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Nick Gabaldon, far right, rides a wave at Surfrider Beach more than 60 years ago. A new documentary tells the story of how Gabaldon became the first known African-American surfer, and later lost his life while surfing in Malibu. (photo by Joe Quigg)

On June 5, 1951, time stopped for Nick Gabaldon. The first documented African-American surfer had attempted to pass underneath the Malibu Pier in high surf.

“He surfed into the pier,” recalls surfing legend Ricky Grigg. “And then he disappeared.”

More than 60 years after his death that summer day in Malibu, Nick Gabaldon is back, in a new film called “12 Miles North: The Nick Gabaldon Story.” The stylish half-hour documentary directed by Richard Yelland and funded by Nike premiered in February at Hollywood’s Montalban Theatre. It features cameos from several surfing legends, including local Allen Sarlo, as well as African-American surfers and athletes inspired by Gabaldon’s story.

Gabaldon was an accomplished body surfer whose love for the water pushed him into surfing. His quest for respect in the merit-based culture of the surfing community led him to go even further: paddling 12 miles north to Malibu to surf the world’s best waves.

Born Feb. 3, 1927 in Santa Monica, Gabaldon was part of a small African-American community that had been present in the city since the turn of the century. Rather than risk ostracism at some other beaches, many African-Americans in Santa Monica headed to “The Inkwell,” a 200-foot stretch of sand off Santa Monica State Beach where anyone was welcome.

“We would go to other beaches, but we weren’t as welcome as we were at the [Inkwell]” Nick’s high school friend Wayne King said in the film.

Buzzy Trent, a pioneer of the sport and a lifeguard at Inkwell, noticed Gabaldon’s enthusiasm and talent for body-surfing one day and suggested he try surfing.

Soon, Gabaldon grew bored with the waters of Santa Monica. He had heard about Malibu, at the time the nascent epicenter of the sport of surfing. But traveling the 12 miles north could be problematic for an African-American man in those times; it is not known whether he owned a car, or whether he felt unsafe walking or hitch-hiking.

Whatever the reason, Gabaldon, a big, towering man, started going to Malibu by the sweat of his own brow. His obvious dedication impressed the Malibu regulars, among them surfing greats Matt Kivlin, Peter Cole, Ricky Grigg, Joe Quigg, Tom Zahn and Micky Munoz.

“The ocean doesn’t care if you are white or black, rich or poor,” said photographer, surfer and author Craig Stecyk in the film. “If you can survive and thrive out there, you are respected.”

Cole recalled the time Gabaldon told him how he got to Malibu.

“I said what? It’s 12 miles, Nick!” Cole said. “What are you doing? How do you have the energy to do anything?”

“Well I take it easy, I pace it,” Gabaldon responded. “I don’t race. I just get on the board and start paddling.”

Ricky Grigg remembered Gabaldon as having a graceful, easy style on the surf board, while Cole said his personality was similar. He preferred to stay in the background, which may have been by design on a potentially hostile beach.

“He was kind of a hero to a lot of us, for what he was and what he represented,” Cole said. “He represented I think something that was all positive.”

By 1951, 24-year-old Nick Gabaldon was splitting his time between surfing, lifeguard duties and his studies at Santa Monica City College. On May 31 of that year, Gabaldon submitted a poem to his college’s literary magazine about men losing their lives at sea. Five days later, Gabaldon would tragically join them.

June 5 was one of the biggest surf days Malibu had seen in a while and Nick was the first one out on the water. He had warned others he was going to try to “shoot the pier” — ride the wave all the way underneath the pier.

One second he was there, on top of a wall of water, and then suddenly he was gone. His friends clutched hands and walked out from the beach to try to find him, but were ordered out by the lifeguard due to the dangerous surf. In between sets, Cole and Trent frantically dove, looking for Gabaldon to no avail.

Three days later his body was found floating off shore. His friends ID’ed him, and Gabaldon was taken inland in a body bag. It was the last anyone would hear of him for a long time.

For many years, African-American surfers such as Rick Blocker, founder of the Black Surfing Association, believed the story of Nick Gabaldon to be an urban legend. But in 1983, an article featuring Nick brought the story back into the public consciousness.

Blocker introduced the story of Gabaldon to Yelland, who directed “12 Miles North.”

“It shows that with enough passion, nothing is beyond the individual,” Blocker said at the premier. “Tonight, I surf with Nick.”

The entire film can be seen by visiting Nike’s Facebook page and typing in “12 Miles North.”

This article originally appeared in the Malibu Times.

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