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Without Tom Blake You Might Not Be Surfing

by on Tuesday 17th June, 2014   7617 Visits   Comments


Were it not for Tom Blake would you be surfing?  Whether you longboard or short board, SUP or go finless, your life as a surfer has been influenced by Tom Blake; a pioneer in surfing known by many, but whose accomplishments have influenced millions.

The hollow surfboard and the fin are two innovations which forever changed the sport and many say ushered in modern surfing as we know it. Tom Blake may rank as one of surfing’s most influential surfers not just because of his exploits on the water, but also due to his designs and persistence in promoting the sport for its health, leisure and life saving potential. 

The hollow surfboard and the fin are two innovations which forever changed the sport and many say ushered in modern surfing as we know it.

Three surfers and filmmakers from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are working to bring the incredible and courageous life of Tom Blake to the screen with their documentary Surfing with Tom. With three weeks left in their Kickstarter campaign.

Tom’s invention of the hollow surfboard and the fin forever changed surfing, lifeguarding, paddle boarding, and windsurfing. These innovations also helped fuel the nascent skateboarding era. The rescue torpedo and groundbreaking lifeguarding techniques developed by Tom have both played a role in saving the lives of tens of thousands of people, young and old, across the world. Tom’s journey is as epic as his accomplishments are far-reaching.

Of all Tom’s accomplishments he was most proud of his promotion of water safety, the use of surfboards in rescue, and his invention of the rescue torpedo. Despite a legacy that is seen in waters across the globe, heard in the sounds of surfers riding waves, or in the voices of children playing safely at the pool under the watchful eye of lifeguards, Tom’s life was marked by a never-ending search for belonging and a place to call home.

Often living out of his station wagon, a small houseboat, or residing at the home of friends in exchange for work, Tom was always on the move.  The common refrain among those who knew him was, “Many people knew of Tom Blake, but no one knew who he was.”

“Tom’s life is one of legendary courage and endless vision, coupled with a sense of humility and isolation that lead to few knowing who he was or the scope of what he accomplished.” Says filmmaker, Kenneth Cole. And given the millions of surfers in our waters, and the growth of the sport as reflected in companies, websites, blogs and the popularity of surf culture across the globe, they remain confident that Tom’s story will resonate with surfers and non-surfers alike to support their on Kickstarter campaign which ends on July 4, 2014.

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Even a brief glimpse into Tom Blake’s life reveals a story that goes far beyond surfing and is one that is all the more incredible given the timeframe in which it occurred.  Born in 1902 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Tom’s life abruptly changed when his mother died of tuberculosis. As an 11 month old infant, Tom was taken in by his relatives in Washburn, Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Superior.  So began a life of uncertainty establishing a life long search for a sense of belonging and a place to call home.

Despite this, Tom’s life is marked by one of opportunities seized, challenges faced, and uncharted waters successfully traversed. Inspired by a chance encounter in Detroit with Hawaiian legend and Olympian, Duke Kahanamoku, Tom made his way west to the California coastline. In short order, he found work as a stuntman, model and actor. At the same time, he established his prowess as a swimmer, becoming champion and record holder in the ten mile and open water swim and other events.

Tom found a way to not only call Hawaii home, but also embrace and study the history of islands to ensure that his efforts to educate others on the sport honoured the legacy of those who came before him.

Eventually Tom found his way to Hawaii. It was there, with no family and only an emerging friendship with Duke, that Tom finally found a place that he could call home.

Filmmaker John Ruebartsch adds, “Few people comprehend the courage it took for Tom to leave Wisconsin in the early 1920s and chart a course to, what was for many at the time, an unfamiliar Hawaiian culture.” Despite this, Tom found a way to not only call Hawaii home, but also embrace and study the history of islands to ensure that his efforts to educate others on the sport honoured the legacy of those who came before him. This resulted in the first historical and instructional book on surfing ever published, Hawaiian Surfriders.

Decades later, Tom left Hawaii and began his journey back to Washburn, where he would live the remaining decades of his life in relative obscurity. Ever the loner Tom remained true to his relationship with nature, living a simple life, at times, out of his camper at picturesque Houghton Falls.

More than a mere footnote in the history of surfing, Tom’s life is as remarkable as what he accomplished. With several weeks remaining, three surfers and filmmakers are working hard to spread the word, and yes, the stoke that Tom Blake has helped create. 

So ask yourself, were it not for Tom Blake would you be surfing? Would you have the countless hours in the water, or great anticipation as you check the forecast online, or the friendships that have gone from the lineup and now populate your time on land? If surfing has enriched your life consider supporting the Surfing with Tom Kickstarter campaign. campaign. 

With several weeks remaining until the campaign ends on July 4th, consider it a way of simply saying, “Thanks, Tom”.

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