Wednesday, December 08, 2010

1930s: HSC, 1939-31

Following his win of the first Pacific Coast Surfing Championship at Corona del Mar in 1928, Tom Blake took his hollow board back to Hawai‘i with him and took on the famous races held at the Ala Wai Canal annually.  By this time, he had given up on filled-in drilled holes in favor of a hollowed-out chamber approach.

“I introduced at Waikiki a new type of surfboard,” Blake wrote of his hollow board.  It was, “new so the papers said, and so the beach boys said, but in reality the design was taken from the ancient Hawaiian type of board,” his 1926 replicas of them, and “also from the English racing shell.  It was called a ‘cigar board,’ because a newspaper reporter thought it was shaped like a giant cigar.”[1]

Of Blake’s hollow olo-inspired design, Dr. D’Eliscu of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin wrote that “The old Hawaiian surfboard has again made its appearance at Waikiki beach modeled after the boards used in the old days.  A practice trial was held yesterday at the War Memorial Pool, and to the surprise of the officials, the board took several seconds off the Hawaiian record for one hundred yards.”[2]  Blake referred to this modern olo design as the racing model; in essence a true paddleboard.  He built his surf riding model surfboard, “Okohola,” a month later, in December 1929.[3]

The hollow paddleboards and surfboards Blake now made, “differed from the olo in that they were flat-decked, built of redwood, and hollow,” wrote Finney and Houston in Surfing, The Sport of Hawaiian Kings, many years later.  “They were excellent for paddling and also successful in the surf.  Like the olo they were well adapted to the glossy rollers at Waikiki.  A man could catch a wave far out beyond the break, while the swell was still a gentle, shore-rolling slope, and the board would slide easily along the wave, whether it grew steep and broke, or barely rose and flattened out again.”[4]

Duke Kahanamoku told his biographer that Blake’s first experiments had actually been initially “predicated on the belief that faster rides would be generated by heavier boards.  But the turning problem became bigger with the size of the board; a prone surfer was compelled to drag one foot in the water on the inside of the turn, and this only contributed to loss of forward speed.  If standing, he had to drag an arm over the side, and with the same result of diminishing momentum.

“Paddleboards are still with us today, and they are obviously here to stay,” Duke affirmed.  “Some fantastic records have been established with them.  And the sport of paddleboarding has naturally drawn some outstanding men to its ranks.  It is a long list, a gallant list.”[5]

Recapping its initial evolution, Blake said his first hollow board “was purely for racing, and I soon followed it with a riding board sixteen feet long.  The new riding board model was a great success [‘Okohola’].”  Blake added with some pride that “Duke Kahanamoku built his great 16-foot hollow redwood board along about the same time…”[6]

Tom Blake set his first world’s record in paddling at Ala Wai in December 1929.  It came after years of discipline and development of skill in racing under stress.  He had swum in hundreds of races during the eight years previously and won the first official California surfing contest (the PCSC) just the year before.  The Honolulu Star-Bulletin from December 2, 1929, reported the event the day after: “BLAKE SETS 100-YARD SURFBOARD PADDLE MARK.  Big Crowd On Hand To Take In Sunday Races; Outrigger Club Clean Sweeps In Ala Wai Program of 18 Popular Events.”  The Honolulu Star-Bulletin went on: 

“Demonstrating the possibilities of such a surfboard, Tom Blake of ‘cigar surfboard’ fame, yesterday paddled his pet water rider to a new 100-yard Hawaiian record (world’s record) at the Ala Wai where he negotiated the distance in 35 1-5 seconds, bettering the old mark by five full seconds in an exhibition witnessed by a crowd of 1000.

“The former record was 40 1-5 seconds made last year by Edric Cooke.  More plumes are added to his [Blake’s] achievement when it is considered that he had to paddle through the water against a stiff wind and a tide.

“The ‘cigar surfboard’ just glided through the water without a splash and it was an uncanny sight.  Blake was in excellent shape and worked his arms tirelessly to set the new world record.”[7]

“The exhibition,” continued the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “was the feature to a program of surfboard races staged by the recreation commission of the city.  The events were put on to prepare those interested in surfboard paddling for the big races to be held during the Christmas holidays.

“The number of automobiles and the large crowds that gathered on both sides of the canal surprised the officials who helped revive the interest in an activity which typifies the islands…

“Sixteen paddle events were conducted in two hours and the timers, judges, clerks and other officials were kept running up and down the banks following the start then taking the finish…

The Outrigger Canoe club, under the guidance of George (‘Dad’) Center, romped away with all the honors, as the other organizations did not believe that a contest of this kind would be successfully held.

