By Gary Walker
The name Nicholas Gabaldòn might not be recognizable to many Southern Californians, but among certain denizens of one of the region’s most iconic subcultures, he is a symbol of skill and akin to a trailblazer in a sport known for its insular nomenclature and rituals.
Gabaldòn was an African-American surfer who rode the waves between Santa Monica and Malibu in the 1930s and 1940s. He reportedly penetrated the Los Angeles surf culture and informally integrated the ranks of local surfers at a time when African-Americans were often not welcome at some of the area beaches.
Gabaldòn was tragically killed in a surfing accident when he struck the Malibu Pier in 1951.
To help celebrate his legacy, Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay is joining with the Black Surfers Collective Saturday, June 1 in Santa Monica beginning at 10 a.m. for “Nicholas Gabaldòn Day,” which will feature free swimming lessons, a beach exploration, a historical exhibit on beach culture and African-Americans, activities at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium and a lifeguard boat exhibition and water show, among other activities.
County Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents Santa Monica, have been invited to join the celebration.
This will be the second commemoration of Gabaldòn, a Santa Monica High School graduate and pioneering surfer who sought the same excitement that many of his contemporaries, past and present, wanted then and now: to catch the perfect wave.
Heal the Bay became a part of this year’s celebration through a series of connections with people who are familiar with Gabaldòn’s legacy – Allison Rose Jefferson, a historic preservationist, and Rick Blocker, a historian of the Black Surfers Association.
Jefferson was introduced by Blocker to Meredith McCarthy, who is in charge of the environmental organization’s Healthy Neighborhoods, Healthy Environments initiative.
“Healthy Neighborhoods, Healthy Environments strives to always connect the inland community with the coast, because we are deeply connected through our storm drain system, through the economy, and so many other connections,” McCarthy said. “Meeting Allison and talking about the Bay Street site that is sometimes called ‘the Inkwell’ really started to connect the African-American stewardship in so many of the communities that we’ve worked in like Compton and Watts.”
The June 1 event will begin along a historic stretch of beach in Santa Monica where African-American families came to frolic and enjoy the ocean breezes since the 1920s, an area which the City Council paid tribute to five years ago.
On Feb. 14, 2008, approximately 100 people gathered at Bay Street and Ocean Front Walk in Santa Monica for the commemoration of a plaque recognizing the historic significance of what was once known as “Inkwell Beach,” where Gabaldòn reportedly learned some of his early moves and eventually earned his way into the broader surf culture on the Westside.
Former Santa Monica Mayor Nathaniel Trives spent time at “Inkwell” as a teenager growing up in the beach city.
“I feel that this is a very positive step for the city. I had some good times here,” recalled Trives, who attended the 2008 ceremony.
Jeff Williams, a member of the Black Surfers Collective, a Southern California African-American surfing club, was taught by Blocker to surf and through him learned about Gabaldòn.
“He used to have to paddle his board from the ‘Inkwell’ 12 miles up the coast to Malibu to surf because he didn’t have access to the white beaches of Malibu,” Williams said.
Williams said he decided to create a day commemorating Gabaldòn after seeing a short by Nike on the trailblazing surfer called “12 Miles North,” which chronicled Gabaldòn’s trek from Santa Monica to Malibu. “It was a small tribute day where we were going to give free surf lessons and commemorate other black surfers that we have lost,” Williams explained.
“12 Miles North” will be shown at the event.
According to Williams, June 1 was chosen because it is believed to be the closest weekend date to when Gabaldòn died.
“I really have enjoyed the process of working with Heal the Bay because they have been so open to exploring new ideas to engage people,” said Jefferson. “It’s refreshing to see that there are organizations that are aware of how to engage broader audiences.”
Councilman Kevin McKeown said he was familiar with Gabaldòn and his importance to surfing, to Inkwell Beach and to Santa Monica. “I’m happy to have played some role in helping to get that commemorative plaque installed,” the councilman said.
“Nick’s parents were black and Hispanic, and while a Samohi student he learned how to surf at Inkwell Beach. It’s hard to imagine today what it meant for a young man of color to become one of the pioneers in a sport that was about to become symbolic of the best of Southern California.
“As the existence of ‘Inkwell Beach’ reveals, the beach in the 1940s was as racially segregated as the rest of America,” McKeown continued. “Motorists were hesitant to stop for a black surfer hitchhiking, so Nick famously would paddle his surfboard across Santa Monica Bay to ride the bigger breaks at Malibu.”
Jefferson said integrating the various important elements of monitoring the environment, the sport and culture of surfing and the historical aspect of African-American life and its history in the abovementioned two areas are what she finds intriguing about Nicholas Gabaldòn Day.
“For young people, I’m really happy that we’re engaging them in a number of ways,” said Jefferson, who created the event’s history exhibit. “Seeing how these different events relate together is a way of broadening people’s horizons and we need to realize that in terms of the regional history we have a shared heritage in the area and all of it is relative to our experiences.”
Williams thanked Jefferson for attracting sponsors to this year’s event such as the Santa Monica Conservancy, the California Historical Society, Rusty’s on the Pier and Los Angeles County.
“She has taken our small little thing in one year to something that is completely brandable and should be fantastic for years to come,” he said.
“Nick, being of both black and Mexican descent is the ideal role mode for our group,” Williams added. “Even though the vast majority of our members are black, our motto is ‘Diversity in the Lineup.’”
McKeown believes Gabaldòn’s legacy goes beyond his skills on a surfboard. The councilman likened him to a latter-day trailblazer and quoted a portion of the bridge of a popular Beach Boys song to highlight Gabaldòn’s importance to local history.
“Before surfing became a craze, before the civil rights movement, before we had a black president, Nick Gabaldòn, right here in Santa Monica, broke all the stereotypes and proved that when you catch a wave, you’re sitting on top of the world,” McKeown said.
Information, www.HealtheBay.org. §