One Hundred Years of Hanging Ten

A surf pioneer from the author’s hometown

LA Times

July 2007

The George Freeth memorial in Redondo Beach is a salt-bitten bust of a lifeguard in an old-fashioned swimming vest, gazing with the stoicism we expect from early surf heroes into the deep mysteries of a concrete parking garage. His back is to the Redondo Pier. Locals jog or skate past this memorial without noticing the plaque, which reads, “First Surfer in the United States,” and then relates the story of how Freeth was paid by Los Angeles real estate and streetcar magnate Henry Huntington in 1907 to lure people to Redondo Beach to watch a new kind of athlete trim the waves. “George Freeth was advertised as ‘The Man Who Can Walk on Water,’ “ according to the plaque. “Thousands of people came here … to watch this astounding feat. George would mount his big 8-foot-long, solid wood, 200-pound surfboard far out in the surf. He would wait for a suitable wave, catch it, and to the amazement of all, ride onto the beach while standing upright.”

The memorial is outdated: Freeth was only the first celebrity surfer in America. The first men on record to surf North America are now considered to be three Hawaiian princes who noticed that waves at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz were up to snuff. Jonah Kalaniana’ole and David and Edward Kawananakoa shaped boards from local redwoods and hauled them out to the beach one day in 1885. “The young Hawaiian princes were in the water,” a local paper wrote, “enjoying it hugely and giving interesting exhibitions of surfboard swimming as practiced in their native islands.”

But Freeth, a haole with one Hawaiian grandparent, helped rescue stand-up surfing from the Christianized sickness of 19th century Hawaiian culture, and he brought it to Redondo Beach. He had won fame on the islands as a talented young swimmer but was ambitious to see the world. After he taught an avid Jack London to surf in front of a hotel at Waikiki — and after London wrote up the exotic art of “surf-bathing” for a magazine in 1907, describing Freeth in syrupy prose as a “handsome brown Mercury” — the young man asked for a letter of introduction. London obliged, and by July 1907, Freeth was bound for North America.

Redondo Beach in 1907 was declining as an industrial harbor, and most of California’s coastline consisted of wind-swept dunes. But wealthy men like Huntington wanted to develop. The Hotel Redondo had gone up in 1890, and a new arm of Huntington’s light-rail line, the Pacific Electric, already stopped at Redondo Beach.

“When I studied the place, and saw its attractions, the beautiful topography it possessed, those terraces rising in harmonious degrees from the sea, I determined,” Huntington wrote, with a real estate man’s instinct for anticlimax, “that it presented such features as should make it the great resort of this region.”

Huntington had competition. In 1904, a cigarette mogul named Abbott Kinney had announced plans to build the “Venice of America,” a gimmicky village with a network of canals and bridges and a flock of gondoliers who would pole tourists around in front of kitschy mock-European storefronts. It would come with a saltwater public pool under an arched glass ceiling and a Coney Island-style pier loaded with rides.

Huntington countered this vision of Oz in 1905 with a three-story pavilion in Redondo Beach, decked out with Moorish arches and flag-topped golden domes. But he noticed that people were wary of the ocean. Most L.A. residents in those days preferred to ride out to the San Fernando Valley on weekends and shoot jackrabbits from the streetcars. Not that the coast was unpopular; people just had no concept of swimming in the waves. What we think of as “beach culture” was still alien to Americans.

But Huntington had been to Waikiki. He knew that a man who could “walk on water” in the shore break, who looked half-exotic and bronzed in his swimming costume, who had lifesaving skills to match his surfing talent — why, a man like that could lure people to an otherwise empty stretch of sand.

Within days of his arrival in California, Freeth went surfing off Venice Beach. A local paper ran an article on July 22 — “Surf Riders Have Drawn Attention.” This may have startled Huntington, and by the end of the year, Freeth was on the Pacific Electric payroll, surfing twice a day near a section of Redondo known as Moonstone Beach, where semiprecious stones lay in a natural mound along the waterline.

So Jack London’s handsome “brown Mercury” walked up and down a heavy plank in sloppy Redondo whitewash while tourists in Edwardian suits browsed a mound of colorful surf cobble for “excellent specimens” to offer to their sweethearts. Clanking streetcars and an improbable Moorish pavilion gave the once-industrial coastline a carny atmosphere that must have seemed as ridiculous in 1907 as it does a century on, wherever old boardwalks or pleasure piers compete with the roar of the sea. But surfing — professional or paid surfing — had arrived in America, and George Freeth would be more than just a sideshow freak.

