- Historic Sites
The Beach Boy
How Southern California capitalism and one mysterious loner met, courted, married, and gave birth to our modern surfing culture
July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
I was hurrying down an endless corridor in San Francisco’s international airport, in a swirl of shapeless people and with a storm raging around, when I was suddenly brought to a stop.
For lining my route were blown-up photos of bronzed surfers in tints and monochromes, old-fashioned athletes wearing shapely bathing costumes, not the youths of today, snug in their thick rubber wet suits. A sign told me this was a special exhibit celebrating the history of surfing in California. I paused to look and to read, a lone peruser in that airport rush of cell phones and baseball caps.
Of course I found plenty of tributes to Duke Kahanamoku, the famous Hawaiian waterman and reputed father of modern surfing. That was fine. I’d shaken hands with the great old Polynesian during the 1960s, when I was in Honolulu appearing in a rock TV show, and a nicer gentleman you couldn’t imagine; he’d even shown us a couple of Watusi steps and said he admired the Beatles.
The problem for me was that there wasn’t a picture of George Freeth, his predecessor.
Poor forgotten George! Dead of influenza at thirty-five in 1919, after rescuing yet another victim from the angry Pacific. He who had innovated and innovated but not uttered a word that was ever reported. A perfect physical specimen but only part Hawaiian and therefore lacking the romantic ethnic appeal of Duke Kahanamoku. Yet, long before the Duke, George Freeth had formally introduced surf-riding to Southern California, and from there it had spread around the world. After that he’d shown them water polo, water basketball, and the crawl.
As the very first professional lifeguard, he had devised the torpedo-shaped “rescue can”—a four-foot-long can attached to a cable that can be thrown out to a sinking swimmer. It is still in use. The dives he demonstrated at Redondo Beach were legendary; boys followed him around, copying his walk. Still, he said nothing, hardly smiling. Silent George, always in sportswear, clean as a whistle, master of the agitated water.
I thought of Freeth, of his world of sun and sky, as I hurried down the concertina corridor and into the metal tube of the plane and out into the tin-can car and finally back in my furnace house in Los Angeles. At my basement desk at the Huntington Library I tried to fill in the details of how this man had brought beach culture to America.
The first stop would be Waikiki Beach in the late spring of 1907. Jack London, the famous and excitable all-American author, had just arrived there with his “wife-mate,” Charmian. According to London’s side of the story, he caught his first sight of surfing while he was lolling in the shade of a date palm one morning on Waikiki. He and Charmian had sailed in on their homemade boat, the Snark, after a rough journey from San Francisco. Kicking back in paradise, he was presented with a thrilling vision.
All morning the surf had been thundering and churning and forming battle lines of waves with smoking crests or welters of spume and so on. Now, atop one of these growling rollers, there appeared a sea-god, flying through the spray-filled air until—boomph!—he landed at London’s feet, effortlessly picked up an enormous board, and left him gazing at the remnants of breakers falling spent on the sand.
This splendid fellow, decided the writer, was a “member of the kingly species that has mastered matter and the brutes.” It occurred to London that he was as good as this blackened creature with the big redwood plank. He too would ride the waves.
But he turned out to be hopeless at the surfing game —until a friend, Alexander Hume Ford, gave him some pointers and then, a little later, introduced him to the sea-god himself, a kid named Freeth. Silently the lad showed the author how to duck under or dive through the killer waves: Remember never to be rigid, never to struggle against the mighty smokers; always relax and yield to nature. This London fully understood and always had. All day long he tested the waves, and they tested him back, with a vengeance. The next morning he was flat on his back with a bad case of sunburn.
Though in pain, London was determined to produce his daily thousand words. He ran way over, well into the thousands, and by lunchtime he had a complete article, straight from his heart. “A Royal Sport” he scribbled at the top. I have held the manuscript in my hand here at the Huntington Library: loose, lined pages that start in ink and go into pencil (did he run out of ink, or did the nib break under his passion?), lots of crossings out, but mainly one continuous stream of words, punctuated with stains (jam? or blood?), until, at the climax, he declares his desire, his determination, to become a “sunburned, skinpeeling Mercury.” The Snark will not leave Waikiki until he has achieved his aim.
Actually, London sailed off before long. In October the article was published in A Woman’s Home Companion and, a little later, as a chapter in his book The Cruise of the Snark. Thus word was spread about a fabulous new sport.