Editor’s Note: Disruptors is a brand new series powered by Oakley that identifies the thirty most groundbreaking moments in surf history.
Date: September, 1926
Location: Malibu, California
Moment: Tom Blake surfs Malibu for the first time ever.
Blake altered everything. He almost single-handedly transformed surfing from a primitive Polynesian curiosity into a 20th century lifestyle.” – Drew Kampion
Tom Blake is, without a doubt, one of the most influential surfers of all time. Whether you know it or not, your surfing has been directly influenced by a man who singlehandedly did more for surfing than almost anyone else, then inconspicuously disappeared from the limelight with only the slightest ripple.
In September of 1926, when surfing was just a glimmer in the general public’s eye, Tom Blake, along with New Jersey local Sam Reid, paddled out on a small, perfect fall day at what is now the iconic First Point Malibu. There was no pier, no Pacific Coast Highway, no star-studded houses overlooking the area – it was the real Malibu, the one before it was painted with a thick coat of shimmering glam.
They rode solid, ten-foot, rockerless boards made from varnished California redwood. As Tom Blake surfed that first wave, he unwittingly wrote the first page in one of surfing’s most important books, and the only ones watching him do it were Sam Reid and a flock of seagulls.
From there, of course, the rest is history. Although Tom Blake’s inaugural ride at Malibu was the first real knock at mainstream surfing’s door, that door that wouldn’t be flung completely open until more than two decades later, when the Doras and the Gidgets cast their long shadow on the earliest version of the California surf scene. His early contribution to California’s – and in turn, the world’s – surf culture was the first hint of what was to come. From Miki Dora to Gidget, Tom Blake’s ride on that perfect fall day in 1926 was the start of it all.
But that huge part of surfing’s culture is just a small part of the entirety of Blake’s influence, most of which took place in a very short period of time. In the ten years between 1925 and 1935, he rode that first wave at Malibu, developed the first hollow surfboard, became one of the first commercial board builders, attached the first fin to a surfboard – a feat that was never really considered that important until the 1940s, when men like Bob Simmons showed the world – and basically invented the windsurfer. All of these are enormous steps forward in the timeline of surfing, and the fact that one man, in the span of a decade, fostered each one of them, is a testament to his unparalleled guidance of surfing’s ship. Oh, and there’s one more little thing: Blake invented surf photography. In 1935, after purchasing a camera from Duke Kahanamoku and creating a water housing for it, Blake’s shots of Waikiki surfers ran in National Geographic, showing the sport to one of its largest audiences it had ever had.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1902, Blake’s parents were a manager at a club and a bar owner. After his mother died of tuberculosis, a young Blake was left by his father in the hands of trail of relatives, leaving him isolated and detached. He dropped out of high school at 18, then met Duke Kahanamoku in a movie theater – a chance run in that would change the course of his life. Soon after, he moved across the country to Los Angeles and began swimming competitively. He was eventually considered one of the best in the nation, even beating Duke, a gold medal Olympian, at one point.
In the early ’20s, he surfed in Santa Monica for the first time, but after a bad wipe out, according to conflicting reports, he waited somewhere between three months and three years before he ventured back out. Then in 1924, he travelled to Hawaii and surfed with Duke’s brothers at Waikiki. The next year, he was back in LA, but with a different mindset: one dedicated to the ocean. He spent the next thirty years bouncing around the world, calling both Southern California and Hawaii home, and was initiated into the Hui Nalu Surf Club – something very few, if any, non-Hawaiian natives had done.
Years later, Tom left California and Hawaii for his native Wisconsin. According to Legendary Surfers, he quit surfing full time in 1957 at age 55. After giving so much to the surfing world, he lived the rest of his days in the quiet of his boyhood home. He died in May of 1994 in Ashland, Wisconsin.
Because of those early years, Blake’s knowledge of the ocean paired with his unique outlook on life allowed him to drive north up the Los Angeles coastline on a partially paved road in in the fall of 1926. His innocent search for a wave to surf on spawned a movement that turned into the juggernaut we see today – and in a very real way, it came from one man’s quest for a wave.