Saturday, February 25, 2012

1930s: Beginning

For surfing, the 1930s can be said to have begun with the Pacific Coast Surfing Championships begun in 1928 and Honolulu’s Ala Wai races that ran in 1929 and 1930, both of them backdrops to Tom Blake’s development of the hollow surfboard and paddleboard.

For the world as a whole, however, the decade began in the shadow of “Black Friday,” October 28, 1929, when the New York Stock Exchange collapsed and the worst worldwide economic crisis of the Twentieth Century knocked people on their asses all across the globe.[1] In fact, the 1930s became known as “The Great Depression,” because of the impact of the financial markets meltdown. All families who lived through it remember it vividly and all families were forever changed because of it. For many, it resulted in death. For most, The Great Depression meant hardships of many kinds.

Surfers, though, did not feel the impact of the financial hard times as much as most people. They were not spared by any means, but in more than a few cases, they even reveled in their “make do” lifestyle.

“Well, as far as surf was concerned,” pioneer California surfer, photographer and dentist Doc Ball pointed out to me, most surfers weren’t that affected because swell responded to the natural flow of the planet, not the financial. “Of course, we had a little trouble getting’ gasoline, but then it was 7-cents a gallon in those days… that’s the way it was. It [the Great Depression] kept us kinda limited in certain ways, but we had surfin’ to take care of everything. Long as there’s waves, why, you didn’t have to pay for those. All we had to do was buy the gas to get there.”[2] It certainly didn’t hurt that surfers were mostly young and many not thoroughly integrated into the work force.

Although the 1929 stock market crash was sudden, the Great Depression took a while to build in intensity. But, by 1932, it dominated the American lifestyle. In the United States alone, 1,161 banks failed after the crash, nearly 20,000 businesses had gone bankrupt, and 21,000 people committed suicide in that year alone.[3]

It has been estimated that by the start of the decade, there were over a hundred surfers in Hawai‘i – most all on the south shore of O‘ahu.[4] Less than fifty surfers rode the waters of Southern California, and fewer than that in Australia (New South Wales) and New Zealand.


Santa Monica

Tom Blake returned to the United States Mainland in 1932, most likely to oversee the construction of his first production hollow 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.”[5]

Tom made better money at private beaches and swim clubs, so perhaps he was not all that interested in working for a municipality. Tom was definitely 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.

“Well, there’s one thing that’s deeply impressed in my mind,” Wally Burton remembered about Tom Blake. “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.”[6]

“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.”[7]

“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.”[8]

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.”[9]

By 1932, Tom Blake hollow paddleboards and hollow surfboards had been available, commercially, for less than a year. Almost as if he had planned 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.”[10] 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 nearly two decades earlier, beginning in 1911.[11]

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…”[12]

Before paddleboard or surfboard rescues, the rescue dory had been the norm and continued to be well after boards proved more functional. The dory took a long time to launch and reach victims. It also often took two men to row it. Eventually, the board 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.


Catalina Crossing, 1932

Although many would later refer to it as a contest or race, the 1932 Catalina Crossing 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.[13] “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.[14]

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]…”[15]

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.”[16]

Tom’s board for the crossing was a Rogers manufacture; a 14-foot hollow board that weighed 75 pounds.[17]

Originally, there were four paddlers entered in “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.[18]

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.”[19]

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.”[20]

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.”[21]

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.”[22]

“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.”[23] 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. Consequently, all three paddlers got sick to their stomachs (Wally’s second time). Eventually, after getting back to Santa Monica and being congratulated, Tom could not even find a ride back home and had to walk back.[24] 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.”[25]

Two weeks later, Blake, Peterson and Burton were again recognized for their achievement – this time at a better organized ceremony. “Guards Rewarded For Water Feat” was the title of a newspaper article covering their recognition. 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.”[26] 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.”[27]

“‘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…”[28]

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.”[29] 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.[30]

“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.”[31]

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.”[32]

“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.”[33]

“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.”[34]

“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.”[35]

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.”[36]

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[1] Grun, Bernard. Timetables of History, ©1991, p. 497.
[2] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with John “Doc” Ball, January 10, 1998. See also Gault-Williams, Malcolm, “Doc Ball, Through The Master’s Eye,” Longboard, Volume 6, Number 4, August 1998. Written with Gary Lynch.
[2] Ball, John “Doc.” California Surfriders, 1946.
[3] Grun. Timetables of History, ©1991, p. 497.
[4] London, Jack, 1922, p. 8. Quoted in Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 71.
[5] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[6] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[7] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[8] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[9] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
[10] Los Angeles Times, “Lifeguard Uses Surfboard in Rescuing Pair,” July 17, 1932.
[11] See Chapter One, “Long Beach, USA, 1910-1927.”
[12] 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.
[13] This section is nearly identical to the one in Gault-Williams, 2007.
[14] Lynch, Gary. Email to Malcolm, 29 November 1999.
[15] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
[16] Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Interview, April 1988. Tom’s notations.
[17] Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, October 12 & 14, 1972. Tommy’s notation.
[18] Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 72-73. See also Lynch, Gary. Email to Malcolm Gault-Williams, 29 November 1999.
[19] Unidentified newspaper, October 1, 1932.
[20] Unidentified newspaper, “Guards Conquer Catalina Channel – Blake, Peterson, Burton Make Trip to Island on Paddle Boards,” October 1, 1932.
[21] Unidentified newspaper, “Guards Conquer Catalina Channel – Blake, Peterson, Burton Make Trip to Island on Paddle Boards,” October 1, 1932.
[22] Unidentified newspaper, “Guards Conquer Catalina Channel – Blake, Peterson, Burton Make Trip to Island on Paddle Boards,” October 1, 1932.
[23] Lynch, Gary. “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake.”
[24] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
[25] Lynch, Gary. “Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake.” Tom’s handwritten notation.
[26] 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.

[28] Unidentified newspaper, “Board Heroes – Guards Will Be Rewarded for Feat in Crossing Catalina Channel,” October 1, 1932.
[29] Santa Monica newspaper, October 3, 1932.
[30] Santa Monica newspaper, October 3, 1932. Wally’s name misspelled in paper.
[31] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[32] Lockwood, Craig. “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” The Surfer’s Journal, ©2005-2006, p. 54. Wally Burton quoted.
[33] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[34] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[35] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Wally Burton, May 10, 2000.
[36] Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, June 2, 1988; Tommy’s emphasis.

1 comment:

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