While most surfers have heard of Duke Kahanamoku, many are unaware of the other father of modern surfing, Tom Blake. While Duke was the sport’s celebrity evangelist, Blake was his Midwestern beach bum counterpart. Despite the fact that Blake was also a world-record swimmer (he actually beat Duke in a race), he wasn’t world famous for his oceanic exploits.
But while Duke may have been the one who inspired the world to surf, Blake was the man who made the sport accessible to the masses. Today, the boards we ride, the clothes we wear, and the beach lifestyle that most us have adopted all have their roots with the young transplant from Wisconsin.
Blake was born in Milwaukee but bounced between the homes of relatives throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin after his mother died when he was less than a year old. After dropping quitting high school during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, he adopted a nomadic lifestyle, working in New York, Miami, and Detroit.
In 1920, he met Duke Kahanamoku at a movie theatre in Detroit and was immediately struck by the Hawaiian’s charisma and presence. Inspired by Duke’s accomplishments and soft-spoken humility, Blake decided to dedicate his life to the ocean and soon moved to Santa Monica, California, where he worked as a lifeguard and part-time stunt man. At the same time, he began swimming competitively, and by 1922 he was the world record holder in the 10-mile open water event.
Blake tried surfing for the first time in 1921, but decided the sport wasn’t for him after a bad wipeout. He didn’t get back on a board for three years, but when he finally did start surfing again in 1924, he decided the best place to learn was Hawaii. He traveled to Oahu, looking for Duke, but Kahanamoku was off island, so Blake befriended Duke’s five brothers and began surfing with them. For the next 30 years, Blake would split his time between California and Hawaii, becoming a passionate student and advocate of Hawaiian culture and surfing’s Polynesian heritage in particular.
In the meantime, Blake began to notch a number of his own accomplishments in the surf. He was the first person to surf Malibu (along with his friend Sam Reid) and won the first Pacific Coast Surfriding Championship in 1928, which he also organised. He set eight event records in the 1930 Hawaiian Surfboard Paddling Championships and was part of the first group to successfully paddle from California to Catalina Island in 1932. And in 1936, he rode a documented wave for 4,500 feet in Waikiki, which was considered, for nearly a century, to be the longest wave ever ridden.
While Blake’s accomplishments in the water were noteworthy, it was his contribution to surfboard design and surfing culture in general that most people remember. An avid student of Hawaiian board design, he finagled his way into the Bishop Museum in 1926 to study the olos and alaias on display, and eventually created his own “hollow” olo design, which was essentially a redwood board with hundreds of holes drilled in it and then covered with a thin “skin.” This board was far lighter than the other olo-style boards and was the craft that Blake rode to victory in the 1928 Pacific Coast Surfriding Championship.
He then experimented with completely hollow boards that featured transverse bracing, and ultimately received a patent for these relatively lightweight “kookboxes,” which made surfing much more accessible for the average person.
In 1935, Blake began tinkering with a skeg that he had sourced from an old speedboat, and eventually found a way to affix it to the bottom of his board—the first surfboard fin. This innovation changed the sport virtually overnight, as Blake could now trim down the line and ride the open face proficiently, rather than simply riding toward shore in the whitewater. While today’s surfboards feature a range of different fin configurations and systems, they can all be traced back to Blake’s first fin in the mid-1930s, which essentially opened the door for performance surfing.
A lifelong innovator, Blake also invented the first sailboard (a precursor to the windsurfer), the first functional water housing for cameras (which resulted in photographic spreads in National Geographic), and a number of improved lifesaving/lifeguarding tools. He is credited with saving thousands of lives over the years, both as a lifeguard and indirectly through his inventions. He also wrote the first book on surfing, Hawaiian Surfboard, as well as a second book titled Hawaiian Surf Riding and articles on surfboard building for Popular Mechanics and Popular Science.
While many of Blake’s contributions had direct impacts on surfboard design, the influence he had on surf culture as a whole was equally important, albeit less tangible. An eternal nomad and the prototypical beach bum, Blake pioneered and personified what we now commonly refer to as the beach lifestyle. He took what he learned from the Hawaiians and put a West Coast spin on it, single-handedly creating and defining Southern California surf culture. Even his appearance—loose-fitting clothes, slip-on shoes, and unkempt sun-bleached hair—became emblematic of the surfing subculture.
Nearly a century later, most of us are still living Tom Blake’s dream. We look like him, dress like him, model our lifestyles after his, and, because of that first fin he affixed to a board, even surf like him. If Duke Kahanamoku was the father of modern surfing, then his friend and acolyte Tom Blake was its prophet—the man who took the Hawaiian “sport of kings” and turned it into a global lifestyle.
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