Monday, December 27, 2010

Corona del Mar, 1927

Dick Huffman was there and remembers Corona del Mar before the channel was dredged and the breakwaters reconfigured...

Thursday, December 23, 2010

1930s: Catalina Crossing, 1932

Catalina Crossing, 1932

Although many would later refer to it as a contest or race, the 1932 Catalina Crossing[1] by Tom Blake, Pete Peterson and Wally Burton was not so much a race as a test of endurance and a promotion to spotlight Tom’s Thomas Rogers production hollow board.  “Blake did not consider the Catalina paddle a race,” emphasized his friend and biographer Gary Lynch.  “He said it was a demonstration of the ability of his new Rogers [manufactured] paddleboards.  To prove how they could perform in long distance rescue work.  Also it was to prove the stamina of men who paddled then... He said it was not a race and unfair to call it one.  Wally and Pete did Tom a favor, really” by helping him promote his boards.[2]

The Catalina paddle “was my idea,” California surfing pioneer Chauncy Granstrom recalled.  Pete [Peterson] and I paddled together quite a bit and [at that time] there were two fishing barges out there [off shore from the beach].  We paddled out to the barges one day and I said, ‘Listen, let’s see who can paddle to the [Channel] Islands.’  So, Gary Halten [a lifeguard lieutenant] got a hold of the idea and made a big deal out of it.  We started training harder [as a result]…”[3]

Out of all the paddling events of his life, the Catalina crossing was the one that held the most memories for Tom.  “My motive was to prove the paddleboard a good rescue device.  It [the Catalina paddle] reached into unknown territory and was well worth the pain.  I trained for it by securing a paddleboard to the edge of the Corona del Mar [jetty] and paddling up to three hours [a day].  The trophy I won was a blue urn; for my ashes.”[4]

Tom’s board for the crossing was a Rogers manufacture; a 14-foot hollow board that weighed 75 pounds.[5]

Originally, there were four paddlers entered in what some people called “a race from the California mainland to Catalina Island over a 26-mile course, across open water.”  Tom, Pete Peterson, Wally Burton, and Chauncy Granstrom were the original entrants.  Chauncy later pulled out, leaving the field to just the three.  Out of the trio, Tom trained the hardest for the feat and was first to cross, making the trek in 5 hours and 53 minutes.  “There’s an average of about 5 miles per hour,” Tom wrote, “with only the hands and arms to propel the hollow surfboard.”  Pete and Wally came in later, at about 6.5 hours.[6]

The crossing was well publicized in area newspapers.  “Blake Takes Paddle Board Catalina Race; 5 Hrs. 23 Min.” began one article that went on: “Battling rough and choppy seas most of the thirty-six nautical miles between Point Vicente, on the mainland, and Long Point, Catalina Island, Tom Blake crossed the channel on a paddle board yesterday in five hours and twenty-three minutes actual time.

“En route he took thirty-two minutes for rest and refreshments.

“Preston Peterson was second, covering the distance in six hours and twenty-nine minutes, and Wally Burton third in six hours and fifty minutes.

“Blake is the Hawaiian paddle board champion and Peterson and Burton are members of the lifeguard crew of the city of Santa Monica.

“The contenders were accompanied by the 40-foot cruiser Gloria H. under command of Capt. O.C. Olsen with timers and a physician aboard.  They were taken to Avalon, where they were awarded prizes.

“The object of the contest, according to Capt. George Watkins of the Santa Monica lifeguards, was to show the efficiency of the paddleboard in life-saving work.”[7]

Another newspaper printed: “GUARDS CONQUER CATALINA CHANNEL.  Blake, Peterson, Burton Make Trip to Island on Paddle Boards.”  The article continued: “Fighting choppy waves during the last five miles of the hazardous trip, three Santa Monica lifeguards yesterday bested the 29 mile stretch of open channel between Point Vicente and Catalina Island by crossing it on paddle boards.

