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Tom Blake

Contributed by: Gary Lynch

For Tom Blake, the idea of surfing started in 1912 when he was 10 years old and watched a short newsreel clip of Hawaiian surfriding. The moving images of the Hawaiian surfers were a vision of paradise, a real departure from daily life in his rural Wisconsin community. In 1920, Blake met the famous Hawaiian surfer and Olympian, Duke Kahanamoku in Detroit. Duke and his teammates from Hawai`i were there to view a newsreel featuring his recent win at the Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium. A handshake from the famous surfer and his informal invitation to visit Hawai`i had a lifelong influence. Tom Blake would eventually journey to Hawai`i, make history, and influence generations of surfers.

Tom Blake, born in 1902, described his childhood as, "hunger, loneliness, and searching for truth." His mother died before his first birthday and he was raised by various relatives. He left his home in Wisconsin when the flu epidemic of 1918 closed the eastern schools. Blake traveled to California in 1921, then the paradise of the United States.

Tom Blake had an interest in swimming and persuaded the night watchman of the prestigious Los Angeles Athletic Club to let him train in the sixth floor pool. After a few months of training, Blake approached the head coach, Fred Cady, and asked if he could try out for a position on the team. Although highly unusual, his request was granted. Blake's raw talent was obvious and coach Cady agreed to work with him. Less than one year later, Blake competed in the National AAU 10 Mile Open race in Philadelphia. The pack swam 10 miles up the cold Delaware River against wind chop. Most of the swimmers were dreaming of a gold medal and headlines in the sports page as they swam but Blake's reason for a victory was food and shelter. He needed a win for the LAAC to continue to invest in him. Headlines in the sports section the next day read: "Blake Annexes Ten Mile National Title With Yards to Spare." This win helped Blake launch a seven year swimming career in which he held numerous west coast titles. The training also allowed him to become a lifeguard and helped him find work in the film industry.

When the 1922 swimming season was over, Blake made his first visit to Florida where he worked as a double for Ramon Navaro in Rex Ingram's film, Where The Pavement Ends. "Working in films was always a trade off for food and shelter," remembers Blake. "They made me wrestle with a dead shark in that film." Blake was one of the first swimmer/lifeguards to perform water stunts in films. During the next 20 years, he worked in dozens of films standing in for many leading stars of the day.

Blake bought a small camera in Florida and in 1922, he started a photographic essay of his life. He became intrigued with self-portraits, a craft that he would develop and continue. During his first visit to Florida, Blake produced a number of unique self-portrait figure studies. During an era that was just shedding the Victorian mind set and when shirts were mandatory on most beaches, Blake wore a Speedo style swimsuit that revealed his toned body to the camera.

In 1924, Blake started working as an ocean lifeguard for the Santa Monica Swim Club in California, located at the foot of Santa Monica canyon and next door to the Santa Monica Beach Club. By chance, the lifeguard at the Beach Club was Duke Kahanamoku. It was here in Santa Monica, from 1924-1927, that Blake and Duke formed a close personal relationship as they guarded adjoining stretches of beach.

Although Blake tried riding an old weathered surfboard he found at the Peterson Bath House at Santa Monica in 1921, and tested a short redwood plank in Florida in 1922, it was not until 1924 that Blake, with Duke's encouragement, devoted enough time to acquire the skill of surfing. Listening to Duke talk about his beloved Hawai`i, Blake determined to travel to the Islands, the land he had first dreamed about 12 years earlier.

Hawai`i
"In the early days of Waikiki, I’m talking about my first trip there in 1924," recalls Blake, " the beach wasn’t crowed. Maybe two hotels. The Moana Hotel was there, the Royal Hawaiian had not been built yet. There were probably less than 100 surfers. I was about the first mainlander to go over and actually live there and adopt their lifestyle. Because of my swimming records, Duke and his brothers were kind to me. The native Hawaiians were kind to me. I had the honor of riding the big surf with these Hawaiians. I sat at their luaus, watched their most beautiful women dance the hulas. I was invited into their exclusive Hui Nalu surfriding club, at the time, a club for natives only. I have held the honor position (bow seat) riding waves in the outrigger canoe and holding down the outrigger on the sailing canoe. I have been initiated into the secrets of spear fishing far out on the coral reefs."

