Thursday, February 24, 2005

Black Surfer Nick Gabaldon

The LEGENDARY SURFERS chapter on Nick Gabaldon is located here:

Additionally, Rick Blocker, historian for the Black Surfing Association, wrote about Nick. Rick was kind enough to let me include it here:

Nicholas R. Gabaldon, California’s First Black Surfing Legend
By Rick Blocker, Black Surfing Association Historian

In the early 1940’s there existed a 200 foot roped off stretch of Santa Monica Beach. That area was sometimes affectionately referred to as “The Inkwell”. This space had been established as a stretch of beach for Negroes only. Decades before any equality legislation, this segregate beach space offered blacks a place to enjoy the sun and sand and to pursue a myriad of interesting activities. Word has it that there was a large community of Negro beach boys who regularly played volleyball, swam and body surfed. Infamous names in Santa Monica history such as Carter, Chychester and Mouton were often mentioned as some of the pioneer Black Santa Monica Surfers of the earlier1930 pre-war era. But it is unclear if any of these beach boys actually owned their own board because documentation is slim, and surfboards were expensive and hard to come by. But we do know that during the summer months, the inkwell was crowded with black children, teenagers and families from Santa Monica, Venice, Los Angeles and its surrounding areas all enjoying mother nature’s oceans treasures.

During these years is when a tall, handsome and athletic black man began showing up regularly at the inkwell. With his cool and casual demeanor, his athleticism and his love for the ocean he quickly became recognized as a “someone special”. His name was Nicolas Gabaldon and he quickly befriended the lifeguards and got opportunities to use some of their equipment. One piece was a 13’ redwood rescue surfboard that was becoming slowly popular amongst a crew of teenagers and young men who lived along the California coast. They were called surfers.

During his teenage years Nick surfed whenever he got the chance and attended Santa Monica High School. During the 1940’s the city of Santa Monica had good sized black community. Census shows some 2,000 blacks living within the city limits. There within a few blocks of his home there was a thriving black community complete with black churches and businesses. Nick was one of the 50 or so black students attending Samo High. Although he wasn’t alone, it appeared that he was the only Negro that really took to the new sport of wave riding on surfboards. He lived there on 19th Street with his father and mother, Nicolas and Cecelia and his sister (Geraldine LaCour) and her two children. In 1945 Nick graduated high school and was anxious to begin his adult life. World War II was just coming to an end and because of his love for the ocean; he thought he could best serve his country by volunteering for the Navy.

Nick’s one and a half year service in the navy from 1945-1946 helped to reinforce his love for the ocean and surfing. In 1946 he returned home from the service and enrolled in Santa Monica College. While pursuing his education Nick spent more and more time honing his surfing skill at the Inkwell, but with his improved surfing ability it was time to adventure out to more challenging surf breaks. Malibu Beach, some 12 miles north of Santa Monica was developing into a cult hangout spot and the place to be for those who had the courage to ride waves. The breakers at Malibu rolled majestically around a series of cobblestone points that met at a gentle river mouth. Having once been a sacred Chum ash Indian territory, the Malibu Beach waves were perfectly shaped. To nick the waves seemed almost spiritual. Nick, not personally owning a car had days in which he was not able to get a ride up to Malibu. First he would try to hitch hike. But a big black man hitch hiking on the coast highway just didn’t work out so well. Matt Kivlin, standout Malibu surfer remembers talking to him on the day that he first paddled his surfboard the 12 miles north to Malibu to ride the waves. Matt laughs as he speaks “and he paddled back home that night”.

In time Nick was accepted almost without question into the small and prestigious group of Malibu surf locals. To many of them he was characterized as a handsome, well liked guy with great surfing ability. Malibu regular, Bill Shea remembers Nick as a respectful, unassuming man. “At first he would kind of keep his distance and allow us some space. He was the new kid on the block so he would just surf and them sit alone on the beach when he got out of the water and just watch the other surfers. I think he was studying their surfing styles. He was really interested in getting good as a surfer”. But Nick too, was a particularly strong guy and he loved surfing so much that he would try to stay in the water all day and until late into the evening. He didn’t have to sit alone for too long for the locals almost always embrace talented surfers. And that Nick was. He was Californian’s first Black Surfing Icon and he hung out with legendary surfers such as Bob Simmons,, Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin. This was before Gidget. This was before America’s great surf boom and contests and clothing and surf magazines. And still some say that Blacks don’t surf.
According to Doc Ball, founding father of one of California’s first surfboarding organizations, The Palos Verdes Surf Club, Nick was probably the first Black Surfer because in the thirties they counted among their white membership: one Hispanic and one Japanese American. No Blacks. Although stories existed of maybe a Black surfer at San Onofre or some guy at Windansea, most surfing pioneers knew Nick personally.

On June 5, 1951 one of the strongest south swells in memory slammed into the California coast at Malibu Beach. From point to pier the waves rattled in, cresting at a solid eight to ten feet. A call went out to the Malibu crew-California’s surfing elite-and soon they struggled from shore to line up to launch themselves on a primal dance across towering waves. Now among the elite was a black surfer Nick Gabaldon. On that fateful afternoon he rode his last wave at Malibu. It was a big one, the kind that on most days you only dream of. I’ve talked to people who witnessed his glide and his grace on that day and although there are many accounts of the accident, all agree that on the wave, he just seemed to go and go, like he was in a trance, as if being summoned by the spirits. As he neared the pier he kept gliding and gliding, like it wasn’t even there. Then he disappeared.

