Tom Blake’s innovation and lifestyle changed the sport of surfing

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Wisconsin is not well represented on the America’s very first Olympic surf team.

OK, this is not represented at all. And it’s no surprise that the country’s top surfers all hail from the warm oceanic states of Hawaii, California, and Florida. But as American surfers Carissa Moore, John John Florence, Caroline Marks and Kolohe Andino try to make history on Tsurigasaki Beach in Japan, it’s only fitting to see how a guy from northern Wisconsin played a key role in the development of surfing in what it is today.

His name was Tom Blake. Handsome and athletic, innovative and enigmatic, Blake was also an iconoclast ahead of his time, a kind of mild subversive thinker who questioned long-held American values ​​and lifestyles. Much of Blake’s life revolved around surfing, but he used the sport as a prism through which he explored issues such as health and nutrition, the importance of the environment and, ultimately, questioning the nature of God and the role of humanity in the universe.

Born in Milwaukee and raised in Washburn, Blake went on to design in the 1930s a lighter surfboard with a fin, making it easier for people to learn to surf and have more fun doing it, and to make the maneuvers used by today’s surfers possible. He developed a waterproof camera that he could attach to a surfboard. National Geographic has posted photos he has taken, and the images have drawn dreamers, mystics, and thrill seekers to beaches and in waves everywhere.

He has also written books, including “Hawaiian Surfboard”, widely regarded as the first book on surfing, and “Voice of the Atom”, a philosophical treatise that explained in depth his fundamental spiritual belief that “Nature = God”.

“Surfing was like paradise for me,” Blake said in a interview with John Severson, founder of Surfer magazine in the 1970s. “I wanted to spread the word to my California friends. So I wrote the first book about it.”

Blake’s influence rippled through time.

“Blake changed everything,” surf reporter Drew Kampion said in 2001, according to Blake’s entry in the “Encyclopedia of surfing.”

Ken Cole from Milwaukee riding the waves of Lake Michigan as the snow falls.

“This guy is almost … like Paul Bunyan”

Blake is hardly known to most people; Gidget is more famous and she’s not even a real person. But Blake is a legend in surf culture, especially here in Wisconsin.

Yeah there is a surf culture in Wisconsin. It’s concentrated along the shores of Lake Michigan in the southeast corner of the state, and for those die-hards, the best time to surf, when the waves are at their best, is during the colder periods – late fall. , winter and early spring.

Ken Cole, 56, of Milwaukee is a psychologist who grew up in central Ohio. He gets an internship in Hawaii, learns and falls in love with surfing. The passion drove him to start his own side job of manufacturing surfboards through a business called Greenhouse surfboards.

Cole can’t remember exactly when he heard about Tom Blake, but he’s sure it was from another surfer in the Milwaukee area. And like so many others who are new to Blake, he’s found himself drawn to the guy who did so much for surfing almost 100 years ago.

“You start to hear the stories, and you think this guy is almost mythological, like Paul Bunyan,” Cole said.

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He began to study Tom Blake. He combed through Blake’s information on the Internet. He went to Washburn to find out more and to see where Blake carved “Nature = God” in limestone,

Cole owns and has read the meticulously detailed biography, “Tom Blake: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman,” written by Gary Lynch and Malcolm Gault-Williams. (The book, published in 2001, is out of print; the hardcover starts at around $ 900 on Amazon, a pocket version costs $ 49.)

Cole was so fascinated with Blake that he and a friend attempted to fundraise through Kickstarter a few years ago to produce a documentary on Blake’s life. Too few people knew who Blake was to generate enough buzz to pay for the film.

But his admiration for what Blake accomplished never wavered. Blake wasn’t an engineer, but he designed the lightweight surfboard that changed the sport, Cole said. Blake was not a photographer, but he invented the waterproof camera and took pictures of such quality that National Geographic published them.

“His invention and vision was so vast and so effective,” Cole said. “He hits me like someone who has no restraint in his vision, and I think that’s great.”

The small volume of

“Agitation and constant movement”

None of this could have happened if it weren’t for two tragedies – one very personal that affected Blake as an individual, the other leaving an impact on just about everyone on the planet.

The first occurred shortly after his birth in 1902. “His mother died (of tuberculosis) when Tom was 11 months old, and for 15 years he was sent to several aunts and uncles,” Matt wrote. Warshaw in an article in “Surfer” magazine titled “The Unknowable Tom Blake: Surfing and the Sublime Misfit.” Among those parents who cared for him was an aunt in Washburn.

The second tragedy was the influenza pandemic of 1918. The disease, which killed approximately 675,000 in the United States, closed the Washburn school that Blake attended. Blake, about 17 at the time, took off and “started half a century of, as (Blake Gary’s biographer) Lynch described it,” with almost constant restlessness and motion “” , wrote Warshaw.

He traveled the country, living from day to day to get by. He ended up in Detroit in 1920, as his aunt Washburn had moved there. He also met legendary surfer, Olympic swimmer and Hawaiian native Duke Kahanamoku at a Detroit movie theater. Kahanamoku is the “father of modern surfing,” wrote Gault-Williams, who in addition to co-authoring Blake’s biography, is a writer and surf historian, on his “Legendary Surfers” website.

But after Khanamoku, wrote Gault-Williams, “there is no other surfer more influential in surf culture in the first half of the twentieth century than Tom Blake.”

It was a brief chance meeting with Kahanamoku in Detroit, but it would be an influential meeting for Blake.

By 1921, he was living in Santa Monica, California, always looking for money to survive and doing various jobs, most notably as a lifeguard and the occasional stuntman in movies. He also started competing long distance swimming, and Blake was very, very good at it. In 1922, he won the Amateur Athletic Union’s National Open Distance Swimming Championship.

Blake swam, wandered and worked for the next two years, learning to surf in California. Once he got familiar with the sport, he left for Hawaii. It was 1924. He searched for Kahanamoku, who was not on the island at the time. But he befriended the Olympian’s brothers and immersed himself in surfing and Hawaiian culture.

Over the next decade and more, Blake shuttled between Hawaii and the mainland, producing a wide array of innovations and accomplishments that changed the trajectory of surfing as a sport and, in essence, created a lifestyle. surf.

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“Tom Blake … was still at home in the water”

As interesting and appealing as Blake is in terms of lifestyle and accomplishments, there are also questions. Blake got married once, but it was only for a short time. He had friends, but even those he seemed to keep at a distance.

Many who have written about him have described him as restless and lonely. He rarely smiled in the photos, looking distant and distant.

Even though Blake’s mind seemed to devour subjects such as science, theology, and design deeply, Cole believes he could also have been very determined and focused almost entirely on water.

“Look at what he did and the details with which he did it. There are some people who become obsessed with certain issues, and his mind was more alive when he was focused on surfing. no relationships, ”Cole said. “I wouldn’t want to draw a diagnostic trick, but there are some people who can’t relate well to others socially, and who have gifts and talents that seem to come out of nowhere.… Deep down, Tom Blake was always accepted in the water, always comfortable in the water. “

Blake said it himself.

“I … discovered that even deep water supports a rebel, if he has the will and the ability to swim, regardless of race, color, creed,” Blake said in 1968. “Sometimes I have found the water to be good – better than the earth from which I was cut off; the blessings of nature superior and more honest and productive to happiness than the effort to conform; so I have known my God. “

Contact Keith Uhlig at 715-845-0651 or [email protected] Follow him on @UhligK on Twitter and Instagram or on Facebook.


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