Stab Magazine | Come Meet Nick Gabaldón: The First African American Surfer, Who Was Forced To Paddle 12 Miles Just To Surf Malibu

Come Meet Nick Gabaldón: The First African American Surfer, Who Was Forced To Paddle 12 Miles Just To Surf Malibu

And who died, tragically but endearingly, trying to shoot the pier.

style // Jun 19, 2020
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 2 minutes

The events of the last three(ish) weeks have prompted much retrospection. 

Whilst it’s been staggering how many of the young white liberals in my social feed are suddenly shocked that European colonisers were unpleasant to Africans at the end of the 1800s (!), delving into oft-overlooked local history (how people came to settle where you live, why things are named as they are etc.), especially when you live somewhere with an Indigenous people like Australia, is worthwhile. Taking our locality as surf in general (and, thankfully, surfing appears to be becoming more inclusive), recent trawling has brought to light the fascinating life of Nick Gabaldón, widely regarded as the first African American surfer.

The story of the handsome African American/Mexican’s story won’t be news to many of our Southern Californian counterparts. There’s even been a day to commemorate the great man, held at the Santa Monica pier. But for those unfamiliar with the tale of LA county’s trailblazing (for once, an apt use of the cliché) black surfer, here’s some of the most interesting vignettes from the documentary up top, funded, somewhat strangely, by Nike.

Nick was a Santa Monica local, spending most of his time at the “Inkwell”, a piece of segregated sand just up the beach from the infamous pier. Nick became enamoured with the ocean and learned to bodysurf, and when local lifeguard (soon to become big wave pioneer/counter culture icon) Buzzy Trent saw him whomping he told him to start surfing proper. Once Nick had picked it up, his focus turned to the jewel in the LA surf crown: Malibu. Nick used to paddle 12 miles to surf Malibu (many have considered it whilst sat in traffic on the PCH) because a black guy carting a surf craft on land was problematic. Stop and consider that for a moment.


Gabaldón counted a smattering of genuine surfing treasures amongst his peers: Buzzy, Peter Cole, Mickey Munoz, who said: “I guess it was unique that Nick was black, but I don’t think that anyone really thought that much about it. I think what really mattered was that he was a good guy and he surfed.” And those still living wax lyrical about his surfing prowess and genuine personality. Ultimately Nick met his end in the most core 40s surf manner imaginable, drowning after hitting a pylon whilst trying to shoot the pier on a big south swell, and it’s touching how choked up recalling his death still makes the interviewees in the film, even after all these years. Makes you think what surfing could have been like with a bona fide black figure amongst the sport’s founding fathers.


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