in Santa Monica in 1924, he grew up on the beach and served as a
lifeguard for all his adult life, working for the cities of Santa
Monica, and Newport Beach, as well as Los Angeles County, and the State
Lieutenant Tom Zahn, skipper of the L.A. County Baywatch,
he was awarded the Medal of Valor. As a surfer he had ridden big North
Shore Hawaiian surf with the sport’s pioneers in the late 1940s, and
early ’50s. As a paddleboard racing champion he established a number
of long-standing records, including his 9hr. 20min. solo Molokai/Waikiki
Channel crossing in October, 1953, and his 1958 Catalina Channel
crossing record which stood for over 20 years.
had his mentor, Tom Blake—modern surfing’s primary architect—he
personified an ideal that Blake had initially stimulated. Zahn, however,
never considered his ideals or achievements as credentials;
aggrandizement was not his style. Instead, Zahn esteemed order and lived
a life of economic simplicity.
he received numerous awards over the years, and was often cast as a
“hero,” he felt no need to be dramatized as one. He ignored
celebrity. Tom Zahn wasn’t a grandstander, he simply stood in the
light of his deeds.
Zahn’s two most important qualities were elements that have all but
disappeared from contemporary life—personal integrity and
character—old-fashioned values more befitting a gentleman of the 19th
quiet, dignified, self-possessed. Those are the adjectives that seem to
best describe him. But he was also stoic—in the strict philosophical
meaning of the term. After his death in 1991, what remained, for those
who had not known him well, was the recollection of an image instead of
a man. Not that his sometimes-larger-than-life persona obscured him—it
Zahn, the man, developed the ability to sidestep that image—as though
it were a cardboard cutout. This left others talking to, or about the
image, while the real Zahn remained detached.
THE SAME CLOTH
acknowledged that he had initially modeled much of his philosophy and
behavior on Tom Blake’s blueprint.
seemed cut from the same cloth. Both, as men, were Hollywood-handsome.
Both were athletes, cross-referentially dedicated to health, hygiene and
diet, with physiques that would stand out even in today’s world of
buffed health-club studlies.
men revered Duke Kahanamoku whom they counted as a close personal
possessed a certain aloof reserve, a dignified, gentleman’s reticence
that made them simultaneously accessible to those whom they
accepted—and unavailable to those whom they chose to ignore.
men enjoyed a mutually sustaining and reinforcing life-long friendship,
imbued with a love of the ocean, health and fitness. Zahn once confided
that nothing had ever meant more to him.
biologically magical chain of dexiribo nucleic acids or amino peptides
that combined with sand, sun and sea water to create these two
remarkable individuals, had done a superlative job.
were formidable watermen.
before television marketers coined the term “Extreme Sports,” during
the years following his service in the Navy in World War II, Zahn’s
surfing and paddleboarding exploits, including solo paddleboarding the
Molokai Channel, earned him the status of demi-legend in California and
by commercial sponsors, with no expectation of financial reward, Zahn
embodied the then-current concept of a “dedicated amateur athlete”
who did what he did for the joy of the challenge without expectation of
magazine publisher, Martin Sugarman reacalls: “...Zahn had a youthful,
boyish charm, but at the same time he was serious.
time he showed me pictures of one of those paddleboard races in Hawaii
against Downing. In telling the story he came alive. He didn’t boast
about winning it. He just took joy in sharing how hard it was and how
much fun he had.
most salient feature I can remember about him was his incredible quality
of aliveness, and physical brightness.
was a great waterman. I remember seeing him paddling off State Beach
every morning year after year, in any conditions. He looked like what
you’d expect a lifeguard to look like.
was a self-starter, an individual who didn’t need others to get him
going. He was disciplined and stuck to an iron-clad routine. I think he
set his clock when he was very young and never reset it until the
springs wore out.
was like a …Rolex of lifeguards and watermen. ”
enduring legacy is enshrined in stories of his feats and deeds told, and
then retold by others.
have become part of surfing’s collective consciousness.
