- 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
On Wednesday, December 16, a terrible storm blew up in Santa Monica Bay. Huge walls of water came crashing in. Eleven Japanese fishermen, unaware of the danger, had set off in skiffs from their beach village near the port of Los Angeles. By noon they were in big trouble. Freeth and his fellow lifesavers, however, were on the pier. “Masses of foamy waves … [were] picked up by the gale and flung half a thousand feet into the streets of the little city,” said the Los Angeles Times the next day. George was “the hero of the hour,” as he “dived into a great breaker just before it broke. The other members of the crew thought to see him dashed to death against the bulkhead. But he pierced the wall of water like a gigantic needle. … With skill born of long experience, Freeth caught the side of the little boat and … board[ed] the craft.”
Then, without a pause, he did an amazing thing: He seized the rudder and, standing up straight, he surfed the skiff through what the Times called “thousand-ton breakers” all the way back to the beach, where Venice residents lined up to shake his hand and “Girls crowded around [him] just to pat his tanned shoulders and smile at him.”
Huntington’s men were reading. The next year, when Redondo opened its magnificent bathhouse, Freeth was hired as the chief swimming instructor. It was a place such as only California could boast: the largest heated indoor saltwater “plunge” in the world, with three pools, 1,350 dressing rooms, Turkish and steam baths, even a trapeze. It could accommodate two thousand bathers at the same time. Freeth got an office, with a panoramic ocean view. Not only did he give swimming lessons, teaching the newfangled “crawl” and the “trudgeon” (his specialty, a stroke like the crawl but with the head kept above water), but he daily demonstrated the most amazing dives, elaborations on the ones he’d done from the Venice pier, including a two-and-a-half forward somersault with a double twist and a swallow dive from almost fifty feet.
In the 1980s ex-pupils of his, old men now, remembered the magic of those dives. “He was doing a swallow but he looked more like a hawk,” said Harold Braude, a retired insurance salesman still living in Redondo Beach. “I see him in slow motion, almost frozen in the moment. I see him as a creature of the air. Yet at other times, when he was teaching us the trudgeon or playing water polo, he seemed permanently attached to the water, like he was part of it.”
Freeth started one of the first water polo teams, then formed another for water basketball. He led his teams to national championships. One night, up with one of his teams in San Francisco for a contest, he was seen strumming a ukulele as his young admirer and protégé Duke Kahanamoku executed a hula. The Duke was to win a gold medal for swimming at the 1912 Olympics and two more golds in 1920; Ludy Langer, another Freeth pupil, later won a silver medal. But George Freeth won nothing, because he was ineligible: He had been paid money to swim and dive and surf and stroll. He was a pro, not a gentleman.
He set up the first lifeguard corps at Redondo Beach. He had a cigar-shaped rescue canister (with cable attached) manufactured for use in lifesaving; if the drama was taking place a long way from the plunge, he’d send out his motorcycle-and-sidecar unit, fully armed with can, cable, bandages, and iodine. In between all this, often at sunset, he could be seen creaming in on a wave. Small boys followed him as he walked up the beach, until he disappeared into the gloaming.
Where did he go? Nobody knows. But in 1915 he was engaged as swimming instructor by the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Henry Huntington may have been behind this, for he’d had a big say in the construction of the club’s enormous, handsome swimming pool. Frank Garbutt, an L.A. booster and oil magnate, was a mover and shaker of the club, and he loved the newest things: planes and autos and especially movies. He brought Jack London back into George Freeth’s vicinity by building a movie studio nearby for the purpose of filming London novels, starting with The Sea Wolf in 1913. Lots of sea and violence, but no work for George. Had London dropped him? What had George done—or not done? We’ll never know. But the writer was deteriorating. In 1915, during what was to be his last stay in Hawaii, he roared out passages from his recent novel, Mutiny of the Elsinore , to a rapt Alexander Hume Ford: The Northern European white man is being crowded out of America, but before he disappears beneath the weight of the Latin, the Slav, and other lesser races, he will go down fighting. “Darn the wheel of the world! Why must it continually turn over? Where is the reverse gear?” cried London. The next year, death claimed him. And Ford stayed in Hawaii to count the tourists and to regret the boosterism of himself and his great friend; the sea was becoming cluttered.