Surf: The event was a partnership between several area nonprofits and organizations. Clara Harter

In the 1940s when almost every inch of beach was hostile to Black Angelenos, Santa Monica native Nick Gabaldón defied the odds to become California’s first documented surfer of Black and Mexican American descent.

Using a combination of bravery, grit, and a 13-foot rescue surfboard borrowed from a lifeguard, Gabaldón quickly went from a self-taught kook to a respected presence in an essentially all white lineup. Yet despite his trailblazing accomplishments, 71 years after his death, there remain comparatively few surfers of color in Los Angeles. 

Nick Gabaldón Day is on a mission to change that.

Now in its 10th iteration, the day is a celebration of Gabaldón’s remarkable, yet tragically short life that strives to share his love of surfing and the ocean with Black and brown communities from across the County. This year the event took place on June 18 and gave free lessons to around 75 participants. 

Nick Gabaldón Day is run in partnership with the Black Surfer Collective and Santa Monica based non-profit Heal the Bay. The Black Surfer Collective organized the first ever celebration as a tribute to Gabaldón’s life and a means to inspire more surfers of color. Heal the Bay quickly became a partner, recognizing Gabaldón’s contributions to Santa Monica history and the opportunity to act on their mission to expand coastal access. 

The event is also run in collaboration with the Santa Monica Conservancy and Santa Monica based non-profit the Surf Bus Foundation, which helps provide surf teachers.

“It’s amazing to have busloads of kids from all over the County roll up. There’s nothing quite as beautiful as watching a kid when they stand up on the board for the first time and they have so much fun,” said Meredith McCarthy, Heal the Bay operations director.

The day also features a memorial paddle out for Gabaldón, presentations on careers in water management, documentary screenings at the Heal the Bay Aquarium, and a lesson on Gabaldón’s life from historian Alison Rose Jefferson.

Jefferson’s research has helped bring Gabaldón from relative obscurity to a household name in Santa Monica and among surfers. 

“I wanted to have the research live in public memory and so that meant looking at how to get this knowledge out to people in terms of various types of experiences that they could have where they could learn about the history and be engaged through some sort of public program like Nick Gabaldón Day,” said Jefferson.

Gabaldón was born Nicolas Rolando Gabaldón, Jr. to parents, Cecilia and Nicolas Gabaldón, Sr. and grew up in Santa Monica where he graduated from Santa Monica High School in 1945. 

He taught himself to surf on the Bay Street Beach, which at the time was referred to derogatively as the Inkwell as it was a rare two block area where Black individuals enjoyed the beach with relatively little harassment. 

Black beachgoers were verbally and physically assaulted at beaches north and south of Bay Street Beach. 

This restriction of beach access presented a challenge to Gabaldón’s surfing ambitions, but did not deter him. He was known to paddle the 12 miles from Bay Street Beach to Malibu, where he honed his skills on the longer waves. He tragically died in a surfing accident at the Malibu Pier when he was 24.

His sometimes surf buddy Wayne King was with him when he died. The pair became friends in high school where they were among the few Black students at Samohi.

Gabaldón was said to be a handsome, intelligent and well-liked young man. He served in the US Navy Reserves from 1945 to 1946 and afterwards enrolled in Santa Monica College where he was an honor student. 

“He has become somebody that has inspired people, because he died so young and he was pursuing his dreams in terms of self-fulfillment of surfing at a time at a time when that wasn’t something that most African Americans were doing in Southern California,” said Jefferson.

The City of Santa Monica recognized both the contributions of Gabaldón and the complex legacy of the Inkwell with the installation of a commemorative plaque in 2008. In 2019, the beach area was listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance to Black American history and beach culture. 

Every year during Nick Gabaldón Day, children from inland communities are taught this history and encouraged to share in Gabaldón’s love of the ocean. 

“We take coastal access very seriously,” said McCarthy. “It was really shocking to me how many kids have never been to the beach that lived 12 miles away.”

Heal the Bay works to provide that access and foster love and appreciation for the ocean. In turn, the organization hopes that this will lead to better water stewardship from inland residents as inland pollution often winds up washing out to the ocean through the storm drain system. 

“Fundamentally people love what they understand and what they’ve experienced and what they know,” said McCarthy, later adding, “Ultimately, we want everyone to be a steward, it’s really all about calling people in.”

Clara@smdp.com