Friday, June 16, 2017

Tom Blake

[Originally posted in August of 2016.]
Blake and a collection of his surfboards, which probably earned their own garage.
Travel Agent:  I have some good news about your flight from Sydney.
Me:  How much will this good news cost?
Agent: The same price as before.  I can get you a connection in Honolulu that's almost immediate.  You won't have to wait very long to take off again.
Me:  No, that won't do.
Agent:  It will save...what?
Me:  I need time between flights.  At least six hours.  Maybe eight.
Agent:  Really?
Me:  Yes.  How far is Waikiki from the airport?  I might need ten to twelve hours.
Agent:  You want to go to the...beach?
Me:  Sort of.  I want to go to the surf.
Agent:  [Awkward pause].
Me:  It's because of Tom Blake.
Agent:  Is he a friend of yours?
Me:  In a manner of speaking, yes.  It's important to ride at least one wave at Waikiki in honor of Tom.
Agent: Um...okay.  That will cost more, then.
Tom Blake was and is a metaphoric friend to all surfers, and is also the reason why a distinctly Polynesian/Hawaiian pastime became more strongly associated with fair-haired, fair-skinned guys from the mainland.  He is, to use a term common in theology, philosophy, and physics, the nexus, or point of connection, between an ancient cultural hobby and the billion dollar contemporary industry that promotes both surfing and the "surf lifestyle".

Blake was born in 1902 in that surf mecca of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  [It's notable that, while many people surf in Waikiki just because of its association with Blake, I know of no one who visits Milwaukee for the same reason.]  Before his first birthday, his mother died of tuberculosis and his father, working several jobs at the time, left the infant Tom in the care of relations.  He sublimated his sense of abandonment, and the effects of some vague, unnamed childhood trauma, by learning to swim, devoting himself to water sports, and setting speed records in the local swimming pools.  [An aside: I knew an adult who had been an abused child and who also loved to swim in pools, lakes, and the ocean.  He would appear to others to be virtually emotionless, but when underwater would release screams and tears.]  His lack of a rooted upbringing lead him to a nomadic life in his late teens, as he traveled the country by rail and through hitchhiking, working a variety of menial jobs from one coast to the other.

When he was eighteen, a seminal and impressionistic age in the lives of many, during his travels he encountered the person who would alter his life in ways that were, I'm sure, unimaginable.  In 1920, he met Duke Kahanamoku in Detroit when the kahuna of surfing was on a tour of the United States.  Blake was attending a newsreel in a theater that was showing films of the U.S. Swim Team's successes in the Belgium Olympics earlier that year, an event made special as Kahanamoku and some fellow Hawaiians appeared in the lobby to display Duke's gold medal.  In a moment of profound happenstance, Blake introduced himself and shook Kahanamoku's hand, thus beginning a friendship that would unfold over several decades.

Blake's travels eventually led him to Los Angeles where, due to his swimming aptitude, he earned jobs at the Los Angeles Athletic Club and Santa Monica Swimming Club, and with those a place to train for competition.  Within a year, he would set a swimming record at a national AAU meet and become a sensation in what was still a rather intimate world of athletic achievement.  A trip to the beach in Santa Monica in 1924 encouraged Blake to try surfing for the first time, as a tight cadre of early surfers, inspired by Kahanamoku, had taken to building and riding their own alaia boards off the beaches of L.A. and Orange Counties.  Blake took a simple redwood plank, entered the water and, as he had with speed swimming, made surfing his own.  Later that year he would board a tramp steamer and head for Honolulu, beginning a special, lifelong relationship with Hawaii and the Hawaiians.

This was facilitated by the renewed acquaintance with Kahanamoku, who recognized Blake's talent and reverence for the sea and saw to it that he was invited to join the traditional surfing and canoeing clubs, organizations that had never accepted a non-Hawaiian before.  As Blake noted 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 (holding down the outrigger) on the sailing canoe. I have been initiated into the secrets of spear fishing far out on the coral reefs.
If Blake had just been responsible for popularizing surfing in mainstream culture, that alone would have made him irreplaceable in the pantheon of surfers, but his commitment to surfing as a manner of life, of a union of body, mind, and spirit, was so total and holistic that it enabled an athletic pursuit to become a manner of life and being.  Just a few of Blake's early accomplishments display his considerable contributions:

1922 – set the world swimming record in the ten mile open
1926 – first person to surf Malibu
1926 – invented the hollow surfboard
1928 – won the first Pacific Coast Surfriding Championship
1928 – invented the hollow paddleboard
1929 – invented the water-proof camera housing
1931 – invented the sailboard
1931 – patented & manufactured the first production surfboard
1932 – won the Catalina Paddleboard Race
1935 – invented the surfboard fin
1935 – published the first book solely devoted to surfing, Hawaiian Surfboard
1937 – produced & patented the first torpedo buoy and rescue ring

1940s – first production sailboards, leader in physical fitness and the importance of natural foods and a healthy diet

At the outbreak of World War II, having been too young to enlist during World War I, the 40-year-old Blake was accepted into the U.S. Coast Guard where he commanded a search and rescue unit and pioneered the earliest techniques in lifesaving at sea.  His foundational standards and practices are still taught at the Coast Guard Academy in New London and at the National Search and Rescue School in Virginia.

Even Surfer magazine, which tends to appreciate mostly the young, contemporary competitors and is slavishly devoted to their sponsors [and Surfer's advertisers], recognized the fullness of Tom Blake's life and style:
Blake was autodidactic, a self-taught man and a wealth of knowledge. His contributions to surfboard design are immeasurable. From his varied inventions to his progressive templates, his biggest impact in surfing can be whittled down to the work he did with those era-defining boards. He made the first hollow board ever, calling it first a cigar box then later a kook box. The fin, a keel of sorts for the giant boards of the era, was his brainchild, as was the leash, which he at first attached around his waist. He invented the sailboard, which in itself invented windsurfing, and then there was the collapsible surfboard experiment, which is only worth mentioning out of novelty. He was doing so much on the water he wanted it documented, so he created the first waterproof camera housing, changing surf photography and kick starting what was probably the early genesis of a movement to compile those photos in a magazine with words written about them and thus, in essence, creating my job.
Blake believed that what mattered the most in all things was simplicity.  Whether in his technique, his life, or in his many surfboard designs, this was certainly his theme.  He lived in Malibu in a small house with only one chair and dinner place-setting, dispensing with the gifts and awards he had been presented as they seemed an unnatural clutter.  At the age of 55, he stopped surfing and eventually returned to Wisconsin, where he lived in the great woods until his death at 92.

For all of the elaborate structure that now surrounds surfing, with all of its bilious noise and color, it was for him as it was for those original Hawaiians:  A way to feel the rhythm of nature and find, within that natural cadence, peace with oneself.