If a surfing stone mason were to ascend the hills behind Malibu, California, perhaps, grunting under the weight of a canvas toolbag filled with chisels and hammers, with the intention of creating surfing’s version of Mt. Rushmore, he’d need carve only two faces: Duke Kahanamoku, who introduced surfing to the world outside of Hawaii; and Tom Blake. Kahanamoku is better known to pop culture, was an Olympic champion, an immeasurably important figure in surf history.
It was Blake, however, who took an ancient Polynesian sport of kings and translated it into the pole around which his entire life revolved, an all-consuming passion, that in turn paved the way for the modern surf lifestyle. Blake reached through history to today and taught us dreamers, malcontents, and ex-landlubbers what it meant to live as a real surfer.
Blake ascended, in his own mind anyway, above the fray of landlubber society, filled as it were with desperate people hustling to achieve.
Oh, and he single-handedly revolutionized the actual physical act of waveriding too.
Blake was born not by the shores of a palm-fringed beach, but in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1902. His mother died of tuberculosis shortly after he was born, and his father abandoned Blake as a toddler to be raised by a revolving cast of relatives. Blake dropped out of high school when the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 ended classes for the year, and struck out for an itinerant life, disillusioned, and a bit adrift. “I fell from social graces,” he told his biographer decades later. “Or, rather, I was pushed.”
At 18, Blake was living in Detroit, Michigan. He’d been riding the rails around the country a little bit, working odd jobs, even landed himself in jail for a night for the crime of being a vagabond. While in Detroit, Blake wandered into a movie theater, seeing a crowd. There in the lobby stood Kahanamoku, by then a decorated athlete, on a stopover back to Hawaii after winning a gold medal in swimming in the 1920 Belgian Olympics. Blake, who’d swam for exercise in Lake Superior growing up, was star struck and introduced himself to The Duke.
Immediately, Blake was mesmerized by the Hawaiian’s presence, strength, and his regal confidence that, far more than medals, elevated him above regular, workaday society. Blake, already feeling unmoored and detached from the inland world around him, knew he needed whatever it was that Duke possessed.
He decided, at that moment, to devote his life to the sea and hopped another train to California.
Once there, Blake, settled in Santa Monica. Immediately, he was a standout swimmer. He set records in distances long and short in the early 1920s and even smoked the legendary Kahanamoku in a sprint race. In 1921 he tried surfing, failed miserably, and hated it. Three years later, bored, curious, still smarting from failure, perhaps, Blake picked up a surfboard again. This time it clicked, and he became so enamored, he lit out for Hawaii on a steamer in 1924.
He spent the next decade modernizing almost every facet of surfing.
Blake took a great scholarly interest in ancient Hawaiian surfboard designs and set about refining them. Surfboards of his day were massive redwood slabs, weighing well over 100 pounds. To lessen the immense weight to a more manageable 40 pounds or so, Blake started drilling holes in the heavy wood, removing a great deal of material, then slapping a thin wood veneer over the top and bottom. The lighter, hollow boards Blake designed caught on, though they rode poorly, democratizing the sport by making it possible for just about anybody to cart one down to the beach.
He became one of the first board builders for hire in an era when most surfers still built their own surf craft, largely through improvisation. A restless tinkerer, Blake designed a sailboard long decades before windsurfing became a global sensation. In the 1930s he came up with the idea of the surf leash then abandoned it; four decades later it became a standard piece of surf equipment.
But his biggest contribution to surf equipment was the fin. In 1935, Blake, then living in Hawaii, started experimenting with attaching keel fins from small boats to the bottom of his surfboards. At the time, surfboards were finless, and most surfers rode straight to shore, facing straight ahead on the board, feet parallel pointing toward the nose. Once a surfboard starting drifting sideways, the tail would “slide ass” and lose purchase in the wave face, pitching the rider into the soup.
Blake’s fin allowed a surfer to angle across a wave face, greatly enhancing length of ride, speed, and creating the sensation of flight as a board sped over the unbroken green curl of a wave, opening performance doors that every surfer since has walked through.
Surf photography also owes its existence largely to Blake. By the 1930s he had fallen in love with photography and built the first water housing that allowed a camera to be brought into the surf to photograph riders up close; his images were published in the Los Angeles Times and National Geographic.
Those accomplishments alone would already earn Blake a spot on surfing’s Mt. Rushmore, but Blake’s relationship with surfing will forever still stands out as his true contribution. His time in Hawaii, to which Blake often returned to live, bouncing back and forth from Southern California to Waikiki, instilled in Blake a reverence for the the ancient Polynesian close-knit relationship to the sea.
This was a concept not popular among Americans, at the time, even amongst Californians beginning to colonize the coast. Blake drank deeply from the Polynesian cultural well and began to revere the ocean and surfing above everything else in life, especially material comforts. “Nature equals God,” Blake was fond of saying.
He was often cash poor, working as a lifeguard well into his 60s, and he kept mostly to himself. He dressed in loose-fitting casual clothes, slip-on shoes, kept his blonde hair tousled. Blake was a vegetarian and remained fit as a fiddle his entire life. Prided himself on it. Before a “surfer” was a thing, Blake, tan, toned, yellow blonde hair above a loose-fitting tee, barefoot, eating a banana by a seawall without a care in the world, he was the prototype.
That all came at a cost, however. Blake had one brief marriage in his youth, but never remarried, nor did he have long-term romantic relationships, at least not that appear in the cultural records. He always lived alone, typically in small shacks in the Hawaiian countryside, or in boats moored near good surf. Eventually, the surfing lifestyle he helped create grew too popular, the beaches of Hawaii and California too crowded, and Blake retreated further inland.
The world Blake was raised in as an orphan offered him little; the ocean was free, as were the fruits he’d pluck from trees in California, or Hawaii, wherever he found himself living. Surely, much of Blake’s reclusion from society stemmed from a harsh, unforgiving upbringing. The ocean provided solace, meaning, a home. Like Kahanamoku whom Blake befriended and served with as a lifeguard for decades, Blake ascended, in his own mind anyway, above the fray of landlubber society, filled as it were with desperate people hustling to achieve.
Billabong, the Australian surf brand, for years had as their slogan the brilliant line: “Only a surfer knows the feeling.” While that was of course designed to court the non-surfer, to maybe buy a pair of trunks to look like they too knew the feeling, it was also a nod to lifelong surfers, who, following in the footsteps of Blake, and for better or worse, have tended to build their entire lives around waveriding.
At its heart, it’s a completely pointless act. Paddle out to the surf zone, ride a wave to shore, then paddle back out to do it all over again. But there’s something romantic there, something true, and, to a certain point of view, something far more meaningful than a life dedicated to working and earning. To be a true surf bum, the most noble pursuit of all surfers, is to live as an ascetic surfing monk like Tom Blake.
For more on Blake’s influence, and, for that matter, everything you could want to know about surfing, do yourself a favor and pick up Matt Warshaw’s History of Surfing. Truly the final word on everything surf.