Hawaiian surfing is full of colorful characters who have influenced the sport in ways that are downright stunning.
The legends — Duke, Eddie Aikau, Rabbit, Gerry Lopez, and others — are household names known for amazing maneuvers at famous breaks around the world.
But there is one person you might not know about unless you grew up surfing or lived in Hawaii all your life.
His name is Tom Blake, and he was the first man to popularize the sport in Hawaii. If anyone can be called a “father of modern surfing,” it would have to be him.
Hawaiian surfing Born in 1886 in Kailua, Oahu:
Tom Blake was born Thomas Edward Blake in 1886 in Kailua on Oahu’s windward side.
His father was an Englishman who founded the Oahu Railway and Land Company, which served to transport people and goods around the island before there were highways or freeways.
Blake was a board rider at Waikiki:
Around 1903, Blake began Hawaiian surfing at Waikiki Beach on boards made by his brothers, who were boat builders.
The boards soon became sought-after items, and are now among the most prized surfboards in the world.
Blake used his earnings to go to MIT, where he earned a degree in engineering. He then studied civil engineering at Harvard University for postgraduate work. It’s interesting that Blake got into surfing well before there were any organized sports or activities in Hawaii.
Blake returned to Hawaii in 1918 after World War I and became a civil engineer for the Honolulu Rapid Transit Co., which ran the city’s streetcars. He also began writing articles about surfing that appeared in national magazines such as “Outdoor Life.” He worked at it tirelessly for more than 20 years.
Talking about Hawaiian surfing to the world:
Blake’s articles helped put Hawaii on the map, but that was just the beginning.
In 1926, he became friends with Duke Kahanamoku, who introduced Blake to Hollywood movie director Rupert Julian. The result was “The Hurricane,” considered the first Hollywood movie about Hawaiian surfing. Watching the movie, you can see that Blake clearly knows what he’s talking about.
His next surfing adventure came in 1931, when he sailed with six others to Tahiti on a 55-foot schooner, Marama. He chronicled his adventures and wrote about how Tahitians surfed big waves on boards up to 36 feet long, with no hot wax to help them slide on the water.
It was Blake’s fourth trip to Tahiti that cemented his place in surfing history. Duke Kahanamoku had just returned from a visit to Hawaii, where he taught people how to surf on balsa boards about 6 feet long that were shaped by hand using hot sand.
In the spring of 1931, Blake returned to Tahiti and introduced Tahitians to these new “hot-sand” boards. The result was a surfing craze that swept the island nation.
Kahanamoku’s board gets hot credit It is hard to understate what a milestone this really was because it essentially started one of the world’s most popular sports.
Blake also was a trailblazer in his designs of surfboards and surfing equipment. Historian Susan Casey wrote a book about Blake, “The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean,” that delves into this aspect of Blake’s life in more detail.
The Lake Michigan connection Today, many people across the country are familiar with surfing thanks to Hawaii’s nearness to the equator, its warm water, and consistent waves that roll onto beaches year-round. This has helped it become one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.