It’s Black History Month, and while it would be wonderful to remember all the great black surfers throughout history, and to celebrate all the black surfers on the world tour and in the lineup, this is certainly not the case. Since the early 20th century surfing has been—and remains—a primarily white dude affair.
“It’s real simple,” Black Surfing Association (BSA) member Solo Scott told me. “Geographics and demographics. Minorities tend to live in the inner cities based on affordability. Surfing is more upper middle class, affluent.”
“White Wash,” a documentary about black surfers directed by Ted Woods, explains how slave masters held Africans as slaves on the plantations for over 400 years with the understanding that if their slaves learned to swim they could use that as a means of escaping from bondage. This line continues forward to the 19th century and beyond. The 13th amendment may have abolished slavery, but segregation kept black people from beaches and swimming pools.
The first documented African-American surfer in California—and likely the entire mainland USA—was Nick Gabaldon. Born February 23, 1927 in Los Angeles, his mother was black and his father was Latino. Nick was one of 50 black students at Santa Monica High School during the 1940s. He taught himself how to surf at a 200-foot roped off stretch of demarcated beach in Santa Monica known as the Inkwell, one of the few beaches where blacks could go without being harassed. After serving in the Navy Reserve during World War II, Nick enrolled in Santa Monica College. He studied, surfed, worked as a lifeguard, and wrote a poem called “Lost Lives”—
The sea vindictive, with waves so high
For men to battle and still they die.
Many has it taken to its bowels below;
Without regard it thus does bestow
Its laurels to unwary men.
Scores and scores have fallen prey
To the slat of animosity;
And many more will victims be
Of the capricious, vindictive sea.
Nick’s poem would prove to be eerily prophetic. Six days after submitting it to the Santa Monica College literary magazine, while surfing a big south swell at Malibu, Nick slammed into the pier. His body was found a few days later. The coroner ruled that he died as a result of drowning.
In January 1974, Tony Corley wrote a letter to Surfer magazine—
Attention: Black Surfing Brothers, In ten years of wave riding I’ve met only two black brothers who’ve sought the sensuous pleasures found in the tubes of Mother Ocean… So now I turn to Surfer in hopes that you might help bring together the B.S.B.s locally, nationally, and worldwide… Who knows, maybe a Black Surfing Association (or BSA) may evolve from this attempt to communicate and congregate. Fear not, other surfing brothers, Mother Ocean knows no prejudice in her ovum.
So began the Black Surfing Association. Today, there are over 200 members.
Founded in 2012, the Black Surfers Collective has 844 members. Their mission is to raise cultural awareness and promote diversity to the sport of surfing through community activities, outreach, and camaraderie. They do a lot of fun events, among them a Nick Gabaldon Day.
“I’m hopeful that the black surfing community here in the United States will increase,” says black surf historian Rick Blocker in “White Wash.” “I know it’s increasing worldwide. I know that in islands all over and other continents and countries that more and more blacks are surfing, and they’re starting to feel the community amongst one another.”
Says surfer Andrea Kabwasa: “When you’re riding the ocean, when you’re riding the waves, you’re in sync with nature. There is no race.”