One late summer day in 1920, an 18-year-old drifter from Wisconsin named Tom Blake, who was visiting an aunt and uncle in Detroit, went to a movie theater to watch a newsreel about the recent Summer Olympics in Belgium, which the US swim team had dominated.
Little did he know that by chance members of the team, including the Hawaiian legend Duke Kahanamoku, were also in town on their way back from the Games and had come to the theater to watch themselves in the movie highlights. After the screening, Blake boldly introduced himself to Kahanamoku, who had taken gold in the hundred-meter freestyle for his second straight Olympics. “I was so impressed when I found myself near this champion that I intercepted him in the theater lobby and asked to shake his hand,” Blake later wrote.“‘Sure,’ Duke replied, smiling and eager to please, as always. He held out to me his big soft paw of a hand, and gave me a firm, hearty handshake. It made a lasting impression. I felt somehow he had included an invitation to me to come over to his own Hawaiian Islands.”
In an instant, Blake’s life was transformed, setting him on a journey that would make him one of the most influential figures in the contemporary history of surfing and ocean sports. During a span of about thirty years, he revolutionized surfboard design, set paddleboarding records and was credited with a slew of key innovations, from the first waterproof camera housing and an early version of a windsurfer to the fins that are integral to nearly every surf-board today. Equally significant, he was also among the first to advance surfing as an alternative lifestyle. Something of a loner and an avowed vegetarian—unusual for the time—he held deep beliefs on spirituality and physical fitness, living a spare existence dedicated to the sea.
“If Duke Kahanamoku is rightfully known as the father of modern surfing, then Tom Blake was its midwife,” surf journalist Drew Kampion wrote in his introduction to the biography Tom Blake: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman. “He gave surfing its future as he helped to restore its past—through his research, through his Aloha with the indigenous Hawaiians, and through his cosmic sensitivity to the special energy available in this very special part of the world.”
Up until his movie theater encounter with the Duke, Blake had lived a transient existence. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was eleven months old, and his father, devastated by his wife’s death, sent him to live with older relatives. Most of his youth was spent in small towns in Wisconsin and Minnesota. According to biographer Gary Lynch, Blake once described his childhood as “hunger, loneliness and searching for truth.” He attended high school in Wisconsin but never graduated after the school closed abruptly during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Instead, young Blake hit the road, traveling and working odd jobs in Texas and New York.
After meeting Kahanamoku, he became determined to be a competitive swimmer also. It was a bold move: While he had been a successful high school athlete in several sports, he had never before competed in swimming. With very little money in his pocket, he moved to California and persuaded the night watchman at the exclusive Los Angeles Athletic Club to let him train in the pool there. Hired as a lifeguard at the club, Blake talked his way onto its swim team and did not disappoint. In 1922 he convincingly won the grueling ten-mile American Athletic Union title race up the cold Delaware River in Philadelphia and then won it again two years later.
Because swimming was an amateur sport, Blake supported himself primarily by working as a lifeguard and sporadically as an actor and stunt double in Hollywood movies. In grade school he had seen a newsreel of Hawaiian surfers and remembered thinking it looked like fun and that he wanted to try it for himself. Then in 1924 his interest in surfing was piqued again when he saw a redwood surfboard at the Santa Monica Swimming Club. “The first board that I saw was an old beaten-up board that somebody had discarded at the place where I worked,” Blake told Lynch in a 1989 interview. “Took that old board out and tried to ride it, and I didn’t have any luck. Finally, one day I caught a little two-foot wave and stood up on the board and found I was actually riding a wave! One of the biggest things you remember about surfing is your first ride.”
Later in 1924 a 22-year-old Blake was finally able to catch a steamer west and fulfill his dream of visiting Hawai‘i. While Duke Kahanamoku wasn’t living in the Islands at that time, Blake was warmly greeted by the other Kahanamoku brothers.“Having been a swimmer, I knew the Kahanamoku boys, and I was accepted at the beach on the strength of my swimming records,” Blake told Lynch. “They treated me like a king and taught me about Waikīkī and the surf. Duke’s brother Sam, who was also a swimmer of Olympic caliber and a great surf rider, took me out on his board, riding tandem, and introduced me to other surfers around Waikīkī beach. From those days onward I was fascinated by surfing.”
Although Blake stayed in Hawai‘i less than a year on that first visit, he immersed himself in Hawaiian culture and studied old Hawaiian surfboards in the Bishop Museum’s collection. Later those traditional boards would influence his own designs for surfboards and paddleboards. After returning to California, Blake resumed work as a beach club lifeguard in Santa Monica, and it so happened that Duke Kahanamoku himself was lifeguarding for another club next door. “This meant he and I were guarding stretches of sand and surf side by side,” Blake wrote. “We saw each other every day and became constant surfing and swimming companions.”
It was during this time that Kahanamoku famously rescued eight people from a sinking boat in stormy seas off Corona del Mar, bringing them to safety using only his surfboard. Blake wrote later that Duke’s feat inspired him to design one of his most important inventions, a hollow paddleboard that greatly improved rescue methods around the world and saved thousands from drowning. Blake also put his hollow designs to use for paddleboard racing and set many records.
