It would be easy to overlook George Freeth. I’d never heard of him until a couple years ago, and I’ve been around southern California beaches virtually all my life.
But it’s George Freeth who was the most visible source of what came to be the California surf culture, and he did it more than a century ago.
Freeth was a Hawaiian, part Polynesian and part Irish, who helped resurrect the sport of surfing in Honolulu. (The missionaries frowned on allowing the natives to surf, since they liked to ride the waves in mixed company without any clothes.)
The story goes that Freeth paddled his 200-pound wooden surfboard over to a tourist who was trying unsuccessfully to ride the waves. The tourist was the great California adventure writer Jack London. London wrote in 1907 about how Freeth helped him learn the astonishing sport of “walking on water” in an article called “A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki” in the magazine Ladies Home Companion.
Later that same year, Freeth came to California to demonstrate surfing, and ended up being hired by Henry Huntington, owner of the Pacific Electric Railway, to help drum up travel to Redondo Beach. Huntington’s railroad had a line, and he began to beef up the destination with the world’s largest salt-water swimming pool and a renovated and enlarged hotel. (Others point to the first California wave-riding being surfing demonstrations in Santa Cruz, in northern California, by three Hawaiians who were attending school there 20 years earlier.)
Freeth was a powerful swimmer, and many credit him with reinventing lifeguarding and serving as the first professional lifeguard. Before him, lifeguards would work in pairs, one swimming a rope to the drowning person and the other on the beach reeling the rope in. As you might imagine, it wasn’t the most effective at saving lives.
Freeth is credited by many with inventing a portable float that a lifeguard could swim out to a distressed person and use to keep that person afloat while bringing them in from the waves. (Some dispute that Freeth introduced the floatation system of lifesaving, crediting it to someone else more than 20 years earlier.)
In December 1908, Freeth is credited with singlehandedly saving the crew of a Japanese fishing boat which had capsized in storm surf just off the Venice Pier. Some accounts say he saved six people over more than two hours; others say it was seven in about an hour; another account says 11. Some say he won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism; others say it was the Congressional Gold Medal. He is listed on official websites as a recipient of neither.
He also gets credit in many accounts for introducing the game water polo to the West Coast of the United States.
The modern George Freeth legend was renewed in 2001 with a scholarly article, “George Freeth: King of the Surfers and California’s Forgotten Hero,” in California History magazine by Dr. Arthur C. Verge, a community college history professor and a Los Angeles County lifeguard.
It was followed in 2009 with a feature-length documentary called Waveriders, the first half of which documents Freeth’s life and accomplishments and the second half shows a large group of famous big-wave surfers riding the monster-waves on Ireland’s west coast.
Freeth was memorialized in 2007 with a bronze bust on the Redondo Beach Pier, but the statue was stolen (presumably for the value of the bronze). A replica was struck, and the bust was replaced in 2010.
George Freeth died in 1919 in San Diego County. He was 35.
Some reports claim exhaustion from his rescue of the Japanese fisherman may have contributed to his death, but that’s highly unlikely. The rescue had been more than a decade earlier.
More likely is the story cited by others that he was infected with influenza in the great epidemic then sweeping the world (more than 20 million died of the disease in that epidemic, many of them young, strong people who were in perfect health before they started showing the symptoms).
He was cremated and his ashes returned to Hawaii at the request of his family. His gravestone makes no mention at all of his enormous contributions to southern California culture, professionalism among lifeguards, or water polo.