Editor’s Note: The following piece is part of a month-long series celebrating Black Surf Culture and coincides with the release of 12 Miles North, a documentary that tells the tragic and inspiring story of the first documented African American surfer, Nick Gabaldon. A memorial paddleout and film premiere are scheduled for Thursday, February 16th. Stay tuned for more details.
12 Miles North is about much more than the first documented African American surfer, Nick Gabaldon. 12 Miles North is about the human experience and how we individually construct Nick’s story as it relates to our own lives.
For that reason, my approach in making the film was not so much to tell Nick’s story as to let others tell it for me. In the minds of many, Nick bravely crossed racial lines and navigated uncharted waters to reach the waves at Malibu—paddling 12 miles from a Santa Monica beach known as “The Inkwell” that was essentially reserved for African Americans. From another perspective, this is the tragic tale of a surfer who met his end by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like so many men before him, Nick lost his life to the sea.
Little evidence exists to recount Nick’s death on June 5, 1951. With only a handful of articles and photographs to work from, my job in telling Nick’s story revolved around learning what really happened that day in the minds of those who knew Nick, surfed with Nick, and watched him disappear beneath the Malibu pier.
According to Nick’s good friend and surf buddy, Wayne King, The Inkwell was one of the few places where African Americans felt comfortable enjoying a day at the beach in the ’40s and ’50s. “It’s not that we couldn’t go to other beaches, but we just weren’t as welcome as we were there,” said Wayne.
Incidentally, surf icon Buzzy Trent, who worked as a Santa Monica lifeguard and was occasionally stationed at The Inkwell, noticed Nick and Wayne’s bodysurfing prowess and encouraged them to try surfing. Trent eventually loaned them a surfboard. And so the story begins.
It was obvious after my first interview with Mickey Munoz that Nick’s story was alive and well. Although it has been more than 60 years, Mickey’s eyes still light up as he recounts struggling in the Malibu waves on a hollow “Kookbox,” when Nick offered to take Mickey tandem. That ride on Nick Gabaldon’s board gave young Mickey one of his first experiences going down the line, trimming on a peeling Malibu wave. It was a feeling that would fuel Mickey’s passion to become of one of the great surfers of his time. Munoz’s account of discovering Nick’s floating body in June of 1951 still rattles him to this day.
Nick made an impression on other legends of the sport as well, and many of Nick’s brotherhood of surfers at Malibu helped pioneer surfing: Joe Quigg, Matt Kivlin, Ricky Grigg, Tom Zahn, Peter Cole, Dave Heiser and Bill Poole, among others. Fortunately, they were willing to share their stories with me, and it was abundantly apparent in their retelling that they intended to give Nick the due that he no doubt earned in their eyes. What I found was that Nick was truly one of them. He had a place in the lineup and their respect.
During an interview with surf legend Ricky Grigg, the emotion was palpable. Grigg was standing alongside Buzzy Trent when a tremendous backwash struck Nick – catapulting him into the pier on a heavy, 6-8-foot Malibu wave. It was the wave that took Nick Gabaldon’s life. “He just disappeared. Gone,” said a choked up Grigg.
My hope is that all surfers feel the brotherhood that Nick experienced and realize the beauty of it. We are capable of revelatory moments in the ocean. Nick’s story unveils this truth. Surfers operate on a different system than the one that governs us on land – one that is largely merit-based and provides a spiritual connection to nature. But prejudice still exists not only in this country, but also in the water. Nick’s story forces us to look at this history, learn from it, and ideally move forward to a more enlightened place. Speaking to Black Surfing Association Founder Tony Corley and Blacksurfing.com’s Rick Blocker reveals the importance of experiencing a common bond in the water. In many ways, Nick became their beacon – proof that they could overcome any adversity. “If Nick can do it, we can do it,” says Blocker.
Author and photographer Craig Stecyk shed this light: “The ocean doesn’t care if you are white or black, rich or poor…if you can survive and thrive out there, you are respected.” Tony Corley agrees. “Mother Nature is not prejudiced,” he told me.
Nick was a prince among the surfing community – ultimately the same community that created the foundation of modern surfing. Nick was a waterman and a skilled surfer. He died doing what he loved doing. Nick Gabaldon is gone, but he leaves an eternal source of inspiration for those who wish to recall his story. I surf with Nick.