June 03 2016

Honoring Nick Gabaldon, L.A.‘s First Surfer of Color

by Jennifer Savage

The sea vindictive, 
with waves so high, 
For me to battle and still they die 
Scores and scores have fallen prey 
To the salt of animosity, 
And many more will victims be, 
Of the capricious, vindictive sea.

– Nick Gabaldon, 1927-1951

The sea would ultimately claim Nick Gabaldon, but not before his dedication to surfing made him a role model whose legacy lives on. In an era still defined largely by Jim Crow laws, Gabaldon became California's first surfer of African-American and Latino descent when he learned to surf at "The Inkwell," an "informally" segregated beach in Santa Monica. Passion thus fueled, Gabaldon would regularly paddle 12 miles north to Malibu, where he held his own and then some with the top surfers of the day. Yes, 12 miles. 

Director Richard Yelland tells Gabaldon's story in his aptly titled film, 12 Miles North: The Nick Gabaldon Story. In a column Yelland wrote for The Inertia, he notes, "...many of Nick’s brotherhood of surfers at Malibu helped pioneer surfing: Joe Quigg, Matt Kivlin, Ricky Grigg, Tom Zahn, Peter Cole, Dave Heiser and Bill Poole, among others...Nick was truly one of them. He had a place in the lineup and their respect." Tragically, on June 5, 1951, Gabaldon wiped out and struck a piling beneath the Malibu Pier. His board washed up on the beach shortly after. His body was found three days later. 

The 5th Annual Nick Gabaldon Day takes place tomorrow, Saturday, June 4 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Inkwell, Tower 20, in Santa Monica. Sponsored by the Black Surfers Collective, the Surf Bus Foundation, Heal the Bay and the Santa Monica Conservancy, the event begins with a memorial paddle-out at 9 a.m. and beach clean up by Surfrider's West Los Angles-Malibu chapter, a followed by free surf lessons from the Black Surfers Collective and the Surf Bus Foundation. Activities at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium take place after a 1 p.m. lunch. The event also features a history exhibit, a shoreline exploration led by Heal the Bay and film screenings of 12 Miles North: The Nick Gabaldon Story and White Wash, which studies race and politics through the lens of surfing and Southern California’s beach culture. Narrated by Grammy Award-winning musician Ben Harper, the 78-minute documentary compiles interviews and historical footage as well as music by The Roots.

"This innovative celebration provides an amazing opportunity to broaden education to connect Angelenos with their cultural, historical and natural heritage," said Meredith McCarthy, Heal the Bay's program director. "As well as a chance to renew our commitment to defend access to our amazing shared resource." 

Can't make the event? Watch the full 12 Miles North documentary here – and support the organizations linked above!