Commemorating a Surf Pioneer

Nick Gabaldon Day celebrates Black surf culture

Class is in session by the Santa Monica Pier during the first annual Nick Gabaldon Day festivities.

On Saturday June 1st, dozens of inner city kids ventured splashing and laughing into the gentle waist high peaks near Santa Monica Pier to get their first taste of surfing. Many of these kids had never before even visited the beach. No longer a far-flung and exotic pastime for those kids; surfing that day became a very real and very pursuable activity.

Nick Gabaldon, a Santa Monica native, was the nation’s first known African American surfer. He’d grown up surfing those same peaks in the 1940s when it was a segregated section of beach known as the “Inkwell.” Sixty-two years ago this week, Gabaldon died after striking a piling of Malibu Pier while surfing a solid eight foot swell. The City of Santa Monica officially moved to honor Gabaldon’s legacy in 2008 with a beachside monument near Bay Street.

Put on by the Black Surfer’s Collective, in partnership with Heal the Bay and L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the first annual Nick Gabaldon Day featured free surf lessons for all comers and marine biology lectures led by volunteer naturalists. The nearby Santa Monica Pier Aquarium also screened two documentaries, White Wash and 12 Miles North, which examine Gabaldon’s impact and the history of black surf culture. A memorial paddle out for Gabaldon kicked off the days activities.

In a post to his website following the event, Ridley-Thomas noted that six out of ten African American and Latino kids can’t swim—double the rate of white kids—and that African American children drown at rates far, far higher than their white counterparts. The Black Surfer’s Collective and Heal the Bay are trying to address those numbers by bringing African American and Latino kids to the beach.

“This years event was so special due to the fact that we were able to get approximately 150 new surfers into the water to share the stoke that we all love so much,” said Jeff Williams, co-president of the Black Surfer’s Collective. “Surfing is a gift to be shared with others, that they might one day share it too.”

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