Nick Gabaldon - A SoCal Surfing Pioneer

By Alison Rose Jefferson

Surfing aficionados credit Nick Gabaldon as California’s first documented surfer of African and Mexican American descent. A skilled recreational surfer, his legacy has inspired many, especially surfers of color. Born Nicolas Rolando “Nick” Gabaldon, Jr. in Los Angeles, California to parents, Cecilia and Nicolas Gabaldon Sr., he grew up in Santa Monica. A 1945 Santa Monica High School graduate, Gabaldon was one of the few African American students matriculating at the school during this era. He served in the United States Navy from 1945–1946. Upon returning home, he emerged as an honor student and writer at Santa Monica College and worked as a U.S. Postal Service Letter Carrier. As a teenager Gabaldon began surfing at Santa Monica’s Bay Street beach. Anglos referencing the skin color of the beach-goers who visited the area derogatorily called this beach, the “Inkwell”. He and other African Americans in Southern California, however, transformed the hateful moniker into a badge of pride. A handsome, athletic and well-liked young man, he taught himself to surf using the 13-foot rescue surfboard of a white lifeguard he befriended at the Inkwell. He honed and challenged his surfing skills 12 miles north at the famed, Malibu Beach. To get there and back, he paddled those full 12 miles. Although he experienced a common bond in the water among the surfing community, prejudice was not far away on land or in the ocean. He was called derogatory names by some white beachgoers but rarely by fellow surfers. Nonetheless he exhibited the courage and dedication to be a participant in this particular sport heretofore associated mainly with white Southern Californians and the people of the South Pacific.

Gabaldon died in a surfing accident at the Malibu Pier in 1951 at age 24. Although little is know about the details of his life, it is his passion, athleticism, discipline, and love and respect for the ocean that live on as the quintessential qualities of the California surfer. His legacy offers an empowering story of the pursuit of freedom and of self-fulfillment. In 2008, the City of Santa Monica officially recognized surfer Nick Gabaldon and the “Inkwell,” with a landmark monument at Bay Street and Oceanfront Walk. In recent years the Black Surfers Collective have joined other groups for a beach celebration honoring those who have come before us on Nick Gabaldon Day, the first Saturday of June.

Alison Rose Jefferson was a consultant on the Nick Gabaldon Day, June 1, 2013 event. She is a featured historian in the documentary films about African American surfers, ”White Wash” and “12 Miles North: The Nick Gabaldon Story.” Her website, “Celebrating the California Dream: A Look at Forgotten Stories” is at alisonrosejefferson.com. This article incorporates an encyclopedia entry about Nick Gabaldon co-written by Jefferson and Rick Blocker published at BlackPast.org, an online reference guide to African American history.