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1930s: Blake in Santa Monica, 1932

Tom Blake in Santa Monica, 1932

Tom Blake returned to the United States Mainland in 1932, most likely to oversee the construction of his first production boards made by Thomas Rogers.  While he was in Santa Monica, he did some lifeguarding, even working for the Santa Monica City lifeguards for a short time.

“Oh, he came down there,” Santa Monica lifeguard and early California surfer Wally Burton remembered of Tom at Santa Monica Beach, “and he worked at the lifeguard station there.  He worked as what we called an ‘as-needed guard.’  But, he wasn’t the most dependable guy when it came to showing up for time and all.  He was an independent sort of a guy.”[1]

Tom made better money at private beaches and swim clubs, so perhaps he was not all that interested in working for a municipality.  Besides, Tom was not a regimented 9-to-5 man.  He would never have gone for the military style sworn-in guard atmosphere working for the city.  Tom was a free spirit and could not be tied down.

Asked about Tom, personally, Wally Burton replied, “Well, there’s one thing that’s deeply impressed in my mind.  I worked for the County of Los Angeles before they had the Santa Monica lifeguard service.  I worked for [the] first L.A. guard system… it was at the mouth of the Santa Monica Canyon, where we had our first station there… [This dates back to when I was] nineteen.  Let’s see.  I got canned from the L.A. County guard service because I wasn’t old enough.  They deputized you at that time.  You had to be twenty-one.  And I worked for them for a year before they found out I wasn’t twenty-one.  So, there were three of us they let go.”[2]

“So, I worked at that Santa Monica station when I was nineteen years old… I was nineteen [in] 1929.  I remember sitting on the doorsteps of that guard station there.  And I vividly remember Tom Blake, because as the sun was setting one evening; he was standing there motionless looking out at the ocean.  And I betcha he stood there just absolutely motionless, his silhouette etched against the sunset.  And when it was all over, he finally walked away.  And you could just tell he was just dreaming.  He was a dreamer.  And I walked up to him after it was all over and I said, ‘What were you doing there, Tom?’  He said, ‘I was just thinking about what’s beyond that sea, you know.’  Just like that.  And he just stood, kind of looked at me for a minute, and he just walked off quietly.  He wasn’t the kind of guy to talk very much… But when he said something, you had to listen, because it was something that was, you know, sincere from his heart.  I was very much impressed with Tom, but I always considered him a dreamer.”[3]

“I liked the guy a lot,” Wally said of Tom.  “I admired him an awful lot.  I guess he was one of my heroes, really, and I looked up to him.  And I also looked up to Pete Peterson.  Pete, I think, was a better surfer than anybody ever gave him credit for.  He surfed in the Islands, did things, you know, when they take these gals [tandem] and put them on his shoulders?  Pete did an outstanding job in surfing and won so many trophies... I don’t want to take away from Tom, but I think he [Pete] was, actually, a better surfer than Tom… Although I admired Tom for a lot of other things – the dreaming aspect of it all and his innovative deals.  Pete was equally innovative in a quiet sort of way.”[4]

Tommy Zahn, Tom’s protégé later on, liked to tell a story about when Tom was still lifeguarding at the Santa Monica Beach Club.  It had to do with his mentor, who was a bit past his prime as a competitive swimmer by this time, and a quart of ice cream: “Blake was working at the beach club when Al Laws was still there,” Tommy recalled the story that had been told to him.  “Al was talking to this one guy and he said, ‘Hey, there’s this great swimmer… [who’s] a lifeguard down at the beach club.’  So, he takes him down there and he introduces him to Blake.  At that time… the beach club used to put out a lifeline; a buoy line.  It used to run out 300 yards into the water with a buoy on the end.  And this guy said, ‘Well, I like the lifeline.  I can jump in there and pull myself out to the end of that line and back faster than you can swim it.’

“Blake didn’t say anything.  You know.  Al Law says, ‘I bet you, you can’t.’  So, they were making a money bet on the thing and Al asked Blake if he’d participate and what he wanted of the piece of the action.  And Blake thought around for a while and said, ‘Well, I’ll do it for a quart of ice cream.’  [Tommy snickered].  So, they set these two guys off; Blake swimming and this guy pulling himself hand over hand out to [laughs] the end of this lifeline.  You can imagine how that all ended-up, eh?  I think Blake was back on the beach, dry – his hair was dry – before this guy ever got back to the beach.”[5]

By 1932, Tom Blake hollow paddleboards and hollow surfboards had been available, commercially, for less than a year.  Almost as if he had planned it to underscore its utility in ocean rescue, Tom made what was probably the first hollow board rescue of a tired swimmer, on July 17, 1932.  The Los Angeles Times reported: “Lifeguard Uses Surfboard in Rescuing Pair."

SANTA MONICA, July 17. – Enter the surfboard rescue!  It was affected here late today before the astonished gaze of thousands of bathers.

“Healy Kemp and Henry Wise put out from the Santa Monica Beach Club in a skiff.  The sea was choppy.  Three-quarters of a mile off shore a swell swamped the frail craft and the men found themselves floundering in the water.  Tom Blake, municipal lifeguard and reputed world’s champion surfboard rider, saw their distress signals and struck out for them aboard his Hawaiian surfboard.  He found them clinging to the capsized skiff, took them upon his board and brought them to safety through the breakers.  Capt. Roger Cornell, head of the lifeguard crew, declared it to be the first surfboard rescue of record.”[6]

This later supposition was not true. While it may have been the first rescue using a hollow board, surfboard rescues had taken place in Long Beach a decade earlier, in 1911.[7]

The next day, another newspaper article, “Lifeguard on Surf Board Saves Two from Drowning, Boat Capsizes Three-Quarters of Mile from Shore with Two Occupants” reported: “Tom Blake, world’s champion surfboard rider, was today receiving the thanks of two victims of a near-disaster who found themselves floundering in the water yesterday when their skiff overturned…”[8]

Before the paddleboard or surfboard rescue, the rescue dory had been the norm.  The dory took a long time, in comparison, to launch and reach the victim.  It also often took two men to row it.  The paddleboard rescue technique completely changed ocean rescue.  It is used even today, although jet skis are now taking the majority of duty in larger surf areas or where it is easy to launch them.

[1] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[2] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[3] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[4] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[5] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
[6] Los Angeles Times, “Lifeguard Uses Surfboard in Rescuing Pair,” July 17, 1932.
[7] See Chapter One, “Long Beach, USA, 1910-1927.”
[8] Unidentified Los Angeles area newspaper, “Lifeguard on Surf Board Saves Two from Drowning, Boat Capsizes Three-Quarters of Mile from Shore with Two Occupants,” July 18, 1932.

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