“The appearance of the smoothness of the cigar-shaped board, and the quiet, reserved and impressive showing of its maker and paddler, Tom Blake, attracted more than usual interest.  Everybody wanted to use that type of board and the success and speed of this board showed itself in the number of races that were won by the individuals using it.

“Never before in any open races have so many boards been collected in one place.  It required a private truck to haul all the surfboards from the Outrigger and Hui Nalu clubs to Ala Wai...”[8]

Perhaps as significant as the wins that day, were resentments by some surfers and paddlers toward the hollow board and its creator.  The Honolulu Star-Bulletin noted the resistance to this new type of watercraft: “The question was raised by the officials as to a standard board to be required in all future open competition.  The feeling was against this proposal.  The officials felt that no board designed to ride the surf could be barred from any of the races scheduled.

“The result of Sunday’s special events assures a number of new records on Christmas Day, when a special program will be held for surfboard followers…”[9]

“This board was really graceful and beautiful to look at,” Tom wrote proudly of his carved chambered paddleboard, “and in performance was so good that officials of the Annual Surfboard Paddling Championship immediately had a set of nine of them built for use...”[10]

Not everyone enthusiastically embraced hollow paddleboards and hollow surfboards.  Later, when hollow boards became the standard at many beaches, solid boards were still preferred by some surfers.  Doc Ball’s California Surfriders, featuring photographs taken primarily during the 1930s, shows a large number of solid boards in use.

Blake’s world record-breaking wins in both the 100-yard and half mile paddling events of the Hawaiian Surfboard Paddling Championships actually put him into disfavor with some Hawaiians.  Resistance to his new designs hit a high point in the December 1, 1929 race.  There was an initial attempt to disqualify him, some saying that he was not using a surfboard.  Well, they were right on that account.  Up until the Pacific Coast Surfing Championship the year before, there had been no such thing as a “paddleboard” specifically used for paddle racing.

Popular local Tommy Keakona, himself a champion of the 1928 Ala Wai races, refused to compete against Tom in protest over his use of the hollow paddleboard.[11]  Other “purist” Hawaiian surfers and distance paddlers demanded that only conventionally shaped and solid paddleboards be allowed to race.  Other paddlers lobbied for the new design, claiming, rightfully, that it “marked the beginning of a new era in surfing and paddling.”[12]

The hollow board’s detractors were not sufficient in number to keep Blake from competing, that day, nor the other paddlers using hollow boards.  Referring to Blake’s board as “The Cigar Water Conqueror,” a Honolulu Star-Bulletin article written by Francois D’Eliscu documented Tom’s win with this headline: “3000 WATCH SURFERS RACE UPON ALA WAI CANAL.  Every Record in History of Sport is Shattered; Cigar Board Comes Into Its Own.”  D’Eliscu went on to write: “More than 3000 spectators crowded the banks of the Ala Wai this morning to witness the championship surfboard races in which every record in the history of the sport was shattered.

“Never before was such a contest so keenly fought.  Remarkable times were made in the 10-event program.
“The cigar-shaped board was supreme.  Each paddler showed speed, smoothness and wonderful control in handling the thin, light, fast-moving planks.

“Tom Blake, originator of the cigar shaped board, staged a surprise unknown to even his coaches when he appeared with a hollow carved cigar board.  In the first event on the program, the half-mile men’s open, Blake won in 4 minutes 49 seconds, beating the old record by 2 minutes 13 seconds.

“T. Keakona, last year’s title holder, refused to enter the races, due to the type of board used by Blake.
“The feature event of the morning was the 100-yard open championship.  Eight men from three of the best surfboard organizations started.  Tom Blake, O.C.C.; Sam Kahanamoku, Hui Nalu; and Fred Vasco of the Queen’s Surfers, finished in the order named.

“The race was exciting from the gun.  Tom with his powerful, easy, mechanical stroke and perfect balance found Sam a real competitor.  The finish found Blake just a few inches ahead of the versatile swimmer.  The time of 31 3-5 seconds for this race was better than last year’s 36 1-5 seconds.”[13]

Another Honolulu newspaper article, written by Andrew Mitsukado, also documented Blake’s wins: “EIGHT RECORDS LOWERED IN MEET.  Cigar-shaped Board Is Big Hit, Tom Blake Is Big Star.”  Mitsukado continued: “Eight old records went whirling into oblivion and two new marks were established at the sixth annual Hawaiian championship surf board paddling races, sponsored by the Dawkins, Benny Co., yester morn in the Ala Wai before a monstrous crowd which was kept on the well-known edge throughout the ten event program.

“The newly devised cigar-shaped surfboards assisted tremendously in creating the new marks.

