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Corky Carroll on the Father of California Surfing

George Freeth : image courtesy Surfing Heritage Foundation 


Corky Carroll

George Freeth brought surfing to California in the early 1900s

Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 14 May, 2012 : - - Today I wanna begin the story of George Douglas Freeth. George was a Hawaiian born surfer who is credited with starting surfing here in California in the early 1900's. After surfing for getting close to 60 years, and having heard the name George Freeth many times in conjunction with early California surfing, I finally took the time to find out who this guy was and what it was that he actually did.

I should have done this a long time ago because his story should be known by all of us who grew up and made our lives around surfing, not only in California but anywhere in the surfing world. George was born in Hawaii in 1883 to Elizabeth Kaili, who was one-half Hawaiian, and Englishman George Freeth, Sr. His grandfather, William Green, was a pretty big deal in the islands in the 1800's having formed an inter-island shipping company and started the Honolulu Iron Works.

Growing up on the beaches around Waikiki gave the young Freeth tremendous skills in water sports. He was a champion swimmer and high diver as well as becoming an excellent board surfer. One of the younger Hawaiians who looked up to George was Duke Kahanamoku. We all know about him, the legendary Olympic swimmer and Hawaiian surfing ambassador to the world.

A twist of fate put George together with travel and adventure writer Alexander Hume Ford when Ford was attempting to learn to surf at Waikiki. When most considered the writer a "no hope" case, George took pity on the dude and helped him get his act together. Ford would become well known for his promotion of Hawaii and also for being instrumental in forming the Outrigger Canoe and Surfboard Club on Waikiki Beach.

In 1907 Ford was selected to host a group of Congressional delegates that were touring the islands to determine if Hawaii might someday qualify for statehood, and George was put to work as head lifeguard and local knowledge guy for the group. This tour was the early seed in the long process that eventually led to Hawaii becoming a state.

In May of 1907 Ford ran into fellow writer Jack London and offered to take him surfing one morning. While inside they happened to witness George Freeth shredding up one of the outside sets. London was amazed and wrote the following passage that has become some of the most famous words on surfing ever written:

"Shaking the water from my eyes as I emerged from one wave and peered ahead to see what the next one looked like, I saw him tearing in on the back of it, standing upright on his board, carelessly poised, a young god with sunburn. We went through the wave on the back of which he rode. Ford called to him. He turned an airspring from his wave, rescued his board from its maw, paddled over to us and joined Ford in showing me things."

London was captivated by Freeth and went on to write, "He is a Mercury--a brown Mercury. His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea."

George had a sprit of travel and adventure and decided he wanted to see the mainland. He asked Ford and London for letters of recommendation and also received more from prominent members of the Hawaii Promotional Committee. With that in hand he boarded the San Francisco-bound passenger ship Alameda on July 3, 1907.

His departure drew front-page headlines in Hawaii's main newspaper, the Pacific Commercial Advertiser. "Freeth off to Coast." He was going to show Hawaiian surf riding to the Americans. I guess somebody had to do it, and I for one am glad he did.

From the story in the paper: "At the time when Freeth first took up surf riding there had been very few here for many years who had been able to perform the trick of standing on a surfboard, and coming in to the shore on the crest of a wave. The white man who could do it was exceptional. Freeth determined that if the old natives had been able to do the trick there was no reason that he could not do the same. In a short time he mastered the feat and then went further. The older inhabitants told of natives in the early days who stood on their heads when they came in. Freeth soon proved that this could be done at the present time as well as before."

Part II - SoCal Developement

The arrival of the Hawaiian surfer came at a perfect time for the development of the Southern California beaches. Just to the south of Santa Monica, a wealthy business dude named Abbot Kinney had put together a huge development that was in the image of Venice, in Italy, complete with canals and the whole deal.

Not too far south of that, Henry Huntington was busy trying to get his resort town of Redondo Beach up and running. Both had been having issues with people drowning in the ocean and had built large salt-water swimming pools near the beach to give people an alternative to swimming in the ocean.

But more people than not preferred the ocean, and with no working lifeguard system in place back then, people kept drowning. In Venice they put together a volunteer lifeguard department and purchased a two-man dory for lifesaving purposes. Unfortunately for them, one morning a couple of the lifeguards capsized the dory and one of them drowned right in front of the rest of the lifeguard department.

Obviously, that publicity did not help things out at all for the purpose of assuring beach goers a safe experience in the ocean. Things were not looking good for either Huntington or Kinney, as headlines continued to scream of the dangers of swimming in the ocean.

And then this good-looking and intelligent Hawaiian surfer shows up and is spotted surfing up and down the beaches of the Santa Monica Bay. George is the perfect guy to save the day. Not only is he a great waterman but also is a friendly and easygoing dude who is an excellent teacher of water sports and safety.

In no time at all George is working for both Huntington and Kinney. In Redondo Beach he was doing two surfing exhibitions a day under the billing of "The Hawaiian Wonder." He would travel on Huntington's Pacific Electric Railway up to Venice where he not only put on surfing exhibitions but also worked with the volunteer lifeguards.

His appearances drew huge crowds and also helped promote the salt-water swimming pools. When he was not dazzling the crowds by surfing while standing on his head, he worked as a lifeguard at the pools. The dude was like the savior for the whole beach scene at that time.

George's real passion was teaching water safety. His work with the growing lifeguard services would lead to the formation of the Los Angeles County, Long Beach and San Diego Lifeguard departments. He taught ocean swimming, the use of ocean-going dorys (small boats) and paddleboard skills. His knowledge of the ocean and the use of its currents was unmatched along the shores of the mainland.

That and his great personality and love of what he was doing made him extremely popular with everyone he worked with along with the thousands of people who flocked to the beaches to see his skills on the surfboard. In short, the dude was a real hero.

One of his swimming pupils, Ludy Langer, wound up setting three world records. In a 1980 interview she stated: "I remember George. You couldn't forget him. To see him in the water -- well, I can't describe it. He had absolutely no fear of it. It was his natural place. There was something else about George -- he was generous, generous to a fault. He coached I don't know how many of us -- four of us went to the Olympics -- and he never charged us a dime."


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Source: Corky's Blog

Author: Corky Carroll /

Tags, George Freeth, Hawaii, California, Surfing Roots

Corky's Blog - Surfersvillage



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