Surfing: A Royal Sport

Images courtesy of The Jack London Society.

“Ah, delicious moment when I felt that breaker grip and fling me. On I dashed, a hundred and fifty feet, and subsided with the breaker on the sand. From that moment I was lost.”

The act of riding waves had been practiced on the Hawaiian Islands for an untold number of years before Captain Cook became the first European to formally “discover” the island chain in January 1778. With first contact came the first written account of surfing, backed up almost a hundred years later by iconic author Mark Twain and, following him, Jack London. The fact that two of America’s most iconic writers from the 19th and early 20th century visited Hawaii independently and were captivated enough by what they saw to give “surf-riding” a try led not only to the first documentary accounts of surfing but also to the spread and growth of surfing beyond it’s birthplace of Hawaii.

London arrived in Hawaii in 1907 on his beleaguered schooner Snark, the first stop-off on a trans-Pacific voyage. He was at that time already a famed author of adventure novels and was writing for the exploding magazine fiction market, and had ploughed much of his personal fortune into funding a planned round-the-world voyage. During his stay on Oahu he quickly became enchanted by the “royal sport for the natural kings of earth” when he witnessed a local Hawaiian stand-up surfing at Waikiki, and resolved to emulate his achievements despite having developed a healthy respect for the power of the waves.

“Go to. Strip off your clothes that are a nuisance in this mellow clime. Get in and wrestle with the sea; wing your heels with the skill and power that reside in you; bit the sea’s breakers, master them, and ride upon their backs as a king should.”

London first attempted to imitate the actions of a group of local children riding prone in the whitewater and in doing so, “failed utterly”: