Tom Blake (USA)
Honor Contributor (1992)
FOR THE RECORD: NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS: 1922 (AAU 10 Mile Open); Built the first hollow surfboard. Winner of the first PACIFIC COAST SURFING CHAMPIONSHIP, 1928. First to surf Malibu Beach. Designed and added the keel or fin to the surfboard. Author of first book on surfing. Invented the aluminum rescue torpedo buoy. Developed the first sailboard. Designed the first waterproof camera.
Thomas E. Blake is the rare type of man who, as an adventurer, became a pioneer in the fields of surfing, life guarding, writing, inventing and photography.
Born in 1902 in rural Wisconsin, Tom waited 18 years before he hopped a freight train to Los Angeles and got involved with swimming and surfing. He came from a family of three athletic brothers–Bob, a hockey player with the Boston Bruins; Billy, a husky, all around athlete, and John, who deserted sports to work as a pianist. Tom excelled at everything he attempted.
IIn 1921, Tom began swimming at the Los Angeles Athletic Club for Hall of Fame Coach Fred Cady. He surprised Cady by beating all the best swimmers at a team tryout. Less than a year later, he won the AAU 10 Mile Open Water National Swimming Championship. As a strict vegetarian and serious athlete, Tom was just seconds behind the legendary Duke Kahanomoku and Johnny Weissmuller, soon becoming good friends and building a lasting relationship with The Duke that started Tom’s love affair with surfing.
In 1924, he sailed for Hawaii and became hooked on surfing. Returning to the California coast, he took up surfing on the Santa Monica Beach and it was here that he built the first hollow surfboard. It was designed from the ancient boards he had seen in Honolulu. By drilling hundreds of holes in a solid slab of redwood, 16 feet long, he reduced the weight from 150 pounds to 100 pounds, even with the thin layer of wood applied to seal the holes. With this board, Tom won every paddleboard race he entered for several years. Tom and The Duke spent much time together surfing, attempting World Records and acting in the early days of Hollywood. Blake became a stuntman for actors such as Clark Gable and others.
But Tom wasn’t satisfied and he kept working to build a lighter surfboard, finally getting the weight down to 60 pounds. Surfing was becoming more popular and Tom won the first Pacific Coast Surfing Championship in 1928. The old timers said it was the first time they saw a board that could change directions so quickly. Another first was when Tom walked his surfboard up the coastline to Malibu Beach, becoming the first person to ride a wave at Malibu.
In 1930, Blake and The Duke returned to Hawaii. Tom became one of the first mainlanders to live the surfer’s life. Many people say he was better than the natives. Tom patented his method of construction of the hollow paddleboard and it was officially adopted by the United States Lifeguards as the best method of saving lives in the surf. He added the keel or fin to the board, greatly increasing its stability and maneuverability.
Tom wrote the first book on surfing, Hawaii Surfboards 1935, and designed the first waterproof camera allowing him to take photos from angles previously seen only by surfers. As the father of surf photography and author in surfing, a layout of his book was featured in the May 1936 issue of “National Geographic”.
Blake’s record as a lifesaver was just as impressive. Between 1924 and 1964, he guarded in California, Florida, New York and Hawaii. He toured the country in 1934, speaking to Red Cross Aquatic Schools on water safety. He invented and marketed the first light weight aluminum torpedo rescue buoy and the first aluminum rescue life ring. His contributions to lifesaving have helped save thousands of lives and his designs are still used today.
In addition to this, Tom developed the first sailboard which today has become the popular sport of windsurfing.