Ancient streams ran clean water into the ocean near the surf breaks and 100-year old canoes made their daily voyage out to sea for fish. Blake was so overwhelmed by what he found in Hawai`i that he immediately became intellectually involved in researching Hawaiian culture. He would eventually publish a book in 1935 titled Hawaiian Surfboard.

Blake visited Bishop Museum in Honolulu and was the first person to show an interest in Chief Paki's huge olo surfboards hanging on the outside museum wall. He asked permission from the museum to restore them, the only two authentic olo design surfboards in existence. Permission was granted and in the process of restoring them, he discovered the boards were probably antiques when Chief Paki acquired and surfed with them in 1830.

Blake's enthusiasm for Hawaiian history impressed Bishop Museum directors and curators. Blake maintained a 20-year correspondence with various scholars and went on to publish numerous articles in newspapers and magazines.

Blake went on to create a number of paddleboards and surfboards designed with the knowledge he'd acquired at Bishop Museum. Honolulu newspapers followed his advances in design and reported on his record-setting races, won using these derivatives of ancient design. Duke Kahanamoku also built a 16-foot hollow olo surfboard, giving Blake's innovations their highest compliment.


Photography
In 1929, Tom Blake built the first waterproof camera housing used exclusively for surf photography. Most previous surfing photos had been taken from canoes or boats but Blake produced images from the unique perspective of a surfboard. Many of his early images were published internationally. He used his own photographs to illustrate his first book. National Geographic magazine was so taken by his work they featured a number of his images in an article published in 1935.

"I bought a 4x5 graflex camera from Duke Kahanamoku in 1929," as Blake recalls the event. "I built a big wooden box about two feet 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 photogravure 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."

Blake's most famous image from the 1930s is a self-portrait. Taken in front of the Outrigger Canoe Club, Blake lined up all his surfing and paddling boards and tripped the shutter as he stood in front of the massive display. The boards in the background tell a story of ancient design and modern craftsmanship. A version of the image published in National Geographic became extremely popular.


Surfboards, Paddelboards and Rescue Equipment
Blake's quest in board design was to lighten boards and make them faster. He first tried drilling hundreds of holes in the solid wood to reduce mass. In 1929, he began hollowing out chambers in solid wood planks. Finally in 1931, he created a design that used transverse bracing covered by thin solid wood or veneer. This method reduced the weight of the board by approximately one half yet remained extremely strong.

Blake's skill in racing brought publicity to his boards. He swam in hundreds of races and had won the first official California surf contest in 1928, held at Carona Del Mar. 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. He won the 100 yard dash and the half mile open. The crowd cheered and so did the press. This event led to full acceptance of his new paddleboard design. More importantly, it changed the way lifeguards rescued distressed swimmers and ultimately saved tens of thousands of lives.

Blake had already made headlines in Santa Monica by being first at the rescue scene on his paddleboard, beating the rescue boats on a number of occasions. He then staged an event that shocked even other watermen of the era. In 1932, Blake and two of the finest lifeguards from Santa Monica paddled from Point Vicente to Catalina Island, a distance of over 26 miles, making big headlines in the local papers. Blake would later paddle across the Golden Gate in San Francisco to demonstrate the board's ability in cold water.

Thomas Rogers, a wood crafter from Venice, California, began producing a variety of Blake designs commercially. The boards were an instant success. The City of Santa Monica bought one for each lifeguard and the American National Red Cross adopted them as rescue equipment. Because of their reduced weight, they were user friendly and women and children began buying them.

Although Blake is most remembered for pioneering the surfer lifestyle and for his invention of the hollow board, during the remainder of the '30s he contributed much to water sports. Four major producers built his surfboards commercially (1931-50); Blake put the first fin on a surfboard (1935); he wrote the first full length book on surfing (1935); he had the first surfing photo spread in National Geographic (1935); he designed the first production sailing surfboard (1940) and the first dura-aluminum torpedo rescue buoy (1940). Duke Kahanamoku and Blake were also the only two surfers/swimmers inducted into both the Swimming Hall of Fame (Florida), and the International Surfing Hall of Fame (California).

Of the many dozens of medals, awards and trophies won by Blake, it was the statement made by the National Surf Life Saving Association of America that pleased him the most. It praised Blake for "the thousands of lives saved because of his inventive contributions in the interest of fellow human beings."

Tom Blake always said, "The real reward was doing it."

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