“Tom Blake of the Outrigger Canoe Club proved to be the big star of the meet, winning two individual events – the 100 yards men’s open and the half-mile open – and paddling anchor on the triumphant Outrigger team in the three-quarter mile club relay.  He used a cigar-shaped board of his own invention and came through with flying colors.

“All of the races were hard fought and competition was keen, furnishing thrills after thrills for the spectators…”[14]

“The half-mile record of seven minutes and two seconds was cut that year,” Tom wrote of the 1929 Annual Surfboard Paddling Championship, “to four minutes and forty-nine seconds and the hundred-yard dash was reduced from thirty-six and two-fifths seconds to thirty-one and three-fifths seconds.  This made me the 1930 champion in the senior events and, incidentally, the new record holder.  But as is true in yacht and other similar racing, I won because I had a superior board.  This was the first cured or hollowed out [paddle] board to appear at Waikiki.  As the racing rules allowed unrestricted size and design, I staked my chances on this hollow racer whose points were proven for now all racing boards are hollow.”[15]

But Blake’s win “was a ‘hollow’ victory,” underscored Tom’s friend Sam Reid, who also competed in the Championship.  Playing on words in a surfing memoir published in a 1955 edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Reid added that “Blake had hollowed out his 16-foot cigar board to a 60 pound weight, compared with an average 100 to 125 pounds weight of the other 9 boards in the 100.”[16]

“Oh, yeah!” Santa Monica lifeguard Wally Burton told a little bit about what was behind the resentment, adding his own take on it.  “He was very innovative.  Yeah, he had a good, active mind and… when he was over in the Islands there, he was winning everything.  You know, the Duke was the all-time great over there, at that time.  And he [Tom] went over there and he took everything away from the Duke.  As a matter of fact, they didn’t like Tom too well over in the Islands [after his competitive wins], because Duke was the hero.”[17]

“Reverberations of the ‘hollow board’ tiff were heard from one end of the Ala Wai to the other,” recalled Sam Reid around 1955, “and echoes can still be heard at Waikiki even today – 25 years later.  At a meeting of the three (surfing) clubs, Outrigger, Hui Nalu and Queens, held immediately after the disputed races… it was decided that… there would be no limit whatever on (the design) of paddleboards.”[18]  It is a sad fact that much resentment over his lightweight designs remained after Tom’s Ala Wai wins.  Because of the 1929/1930 Ala Wai controversies, Tom only entered the race one more time, the following year.[19]  

Impressively, Tom’s half-mile record of 4:49:00 stood until 1955.  It was broken by George Downing, who covered the course in 4:36:00 on a 20-foot hollow balsa board.  Blake’s board had been a 16-foot hollow redwood.[20]  Other long-standing records held by Tom include the world’s record for the 1/2 mile open and 100 yard dash in paddleboard racing.  They were held for twenty-five years.[21]

When Tom competed in the Ala Wai contest in early 1931, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published word of his participation, some of the history of the race and a little about surfing’s history in Hawai‘i: “Announce List of Officials to Handle 1931 Surfboard Races,” headlined the article written by Francois D’Eliscu.  “Any Type of Board Can Be Used This Year; Races Will Be Held at the Ala Wai on January 4; New Kind of Board Will Be Introduced.

“The seventh annual surfboard paddling Hawaiian championships to be held Sunday morning, January 4, 1931, on the Ala Wai canal, promises to be the most interesting event ever held for the paddlers of Oahu… All of the titleholders of last year are entered and the ruling permitting any kind of board in the various races means new records...

“Tom Blake, who startled the community with his cigar-shaped hollow board and smashed all existing records, is reported to have another new type board that is faster and lighter than the one he won with so easily last year.”[22]

Under the subheading of “‘Sport of Kings,’” D’Eliscu continued: “Surfboard racing in Hawaii is known as the ‘sport of kings’ on account of its association with the history and tradition of old-time Hawaii when the chiefs competed on large heavy boards.

“Many of these relics are on exhibition in the museum and it is here where Tom Blake spent many an hour studying the shape, weights and speed of the boards, which prompted him to build his cigar-shaped board…

“Committees and officials have been selected to conduct the meet.  The group in charge of the events are: Honorary chairman, ‘Dad’ Center; sponsors, C.G. Benny and H.L. Reppeto; Gay Harris of the Outrigger Canoe Club; Charles Amalu from Queen Surfers, and David Kahanamoku, representing the Hui Nalu swimming club.

“The officials in charge of the meet are as follows: Referee Duke P. Kahanamoku; clerk of course, David Kahanamoku; starter, G.D. Crozier; timers, Dad Center, A.H. Myhre, R.N. Benny, C.A. Slaght, R.J. Thomas and William Hollinger.