Michael Scott Moore

Politics

Idomeneo in Berlin

Remember the scandal over “Idomeneo” in Berlin? Remember how Islamists went mad when the Deutsche Oper decided to stage a controversial production of Mozart’s opera, unleashing a storm of violence?

By George!

Behind the frosted-glass office doors of an old building on New Montgomery Street in San Francisco you can find a barber shop, a bartending school, and a number of lawyers

Noah and the Dinosaurs

One rule of fundamentalists is that they hate to be interviewed. William Dembski doesn’t. He has a long face and glasses, wears knife-edged slacks and sober ties; he mixes fashion sense with a relaxed wonkishness that announces dedication to reason rather than the Bible-thumping fanaticism he’s been accused

Culture

I Have Landed

The title of Stephen Jay Gould’s twenty-second book on natural science borrows a phrase his grandfather scribbled in an English primer after he arrived at Ellis Island

For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again

I think Derek Walcott holds the title for Greatest North American Playwright Almost Never Produced in San Francisco, but Michel Tremblay runs a close second.

The Invention of Love

The last time one of Tom Stoppard’s plays had its American premiere in San Francisco, last spring, I wrote that it “wouldn’t be above Stoppard to spin a whole script around a minor and meaningless point of grammar.”

Pirates

Sending in the Marines

NATO, officially, is pleased to have pirates to fight. A mission against sea bandits in the Indian Ocean is not mission creep for the trans-Atlantic alliance, if you talk to its leaders

Battleships Off Somalia

Navies are expensive, and sending warships to Somalia is a hugely inefficient way to fight pirates, considering that the number of successful attacks off the Somali coast this year

How Do You Prosecute a Pirate?

The most eyebrow-raising aspect of Western counter-piracy missions off Somalia is how rarely they arrest a pirate.

Nazis

Ghosts of Dresden

The Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 destroyed the baroque center of what Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut called, in a letter home from Germany, “possibly the world’s most beautiful city.”

How to Film Nazis

The big surprise last week during the Berlin Film Festival was a disastrous premiere for a long-awaited feature film, Jud Süß — Rise and Fall, by a talented German director named Oskar Roehler.

Nazis on the Campaign Trail

Holger Apfel is a burly, fat-cheeked 35-year-old with glasses, given to wearing brown suits. He leads a delegation of the neo-Nazi NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany) in the German state parliament of Saxony.

Surfing

It’s Called Soccer

Americans live on what amounts to an enormous island, defended on two shores by the sea, and we’ve evolved a few marsupial traditions that nobody else understands.

One Hundred Years of Hanging Ten

The George Freeth memorial in Redondo Beach is a salt-bitten bust of a lifeguard in an old-fashioned swimming vest, gazing with the stoicism we expect from early surf heroes into the deep mysteries of a concrete parking garage.

Tilting at Turbines (in the Severn River)

The morning was clear and cold, with frost on the church steeple and the cemetery grass. I had a quick English breakfast at a white-cloth table, in my wetsuit, and drove to Newnham, a village on the Severn River in Gloucestershire, parking near the White Hart Inn.

Other Prose

Denis Johnson, Poet of the Fallen World

“I’m kinda like Ozzy Osbourne,” says Denis Johnson in a distracted moment, explaining that he might not remember to call me back. “My wife was just telling me that.”

This Will Kill That

“Here is one,” replied the archdeacon, opening the window of his cell; he pointed to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, whose two black towers, stone walls, and huge roof

The Curse of El Rojo

I’d packed the car lightly — a bag of clothes, a bag of cassette tapes, a backpack of books, a few essential tools.

Michael Scott Moore is a literary journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist and Popmatters. He was kidnapped in 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage for two and a half years. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, is out now from HarperCollins.

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The men from the Naham 3 are all friends of mine — a crew of 26 sailors from southeast Asia who worked on a tuna long-liner flagged in Oman but owned by a company in Taiwan, which abandoned them after Somali pirates hijacked the ship in 2012.

While I was in Somalia a man called Geoff Carter wrote about a picture of Indian men surfing on stand-up boards around 1800 off Chennai, which altered the known history of surfing a bit, even though the picture was hiding in plain sight at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Some people have asked about the Somalia memoir. It’s right on schedule, I promise, but it won’t be out for at least another year. It’s been revised in full, twice (see above), and it’ll need a few more revisions before we get anywhere. Old-fashioned authorship. July, 2018?

A version of what happened in Somalia is available as a Long Read at The Guardian, and, in somewhat shorter form, for German readers, in Der Spiegel. It’s not even near complete. Enormous parts of the story have been left untold.

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