Editor's Note: June 6th is Nick Gabaldón Day, a day to celebrate a man whose life was cut short by the sea, a day to reflect on where we've been, where we're going and a day to imagine what barriers are still left to be broken.
Born in 1927 to a black mother and a Latin American father, Nick Gabaldón's life was a confluence of cultures and ideas representing Los Angeles at that time.
As a teenager, the rule of segregation was still mightily enforced in L.A. Like a lot of families of color in the area at the time, the Gabaldóns spent summer days at the 'Ink Well,' A 200-foot stretch of roped off sand located between Bay Street and Ocean Boulevard in Santa Monica, not far from the World Surf League headquarters.
It was the only beach in the L.A. area where people of color could enjoy the sunshine and salt air without risk of reprisal. For young Nick, the ocean represented freedom.
A talented bodysurfer, eventually a lifeguard named Buzzy Trent took notice of his skills. Lending him a heavy, oversized surfboard, Trent taught young Gabaldón how to stand up and ride.
Trent and Gabaldón came from considerably different worlds, but the thrill was the same.
Trent was one of the original Malibu surfers and what one today might call an influencer. Trent would soon go on to pioneer to big waves at Makaha and Waimea Bay in Hawaii, but in the late 1940s Malibu was the epicenter of the surf scene.
Malibu provided a backdrop for the budding bohemians to develop new boards and approaches to riding waves, and they embraced Gabaldón as one of their own.
"He was the only African American, it was like he was breaking all kinds of barriers," said early Malibu pioneer Ricky Grigg in the documentary "12 Miles North" about Gabaldón's life. "The ocean doesn't care about color, creed or race. In the ocean we're equals."
But simple acts like getting to the beach were a challenge for Gabaldón. According to Matt Warshaw's Encyclopedia Of Surfing, it's believed that at some point during the summer of 1949, Gabaldón first paddled from the Ink Well to Malibu, a distance of 12 miles.
Because he didn't own a car, he was forced to either hitchhike or paddle. For weeks on end he chose to paddle, making the trip to Malibu in the morning and back home to Santa Monica in the afternoon after a full day of surfing.
"Nick's journey is symbolic of the middle passage our forefathers underwent 400 years ago. This is a story of breaking through, of finding freedom," said Rick Blocker of the Black Surfing Association during the premiere of "12 Miles North" in 2012.
In 1951, 24-year-old Gabaldón was splitting his time between the Point at Malibu and the classroom at Santa Monica College. On May 31, he submitted a poem entitled "Lost Lives," which told of "the sea vindictive, with waves so high / For men to battle and still they die."
Foreshadowing his own passing, a week later, on June 6th, Gabaldón tragically died when he attempted to shoot the pier at Malibu during a booming south swell.
Documented in Frederick Kohner's novel 1957 novel, "Gidget," Gabaldón is dismissed, referred to as that "colored boy" who crashed into the pier.
It would be incorrect to say that Gabaldón's death was a flashpoint for L.A.'s African American community, that it inspired a wave of color in the lineup. Decades after his passing the ethnic composition of the sport remained relatively unchanged. Tony Corley captured the moment in a 1974 letter to Surfer Magazine.
"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," wrote Corley.
"Stand up and make yourselves known, B.S.B.'s [Black Surfing Brothers]. It could be the beginning of a hot wave of color," he beckoned.
Black surfers around the world heard the call, sending him dozens of letters in support. He also received hate mail from white surfers that was overtly evil and racist.
Confronting the issue head on, the following year, Corley founded the Black Surfing Association to give a voice to black surfers and build a community unlike any the sport of surfing had seen, and he's still at it to this day.
In 2018, Mikey February became the first black African surfer to surf on the Championship Tour. Today, he has stepped away from full-time competition to inspire a new generation.
February, whose father was not allowed to surf his local break because of Apartheid rules, has quickly blossomed into an icon, giving surfers of color someone they can identify with. And February is doing it all on his terms thanks to his timeless style, pure passion for surfing and ability to simply be himself.
And right in Gabaldón's own backyard a new generation is finding their place in the Malibu lineup. Giovanni Douresseau came from one of the hardest neighborhoods in South Central L.A., and today, just like Gabaldón, is a fixture at Malibu.
"Malibu, yeah, that's my happy place," Douresseau said over a poki bowl in Santa Monica last year. "If I hadn't found surfing, I don't know what my life would be like. It could have easily gone in a very bad direction. I want to break that cycle for kids."