“Judges, Dr. Francois D’Eliscu, T.C. Gibson, Henry Sheldon and V. Ligda; recorder, H.L. Reppeto, and Gay Harris will be in charge of the equipment…

“Cecil Benny, who has been responsible for the continuation of the surfboard races and competitions, deserves a great deal of public commendation for his interest in keeping the Hawaiian sport alive.”[23]

Blake’s superior designs were not the only factor in his success.  He was also a tremendous swimmer, paddler and overall competitor.  Two decades later, his protégé Tommy Zahn paddled the Ala Wai, for practice, with Hot Curl surfer Wally Froiseth’s protégé George Downing.  At first he thought his watch was off because he could not achieve Blake’s times on an evolved paddleboard with superior training.[24]

During this period, Tom was coming out with a new board every year.  He was driven to refine his designs, and by the end of the 1930s, both his surfboards and paddleboards were very different from what he had started out with a decade before.  As far as the controversies at Ala Wai were concerned, Tom learned that good intentions do not always breed good feelings.  Because of his competitive wins, he later said that he became a version of “The Ugly American.”  Specifically, Tom recalled, “I discovered too late that beating the locals at their own game, in front of their families, could sour relations with my Hawaiian friends.”[25]

When he had first come to Hawai‘i, he was accepted at the beach, welcomed by the Kahanamoku’s and the beach boys, and “treated… like a king.”  Even so, he couldn’t shake the fact that he was an outsider and consequently “… they paid no attention to you,” recalled Tom.  “You roamed around there, nobody knew you, and it’s a wonderful way to live, when you keep a low profile.  Like, nobody’s shootin’ at you, you know?  That went on for years, and it’s just like, I got interested in their sports, surfing and paddling, and managed to build a little better board than they had, and beat them in their contests.  And then they began to look at you.  There’s something we don’t like, and that was the end of the real good days.”[26]

It may have been the end of the “real good days” for Tom in the Islands, but he still had many good Hawaiian days to come.  He would continue his love affair with the Hawaiian Islands – specifically O‘ahu – for another 25 years.

[1] Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 51.
[2] Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 1929, article by Dr. D’Eliscu, quoted in Blake, 1935, p. 59.
[3] Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 59.  It was incorrectly spelled in Blake’s book.  Pictures of the board clearly have the name “Okohola” written on the board’s deck.  “Okohola,” translated, means whaling or a variety of sweet potato.
[4] Finney and Houston, Surfing, The Sport of Hawaiian Kings, ©1966, p. 74.
[5] Kahanamoku, ©1966, p. 39.  In the original wording in the book, biographer Brennan seems to have confused what one did standing vs. prone.  Prone, one dragged the arm; standing, the leg was the drag and direction changer.
[6] Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 51-52.
[7] Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 2, 1929.
[8] Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 2, 1929.
[9] Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 2, 1929.
[10] Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 51-52.  See also Lueras, p. 82.
[11] Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 1, 1930.  Article written by Francois D’Eliscu.  T.  Keakona’s name incorrectly spelled as “Kiakona.”
[12] Lueras, 1984, p. 82.   Quotations are presumably Sam Reid’s.
[13] Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 1, 1930.  T. Keakona incorrectly spelled as “Kiakona.”  See also Lynch, Gary, “Thomas Edward Blake: Beyond The Horizon,” May 20 1989.
[14] Honolulu newspaper, January 2, 1930, by Andrew Mitsukado.
[15] Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 51-52.  See also Lueras, p. 82.
[16] Lueras, 1984, p. 82.  Honolulu Star-Bulletin from 1955, with Sam Reid’s quotations.
[17] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[18] Lueras, 1984, p. 82.  Sam Reid quoted.  Parentheses probably Lueras’.
[19] The Santa Monica Heritage Museum, “Cowabunga!” exhibit, 2/94 and Young, p. 49.
[20] Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, October 12 & 14, 1972, postmarked from Midland, California.  Tommy’s notation to this achievement.
[21] Lynch, Gault-Williams, et. al.  TOM BLAKE: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, ©2001.
[22] Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “Announce List of Officials to Handle 1931 Surfboard Races,” by Francois D’Eliscu, January 1, 1931.
[23] Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “Announce List of Officials to Handle 1931 Surfboard Races,” by Francois D’Eliscu, January 1, 1931.
[24] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Tommy Zahn.  Date not specified.
[25]Lynch, Gary.  “Thomas Edward Blake: Beyond The Horizon,” May 20, 1989.
[26] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Thomas Edward Blake, April 16, 1989, Washburn, Wisconsin.

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