“Tom Blake, Hawaiian champion in 1929, and club guard here, made the fastest time in the unique contest, which originally was planned as a demonstration of the use of paddle boards in the open sea.  Blake made the crossing in five hours and 53 minutes.”[8]

Under a sub-heading of “Peterson Second,” the newspaper report continued: “Second place went to Lieut. Preston Peterson, of the municipal lifeguard service, who made the crossing in six hours, 31 minutes.  Lieut. Wally Burton was third, finishing in 6 hours and 53 minutes.

“The three men were exhausted when dragged from the water by Guards Pat Lister and Bob Butts, who rowed a dory alongside the paddlers the entire distance, quite a feat in itself.  The Capt. O.C. Olsen Co. boat, Gloria H., chugged ahead as a convoy.

“The participants reported the crossing uneventful, except for the last few miles, when they were forced to battle through water made choppy by a brisk wind.”[9]

Under the sub-heading “‘Shot’ for News Reels,” the article went on to report: “News reels ‘caught them’ when they arrived at Avalon and were greeted by city officials and prominent yachtsmen of the island colony.

“Dr. J.S. Kelsey Jr., chairman of the lifeguard committee, which authorized the event, and J.H. Blanchard, a member of the committee, were among the Santa Monicans aboard the convoy boat.”[10]

“It started out as a test, not a race,” Tom underscored.  “It really put the [hollow] board across as a rescue device... During the paddle, starting just after midnight, all of us separated.  The convoy boat stayed with Pete and Wally.  I moved on, alone.  Finished alone, at Long Point.”[11] 

Unfortunately for Tom, Pete and Wally, everyone on the escort boat Gloria H. ate whatever food was available on the way to Catalina.  By the time the three paddlers reached the island, there was no food aboard to feed the weary ones.  To make matters worse, despite their weakened condition, the convoy boat headed back for the mainland right after the finish of the race.  On top of that, all three paddlers were sick to their stomachs.

 Eventually, after getting back to Santa Monica and being congratulated, Tom could not even find a ride back home and had to walk back.[12]  About the value of the crossing as a promotion of the hollow board, “The L.A. County and S.M. guard services,” Tom noted, “installed them soon after.”[13]

Two weeks later, a newspaper article summed-up Santa Monica’s recognition of Blake, Peterson, Burton and the hollow board:  “Guards Rewarded For Water Feat” was the title.  Sub-titled “Mayor Pins Medals Upon Men Who Paddled to Catalina Island,” it read: “Paddling one’s way across 29 miles of windswept and tumultuous ocean is no mean feat, Santa Monica city officials and civic leaders believe, so the three lifeguards who made the dangerous trip on paddle boards last Sunday were awarded medals yesterday for their ‘courage and accomplishment’ in an impressive ceremony at the municipal auditorium.  Band music, commendation speeches and the cheers of the crowd of onlookers made the presentation a colorful affair.”

Under a sub-heading titled “Without Parallel” the article went on to quote that: “‘It was an accomplishment without parallel in the world of aquatic sports,’ Dr. J.S. Kelsey, Jr., chairman of the beach commission declared, as he introduced Mayor William H. Carter, who, in turn, introduced the recipients of the medals and lauded their efforts.

“Tom Blake, club guard, who won the paddle board race; Lieut. Preston Peterson of the Santa Monica service, who made the second best time, and Lieut. Wally Burton, who arrived third, stepped up to the mayor, bowed slightly as they received the medals, and then stepped back to the chairs on the rostrum of the bandstand.”[14]  The medals had been decided upon early.  Only a day after the crossing, “Gold, silver and bronze medals were ordered struck by the” Santa Monica “city council… for members of the Santa Monica lifeguard service who yesterday finished the world’s longest paddle board race by paddling from the mainland to Catalina Island.”[15]

“‘The feat is destined to bring world wide renown to the Santa Monica lifeguard service,’” Dr. J.S. Kelsey declared.  The short article ended by announcing that “Arrangements were made by the [Santa Monica City] council to have the Santa Monica municipal band… play at the celebration…”[16]

