Remembering Surf Pioneer Nick Gabaldon

Paula Lehman

Just down the road from ASP Headquarters in Santa Monica, CA, is a plaque that commemorates the spot's past incarnation as the Inkwell: A stretch of beach that, in the 1940s, was often used by the beach-going members of the black community. One of the Inkwell's prominent surfers was Nick Gabaldon, who became famous for frequently paddling 12 miles to Malibu, where discrimination deterred most black surfers from entering via the beach. In mid-June, locals crowded the lineup at the Inkwell -- now known as Bay Street -- to honor him and his legacy at the third annual Nick Gabaldon Day.

In a circle around their boards, attendees were asked to share the things for which they're grateful. Toward the end of the line, a young man named Christian introduced himself and said, "I'm grateful for surfers like Nick who braved the water so we can all enjoy the ocean."

Before it was worn as a badge of pride, the term "Inkwell" was a derogatory term for the stretch of beach popular with the black community because of its accessibility and close proximity to predominantly black neighborhoods. Yet while surfers like Gabaldon faced a deluge of bigotry on land, they found a way to be respected in the water.

(Left to Right) Ricky Grigg, unknown, Vicki Williams, and Nick Gabaldon enjoying Malibu, circa 1950. Photography courtesy of Vicki Williams/Photo by Joe Quigg Nick Gabaldon (right) sharing the waves with local surfers in Malibu, circa 1950. Photography courtesy of Vicki Williams/Photo by Joe Quigg - WSL

"Nick Gabaldon's story speaks to race issues in late 1940's America," said Richard Yelland, director of the 2012 documentary, 12 Miles North: The Nick Gabaldon Story. "But it also speaks volumes about one man who had a dream to surf world-class waves at Malibu despite how he might be treated when he got there."

A Santa Monica native, Gabaldon learned to surf on a 13-foot rescue board he had borrowed from a lifeguard friend, and quickly became a standout. Throughout the five years between his return from service with the United States Navy and the day he died, Gabaldon often sought out the rolling point breaks of Malibu, making the long paddle north numerous times. Despite the racial politics, his surf skills earned respect among the white wave-riders in the lineup.

Gabaldon lost his life in heavy surf in Santa Monica. The Black Surfers Collective, along with Heal the Bay and The Santa Monica Conservancy, have been hosting the annual celebration of his life since 2012.