When Tom Blake developed wooden paddleboards to rescue distressed swimmers in the 1920s, the Santa Monica waterman had no idea he was creating a sport for the ages.
Six decades after paddleboard racers last propelled themselves through the choppy waters off the Santa Monica Pier, scores of competitors took to the waves Saturday and demonstrated that the once-popular sport still has legs.
“When those racers took off, I actually had tears in my eyes,” said Ben Franz-Knight, executive director of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corp. “This is something we’ve been missing.”
Back in the 1930s and ‘40s — the sport’s heyday — the women-only Manoa Paddleboard Club and the coed Santa Monica Paddleboard Club ran regular sprints in front of hundreds of spectators, and local newspapers printed the results.
In the 1960s, according to pier historian James Harris, interest in paddleboarding gave way to the more thrilling and challenging sport of performance surfing. With the broad adoption of stand-up paddling in recent years, paddleboarding has seen a resurgence.
On Saturday, paddlers splashed into the surf about 9 a.m. and began a 5.5-mile circuit around the pier, north to San Vicente Boulevard, back to the southern border of Santa Monica and then to the starting point.
Some participants stood erect while paddling foam and fiberglass boards through the surf while others knelt or lay prone. Most wore wildly patterned, knee-length board shorts or wetsuits. Whatever their fashion or style, spectators were pleased to cheer them on. A dory competition featured lifeguards rowing fiberglass rescue boats in a one-mile sprint and a three-lap race through the surf zone. About 35 people raced outrigger canoes.
Honolua Surf Co., a purveyor of water gear and clothing, and Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay produced the event. A portion of the proceeds will go to the nonprofit group’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium.
Less than an hour after starting, first-place finisher Anthony Vela, 36, a longtime Los Angeles County lifeguard, steamed to shore, having spent the entire race alternating every two minutes between a kneeling position (using primarily his leg and core muscles) and one minute on his stomach (using his arms and shoulders).
Dialy Ndiaye, 43, of Marina del Rey, who grew up surfing off the West African coast of Senegal, took first place in stand-up paddling, his pronounced pectorals and deltoids none the worse for wear despite a side wind that created some challenging chop.
For the 6-foot-4-inch Ndiaye, 5.5 miles is a relative walk in the park. “I paddle more than that every day,” he said.
“I’ve always loved the history of surfing and paddling and the waterman lifestyle in general,” said Todd Roberts, owner of ZJ Boarding House, a Santa Monica surf shop, who helped organize the event. "[This] is an emotional coming of age for the pier.”