A local Santa Monica newspaper featured two photographs of the winners, one on boards and the other receiving awards.  “‘To the victors belong the spoils,’ city commissioners and civic leaders said,” printed the paper, “as they presented three Santa Monica lifeguards with medals and boards for the paddle board crossing of the 29-mile Catalina channel.”[17]  In the awards photo, Tom is referred to as “Guard” Blake and is sporting a Santa Monica lifeguard jacket, the same as City of Santa Monica lifeguard Captain George Watkins, Pete Peterson and Wally Burton.[18]

“Well, I didn’t see it exactly like that,” Burton responded when told Tom did not consider the Catalina crossing a race but more an endurance test, “because we paddled constantly there, training for this thing.  He along with Pete, myself and a guy named Chauncy Granstrom.  There were four of us [who] were going to paddle over there; not as a race, but to see who could get there first.  It was a competitive thing, really.  And Tom was the best of the bunch of us, there was no doubt about it.  He arrived there first.  And Pete was second and I came in third.  Chauncy refused to make the trip, so that’s the way that ended up.”[19]

Wally Burton’s criticism of Blake and the Catalina Crossing grew stronger toward the end of his life.  At one point, Burton, who went on to become a Deputy Chief in the California Highway Patrol, claimed that Tom got Pete’s and Wally’s permission to paddle ahead the last couple of miles.  This flies directly in the face of what we know about Tom Blake, one of the most intense swimming competitors of the early Twentieth Century.  Burton’s claim is also contradicted by his own earlier acknowledgement that he, Burton, had gotten seasick during the paddle.  It’s possible he lamented getting sick to his stomach after 22 miles out.  It was then that Pete, concerned about him, held back to keep an eye on him.  Before he died in 2004, Burton said somewhat incomprehensibly, that he felt Blake’s coming in first was “opportunistic, and a little headline grabbing.”[20]

“We were more or less advertising that thing for Rogers,” he had said earlier, in 2000.  “And it was my understanding at the time that we were actually trying to make the best times, all of us, all three of us.  And, of course, Tom made the best time, Pete was second, I was third.  There were only three of us that actually completed the paddle over there, but the time he made was pretty darn good.”[21]

“That’s when Rogers began that deal,” Burton continued.  “And from my memory, Rogers used to come down to the guard station there in Santa Monica.  George [Watkins] and he would talk about how to make a board for rescue work.  And how it ever came into being I don’t claim any knowledge about that accurately, but it seemed to me like he worked with George with this idea about having struts like in the wing of an aircraft, and making hollow.  And the first ones he built had plugs in the end of them because they leaked so bad.  Then we’d have to stand them up on end and let the water pour out of them, after we got through with using the board.  And those that we paddled to the Island [Catalina] were actually of that type.”[22]

“Well,” Wally answered about how he physically felt after the Catalina paddle, “I’ll tell you, I was pretty pooped.  At one time there [during the paddle], I thought, ‘I’m going to duck this whole thing.’  I got sick, seasick really, rolling around on that board.  And the chop was such that you lay on your stomach for that length of time, or get on your knees a lot of the time and paddle.  But I forget what the time was… I was sick and so was Tom.  I’ve got pictures of Tom and myself on the boat, after we’d come in, there.  We’re both sacked out in bed, and we’re both sick.”[23]

Blake “told me,” Tommy Zahn wrote, “the Palos Verdes to Catalina paddle was arranged so that the seaworthiness of his newly patented board could be demonstrated (By the way, they all three paddled the Rogers ‘Model #1’).  He won numerous races on the coast, but after the Ala Wai Canal, there was so much bitterness and hard feeling among the [Waikiki] locals (which persists to this day!) that he backed off.  He was trying to make a living on the beach at the Outrigger Beach Services of the Outrigger Canoe Club.  Tom… is a very sensitive person; a great competitor, without all the fury of the manifest ‘killer’ competitor.  Tom had too much class for this.  His method [was] simple: complete preparation and dedication in every aspect.  In short, he accomplished what he had set out to do: establish his boards.  He residualized some financial returns, as well as the satisfaction of the humanitarian rewards of inventing a piece of lifeguarding equipment that has rescued thousands.”[24]

