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Barrier-Breaking Surfer's Legacy A Reminder Of Work To Do

Jun 3, 2013
Originally published on June 4, 2013 3:31 pm

The Saturday morning fog was burning off above the part of Santa Monica's beach known as the Inkwell. It's the stretch of sand to which black Southern Californians were relegated by de facto segregation until the 1960s.

Men, women and children walked across the sand in wet suits, carrying surfboards. They're part of the Black Surfers Collective, which aims to get more people of color involved in surfing.

They had gathered to honor pioneer Nick Gabaldon, a legendary surfer who is remembered as the area's first documented board man of African-American and Mexican heritage.

After a jazzy rendition of the national anthem, libations were poured onto the flower-strewn sand for the ancestors, the sea and especially Gabaldon. He's honored as a master waterman and barrier breaker.

After the prayer, priestess Nana Jumfee said she knows a lot of people would be surprised to see this crowd of black and brown surfers, but the tradition isn't new in other countries.

"When you say 'surfing,' people do not think of black people. But I have images of little black boys in Ghana with some driftwood, standing up, you know, before there was television," she said.

Jeff Williams, one of the organizers of Nick Gabaldon Day, wants people to remember how physically heroic Gabaldon was.

"That was the story of a guy in the '40s and '50s who used to leave this historic beach of the Inkwell in Santa Monica, and paddle the 12 miles north up to Malibu to surf Surfrider Beach, which is a world-renowned surf break," he said.

It was in Malibu that Gabaldon died after a surfing accident in 1951. But his legacy is still very much felt here. Delila Vallot, dripping wet after riding several waves, said children of color need to know surfing is open to them.

"That's why this is so important, because I didn't even know to ask," she said.

Seeing people of color on boards might make others think to try it. Eleven-year-old Gregory Rachal surfs and wants to help other kids do it, too.

"If we have a chance to help them surf, I bet surfing will get bigger around the community," he said.

Of course, access to the beach remains a barrier to many communities. Meredith McCarthy, the program director for event co-sponsor Heal the Bay, said she sees how serious the issue of access is when she visits inner-city schools. It's a long bus ride from many neighborhoods, and even if you can drive, parking is expensive.

"When I say, 'How many kids have been to the beach?' and four or five of them raise their hands, I know that I have a lot of work to do," she said.

Saturday, the work was getting visitors conversant with the language of surfing. While their boards were on the sand, they learned how to paddle out, crouch and stand.

After the lessons, it was time to hit the water. There was a lot of splashing and squealing — and not just among the juvenile surfers. Parents watched in delighted amazement as their children surfed in — a little wobbly — on the gentle waves.

The Black Surfers Collective's Williams tried to explain what the newbies were feeling: "To be able to catch a wave and to completely live in that moment at that time of reality, there's nothing like it."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Over the weekend, surfers gathered on a Santa Monica beach in Southern California to honor Nick Gabaldon. He's a legend in the sport and the area's first documented surfer of African-American and Mexican heritage.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited the celebration. She's with NPR's Team Code Switch which reports on race, ethnicity and culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCEAN WAVES)

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: The morning fog was burning off above the part of Santa Monica's beach that's known as the Inkwell. It's the stretch of sand to which black Southern Californians were relegated by de facto segregation until the 1960s. Men, women and children were walking across the sand in wetsuits, carrying surfboards. They're part of the Black Surfers Collective, which aims to get more people of color involved in surfing.

After a jazzy rendition of the National Anthem...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")

BATES: ...libations were poured onto the flower-strewn sand for the ancestors, the sea and especially Nick Gabaldon, who was honored as a master waterman and barrier breaker. After the prayer, priestess Nana Jumfee says she knows a lot of people would be surprised to see this crowd of black and brown surfers, but the tradition isn't new in other countries.

NANA JUMFEE: And when you say surfing, people do not think of black people. But I have images of little black boys in Ghana with some driftwood, standing up, you know, before there was television.

BATES: Jeff Williams, one of the organizers of Nick Gabaldon Day, wants people to remember how physically heroic Gabaldon was.

JEFF WILLIAMS: And that was the story of a guy in the '40s and '50s used to leave this historic beach of the Inkwell, in Santa Monica, and paddle the 12 miles north up to Malibu to surf Surfrider Beach, which is a world-renowned surf break.

BATES: It was in Malibu that Gabaldon died in 1951 after a surfing accident. But his legacy is still very much felt here. Delila Vallot, dripping wet after riding several waves, says children of color need to know surfing is open to them.

DELILA VALLOT: That's why this is so important because I didn't even know to ask.

BATES: Seeing people of color on boards may make others think to try it. Eleven-year-old Gregory Rachal surfs and wants to help other kids do it.

GREGORY RACHAL: If we have a chance to help them surf, I bet surfing will get bigger around the community.

BATES: Of course, access to the beach remains a barrier to many communities. Meredith McCarthy of Heal the Bay, one of the organizations that co-sponsored Nick Gabaldon Day, says she sees how serious the issue of access is when she visits inner city schools. It's a long bus ride from many neighborhoods. And even if you can drive, parking is expensive.

MEREDITH MCCARTHY: When I say: How many kids have been to the beach, and four or five of them raise their hand, I know that I have a lot of work to do.

BATES: Today, the work is getting visitors conversant with the language of surfing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And what is this called? The bottom of the board or the belly?

BATES: And while their boards are on the sand, teaching them how to paddle out, crouch and stand. After the lessons, it's time to hit the water.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Everyone should be on your board.

BATES: There's a lot of splashing and squealing and not just among the juvenile surfers.

LESLIE ROSE: Izzie is still on the board.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

ROSE: Look at her. Oh, she did it again.

BATES: That's Leslie Rose, reveling in daughter Izzie's smooth ride to the shore. Other parents are watching in delighted amazement as their children surf in, a little wobbly, on today's gentle waves.

The Black Surfers Collective's Jeff Williams shakes off the drops and tries to explain what the newbies are feeling.

WILLIAMS: To be able to catch a wave and to be able to completely live in that moment of time of reality, there's nothing like it.

BATES: Or as Leslie Rose would put it...

ROSE: This is awesome.

BATES: Totally.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.