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Watermen’s Lives: Recollecting Zahn ©

April 19, 2018 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Paddleboarding

by Craig Lockwood

Santa Monica’s Tom Zahn left two legacies, his skill and accomplishments as a waterman, and the remarkable influence he exerted as a man of indomitable character. Craig Lockwood eulogizes one of his personal guiding lights…

When Tom Zahn paddled his final strokes beyond life’s barrier reef he slipped across leaving in his wake a superb series of life-accomplishments as a consummate waterman.

Born 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 of California.

As 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.

As 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.

While 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.

He didn’t bask.


Perhaps 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 century.

Intelligent, 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 didn’t.

Tom 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.


Zahn acknowledged that he had initially modeled much of his philosophy and behavior on Tom Blake’s blueprint.

Both 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.

Both men revered Duke Kahanamoku whom they counted as a close personal friend.

Both 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.

Both 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.

Whatever 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.

Both were formidable watermen.


Decades 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 Hawaii.

Unassisted 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 reward.

H2O magazine publisher, Martin Sugarman reacalls: “…Zahn had a youthful, boyish charm, but at the same time he was serious.

“One 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.

“The most salient feature I can remember about him was his incredible quality of aliveness, and physical brightness.

“He 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.

“He 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.

“He was like a …Rolex of lifeguards and watermen. ”

Zahn’s enduring legacy is enshrined in stories of his feats and deeds told, and then retold by others.

They have become part of surfing’s collective consciousness.


There was another side of Zahn.

While 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

He 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 and Shopenahuer.

For 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.

One 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.

Zahn was something of a cultural elitist and made no effort to hide the fact.


Because 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.

He 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.

In 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 cherished.

He very carefully considered people of any race or ethnicity on a strictly individual basis and accepted them as such.


Long-distance 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.

Times 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.

Paddleboarding 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.

Despite 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 long-distance competition.

Tom 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 indistinguishable.

Zahn 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.

“They may be Beachboys,” Zahn once remarked to the author and Pete Peterson, after hearing a song played loudly on a portable radio, “but they aren’t watermen.”

He was chagrined because there were no long-distance events in which to compete at a time when he was still capable of competitive athletic performance.

Two 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.

In the 1983 Waterman Memorial, at 59, he placed a yards-close third place—overall.


As an influence, Tom Zahn was an example of physical, moral, and intellectual achievement.

His 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.

An old Latin proverb goes: stylus virum arguit, in today’s idiom—actions speak louder than words. And Tom Zahn’s certainly did.

His resolute spirit, integrity, and lifetime commitment to the ocean were an enduring inspiration for three generations of Southern California watermen.

Hopefully his legacy will influence the next.

Reprinted from the Vol.   #  of H20 Magazine
Copyright © 2001 Craig Lockwood. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1996-2001 Eaton Enterprises. All rights reserved.
May not be republished without permission.