When I first learned the story of a young man who learned to surf in the fifties at a beach for African Americans in Santa Monica called the Inkwell – the story of how he grew tired of the mediocre surf, paddled north to surf Malibu point, and then paddled back, a round trip totaling 24 miles, my first thought was, “How did this story slip by me?” And then, after I had a moment to digest the story further, my mind attempted to cobble together an image of this person. Obviously, he was a unique individual, a determined, (and obviously very fit) dude who was very stoked about wave riding.
I wanted to know more. And when I was told the tragic end to his story, I was moved. Soon after, I was asked if I wanted to help tell the tale through the documentary 12 Miles North. I was asked if I wanted to help bring Nick Gabaldon back to life. Of course I did. “So how do I fit in?” I asked. “What could I bring to the table? “
I work on old surfboard fiberglass. I create images by etching and engraving lines into the surface and rubbing ink into the tiny grooves and scratches. It’s a process akin to scrimshaw, but using and reusing old surfboards instead of bone and tusk as the working surface. The first step in this process is finding the right surfboard that suits the image I have in mind. Color, age, patina, board history, all tell a story before I even start. If I found the right surfboard, I could help tell the story through my art. After a lengthy search, we found one – a board that was ridden in the 1950s in Southern California, similar to one that Nick Gabaldon may have ridden.
The board, an Ole, shaped by Bob “Ole” Olson, is barely in one piece, with 55 years of gouges, dents and cracks (At one point I even considered breaking it up and putting images on a separate pieces, but ultimately I couldn’t bear the thought of doing that to the old relic).
Starting at the nose and working towards the tail, I’ve etched a map of Santa Monica and Malibu, a portrait of Nick, a poem he wrote shortly before his death, a symbolic compass rose, and finally, the last wave that Nick ever rode. My hope is that, besides simply illustrating the tale, I may have conveyed some of Nick’s spirit in this work, a spirit that I felt after hours of looking intently at the handful of photos I had to work with. And especially after doing his likeness, where several attempts were made before I felt I had captured at least a little of what I saw looking out from the old grainy photographs. I think I got to know him a little, and this is what I think: Nick Gabaldon, was a determined and optimistic original thinker, who, despite social confines, and without fanfare simply did what he needed to do, to get where he wanted, to do what he loved. My kind of guy, and I’m honored to have gotten to know him.
Be sure to watch the online premiere of 12 Miles North Thursday on Nike Surf’s Facebook Page and stay tuned for more content from The Inertia celebrating black surf culture.
Installment One: Director’s Cut: Inside Twelve Miles North