Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Celebrating a California Surfing Pioneer

My Los Angeles childhood was defined by a relationship with South Bay beach culture. My heroes were the men and women who lifeguarded our local beaches, the surf legends of lore - like Greg Noll or Donald Takayama - who started their careers in Hermosa Beach, the surfers paddling out each morning at El Porto, and my neighbors, who were doing awe inspiring and insane things like kayaking the California coastline in its entirety or swimming the 22 miles from Catalina Island back to LA.

Hearing about Governor Brown’s August 20th actions making surfing California’s official state sport prompted me to remember one of the state’s first ambassadors of surfing, George Freeth. Freeth embodied all of the aforementioned heroic traits and more. Born in Honolulu, HI in 1883, Freeth was the son of an Irish sea captain father and a half Polynesian mother. He began surfing at 19, shortly after decades of Calvinist missionary influence had worked to disrupt indigenous participation in the traditional Polynesian activity. According to surf historian Matt Warshaw in the Encyclopedia of Surfing, Freeth gave a surf lesson to the author Jack London in the summer of 1907. London described his instructor as a "sea-god . . .a brown Mercury. . . calm and superb."

George Freeth, Redondo Beach

Later that year, Freeth became one of the first watermen to bring surfing to the California Coast, an attribution shared with the Hawaiian princes who travelled to Santa Cruz in the 1800s. After leaving Hawaii, Freeth travelled to Southern California, where he instructed the public on surfing, swimming, and lifesaving techniques. Freeth became California’s first professional lifeguard in 1907 and subsequently taught dozens of men, women, and children surfing and lifesaving skills. He pioneered surf breaks from San Diego to Huntington Beach, Palos Verdes, and Ventura, popularizing the sport. He is also recognized as responsible for bring the Hawaiian swim team to California for the first time. One of these visiting swimmers was the Olympian Duke Kahanamoku, who is viewed as the godfather of modern surfing.

George Freeth, Redondo, 1907

Freeth was subsequently recruited by developers like Henry Huntington and Abbot Kinney to conduct demonstrations at the Redondo Beach and Venice Piers as a marketing strategy to draw crowds to their development projects. Freeth’s demonstrations drew thousands of spectators and successfully promoted beach culture in the Southland. Once-wary beachgoers became emboldened by Freeth’s actions and the lifesaving strategies, which were responsible for protecting thousands of lives and have informed lifesaving agencies to this day.

I first learned of Freeth during a weeklong training I attended as a Los Angeles County Ocean Lifeguard, where Lifeguard Historian Arthur Verge recounted Freeth’s story. Coincidentally, several months ago, while sorting through CHS’s old issues of the journal California History, I found an image of Freeth. In a 2001 copy of the Journal, Vol. 80, No. 2/3, Dr. Verge laid out Freeth’s life history, including a daring rescue of 11 Japanese fishermen off of the Santa Monica pier. If interested, copies of this issue can be found through UC Press.

George Freeth, Hermosa Beach

Tragically, Freeth died of Spanish influenza in 1919 at the age of 35 at a military base in San Deigo; however, his legacy lives on today. Freeth’s statue stands on the Redondo Beach pier. Coincidentally, Redondo Beach also happens to be where I first taught Junior lifeguards of my own, and it remains one of my favorite places to work as a lifeguard, carrying on Freeth’s commitment to ocean safety and education.

These days, Redondo Beach and much of the coastline that Freeth pioneered would be entirely unrecognizable to the Hawaiian and his surfing contemporaries. Coinciding with the development boom of the early 20th century, developers Huntington, Kinney, and others were successful in their marketing campaigns. Southern California has now developed nearly beyond recognition. However, despite this, the spirit, tenacity, and love of the ocean still remains alive in the beach communities that Freeth first touched over a century ago.


Greer Montgomery works as a Development Assistant for the California Historical Society. There she supports fundraising and membership efforts and also enjoys looking at historic photos of the California coastline- especially when they include waves. She is an avid surfer and continues to work as a Los Angeles County Ocean Lifeguard each summer.

Images courtesy of Matt Warshaw, Encyclopedia of Surfing

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