Jimmy Blears was always searching. He loved to scour the water’s edge for valuable bits of flotsam and jetsam that the powerful Pacific surf may have shaken loose from bathing suits of hapless tourists. For years, looking for lost treasure became something of an obsession for the Hawaiian lifeguard. You see, there is one thing a lot of folks never knew about the good natured island boy who spent 25+ years at the beach pulling surfers and tourists to safety. Jimmy Blears was the 1972 world surfing champion, a feat that etched his name on to an elite (and quite short) list of Hawaiian champs. Andy Irons, Sunny Garcia, Derek Ho, and Fred Hemmings have all staked their claims on surf history, but Blears, it seems, had it shaken loose from his grasp like the treasure that littered the sand surrounding his lifeguard tower. For most, getting paid to spend your days on the North Shore watching the waves would be enough, but Jimmy was still searching for something more…maybe to recapture a treasure he lost decades ago.
Jimmy Blears was born in Los Angeles in 1948 but moved with his family to Hawaii 2 years later. A lucky soul for sure, little Bruddah Jimmy was raised on the beach of the era’s surfing epicenter: Waikiki. His family took up residence in the historic Steiner Building where the statue of the legendary Duke Kahanamoku stands today. His dad was wrestling legend and match promoter Lord James “Tally Ho” Blears. Once described as “a magisterial Englishman,” the elder Blears was an avid surfer who even made an appearance in the seminal surfing documentary, The Endless Summer, and who would go on to become the ubiquitous announcer for events like the Makaha International Championships and the ABC Wide World of Sports surfing specials.
Jimmy experienced surfing as a family affair. The Blears often spent time with other famous surfing clans like the Aikau and the Paskowitz families who were all ingrained in the Waikiki Beachboy culture. The sprawling Honolulu lineups provided an incredibly inspiring playing field for the Blears kids, which included Jimmy and his younger siblings, Laura and Clinton who also proved to be world-class wave riders. Dad would pack up the whole family into their VW bus for day trips to Makaha when big south and west swells came pouring in. For Jimmy who had been riding waves since he could walk, the ocean was his playground.
Spending his elementary days at Waikiki’s Washington Elementary School, Blears then moved on to prestigious Punahou High School from where he graduated in 1967. During his school years, he proved to be a talented and successful competitive swimmer, but his passion lied in surfing the soft, blue walls of the South Shore where he shared the lineup with legends like Joey Cabell, Buzzy Trent, Buffalo Keaulana, and Barry Kanai’uapuni.
Jimmy’s style was powerful and deliberate with a wide goofyfoot stance that held fast in the strong Hawaiian surf, and he quickly distinguished himself as a dominant force on the Hawaiian amateur scene, earning a coveted spot on the Weber Surf Team. In addition to local competition, Blears excelled in big waves as a standout at North Shore power zones like Pipeline and Sunset. He was there at Makaha on the day of Greg Noll’s famous last wave, a day when the swell was pumping at a reported 40 feet. Legend has it that Jimmy caught and rode a massive set wave from the outside point all the way to the inside bowl, not a common feat. His big wave chops put him on the shortlist of invitees to the Duke Kahanamoku contest 4 times, and he made a 3rd place showing at the Smirnoff in 1970. The following year, he again competed in the Smirnoff and made it into the semi-finals.
In 1972, Blears earned a slot on the Hawaiian surf team that would compete in the World Contest in San Diego alongside Michael Ho and Larry Bertleman. The San Diego event would prove both exultant and problematic for Jimmy Blears. All signs pointed to a stellar competition as the swell of the year struck the California coast. The problem was that the swell was not right for San Diego where contestants were forced to trudge through meager conditions. There was a collective thumbing of the nose from many of surfing’s A-List talents like Rolf Aurness, Margo Godfrey, Midget Farrelly, Felipe Pomar, Nat Young, and Fred Hemmings who all chose to skip the event.
The contest was riddled with controversy, most notably when locals stole David Nuuiwa’s board and hung the fish model broken and defiled from the Ocean Beach Pier. Nuuiwa, who was favored to win the event, had to ride a backup board. Mishaps aside, the heats were packed with talent and read like a list of surfing’s future icons: Richards, Anderson, Petersen, Fitzgerald, Cairns, Lopez, Hakman, Downing, Aipa, Abellira, Carroll, and Crawford.
In the final, Blears faced off against teenage stars Michael Ho and Peter Townend and a red hot David Nuuiwa. From all accounts, Nuuiwa surfed the best, but the contest criteria favored Blears’ bigger and longer waves. While many surf media outlets appeared to ignore the event, some critics were outright caustic about the results. The response to Blears’ win was due in part to the weak surf and judging criteria, but there was also a prevailing dissatisfaction with the World Contest itself. This would be the death knell for the event as a budding world tour format took shape over the next decade.
With his surfing zenith at hand, Blears returned to Hawaii with little fanfare from the surf media. In 1977, he put his vast knowledge of the ocean and weather and his skills in the water to work as a city lifeguard as which he would serve for 25+ years at his home beach of Waikiki, Makaha, and Sunset Beach. Blears sometimes gave surfing lessons for extra money. Stationed at Sunset Beach Tower 25, Blears shared his experience and expertise with successive generations of surfers as they prepared to paddle out, many of whom never knew they were getting advice from a world champ. By the end of his lifeguard career, Blears was back on the South Shore at Ala Moana.
Reportedly struggling with substance abuse later in life and after completing at least 1 rehabilitation program, he retired from lifeguarding in 2002 and moved in with friends on the island of Kauai. Locals tell of a smiling, healthy Blears on the Garden Isle. While he was no longer surfing on a regular basis, he was helping to judge local amateur events and looking happy and healthy. But after returning to Oahu, fate intervened. Jimmy Blears died in his sleep on February 6, 2011at 62 years old.
|Blears left this world without the fawning and finances befitting a champion athlete due in part to circumstances beyond his control. Like the later Apollo missions launched after the height of the space race, Blears made his mark during a time of declining interest. Competitive surfing was in flux at a contest riddled with issues and in waves that were less than stellar. Regardless, he rode the best waves that day and based on the judging criteria, he beat the world’s best surfers fair and square. But more than that, he had the fortune of enjoying all the trappings of a life spent free and easy in Hawaii during the golden age of surfing. And that is a treasure beyond value…a treasure he possessed all along.|