The signifigence of Nick Gabaldon is overwhelming. He left the sport of surfing in a better place for his efforts. And he began a dream for many of us who have followed in his footsteps, to continue through our own lives. He was a special guy granted to live a special life. As we too are blessed with this special life. And surfing makes us better people. And being better people make the planet Earth a better place to live. His message to pursue our passions is clear. Even in the light of the greatest adversity, we can achieve. And if he can do it, I can do it. Nick taught me that. I don’t want to forget it.


Lost Lives

The capricious ocean so very strong,
Robust, powerful, can I be wrong?
Pounding, beating upon its cousin shore,
Comes it clapping, rapping with a mighty roar.

The sea vindictive, with waves so high,
For me to battle and still they die.
Many has it taken to it’s bowels below,
Without regards it thus does bestow,
Its laurels to unwary men.

With riches taken from ships gone by,
Its wet song reaches to the sky,
To claim its fallen man made birds,
And plunge them into depths below,
With a nauseous surge.

Scores and scores have fallen prey,
To the salt of animosity,
And many more will victims be,
Of the capricious, vindictive sea.

O, avaricious ocean so very strong,
Robust, powerful, I’m not wrong.
Pounding, beating upon your cousin shore.
Come you clapping, rapping with a mighty roar.

Written by Nick Gabalon May 31, 1951….
six days before he lost his life.


The signifigence of Nick Gabaldon is overwhelming. He left the sport of surfing in a better place for his efforts. And he began a dream for many of us who have followed in his footsteps, to continue through our own lives. He was a special guy granted to live a special life. As we too are blessed with this special life. And surfing makes us better people. And being better people make the planet Earth a better place to live. His message to pursue our passions is clear. Even in the light of the greatest adversity, we can achieve. And if he can do it, I can do it. Nick taught me that. I don’t want to forget it.

Champion and Big Wave Legend Ricky Grigg wrote to me about his friend Nick “he was a great athlete and always a gentleman. Everyone liked him a lot. He was totally accepted in the surf community at Malibu. In fact, he was sort of an icon being the only Black surfer. I would say he was a great ambassador for his race and minorities in general. I considered Nick one of my dearest friends. His death came as a great shock and loss to me personally."

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  1. good to see info on Gabaldon-his life warrants a mini-series.

  2. Don't worry, something is in the works

  3. I spoke to the Santa Monica City Council in regards to getting Nick Gabaldon a plaque at The Inkwell Beach site, on February 14th. We are trying to get the city to honor this great man and my personal hero.

  4. Hello All

    I want to take this opportunity to share with you the works of this woman Rhonda R. Harper. I have seen all things acomplished by Ms Harper and I seen her work very hard at what she does. She has a very big heart and nothing less. She is a very large asset to the surfing industry and I think everyone should thank her by helping out her surf club in appreciation for what she has done for all surfers of different ethnicities.

    You are the element of a very strong woman. Im Loving it that you were able to do something about the *Inkwell Beach* and surfer Nick Gabaldon. I have seen many talk the talk but not walk the walk . I admire that you a great deal not only because of your work but because you are a WOMAN!

    Stay Strong.....Your are a great Icon for present and future upcoming surfers!!!!!

    P.s. The Inkwell Surf Club is a great Idea!

    Much Love

  5. I found this article very education. I first read of Nick Gabaldon at the website and then did some research on Google and found this page. So sad he passed at such a young age. Anyway, I was inspired by his story enough to write a song about it based on what I've found at various website. I call it "Soul Surfer" and you can access it at please give if a listen if you are so inclined.

    thank you

    Sabrina Maria Messenger
    Corvallis, Oregon

  6. I never knew this story and just stumbled upon it this morning while looking for something else. Nick sounds like a person we as surfers, whatever our race, should want to emulate and should strive to bring his type of spirit to the line up each and every time we paddle out. What an inspiration 2 days before Christmas. Thanks for the early present.

    John Mikstay, CT

  7. Thank you all for participating in and continuing with this conversation about of surfing's historic diversity. It is wonderful to know that Nick was as passionate as we are today about the ocean and riding the waves.

  8. Dedon KamathiDecember 01, 2009

    Ready For The Revolution-"Riding waves is human nature" just like fishing is !!!
    It should be quite obvious that where ever you find warm water and waves logic will dictate that over the course of million of years people will ride those waves onitems that are local to the area. How many times have you seen National Geographics Specials where in Africa or the Caribbean or the Pacific Isle fisherman standing and riding their canoes, boats etc on the waves to the shore. Children will find creative ways of having fun regardless of ethnicity and whether they live in a desert or on the coast.Coastal children which I have seen all over Africa ride palm fronds, wood boards etc cause it is fun and free.
    I have presented as have others documentation of surfing in Africa in pre-colonial times prior to the 1400's .I think it is important to take surfing out of the Blond hair, blue eye American paradim which is nothing but surf corporations and contests driven marketing and efforts to get surfing "accepted". Those who are greybeards remember in the 50ties and 60ties surfing was a rude boy, surf bum ,hippie , slacker sport. Hence the efforts to clean up the sports image and the subsquent sterilization . We need to place surfing it in the proper context as a universal expression of human fondness for fun, nature and spirituality of which all people regardless of ethnicity have share and will continue to share for all human existence. Dedon Kamathi


Mahalo for your comment!