Aside from Duke Kahanamoku, no other person had more impact on surfing in the first half of the twentieth century than Thomas Eduard Blake. As surfing author/historian Drew Kampion wrote in 2001, “Blake almost single-handedly transformed surfing from a primitive Polynesian curiosity into a 20th century lifestyle.” Tom and the Duke virtually initiated the surfing lifestyle that later personified Hawaiian and California living.
A champion swimmer at an early age, Tom Blake moved from Wisconsin to Santa Monica to compete and work as a lifeguard in 1921, where he began surfing and building his own boards. He had set the world swimming record in the ten mile open swim in 1922, and along with Sam Reid, was the first person to surf Malibu.
He moved to Hawaii in 1924 to surf in the warm water, and was deeply influenced by the pristine and natural conditions he discovered there. On a visit to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, he became intrigued with the ancient surfboards on display. Assisting in restorative work on some of the older antique boards, he made copies and then templates from which he constructed his first hollow surfboard and paddle board.
The design was like an airplane wing with an interior made of wood frames—usually African mahogany—and the outer skinned in a thin veneer or plywood. Later, balsa wood would be used instead. His boards, in contrast to the heavier redwood boards of the period, were radically different in weight and shape. In 1931, he applied for an innovative “Water Sled” patent (depicted in this PatentWear design), which was granted in August 1932. The boards created major controversy when Blake paddled them to easy victories in various races.
Sometimes characterized as a restless dreamer, Blake continually came up with new ideas and inventions: he invented the first surfboard fin, the first windsurfer, and, he was the first surf photographer with his Graflex camera housed in a homemade watertight wooden box. Later, he invented and patented the torpedo buoy and rescue ring; his design is still in use today.
The first Catalina Crossing was held in September 1932 as a sort of endurance test more than a race. The object of this 29-mile paddle between Point Vincente off the Palos Verdes peninsula in Southern California and the island of Catalina was to demonstrate the efficiency of the paddleboard for lifesaving work, and to prove the stamina of those who paddled them. Blake trained hard, by securing his paddleboard to the end of a jetty and then paddling it up to three hours per day nonstop. His board for the crossing was a 14-foot hollow board that weighed 75 pounds, made locally by Thomas Rogers who was granted the first production license from Blake. Blake finished the crossing in an astonishing 5 hours, 23 minutes (including a 32-minute break for refreshments) while his friends Pete Peterson and Wally Burton (who were mostly doing him a favor by helping to promote the boards) finished about an hour later. The worthiness of hollow paddleboards for rescue work had thus become a proven fact.
In 1937 Blake published the construction plans for his boards in Popular Mechanics, and his design rose to popularity throughout the surfing world. The hollow paddle board became widely popular with lifeguards, and its basic design is similar to the boards still used by lifeguards today. With the new popularity of today’s stand-up paddleboards (SUP), there is resurgent interest in Tom Blake’s designs.
Perhaps Blake’s greatest contribution would be his role as father of the surfing lifestyle. He became one of the first mainlanders to adopt a beach boy’s way of life, living cleanly and simply, and his friendship with many of the Hawaiian surfing legends was instrumental in his own growth as a waterman. He dedicated himself to his sport with rigorous physical training, a strict vegetarian diet, and a passion that verged on transcendental.