Wisconsin is not well represented on the USA’s first Olympic surf team.
OK – it’s not represented at all. And it’s no surprise that the country’s best surfers all come from the warm ocean states of Hawaii, California, and Florida. But while U.S. surfers Carissa Moore, John John Florence, Caroline Marks and Kolohe Andino try to make history on Tsurigasaki Beach in Japan, it’s only appropriate to take a look at how the guy from northern Wisconsin is key the development of surfing played what it is today.
His name was Tom Blake. Handsome and athletic, innovative and enigmatic, Blake was also an iconoclast of his time, a kind of gentle, subversive thinker who challenged traditional American values and lifestyles. Much of Blake’s life revolved around surfing, but he used sport as a prism through which he delved into issues such as health and nutrition, the importance of the environment, and finally the question of the nature of God and the role of humanity in the universe concerned.
Born in Milwaukee and raised in Washburn, Blake designed a lighter, single fin surfboard in the 1930s that made it easier for people to learn to surf, have more fun, and do the maneuvers that today’s surfers can do. He developed a waterproof camera that he could attach to a surfboard. National Geographic published photos he took, and the pictures drew dreamers, mystics, and adventurous people to beaches and all over the surf.
He also wrote books including “Hawaiian Surfboard,” widely considered to be the first book on surfing, and “Voice of the Atom,” a philosophical treatise that elucidated his basic spiritual belief, “Nature = God”.
“Surfing was like heaven to me,” Blake said in an interview with John Severson, founder of Surfer Magazine in the 1970s. “I wanted to pass the word on to my friends in California. So I wrote the first book about it.”
Blake’s influence has been reflected over time.
“Blake changed everything,” said surf journalist Drew Kampion in 2001, according to Blake’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Surfing.
“This guy is almost … like Paul Bunyan”
Blake is little known to most people; Gidget is more famous and she isn’t even a real person. But Blake is a legend in surfing culture, especially here in Wisconsin.
Yes, 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 stubborn, the best time to surf is when the waves are at their best, during the cold times – late fall, winter, and early spring.
Ken Cole, 56, of Milwaukee is a psychologist who grew up in central Ohio. He grabbed an internship in Hawaii and learned and fell in love with surfing. The passion led him to start his own part-time job making surfboards through a business called Greenhouse Surfboards.
Cole can’t remember exactly when he found out about Tom Blake, but he’s certain it was from another Milwaukee surfer. And like so many who learn about Blake, he was drawn to the guy who did so much for surfing nearly 100 years ago.
“You hear the stories and think this guy is almost mythological, like Paul Bunyan,” said Cole.
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He started studying Tom Blake. He searched the internet for Blake information. He went to Washburn to learn more and see the place where Blake carved “Nature = God” in limestone.
Cole owns and reads the meticulously detailed biography “Tom Blake: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman,” written by Gary Lynch and Malcolm Gault-Williams. (The 2001 book is out of print; the hardcover is about $ 900 on Amazon, and a paperback version is $ 49.)
Cole was so fond of Blake that a few years ago he and a friend tried to raise funds through Kickstarter to produce a documentary about Blake’s life. Too few people knew who Blake was to attract enough attention to pay for the film.
But his awe of what Blake has achieved has never waned. Blake wasn’t an engineer, but he designed the lightweight surfboard that changed the sport, said Cole. Not a photographer, Blake invented the waterproof camera and took photos of such quality that National Geographic published them.
“His invention and his vision were so comprehensive and so effective,” said Cole. “He seems to me to be someone who is unreserved in his vision and I think it’s great.”
“Restlessness and constant movement”
None of this might have happened had it not been for two tragedies – one very personal that influenced Blake as an individual, the other left an impact on almost everyone on the planet.
The first happened shortly after he was born in 1902. “His mother died (of tuberculosis) when Tom was 11 months old and he was pushed around with various aunts and uncles for 15 years,” wrote Matt Warshaw in an article in Surfer “Magazine titled” The Unknowable Tom Blake: Surfing and the Sublime Misfit “. Among the relatives who looked after him was an aunt in Washburn.
The second tragedy was the 1918 pandemic flu. The disease, which killed an estimated 675,000 people in the United States, shut down the Washburn School, which Blake attended. Blake, then about 17 years old, took off and “began half a century, as (Blake biographer Gary) Lynch put it, ‘restlessness and almost constant movement,'” wrote Warshaw.
He knocked around the country and lived hand to mouth to get through. He landed in Detroit in 1920 because his Washburn aunt had moved there. He also met legendary surfer, Olympic swimmer, and native Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku at a Detroit movie theater. Kahanamoku is the “father of modern surfing”, wrote Gault-Williams, who not only co-wrote Blake’s biography, but is also a surfing author and historian, on his website “Legendary Surfers”.
But after Khanamoku, Gault-Williams wrote: “There is no other surfer who had more influence on surfing culture in the first half of the 20th century than Tom Blake.”
It was a brief, chance encounter with Kahanamoku in Detroit, but it would be influential to Blake.
In 1921, he lived in Santa Monica, California, still struggling for money to survive, and worked in a variety of jobs including a lifeguard and the occasional stunt performer in movies. He also started long-distance competitive swimming, and Blake was very, very good at it. In 1922 he won the Amateur Athletic Union’s Ten Mile Open National Distance Swimming Championship.
Blake swam, hiked, and worked for the next few years, learning to surf in California. After getting the hang of it, he made his way to Hawaii. It was 1924. He went to 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, Blake shuttled between Hawaii and the mainland, producing a wide range of innovations and achievements that changed the career of surfing as a sport and essentially created a surfing lifestyle.
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‘Tom Blake … was always at home in the water’
As interesting and engaging as Blake is about lifestyle and performance, there are questions too. Blake got married once, but only for a short time. He had friends, but he even seemed to keep them at a distance.
Many who wrote about him described him as restless and a loner. He seldom smiled in photos and looked distant and aloof.
Though Blake’s mind engulfed subjects like science, theology, and design deeply, Cole believes that he could also have been very single-minded, focusing almost entirely on water.
“Look at what he did and how detailed he did it. There are people obsessed with certain topics and his mind was most alive when he was focused on surfing. He had no relationships,” said Cole. “I don’t want to take a diagnostic turn, but there are people who cannot identify well socially with others and who have gifts and talents that seem to come out of nowhere. … always accepted in the water, always at home in the water. “
Blake said it himself.
“I … found that even deep water supports a rebel if he has the will and ability to swim, regardless of race, color, or creed,” Blake said in 1968. “Sometimes I found the water good – better than … the land from which I was cut off; the blessings of nature higher and more honest and fruitful than the striving for adaptation; this is how I got to know my God. “
Contact Keith Uhlig at 715-845-0651 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at @UhligK on Twitter and Instagram or on Facebook.