INKWELL — When Nick Gabaldon took to the water in the 1940s, he wasn’t just catching waves — he was making them.
Gabaldon, a Santa Monica native, was the first African-American and Latino surfer on record, the kind of man who fought to pursue his passion in an age when the color of his skin was reason enough to exclude him from the sport that would ultimately make, and take, his life.
People from across the county will gather Saturday to celebrate Gabaldon’s legacy in a series of all-day events that will marry his story, the history of Santa Monica’s African-American beaches and a spirit of environmentalism.
The event, put on by local nonprofit Heal the Bay, the Black Surfers Collective and County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, will include free surf lessons, explorations of the beach with trained naturalists and documentary film screenings focused on Gabaldon and the complex relationship America has with race.
City Hall pitched in too, declaring June 1 “Nick Gabaldon Day” in an official proclamation.
“It’s so awesome to have history colliding with the things we culturally need to pay attention to and environmentally need to pay attention to. It all comes together in this perfect event,” said Meredith McCarthy, director of programs for Heal the Bay.
Gabaldon makes an ideal focal point for the day because his presence as an African-American among the otherwise white surfing greats broke social norms at the time, some of which persist to the present day in which minorities lack access to the beach, McCarthy said.
Large numbers have never explored the natural resource that lies to the west, and some figures put the number of African-American children that can’t swim as high as 70 percent.
“Combine handed down fear with plain old access issues and a lack of resources like swimming pools and lessons, you really disconnect a group of people from this awesome thing,” McCarthy said. “We love this idea of Nick Gabaldon Day as a bridge.”
Dozens of youth from South Central Los Angeles will bus in for the day to learn about, and be inspired by, Gabaldon.
The Santa Monica High School graduate was one of 40 African-Americans who attended the school at the time.
He and friends were introduced to the ocean at a section of the beach between Bay Street and Bicknell Avenue, commonly called the Inkwell because it was a gathering place for African-Americans during the Jim Crow era, said Alison Jefferson, a historian.
They would gather at the Inkwell, just west of an African-American neighborhood, and take advantage of the music spilling out of exclusive beach clubs to the north.
Gabaldon became a skilled surfer. He would travel up the coast to Malibu to catch waves at Surfrider Beach, by car when he could. Otherwise, he would get on his board and paddle the 12 miles up the coast, an extraordinary physical feat in and of itself.
On arrival, he kept up with people whose names would later become surfing legend like Bob Simmons and Buzzy Trent, a pioneer of big wave surfing.
“Nick was a water man,” said Jeff Williams, member of Black Surfers Collective, one of the sponsors of Saturday’s event. “He gained respect by sheer ability in the water and prowess.”
Gabaldon lived to surf and died the same way.
Years ago, Gabaldon tried to shoot the Malibu Pier, a maneuver in which a surfer starts at the north side of the structure and rides underneath to the south side.
On the way, he hit a pylon and drowned.
Just days before, he had submitted a poem in which he referred to the ocean as “capricious” and “avaricious” that would later run in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook under the title “Lost Lives.”
“The sea vindictive, with waves so high/ For men to battle and still they die,” the poem reads.
He was only 24 when he died, but Gabaldon’s legacy has lasted far longer than his life.
“Once you set your mind to something, obstacles crumble in the sports world. I think this is kind of an example of that. He could have stopped at Topanga, stopped at Sunset. He went all the way to where he wanted to surf,” Williams said.
It’s a lesson that he hopes the youth that attend the Saturday event will pick up in free surf lessons, sand explorations and other activities meant to help connect them to the marine environment.
Lessons will go from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. At 12:30 p.m., Ridley-Thomas will be present for a reception at the beach, and then the group will transition to the Heal the Bay Aquarium at the pier, where people can look at the wildlife and then watch documentaries about Gabaldon’s life.
McCarthy hopes that the story of Gabaldon’s determination and drive to pursue surfing will inspire youth to feel a greater connection with the water and ultimately fight to maintain it.
“I think that speaks to people,” she said, “and I believe that if you follow your passion, you end up protecting what you love.”