Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Inquisitive Mind of Tom Blake

Thomas Edward Blake is one of the most important figures in surfing, and probably the most important single person in the history of wooden surfboards.  Whilst Polynesians had been riding waves on wooden surfboards for hundreds of years, it was Blake whose experiments and innovations through the 1920s and 30s led to lighter paddleboards and surfboards, alternative (and widely accessible) construction techniques, the introduction of the fin and a rudimentary leash.  Esteemed surf writer Drew Kampion credited Blake with transforming surfing from a Polynesian curiosity into a 20th century lifestyle, and rightly so.

In 1927, the same year that he pioneered surfing at Malibu, California with Sam Reid, Tom Blake built a replica Olo surfboard in Hawaii.  The board was fifteen foot long, and would’ve been enormously heavy (somewhere in the region of 150lbs), so he drilled hundreds of holes through the deck to remove excess weight and sealed the ends of the holes with a wooden veneer.  The reduced weight helped Tom to win many paddleboard races, so he continued to experiment with lighter boards.  He had some success chambering a solid board by cutting it into strips, carving out internal sections and then putting it all back together, before moving onto constructing surfboards from multiple component parts rather than shaping them from a solid timber.  Blake started to build his paddleboards using a skin and frame technique similar to that used in the construction of aircraft wings, which made them significantly lighter than the solid plank boards most widely used at the time weighing as little as 40lbs.  Whilst Blake’s boards had solid wood, straight-edged rails, planked or plywood decks and were held together with brass screws and pins sealed (caulked) with black pitch, construction techniques for wooden surfboards have improved in the intervening 84 years since he patented the design in 1931.  Nevertheless, the original design was used for decades on beaches around the world as a lifeguard rescue board, and produced commercially by several manufacturers (Thomas Rogers Company of Venice, CA, the Los Angeles Ladder Company and Catalina Equipment Company).

It was in 1935, however, that Tom Blake made his most significant contribution to surfing.  In an attempt to provide some directional stability whilst surfing, he attached an aluminium skeg salvaged from a speedboat onto the bottom of his cedar surfboard and encased it in a thin layer of wood for protection.  At a foot long and 4 inches high, many surfers would struggle to recognise it as a fin, however it was this that allowed surfers to ride at a tighter angle across peeling waves and to begin to effectively turn surfboards.  Tom Blake’s inquisitive mind and relentless quest to improve the performance of his equipment changed surfing forever.  It has been said that if Duke Kahanamoku was the father of modern surfing then Tom Blake was its inventor, and rightly so.  Modern surfers certainly owe him a great debt of gratitude, so why not say a little thank you to Tom next time you lean into a turn.

“Along the shore I wander, free,
A beach comber at Waikiki,
Where time worn souls who seek in vain,
Hearts ease, in vagrant, wondering train.
A beach comber from choice, am I,
Content to let the world drift by,
Its strife and envy, pomp and pride,
I’ve tasted, and am satisfied.”

Thomas Edward Blake

For a more thorough biography please take a look at the fantastic Encyclopaedia of Surfing or the Legendary Surfers website.

All images reproduced from the Surfing Heritage Foundation.

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