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Saturday, February 18, 2012
Updated: February 19, 6:45 PM ET
Looking up at "12 Miles North" premiere

By Jake Howard
ESPN Action Sports

"12 Miles North" gets the Hollywood treatment.

"12 Miles North: The Story of Nick Gabaldon," is unlike any surf movie you've ever seen. Not because the wave-riding is aerial-esque and "progessive," not because it carries you away to a far off, dreamy lineup, and not because it was subsidized by sportswear giant Nike. Rather, "12 Miles North," believe it or not, is a surf movie that deals with actual, real-life social issues, most notably race.

In the 1940s Gabaldon frequented the Inkwell in Santa Monica, a stretch of sand predominantly enjoyed by African Americans. An avid bodysurfer, he eventually caught the eye of then lifeguard Buzzy Trent (who would go on to pioneer surfing at the North Shore of Oahu). Trent started lending Gabaldon his board with some regularity, and like so many surfers before and after, Gabaldon was hooked.

As he evolved as a surfer he began wanting to test the waters further afield, which is what led him to start paddling from the Inkwell to Malibu -- 12 miles north. Gabaldon found himself in the midst of the budding surf culture, eventually earning himself a distinguished spot in the lineup amongst luminaries of the day such as Peter Cole, Ricky Grigg and Micky Muņoz. But tragedy struck in 1951 when Gabaldon tried to shoot the Malibu pier, hit a piling and drowned.

With the exception of Tony Corely, Rick Blocker and the Black Surfing Association, this story has largely gone untold. Few still pictures and no moving images of Gabaldon exist, and until now he's been lost to time. Thankfully director Richard Yellen and his team have resurrected him.

Director Richard Yelland addresses a packed house.

This brings me to the film's premiere in Los Angeles, Calif., on the evening of Feb. 16. Held at the Montalban Theater on the corner of Sunset and Vine, when Tom Servais and I walked into the theater I felt like Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi when they walk into the Baptist church in "The Blues Brothers." It was awe-inspiring and awesome.

Attended by 300 to 400 people, the film played to a packed house -- of which 80-plus percent of the attendees were African American. The Black Surfing Association was out in force.

"Nick's journey is symbolic of the middle passage our forefathers underwent 400 years ago," told Blocker as he introduced the film. "This is a story of breaking through, of finding freedom."

Over the last 10 or 15 years I've been to a lot of surf premieres and I've critiqued a lot of films, and for the most part none have even hinted at dealing with such a radical social issue. What, "Passion Pop," "First Chapter," "Second Thoughts," "Kelly Slater in Black and White," those have messages? Yeah, right. The only time I can remember seeing a black surfer in a film is the Jamaican surf crew -- and no disrespect to them, but it came across a little like the novelty that befell their bobsledding countrymen.

There are exceptions. "God Went Surfing with the Devil," is a documentary about the surfer's plight in Gaza and the West Bank. But Gabaldon's story takes place at one of the most historically documented spots in surfdom: Malibu. It's been right under our collective noses this whole time and nobody's cared to pay attention.

A troupe of local dancers took to the stage at show's end.

For Gabaldon his 12-mile paddle was about gaining access, about breaking down barriers and showing the world that you didn't have to look like Buzzy Trent to surf like him. And during the premiere, looking out of the crowded theater, it was amazing to see in the response from this little subset of our little subculture. He's still having an impact. The Black Surfing Association is a tight-knit, dedicated crew, but given the size of the African American population in the L.A. area and its proximity to the coast, their numbers are small. Why?

Nike BMX rider Nigel Sylvester played emcee for the night and reckoned it like this: "Growing up where I did everybody thought that riding bikes was for white kids. They'd laugh and make fun of me. But you push through that. You overcome that because of the passion you have for the sport, and that's what Nick was all about."

"The ocean doesn't care about color, creed or race," said Grigg. "In the ocean we're equals."

After watching "12 Miles North" I can only hope that Gabaldon's story inspires and stokes out a whole new generation of African American surfers -- or as the surf industry likes to say, "grows the pond."

"12 Miles North" is available as a free download.