MAN OF CULTURE
was another side of Zahn.
he enjoyed surfing, paddling, rowing, and discussing board and hull
design, he also enjoyed intellectual conversation, literature, and to
some extent, classical art. He disdained as kitsch.
most elements of contemporary popular culture
traveled frequently and extensively in Europe and Spain, read widely,
and spoke and read German. Tom’s ancestry was Germanic, and he had a
deep interest in Teutonic culture and German classical music. Tom read
and admired the German philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche, and studied Göethe
his protégés, men like Larry Capune, Mike Young, and Rabbi Norm
Shifren—who recently published his autobiography, Surfing
Rabbi—all of whom were serious about paddling and training, he
would suggest reading Nietzsche’s “Man and Superman,” to stimulate
their level of commitment.
of Tom’s favorite yearly rituals was visiting San Francisco to attend
the Richard Wagner Festival, where the famous composer’s Ring
of the Nibelung cycle was performed. This was an opportunity for him
to indulge himself culturally—without being stigmatized as a highbrow.
was something of a cultural elitist and made no effort to hide the fact.
Zahn, as had Blake, favored certain now-scientifically discredited and
controversial beliefs regarding race and ethnicity, he generally avoided
discussing this particular element of his weltanschauung,
(world-view) unless he knew you well and felt comfortable.
wasn’t embarrassed about his beliefs, nor did he ever feel reticent
about discussing them in detail when asked directly. If you didn’t
agree, or felt uncomfortable, he was quick to acknowledge that he
understood such concepts had been rejected.
today’s politically correct climate Zahn would surely be condemned as
socially and politically reactionary, but he was by no means bigoted, or
a person who indulged in any form of ethnic or racial hatred. In
retrospect, his beliefs seem based in his dismay with what he perceived
to be the breakdown of values and the cultural ideals he personally
very carefully considered people of any race or ethnicity on a strictly
individual basis and accepted them as such.
OF AN ERA
paddleboard racing, on the mainland, came to an abrupt end in 1961 with
the mid-race cancellation of Bob Hogan's International Paddleboard
Championship—the Catalina race founded in 1955.
were changing. The surf-craze sweeping the country wasn’t grounded in
the waterman’s tradition. Instead, it was fueled by the
commercialization and commodification of surfing.
became a victim of the paradigm shift created by the mass-marketing of
youth-culture and the onset of the social rift that began after the 1962
assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
his personal stature, try as he might, Tom Zahn couldn’t stimulate any
interest in long-distance paddleboarding as a sport. Even short
paddleboard races—always a component of surfing contests in the
past—were being phased out. The surfing industry simply abandoned the
sport. Except in Hawaii, there were no longer any venues for
once pointed out a photo in the Doc Ball book, California
Surfriders, 1946—a double-truck shot, taken in the late 1930s in
Long Beach. You can count 68 paddlers before the camera’s
depth-of-field perspective reduces the line, making the remainder
discussed the phenomenon with the author on many occasions. On one level
Tom Zahn, as had Tom Blake, responded positively to surfing’s sudden
growth spurt. On the other, he was critical.
may be Beachboys,” Zahn once remarked to the author and Pete Peterson,
after hearing a song played loudly on a portable radio, “but they
was chagrined because there were no long-distance events in which to
compete at a time when he was still capable of competitive athletic
decades passed before long-distance paddleboard racing resurfaced. In
1982 Zahn stood off State Beach in Baywatch
and escorted the lead pack of Norm Shifren’s first Waterman
Memorial into the beach. Later that summer Buddy Bohn and Gibby
Gibson re-instituted the Catalina race.
the 1983 Waterman Memorial, at 59, he placed a yards-close third
an influence, Tom Zahn was an example of physical, moral, and
standards were exacting. He did not suffer dilettantes. He took life
seriously, and still enjoyed it. To be sure, there was an element of
compulsivity to his behavior. He had well-established routines from
which he rarely deviated.
old Latin proverb goes: stylus
virum arguit, in today’s idiom—actions speak louder than words.
And Tom Zahn’s certainly did.
resolute spirit, integrity, and lifetime commitment to the ocean were an
enduring inspiration for three generations of Southern California
his legacy will influence the next.
Reprinted from the
Vol. # of H20 Magazine