Around this time Blake and his friend Sam Reid reportedly became the first to surf at Malibu, which would later become the epicenter of California surf culture but was then a remote private ranch with armed cowboy guards. “We took our ten-foot redwoods out of the Essex rumble seat and paddled the mile to a beautiful white crescent-shaped beach that didn’t have a foot print on it,” Reid later wrote. “There was no audience but the seagulls.” “Real exclusive riding,” Blake himself concurred.
For the next several decades Blake shuttled frequently between California and Hawai‘i, continuing his close friendship with Kahanamoku. In 1931 he patented the first commercially produced surfboard. Weighing in at only about forty pounds, the Blake Hollow Surfboard enabled many new surfers to participate in the sport. It was also used extensively as a rescue device, which made Blake very proud but not, however, very wealthy. Often he received compensation from the manufacturer in the form of surfboards, many of which he wound up giving away.
In 1935 Blake became one of the first surfers to add a fin to his board, which allowed him to maneuver in ways he had imagined but hadn’t been able to do before. He later said he had been inspired by watching racing motorboats, which had skegs attached to their keels to help maintain stability in fast turns. Finally, he pulled a skeg off a wrecked boat in Waikīkī and stuck it on the bottom of a fourteen-foot paddleboard. “I took it out and caught a pretty good wave on it, a six-foot wave, maybe, and it was remarkable the control you had over the board with this little skeg on it,” he told Lynch. “I knew right from that moment it was a success.”
Other Blake inventions included the first waterproof camera housing, which he used to shoot revolutionary water angles of surfing that were published in the Los Angeles Times and National Geographic; an early version of a sailboard; and even an electric personal watercraft that fore-shadowed today’s jet skis. Blake was a prolific proselytizer of surfing in the press, and published “how-to” articles on building surfboards for publications like Popular Mechanics. In 1935 he published one of the first books on surfing, Hawaiian Surfboard. In addition to a foreword written by Kahanamoku, the book delved into the history of the sport and discussed the construction of contemporary boards and wave-riding techniques.
During World War II, Blake volunteered to serve in the Coast Guard, despite being in his forties. His duties included command of shoreline canine units and handling of explosives. After the war he returned to his career as a lifeguard and supervised the resumed mass production of his patented surfboards while continuing to travel between the Mainland and Hawai‘i. By the early 1950s he was experimenting with building fiberglass surfboards—now the worldwide standard—at a time when most boards were made from balsa wood.
From his youngest days Blake had lived an unconventional life. He kept few possessions, and in Hawai‘i he generally lived in beachfront shacks or his small, sparsely appointed boat in Ala Wai Harbor. On the Mainland he frequently lived out of vans and other vehicles. He was a strict and evangelical vegetarian, once explaining that “I knew I didn’t want to be killed, and I figured all animals felt the same way.” An extraordinarily handsome man, he was preoccupied with fitness and published numerous figure-study photos of himself, sometimes in the buff. “Tom chose to live outside society,” says Bishop Museum historian DeSoto Brown. “He lived aboard his boat and sometimes ate so little that he got weak from hunger. He was strikingly good-looking, which he knew, yet at the same time he was very intellectual and thoughtful, and was the antithesis of a hedonist who was out for physical pleasure.”
While Blake preferred to live simply, according to Florida surfing pioneer Dudley Whitman, appearance remained important to him, and he didn’t ever want to appear as a vagabond. “He was a little different than a lot of surfers you know,” Whitman told Lynch in a 2000 interview. “He was always immaculately dressed with excellent clothes, excellent taste. He always presented well.”
Blake thought deeply about religion and published a book on philosophy later in his life, which essentially equated God with nature. “In Blake’s life, there was no separation between religion, surfing, swimming, building surfboards, eating and exercising,” Lynch and co-author Malcolm Gault-Williams wrote in their biography. “No one guessed that what was then an unorthodox lifestyle would become an accepted standard in our time.” Blake explained in an interview with Lynch:“That is just the way life came about for me. I found my greatest interest in swimming, surfing and camping, traveling around, and that. It’s a lonely life, that’s true. But your friends are the trees and the forests and the birds and the animals … and the different people that you meet briefly.”
One day in 1952 Blake got into trouble while surfing the famous big wave at Mākaha on O‘ahu’s west shore and needed to be rescued. Then fifty, for him the thought of needing assistance in the water was a real blow that led him to essentially give up surfing (though not other water activities) several years later. Afterward he blamed his “advancing age” and what he called “a failure of heart.”
He continued to innovate with surfboard design and to mentor Hawai‘i-based surfers and paddlers, but in 1955 he made the decision to leave Hawai‘i permanently and travel around on the Mainland. Blake spent the last decades of his life roaming among California, Florida and Wisconsin, where he enjoyed visiting with his relatives and the friends he had met throughout his life. He was living in an apartment near Lake Superior in Ashland, Wisconsin, when he died on May 5, 1994, at the age of 92.
His legacy lives on in some of today’s best-known surfers. Big-wave pioneer Laird Hamilton, for example, says he continues to be inspired by Blake, whom he calls “a real waterman.” “To put it simply, because Tom Blake was, we are,” SURFER magazine editor Sam George once wrote. “The extraordinary contributions of this one man to the lifestyle we call surfing are almost impossible to gauge. They’re too broad, too all-encompassing. … Tom Blake didn’t just surf, but made a life of surfing. And now here we are at the end of a century of surfing that he shaped more than anyone —we still look like him, we still dress like him, we still surf like him.” HH