While Tom Blake can't be placed ahead of Duke Kahanamoku as the world's most influential first-generation surfer, his contributions to the sport—in terms of board design, wave-riding technique, competition, surf photography, and literature—are in many ways more tangible. "Blake altered everything," surf journalist Drew Kampion wrote in 2001. "He almost single-handedly transformed surfing from a primitive Polynesian curiosity into a 20th century lifestyle."
Blake was born (1902) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of a club steward and former bar owner. His mother died of tuberculosis when Blake was an infant, and his father left him to be raised by a series of Milwaukee-based relatives. Isolated as a child, Blake grew up to become a quiet and detached adult. At age nine or 10, he saw a newsreel featuring a short clip of surfing in Hawaii; at 18, as a high school dropout living in Detroit, Michigan, he met Hawaiian surfer and Olympic gold medal swimmer Duke Kahanamoku in a movie theater lobby. Blake moved to Los Angeles the following year where he began swimming competitively, and was soon one of the nation's best all-arounders, winning a 10-mile AAU race in 1922, and later defeating Kahanamoku himself in a 220-yard sprint.
Blake first surfed in 1921 in Santa Monica, but wiped out badly and waited three years to try again, after becoming a lifeguard at the Santa Monica Swim Club. He had, in the meantime, worked briefly as bootlegger in Florida. In 1924, just a few months after he began surfing regularly, Blake visited Hawaii for the first time. Kahanamoku wasn't there, but his brothers took Blake to the best breaks in Waikiki, and introduced him to the local surfers. Blake visited the Bishop Museum in Honolulu and studied the long, streamlined olo surfboards, similar to those once used by Hawaiian royalty. (Two years later, Bishop curators hired Blake to restore the wooden boards.)
Blake was back in Santa Monica in early 1925, where he lifeguarded alongside Kahanamoku, and for the next 30 years he divided his time between Hawaii and Southern California. He was the first American-born haole (Caucasian) surfer to live in Hawaii, and one of a very few nonnatives to gain membership to Waikiki's Hui Nalu surf club.
Nearly all of Blake's great surfing accomplishments were made between 1926 and 1935. In September 1927, Blake and New Jersey-born surfer Sam Reid were the first to ride Malibu, after driving north from Santa Monica on the newly paved two-lane road that would later be called Highway 1. That same year in Hawaii, Blake built a 15-foot replica olo, which he lightened by drilling hundreds of holes through the deck, sealing the openings with a thin layer of wood.
Paddleboard racing had become as much a passion for Blake as wave-riding; lighter paddleboards and surfboards would remain his primary design concern. He made a 16-foot chambered-hull paddleboard in 1929, which he used to set paddling records, then developed a hollow surfboard far lighter than the average 55-pound plank board popular at the time. The 1931-patented Blake hollow surfboard (used for decades internationally as a lifeguard rescue device) weighed as little as 40 pounds, and opened the sport up to hundreds of people who weren't able to muscle the heavy plank boards down the beach and into the water.
Blake became one of the first commercial boardbuilders in 1932, as the Thomas Rogers Company of Venice, California, introduced a line of Tom Blake Hawaiian Paddleboards. Other manufacturers, including the Los Angeles Ladder Company and the Catalina Equipment Company, would later produce Blake boards. In the early '30s he also created a sailboard prototype, as well as a waist-secured surf leash.
While Santa Monica surfer Pete Peterson is occasionally noted as the inventor of the surfboard fin, in the early 1930s, the credit usually goes to Blake. While living in Hawaii, in 1935, Blake attached a four-inch-deep by one-foot-long keel, scavenged from an old speedboat, to the tail of his surfboard. The fin allowed Blake to ride on a tighter angle across the wave. In 1928, Blake entered and won the inaugural Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships, the first major American surfing contest, held at Corona del Mar. The competition format and rules were in large part drafted by Blake, and the event combined paddleboard racing and wave-riding. In 1932, Blake became the first person to paddle the 26 miles between Catalina and San Pedro.
Blake also helped develop surf photography and journalism. A few months after buying a Graflex camera from Duke Kahanamoku in 1929, he crafted a first-of-its-kind camera housing for use in the surf, and in 1931 one of his from-the-water Waikiki surf photos was published as a full-page image in the Los Angeles Times. In 1935, National Geographic published "Waves and Thrills at Waikiki," an eight-page portfolio of Blake's surfing photography; his Hawaiian Surfboard, the first book on surfing, was also published that year, with sections on history, board construction, competition, and wave-riding tips. Blaks also wrote a soft-cover Manual of Surfboard Technique (1935), as well as DIY boardmaking articles for Popular Mechanics (1936) and Popular Science (1939). Blake himself, as handsome as he was innovative, was often written about and photographed for newspaper and magazine articles.
Blake traveled to Florida, New York, and the Bahamas, continued to license his board designs, and worked as a lifeguard when necessary. He was hired on occasion as a Hollywood bit actor and stunt double. During World War II he served as an older-than-average enlisted man in the Coast Guard. By 1955, living in Waikiki, Blake was disillusioned with the crowds on the beach, and somewhat frustrated with his still-fit but nonetheless aging body. He was an admired figure, but an oddity as well, living by himself on a homemade boat in the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor. "Late in the evening," the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported the day after Blake took his leave of both Hawaii and surfing, in September 1955, "he would seek his way back to the tiny boat, carrying a brown paper sack containing carrots, celery, a loaf of bread, some cheese (and) ice cream for his lonely evening meal." In 1961 Blake published his second book, Hawaiian Surfriding: The Ancient and Royal Pastime.
Blake continued to work as a lifeguard into his early 60s, mainly in Florida; in 1967 he returned to his childhood home in Wisconsin, where he wrote "Voice of the Wave," a religious-themed essay on surfing, published in a 1969 issue of Surfing magazine and later reworked into "Voice of the Atom." The essential Blake philosophy, one that he carved into stone in Wisconsin, came to be: Nature = God. Blake, a vegetarian from early adulthood, died in 1994 at age 92. He was married once, for less than a month, in 1925, and had no children.
Blake was inducted into International Surfing Magazine's Hall of Fame in 1967, to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1992, and to the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1994. Tom Blake: Surfing 1922–1932, a book of photographs of and by Blake, was published in 1999. Tom Blake: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, a richly detailed biography by Gary Lynch and Malcolm Gault-Williams, was published in 2001. Portions of a 1990 videotaped interview with Blake were used in Great Waves, an cable TV documentary series produced by Opper Films. Some of the luster came off the Blake legend when H2O magazine in 2001 reported that he "favored certain now-scientifically discredited and controversial beliefs regarding race and ethnicity."
In 2012, the first annual Board Across the Bay: Tom Blake Race and Festival was held on Lake Superior's Chequemegon Bay.