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1930s: PCSC, 1928

The First Pacific Coast Surfriding Championship, 1928

While Corona del Mar was in its glory days as the center of Southern California surfing, history was made there with the creation of the Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships.  Word of it began on July 16, 1928 when a Long Beach Press-Telegram announced: “SURFBOARD CLUB WILL HOLD TITLE MEET AT HARBOR.”  The article read: “The Corona Del Mar Surfboard Club, which claims to be the largest organization of its kind in the world, will hold a championship surfboard riding tournament at the Corona Del Mar beach at the entrance to Newport Harbor on Sunday, August 5.

“Some of the most notable surfboard riders in the world are expected to compete, including the famous swimmer and surfboard rider, Duke Kahanamoku, Hawaiian champion; Tom Blake of Redondo, who won two championships, and Harold Jarvis, long distance swimmer of the Los Angeles Athletic Club.  Some of the surfboard riders are predicting that new world records will be made here during the meet.  So far fifteen surfboard artists have signed up, including some from as far away as San Francisco.  It is planned to make it an annual event.”[1]

On the day of the contest, August 5, 1928,[2] the Press-Telegram reported: “PLANS COMPLETED FOR SURFBOARD RIDING TILT.”  It went on: “Preparations have been completed for the Pacific Coast surfboard riding championship tournament, to be held at Corona Del Mar, the entrance to Newport Harbor today.  Part of the entrance to the harbor is said to be only surpassed by some Hawaiian beaches for surfboard riding.

Duke Kahanamoku and other well-known surfboard artists will compete.  Besides surfboard riding the program will include canoe tilting contests, paddling races and a life-saving exhibition by surfboard riders.  In addition to Kahanamoku, other well-known members of the club include Tom Blake of Redondo, Gerard Vultee and Art Vultee of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, Clyde Swedson of the Hollywood Athletic Club, and others.”[3]

More important than the results of who won what, the big story of this first-ever surf contest on the U.S. Mainland was the first-ever unveiling of the hollow surfboard in competition.  Tom Blake brought his drilled-hole hollow board innovation and a regular 9-foot 6-inch redwood surfboard back with him by boat from Hawai‘i.  Armed with his partially hollow olo replica, Tom subsequently won the first Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships – which he had also helped organize.[4]

Held under direction of Captain Scheffield of the Corona del Mar Surfboard Club, the championship’s main event was a paddle race from shore to the bell buoy, followed by a surf ride in.  “500 yards and back; 1st back to win,” Tom remembered.[5]  In later documenting the event for his protégé Tommy Zahn in 1972, Tom wrote: “Situation: about 8 or 10 men, including Gerard Vultee (late co-founder of Lockheed; an aeronautical engineer; designer of aircraft and surfboards).  He had the longest board; 11-feet.  I had a 9’6’ broad riding board.  I figured he would be 1st out at the break and therefore should get the first wave in.

“I had this (1st one only) 15-foot paddle board with me for the paddling race (115 lb.).  So I decided to use both boards in the surfing race.  Had them both on the beach as the starting gun went off.  Everybody got a good head start; Vultee in the lead.  I slowly proceeded to put the 15’ P.B. in the water, then went back to get the 9 ½ job; placed it upon the P.B. and started after the field, now 50 yards out.  Slowly caught and passed them at 300 yards and arrived at the starting break [the bell buoy] alone with a minute to spare – discarded the long board and lined up for the 1st wave.  They were about 6 or 7 feet high; not large, but strong.

“Vultee arrived first, then the rest; we all had to wait a few minutes for a set of waves.  Vultee and me took after the first one.  He got it and took off on the left side, for shore.  But, the second wave was a bit bigger.  I got it and slid right.  Vultee’s wave petered out in the channel; mine carried me all the way in, opposite the jetty and to shore for a win.  There was a movie outfit there; a newsreel deal.  I later saw the ride and had a close-up [made]; someone probably still has it.”[6]

Tom used two boards that historic day – a first, in itself.  He used the drilled-hole hollow board for paddling out and a more conventional board for riding waves in.  Having a board strictly for paddling was unheard of up to this point.  Up to this point, everyone had competed in paddling races on surfboards.  Some California old-timers recalled of that day that it was the first time they had ever seen a surfboard turned.  Dragging either the left or the right leg in the water accomplished this.  His surfboard was 9-feet, 6-inches long, but the paddleboard was 16 feet and weighed 120 pounds.[7]  Blake wrote of his huge drilled-hole olo design paddleboard: “When I appeared with it for the first time before 10,000 people gathered for a holiday and to watch the races, it was regarded as silly.  Handling this heavy board alone, I got off to a poor start, the rest of the field gaining a thirty-yard lead in the meantime.  It really looked bad for the board and my reputation and hundreds openly laughed.  But a few minutes later it turned to applause because the big board led the way to the finish of the 880-yard course by fully 100 yards.”[8]

“Later,” after the main event, “they held a 440 yard board race, paddling.  I let Vultee lead for most of it, then breezed by him on the new semi-hollow paddle board.  Received a statue of a swimmer and a cup.  Still have the statuette of a swimmer; the cup is held by some club; don’t know who.  It has Pete’s [Peterson] name on it for many later winnings.”[9]

Next day, the Long Beach Press-Telegram announced: “LOS ANGELES MAN, TOM BLAKE, WINNER OF EVENTS OF SURFBOARD CLUB.”  The article continued: “The aquatic powers of Tom Blake, bewhiskered athlete of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, enabled him to win over an assemblage of swimmers in the meet held yesterday afternoon in front of the Starr Bath House on the Corona Del Mar beach.  Blake took two of the first places, winning easily the surfboard contest and the paddling race.  He was awarded silver trophies for his championship.