[1] This section is nearly identical to the one in Gault-Williams, 2007.
[2] Lynch, Gary.  Email to Malcolm, 29 November 1999.
[3] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
[4] Lynch, Gary.  Thomas Edward Blake Interview, April 1988.  Tom’s notations.
[5] Blake, Tom.  Letter to Tommy Zahn, October 12 & 14, 1972.  Tommy’s notation.
[6] Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 72-73.  See also Lynch, Gary.  Email to Malcolm Gault-Williams, 29 November 1999.
[7] Unidentified newspaper, October 1, 1932.
[8] Unidentified newspaper, “Guards Conquer Catalina Channel – Blake, Peterson, Burton Make Trip to Island on Paddle Boards,” October 1, 1932.
[9] Unidentified newspaper, “Guards Conquer Catalina Channel – Blake, Peterson, Burton Make Trip to Island on Paddle Boards,” October 1, 1932.
[10] Unidentified newspaper, “Guards Conquer Catalina Channel – Blake, Peterson, Burton Make Trip to Island on Paddle Boards,” October 1, 1932.
[11] Lynch, Gary.  “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake.”
[12] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
[13] Lynch, Gary.  “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake.”  Tom’s handwritten notation.
[14] Unidentified newspaper, “Guards Rewarded For Water Feat,” October 16, 1932.  Wally misspelled “Wallie.”  See photo of Tom, with paddleboard, cup, and presumably Dr. J.S. Kelsey, Jr.
[16] Unidentified newspaper, “Board Heroes – Guards Will Be Rewarded for Feat in Crossing Catalina Channel,” October 1, 1932.
[17] Santa Monica newspaper, October 3, 1932.
[18] Santa Monica newspaper, October 3, 1932.  Wally’s name misspelled in paper.
[19] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[20] Lockwood, Craig. “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” The Surfer’s Journal, ©2005-2006, p. 54.  Wally Burton quoted.
[21] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[22] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[23] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[24] Zahn, Tommy.  Letter to Gary Lynch, June 2, 1988; Tommy’s emphasis.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

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.

Monday, December 13, 2010

1930s: Hollow Board Evo

Hollow Board Evolution

Despite the bad feelings surrounding Tom Blake’s wins at the Hawaiian Surfboard Championships 1929-31, other surfboard shapers began experimenting with the chambered hollow board concept.  “Imagination of design,” Sam Reid remembered, “ran riot.”[1]

Duke Kahanamoku gave Tom high credit and respect for his contributions.  “Blond Tom Blake... was a haole who accepted the challenge,” related Duke to his biographer Joseph Brennan in their 1968 book World of Surfing, “and proved to be one of the finest board men to walk the beach.  Daring and imaginative he always was.  He, like myself, was driven with the urge to experiment.”  Addressing Blake’s hollow racing paddleboard, Duke acknowledged that, “He was the one who first built and introduced the paddleboard – a big hollow surfing craft that was simple to paddle and picked up waves easily but was difficult to turn.  It had straight rails, a semi-pointed tail, and laminated wood for the deck.  For its purpose it was tops.”[2]

Duke’s shaping of a hollow made Tom unabashedly proud.  He later wrote: “Duke Kahanamoku built his great 16-foot hollow redwood board along about the same time.  He is an excellent craftsman and shapes the lines and balance of his boards with the eye; he detects its irregularities by touch of the hand.

