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The Life, Legacy and Tragedy of Surf Pioneer Nick Gabaldón

Nick Gabaldón very nearly changed the entire face of modern surfing.

Nick Gabaldón is somewhat of a mythological figure. Few photographs exist of him. When founder Rick Blocker commissioned a portrait of the pioneering surfer in 2013, Los Angeles artist Richard Wyatt produced an interpretation of Gabaldon’s visage rather than a replication. 

Speculative jargon — allegedly, rumored — are often used in recounting his personal history. A popular anecdote that tells of Gabaldón paddling the 12 miles from the Inkwell to Malibu’s famed point break and which served as the foundation of a Nike documentary, may not be accurate. The legend of Nick Gabaldón is shrouded in mystery.

What remains undisputed is that Gabaldón was a trailblazer. The Santa Monica, California native of Mexican and African American heritage was the first documented surfer of color in Santa Monica Bay. His life was tragically cut short on June 6, 1951 when he drowned in a surfing accident at Malibu at the age of 24.

“A Place of Celebration and Pain”

In 2008, the City of Santa Monica officially recognized the “Inkwell” and Nick Gabaldón with a plaque installation at Bay Street and the Oceanfront Walk. 

The inscription reads, “A place of celebration and pain;” a reference to the ignominious history behind the derogatory name “Inkwell” which was meant to describe the skin color of the patrons who frequented the small strip in Santa Monica that was only open to black swimmers. 

Black Girls Surf founder and activist Rhonda Harper has been researching Gabaldon’s life and tracing his ancestry since 2006.

“His father was Latino and his mother was African American. They were originally from Texas and they came to Santa Monica in 1918. They were one of the first interracial marriages in California. That was unheard of back then. As a matter of fact, they’re not even buried in the same cemetery. Nick’s mother is in one and I don’t know where his dad is.”

Their son Nicolás Rolando Gabaldón was born on February 23, 1927 in Los Angeles, California but grew up in Santa Monica. He was one of a few students of color at Santa Monica High School in the 1940s. 

The details are murky, but after graduation in 1945, he is believed to have enlisted in the United States Navy Reserves during World War II. According to Harper, “He didn’t go to war. He actually joined the service and six months later the war ended, so he never went to fight when he was in the Navy.” Gabaldón returned to his hometown and enrolled in Santa Monica College where he reportedly pursued writing.

During the Jim Crow era, when Southern California beaches were still segregated, the Inkwell served as a sanctuary for African American beachgoers. It’s there that Gabaldón would strike up a friendship with Pete Peterson, a lifeguard who dominated Southern California surfing in the 1930s. Peterson let him use the lifeguard surfboards to learn and hone his skills. Gabaldón, who was said to be tall and athletic, grew into a formidable recreational surfer.

A Legacy Cut Short

On June 6th, 1951 Gabaldón was reportedly attempting a dangerous surfing move known informally as “shooting the pier” when he got caught in a huge swell at Surfrider Beach which sent him crashing headfirst into the pilings. His body washed up onto the shore days later leaving a void in the Afro-Latino surfing scene.

“His mother died two months after he passed away,” shared Harper. “She was so heartbroken that she passed away right after him.”

Surfing in the United States is still considered a predominantly white sport, which is ironic considering that its roots are Polynesian. The earliest known surfers in North America were three Hawaiian princes: Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole, David Kawananakoa and Edward Keliiahonui. They fashioned boards out of local redwoods and rode the waves of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz as far back as 1885. However, the subculture has notoriously lacked diversity. Harper is convinced that had Gabaldón lived, the surfing community would have looked much different.

“Had Nick not perished in 1951, surfing would not look the way that it looks today. Because that group of guys that he hung out with, those dudes left a year later for Hawaii and they’re the ones that started what we know today as modern-day surfing. Those were his friends so had he lived he would have landed in Hawaii just like the rest of them, just like Duke Kahanamoku. The way that we see surfing would have been different because there would have been an African American and a Latino included in the original group of men who paved the way for modern-day surfing. So, the impact after the fact post-mortem has been monumental.”

Gabaldón remains an enigma but one of his poems purportedly written shortly before his death gives perhaps the most intimate glimpse into his relationship with the ocean that would eventually claim his life.