“Several hundred people lined the beach to witness the contest held under the auspices of the Corona Del Mar Surfboard Association.  The fact that Duke Kahanamoku, famous surfboard rider, could not be present did not detract from the excitement of the day.

“The Corona Del Mar Surfboard Club has been sponsored by Captain D.W. Sheffield, manager of the Starr Bathhouse.  It is said to be the only organization of its kind on the Pacific Coast.

“The results of the contest were as follows: Quarter-mile surfboard race, won by Tom Blake, L.A.A.C.; second, Gerard Vultee, Corona Del Mar; third Dennie Williams, Corona Del Mar.  Paddling race was won by Tom Blake; second, Dennie Williams.”[10]

The first first-place PCSC trophy “was first won by Tom Blake in 1928 at Corona Del Mar,” confirmed Doc Ball in his classic collection of early California surfer photos, California Surfriders, 1946.[11]  Because the original trophy was not much to speak of, Blake had a nicely embossed trophy cup made in order to pass on to succeeding winners.[12]  He donated this trophy “to be the perpetual cup for the above mentioned event.  Winners since 1928 are inscribed on the back of it.”  A good photograph of it appears in Doc’s book.  He added that “World War II precluded any possibilities of a contest from 1941 through 1946.”[13]

The Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships became an annual event, dominated for 4-out-of-9 years by Preston “Pete” Peterson, who reigned as California’s recognized top surfer throughout the 1930s.  Other early winners of the trophy included Keller Watson (1929), Gardner Lippincott (1934), Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison (1939) and Cliff Tucker (1940).[14]

As for Tom Blake, although he met with competitive success on the U.S. Mainland, his eyes were mostly on the Islands.  “My dream was to introduce, or revive, this type of board in Hawaii where surfboard racing and riding is at its best,” he wrote in his 1935 edition of Hawaiian Surfboard, the first book ever published solely about surfing.  “This seems to have materialized...”[15]

Blake – originally a competitive swimmer – rose to prominence in the emerging world of surfing, following his restoration of traditional Hawaiian surfboards and his creative innovation of those designs into what became known as “the hollow board” – both surfboards and paddleboards.[16]  After restoring Chief Paki’s boards for the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Blake built some replicas for himself.  In an article entitled, “Surf-riding – The Royal and Ancient Sport,” published in a 1930 edition of The Pan Pacific, he wrote: “I... wondered about these boards in the museum, wondered so much that in 1926 I built a duplicate of them as an experiment, my object being to find not a better board, but to find a faster board to use in the annual and popular surfboard paddling races held in Southern California each summer.”[17]

During the 1920s, surfboards weighed between 75 and 150 pounds.  Because of the length of the board and the wood it was made of, Paki’s olo was considerably heavier than the heaviest Waikiki board of the day, all of which were of solid wood construction.  On a whim, Blake took his 16 foot olo replica board and, in his own words, “drilled it full of holes to lighten and dry it out, then plugged them up.  Result: accidental invention of the first hollow surf-board.”[18]  Blake’s “holey” board ended up exactly 15 feet long, 19 inches wide and 4 inches thick.  Because it was partially hollow, this board weighed only 120 pounds.[19]  This was the “hollow” board he used in the first Pacific Coast Surfing Championships at Corona del Mar.

[1] Press-Telegram, July 16, 1928.
[2] The Santa Ana Daily Register, July 31, 1928.  See Lueras, Leonard. Surfing, The Ultimate Pleasure, ©1984, designed by Fred Bechlen.  Workman Publishing, New York, NY, p. 104.
[3] Press-Telegram, August 5, 1928.
[4] Lueras, 1984, p. 83.  See Blake’s notations.  Notation has it at “Balboa Beach.”
[5] Blake, Tom.  Notes for Tommy Zahn, November 14, 1972, Midland, California.
[6] Blake, Tom.  Notes for Tommy Zahn, November 14, 1972, Midland, California.
[7] Lueras, 1984, p. 82.
[8] Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 59.
[9] Blake, Tom.  Notes for Tommy Zahn, November 14, 1972, Midland, California.
[10] Press-Telegram, August 6, 1928.
[11] Ball, 1946, 1979, 1995, p. 103.
[12] Lynch, Gary.  Notes on draft of Doc Ball, Early California Surf Photog, May 1998.
[13] Ball, 1946, 1979, 1995, p. 103.
[14] Ball, 1946, 1979, 1995, p. 103.
[15] Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 59.
[16] Gault-Williams, 2007.
[17] Blake, Thomas E.  “Surf-riding - The Royal and Ancient Sport,” The Pan Pacific, 1930.  See also Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 59.  Blake wrote of his replica (with drilled holes): “This surfboard was sixteen feet long and weighed 120 pounds.”  Blake, Thomas E., “Surf-riding - The Royal and Ancient Sport,” The Pan Pacific, 1930.
[18] Lueras, 1984, p. 82.  Tom Blake quoted.  See photo with annotations in Blake’s handwriting on p. 83.
[19] Lynch, Gault-Williams, et. al.  TOM BLAKE: Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, ©2001.

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Anonymous TLR said...

Fantastic surfing history - thanks Malcolm! Interesting to hear about the different boards used. And I didn't know Vultee was a co-founder of Lockheed!

To think there might be footage of Blake's winning ride-in is something - image, finding that on Youtube.

Hope you find the history of surfwear interesting too: Blake played a prominent part there also. Here's the history of surfwear in the '30s and all the significant developments in surf clothing. Another element of surfing history.

Keep surfing, TLR

December 04, 2010  

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