Death at Sea originally appeared in Surfguide Magazine in 1963 or 1964 and was written by Surfguide's editor, Bill Cleary. Several articles about Nick Gabaldon and his place in surfing history have appeared since then. But this was the first.


- by Bill Cleary

NICK GABALDON WAS BLACK. He learned to surf in the tiny waves off a roped-off parcel of Santa Monica sand known to more charitable whitefolk as "Negro beach." He surfed alone; there were no other colored surfers.

Most of them were afraid of the ocean, but Nick had conquered it; and when he walked, six fee five inches tall and blueblack, into his people's bars on Pico Boulevard, the men stood up. He was their champion.

He appeared at Malibu one day. No one ever knew how he got there. "He just appeared." But every morning he was there. Weeks later they found out. He paddled. Each morning he launched his huge white surfboard and paddled twelve miles to Malibu; each evening his powerful shoulders drew him back over the whitecaps, from Malibu to Negro beach, where he disappeared to do what the Negroes did in the darken ghetto of Santa Monica.

He was a giant of a man, stronger than the chains that might have bound him to a Negro beach. Even after he was accepted into the Malibu group, and one or another of the guys drove him to Malibu, saving him the long paddle, and he stood around the fire with them on the cold gray days, he was quiet and alone. But he was a surfer. He had it inside him.

In the late spring of 1951, a tiny fragment of the world within him, that powerful rise and fall of breaking waves, burst forth. Nick was attending Santa Monica City College, where he contributed poetry to the college literary magazine.
On May 31, he submitted what the editors felt was his best work - a poem dedicated to his "capricious, vindictive sea."

Nick Gabaldon
After graduating from Santa Monica High
 he served in the US Navy for 18 months from 1945 until 1946.

And seven days later, true to the poet's vision, this clapping, this rapping, this mighty roar came swooping down on Malibu. The sea was alive with giant swells. And Malibu was a big as Malibu ever was.

Some say the waves were eight feet, others ten. It doesn't matter - the waves spun endlessly from point to pier. Toward noon the reached their peak. Then one wave rose outside, higher than the rest, and washed down before the men with flagging muscles could paddle over it. Three were spared. One was Nick.

Surfboards lay scattered along the strand like broken birds. The impact area looked like a cemetery, surfboards jutting up here and there like tombstones; some floated belly-up beyond their riders, who were swimming. Then the second wave hit. For an eternity it clung to the horizon like a shroud, rising higher and higher as it came, until even the sun was obscured behind it. And then the rumbling. And in its awesome shadow, three surfboards came swooping; they skimmed the point ... the inside wall ... and then the pier. Nobody had ever made the pier.

Nick Gabaldon
February 3, 1927 - June 5, 1951
They were close now. "We can make it!" Nick yelled. But the others, doubted, pulled out. The something inside him told Nick he could make it. He bore on. His heart pounded; the rise and fall ... there was hope! Until that last eternal instant when the wave exploded all around him and he was committed and it was suddenly all too clear and his body bent to the will of that one eternal wave of his capricious, vindictive sea, and he flew with the full force of that wave, headlong amongst the pilings.

From the beach they had all seen. They ran to help, but there was no trace. They dived all day, searching, found nothing.

In the next morning's newspaper, a news item appeared:

"Eyewitnesses today described how Nicholas Gabaldon, 20, student at Santa Monica City College, was swept to his death yesterday afternoon while surfing near the Malibu Pier ..."

Nine days later, only a little way down the beach from where the terrible thing happened, Nick Gabaldon's body washed to shore.

Lost Lives

The capricious ocean so very strong,
Robust, powerful; can I be wrong?
Pounding, beating upon its cousin shore,
Comes it clapping, rapping with a mighty roar.

The sea vindictive, with waves so high
For men to battle and still they die.
Many has it taken to its bowels below;
Without regard it thus does bestow
Its laurels to unwary men.

With riches taken from ships gone by,
Its wet song reaches to the sky
to claim its fallen man-made birds
And plunge them into depths below
With a nauseous surge.

Scores and scores have fallen prey
To the slat of animosity;
And many more will victims be
Of the capricious, vindictive sea.

O, avaricious ocean so very strong
Robust, powerful, I'm not wrong,
Pounding, beating upon your cousin shore.
Come you clapping, rapping with a mighty roar.

- Nick Gabaldon