presented in any meaningful manner.
In the late sixties I fled to upper Northern California to escape the pollution and over-crowding of Orange County. I soon found out pioneer surfer/surf photographer Doc Ball had had the same idea back in the early fifties, and was living nearby. Doc shared hundreds of tales with me about the way it "used ta was." I found these stories innocent, positive, astonishing and heroic. The early surfers were multifaceted water-men; a breed that is all but extinct today.
Thomas Edward Blake is the oldest, most accomplished and least understood of the surf pioneers, and became the subject of my primary investigation. I sent a letter off to Blake in an obscure region of the northeast, containing introductions on my behalf from some of the most respected California pioneer surfers. Two weeks later I opened my mailbox and got my reply. As his historical surfboard logo states, I had been Tom Blake Approved.
After years of corresponding with Blake - including more than 100 letters of cryptic scrawl and poetic verse - I eventually felt it was time to ask if I might visit. Blake said yes. To date, I have traveled 12,000 miles and spent hundreds of hours learning about the man behind the myth. Information has come slowly, never before its time. Blake is always in control. He does not eat animals, and he does not use the telephone. He does not believe in time, material wealth, or any religion that does not respect all life equally. He does believe in the spirit and the soul. This is Tom Blake.
On a cold February day in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1903, Tom Blake's mother, Blanche Wooliver, died of tuberculosis. Blake was only 11-months-old, and nearly died himself, deprived of his mother's milk and unable ta adjust to solid food. Devastated by his wife's death, Tom Blake, Sr. left his son with family members to be raised. For the next 17 years the younger Blake lived in rural Northern Wisconsin. Iron ore freighters and East Coast vacationers filled the Great Lakes in summer, replaced by thick, frozen ice in winter.
The most personal knowledge Blake had of his mother came in the form of a letter and two photographs sent by his aunt in 1920. A passage from the letter reads: "Your mother was a nice, big-hearted girl about 5'5" tall, and had beautiful golden hair that turned different shades when the sun shone on it. Her complexion was like a rose. She was the picture of health, never sick a day in her life, and then, how quickly her life was snapped up."
In 1907, a young Blake watched Halley's comet illuminate the heavens, perhaps realizing there was more in the world to contemplate than the new Model T Ford. Keenly aware of nature and its balance, Blake formed philosophical beliefs at an early age that have guided him to this day.
At 18, Blake left Wisconsin and rode freight trains around the country. He endured near-clubbings from railyard bullies, arrests for riding the boxcars unlawfully, and dangerous inhalation of coal exhaust through miles of unvented train tunnels. Blake worked as a cowboy, winemaker and Wall Street runner for short periods of time, before finally settling in Los Angeles, California, in 1921.
Interested in swimming, Blake persuaded the night watchman at the Los Angeles Athletic Club swimming pool to let him train in the evening hours. Eight weeks later Blake approached the head coach of the Los Angeles Athletic Club during a training session and asked to try out for membership in the club. He beat the club's best swimmers, and earned a spot on the team. Unfortunately, very little financial support was available. Having had virtually nothing to eat for two days prior to a swimming sprint event, Tom Blake won his first gold medal at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. In 1922, with less than one year of formal training, Blake won the National Title for the Amateur Athletic Union 10 Mile Open National Distance Swimming Championship, held in Philadelphia. Soon after, aided by his coach, Fred Cady, Blake held numerous West Coast swimming titles. Later, in the middle of the depression, Blake sold all but one of his gold medals for $9 to buy food. He still has the only gold medal that had any real significance...his first.
In Cape, Florida, in 1922, Blake took his first role as an actor/stunt double in Rex Ingram's motion picture, Where the Pavement Ends. He wrestled with a shark. Blake remembers: "It was a trade-off for food and shelter." To supplement his income, Blake worked in dozens of movies over the next two decades, with such noted actors as Clark Gable (in Devil's Island, 1940).
In 1927, while working in Alaska as a stuntman for the MGM production of Trial of '98, Blake watched helplessly as two of his stuntmen partners were swept to their deaths down icy rapids. Blake felt the accident was due to haste in planning the stunt, lack of proper rescue equipment and no codes or union laws. This incident fueled an already-growing realization for Blake that many types of water-rescue equipment were needed for public, private and commercial use.
A cinema newsreel first introduced Blake to Hawaiian surf riding in 1912. The carefree images of people sliding on rolling combers were etched into his memory. Although Blake first tried surfing in 1922, it wasn't until working as a lifeguard at the Santa Monica Swimming Club in 1924 that he seriously took up the sport. He found an old waterlogged redwood plank surfboard stored there, paddled it out into the surf and had his first successful ride. Blake traveled to Hawaii that same year to surf in the warm water, and noted that surfing in the pristine, natural conditions had a profound effect on his mental and physical well-being. Blake would either live in or visit Hawaii for the next 21 years. He remembers the journey's: "When I first traveled to Hawaii, the old steamers took six or more days. Food was plentiful on board, and I would eat well. The ocean air was clean, and the journey quite enjoyable. After World War II, living in the islands became fashionable. The air inside the planes was thick with cigarette smoke, the noise of the engines loud and the pollution great. For those reasons, I never flew if I could help it."
Tom Blake became one of the first mainlanders to adopt the beach boy's way of life, and spread this lifestyle in fashion and function to California, Florida, New Jersey and New York. As a member of the outrigger Canoe Club beach patrol, Blake became friends with many Hawaiian surfing legends. The Kahanamoku brothers led the pack, but notables such as Hawkshaw, Panama Dave and Splash Lyons were also excellent watermen, and taught Blake much about the waterman's unwritten code.