“I feel, however,” Blake added in deference to the Father of Modern Surfing, “that Duke has some appreciation of the old museum boards and from his wide experience in surfriding and his constructive turn of mind would have eventually duplicated them, regardless of precedent.”[3]

Duke’s Blake-inspired design, shaped around 1930, was a 16 footer, made of koa wood, weighed 114 pounds, and was designed after the ancient Hawaiian olo board, as Blake’s had been.[4]  “With his rare expertise and outstanding strength,” Joseph Brennan wrote, “Duke handled it well in booming surfs.  He used to defend his giant board and kid fellow surfers with, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Reason?  Because it’s small stuff.’”[5]

After Tom’s win at the Ala Wai, some surfboard and paddleboard builders who had not gone hollow began “using alternating strips of laminated pine or redwood, instead of one or several planks of the same wood,” historians Finney and Houston noted, obviously influenced by Blake’s direction to lessen the weight.  “These striped boards combined the strength of pine with the light weight of redwood and were believed to be more functional as well as more attractive.  About this time lightweight balsa boards were… tried, but were dismissed as too light and fragile for practical use.”[6]

The 10 foot redwood plank that Duke and the early Waikiki surfers had ridden since shortly after the beginning of the century had been “in vogue until 1924,” Duke recalled, “when Lorrin Thurston, one of Hawaii’s most enthusiastic surf riders, appeared with a twelve-foot board.  To Thurston also goes the credit of introducing the balsa wood board in 1926.  It was really a revival of the wili wili boards used by the old Hawaiian chiefs except for design.  The ten to twelve-foot boards were used exclusively until 1929 when I built [after Tom Blake] a successful sixteen-foot board, which is handled quite the same as the old Hawaiian boards, and I feel sure will put surf riding on much the same scale as it was before the white man came.”[7]

In the progression of the hollow boards’ evolution, Step One (1928) had been the almost accidental use of drilled holes filled in to make tiny air pockets.  Step Two (1929) saw the implementation of full hollow chambers.  Step Three came in 1932 with Blake’s use of the transversely braced hollow hull.  By using ribs for strength, much as in an airplane wing, Tom brought the weight of the hollow boards down even further.  It is not definitively known for sure, but it is probable that Tom’s friendship with aviator Gerard Vultee influenced him in this further development of the hollow board.  At any rate, the result of this design was a strong 40-to-70 pound board, depending on length.[8]

A final refinement to the Blake hollow board would not occur until the end of the decade, when the board rails began to be rounded.  Initially, Tom’s hollows were built with 90-degree flat-sided rails.  Whitewater would catch these and easily knock a board right out from under a rider, sending him or her sideways.  With the rounded rail, which was an original component to the traditional Hawaiian boards, water could move over and under the board with much less resistance.[9]

After 1932, the Blake hollow surfboard and paddleboard spread worldwide – from as far away as Great Britain and Brazil and even Hong Kong.  Although it would be years after  Blake’s death that true dynamic hollow surfboards could outperform against solid wooden boards and even foam and fiberglass boards, it did not take long for the hollow paddleboard to become an essential rescue device in oceans, rivers, and lakes.  As evidence of this, in the later half of the 1930s, the hollow paddle rescue board was adopted by the Pacific Coast Lifesaving Corps and used by the American Red Cross National Aquatic Schools for instruction.  Today, the rescue paddleboard can be found on almost any ocean beach protected by lifeguards.[10]  As for the hollow surfboard, it is significant to note that today, many of the more advanced epoxy boards are of hollow construction. While using technology undreamed of by Blake, they are nevertheless take-offs on his original hollow board concept.

[1] Lueras, p. 82.  Sam Reid quoted.
[2] Kahanamoku, Duke with Brennan, Joe.  World of Surfing, ©1968, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, NY, p. 38.  “Haole” is a Hawaiian term for a white person.
[3] Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 51-52.
[4] See Gault-Williams, 2005, “Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards” chapter for a detailed description of the differences between the olo, kiko‘o, alaia, and kioe (paipo) boards.
[5] Brennan, 1994, p. 23.
[6] Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 74.
[7] Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 51.  Duke indicated 1929, but it was most likely 1930.  A Duke olo currently hangs at Duke’s Canoe Club in Waikiki, but it is a later model than his 1930 olo.
[8] Lynch, Gary.  “Thomas Edward Blake: Beyond The Horizon,” May 20, 1989.
[9] Lynch, Gault-Williams, et. al.  TOM BLAKE: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, ©2001.
[10] Lynch, Gary.  “Thomas Edward Blake: Beyond The Horizon,” May 20, 1989.

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.