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Celebrating Nick Gabaldon, the First "Documented" African American Surfer

For Nick, surfing was a vehicle to improve his world. The ocean was his medium, which is fitting because the sea knows no prejudice; it's the ultimate equalizer.
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Our lives revolve around stories. When told correctly, stories have the power to inspire, challenge, and organize ideas in an otherwise puzzling world. They often provide a framework for understanding ourselves, so when a story realizes its potential, it's an absolutely transcendent event. Nick Gabaldon's is one such story. Laden with superlatives, it strikes a deeper place where passion, risk, and iconoclasm intersect.

According to Matt Warshaw, author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing, Nick Gabaldon was the first African American surfer. He learned to surf at an informally segregated beach called "The Inkwell" in Santa Monica in the 1940s and regularly paddled twelve miles north to surf Malibu, one of California's best waves. In doing so, Gabaldon defied conventions in an America that had institutionally prevented many blacks from accessing the ocean (and swimming pools) through a variety of latently racist legislation encouraged by Jim Crow laws, which weren't formally dismantled until 1965 when Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act.

But that's just context. Forget the racial boundaries he collapsed by simply standing on a surfboard. Instead, ponder the stroke-after-shoulder-burning-stroke that a 12-mile open ocean paddle demands. Gabaldon pursued his passion for surfing to an extent most would never consider, which stands alone as an impressive feat, magnified further by his tragic, yet poignant conclusion.

According to most reports, on June 5, 1951, Nick Gabaldon caught his last wave. During an eight-foot south swell, Gabaldon lost control of his board and struck a piling beneath the Malibu Pier. His board washed up on the beach shortly after. Three days later, lifeguards recovered his body and the small community of (white) surfers who had come to accept and respect Nick mourned.

Eerily, just six days before he passed away, Gabaldon, who was enrolled at Santa Monica City College, submitted a poem entitled "Lost Lives" to the school's literary magazine. The poem praised the power of the sea and foreshadowed the events of June 5th. Nick wrote:

The sea vindictive, with waves so high,

For me to battle and still they die...

Scores and scores have fallen prey,

To the salt of animosity,

And many more will victims be,

Of the capricious, vindictive sea.

We can't pretend to know what Nick was thinking as he glided towards the Malibu Pier on his final wave. And we'll never know the exact relationship between Nick's poem and his end. But we can salute the depth of his passion and its cultural import.

As Director Richard Yelland told me, Nick's story isn't about surfing. It's about humanity. It's about sourcing inspiration from extraordinary ambitions and obstacles like those that Nick confronted and applying them to your own life, whatever that may mean. For Nick, surfing was a vehicle to improve his world. The ocean was his medium, which is fitting because the sea knows no prejudice; it's the ultimate equalizer. As is a basketball court. Or a soccer pitch. Or a football field. Or, especially, a great story.

Check out The Inertia for weekly features celebrating black surf culture this month and check out Nike Surf's Facebook Page to watch the documentary online on Thursday, February 16.