If one had to pick out a single accomplishment Blake is best-known for, it would be his invention of the hollow surf- and paddleboard in 1926. During this era surfboards weighed between 75-150 pounds, and some of the 16' olo boards weighed as much as 200 pounds. All were built of solid wood. In an attempt to reduce weight, Blake produced the first hollow board by drilling hundreds of holes through the deck of a redwood plank surfboard, then covered both sides, top and bottom, with a thin sheet of veneer. This reduced the board's weight by 20 pounds.
The next step in the evolution of the hollow board was to carve out chambers in the hull. This was first done on Blake's racing paddleboard, allowing him to set two world speed-paddling records in 1930 at the Ala Wai Canal in Honolulu. In the half-mile Men's Open, in front of 3,000 spectators, Blake finished in four minutes, 49 seconds, beating the old record by two minutes, 13 seconds.
Step Three in the progression of the hollow board was the use of the transversely-braced hollow hull, using ribs for strength-much like an airplane wing. The result of this design-perfected in 1932 and specifically tailored for Waikiki, where it performed well was a strong 40-70-pound board, depending on length. The success of this board can be seen in any photographic postcard of surfing taken in Waikiki during the thirties. Even the Duke, who always rode a solid plank-style board, built a hollow olo board for himself.
Soon the hollow surf- and paddleboard could be found worldwide. From 1932 to the early fifties there were four major builders of Blake's hollow boards: Thomas Rogers, Robert Mitchell, LA Ladder Company and the Catalina Equipment Company. The most important use of the hollow paddleboard was for ocean, river, lake and pool rescues. The advantages of using a paddleboard for ocean rescue work were that it could be launched by one man, and was much quicker than a boat. One 14' hollow paddleboard could hold the heads of four-to-six people out of the water. The hollow rescue paddleboard was adopted by the Pacific Coast Lifesaving Corps and used by the Red Cross National Aquatic schools for instruction. Today, a modern version of the rescue paddleboard can be found on beaches internationally.
(A note to surf- and paddleboard collectors: Although Blake did help design many of the early production boards that bear his logo, he did not, in fact, do any hands-on work to these boards. Some of the later ones were not his design at all. A Tom Blake custom hand-built board is very rare; only a few exist today.)
In 1935 Blake placed the first fin on a surfboard. An aluminum fin was removed from a wrecked speedboat and attached to his favorite cedar surfboard. The fin was then covered with a thin wooden housing for protection. Blake recalls: "When I first paddled out 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."
Two other significant Blake inventions were the first waterproof camera housing used for surf photography (1930), and the first prototype and production sailboards (1931-40).
In 1955 Tom Blake officially stopped surfing. An article from the Honolulu Star Bulletin declared: "Too Many Strangers; New Waikiki Beach Drives Old Surfer Tom Blake from the Isles." The population explosion in the beach areas kept Blake on the move. One has to take into account that Blake had lived, played and worked in California when there were less than a dozen true surfers in the state, and ocean and beach conditions were basically unspoiled. When he landed in Waikiki, there were few buildings on the beach, and Blake knew every surfer and beach boy by name. In 1922, Miami, Florida, was much the same as Waikiki: clean sand, palm trees, and blue sky stretching as far as the eye could see. Blake enjoyed them all, and for just pennies a day.
A letter written by Blake to Tom Zahn, fellow surf pioneer, reads: "Malibu, January 1960. From my mountain nook I can see Palos Verdes, Catalina Island, Santa Barbara Island, Ana Capa and Santa Cruz Islands. It's the best frontier [in the immediate area], and they're moving in fast." This observation, along with the following statement recovered from a letter dated 1952, marked the end of an era for Tom Blake: "I got knocked for a loop on a big Makaha bowl break trying to ride my 'Kalahuewehe' board. John Toomey picked me up and paddled me ashore. After that I lost my faith in my big board. Really, it is myself who's slipping. . . I am over 50 now."
In order, from 1956- 1989, Blake lived in Malibu, the California desert and Wisconsin, always keeping ahead of the pack. He lived in his vehicles, always on the road, and valued his privacy. He gave up driving three years ago, and moved back to Wisconsin into a small, two-room apartment. As fate would have it, there's no one left in his hometown who remembers him-he's outlived them all.
Today, Tom Blake is a thin, attractive, healthy 87-year-old. He lives in the town where he spent his first 17 years, a mile from where he carved the locally-famous statement, "Nature = God" in a sandstone bank. At home, Blake often stops a conversation and peeks out the window, commenting on bird and animal activity. His first gold medal and a handful of trophies sit on a shelf in his kitchen, while beans and rice steam on a stove, and the sink overflows with vegetables. Around the living room are piles of photographs of surfers, animals and astronauts. Decks of books, ranging in subjects from Socrates to black holes in space, occupy the area close by his reading chair and bed. The majority of Tom Blake's thoughts are of nature and the metaphysical. In the morning hours a five-mile walk reassures him that it's all still here to enjoy. Standing on the lake shore, wearing his Ray-Ban sunglasses, Blake is as heroic as the day he first walked the sands of Waikiki.
It is appropriate to end here with Blake's own words. In an article written 10 years ago, which appeared in a small Northern Wisconsin newspaper, Blake announced his arrival to the town where he'd spent his childhood. A portion of that article reads:
"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 pine cones, yellow flowers and clover, 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."
|For a definitive history of the sport of surfing, its culture and legends please visit; Legendary Surfers at: http://www.legendarysurfers.com. Another resource for collectors, researchers and all those interested in the sport as well as surf literature please visit; The Water log-Surfing Bibliography at: http://fog.ccsf.cc.ca.us/~dmarsh/.|