Article: One of Hawaii's Greatest Exports, Surfing by Peter T. Young
The Story of George Douglas Freeth, Jr
In 1889, the Redondo pier in California was a wharf at the foot of Emerald Street, designed to handle the enormous lumber trade from the Pacific Northwest. Two additional wharfs were added in 1895 and 1903.
Traffic into the port was so busy that ships had to wait their turn for a spot at one of the piers, as Santa Fe rail cars transported the cargo inland as fast as possible. (RedondoPier)
However, Redondo’s popularity began a slow decline when San Pedro Harbor started to take shape in 1899. By 1912, the Pacific Steamship Company stopped calling at Redondo altogether. (Megowan)
In 1907, real estate entrepreneurs Abott Kinney and Henry Huntington were heavily promoting their respective coastal resorts. Kinney had the lead, having dedicated his “Venice of America” (Venice Beach) on July 4, 1905. Henry Huntington, in June 1907, was putting the final touches on his own elaborate beach resort in Redondo Beach. (Verge)
At about that time, 19-year old, hapa-haole, George Douglas Freeth Jr, met up with Jack London and Alexander Hume Ford riding the waves at Waikiki. “I saw him tearing in on the back of (the wave,) standing upright on his board, carelessly poised”. The “young god bronzed with sunburn” gave London a surf lesson. (London)
“The whole method of surf riding and surf fighting, I learned, is one of non-resistance. Dodge the blow that is struck at you. Dive through the wave that is trying to slap you in the face. … Never be rigid. Relax.”
“The man who wants to learn surf riding must be a strong swimmer, and he must be used to going under the water. After that, fair strength and common sense are all that is required.” (London)
Around 1905, Freeth was the first – or among the first – to reintroduce angling across the wave as opposed to heading straight for shore. (Encyclopedia of Surfing)
“In 1907, (Freeth) left Hawaiʻi for the Golden State with letters in hand from Ford, Jack London and the Hawaiʻi Promotion Committee. His objective was to ‘give exhibitions of Hawaiian water sports to the people of that section.’” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser; Laderman)
The July 3, 1907 Pacific Commercial Advertiser announced Freeth’s departure from his native Hawaiʻi with a page 1 headline that read, “George Freeth Off To Coast – Will Illustrate Hawaiian Surfboarding to People in California.”
“The aquatic skills that had enamored London, Ford and the Hawaiʻi Promotion Committee were the same skills Freeth brought with him to California, where he found work for two of the major developers of the period, Abbot Kinney and Henry Huntington.” (Laderman)
Within six months of his arrival, Freeth was commuting between the two seaside communities aboard Huntington’s Pacific Electric Railway. At Huntington’s Redondo resort, Freeth performed his surfing act twice a day under the billing, “The Hawaiian Wonder.”
Freeth lived in Redondo Beach where he worked as a swim instructor/lifeguard at Huntington’s “Plunge,” which from afar looked more like a royal palace than a public swimming pool. With over 1,000-dressing rooms and three heated pools, the Redondo Plunge could hold as many as 2,000- swimmers at one time. (Verge)
“At Venice Beach, Freeth went to work training Kinney’s Venice Lifesaving Crew. Freeth taught the crew to become one with the water. Rip currents, for example, were not to be fought against, but instead used by the rescue swimmer to speed to the victim in distress – a method that is still employed today.”
“So grateful were members of the Venice Lifesaving crew that on the occasion of his 24th birthday, they surprised him with a gold watch and a card that read in part – ‘Mr. George Freeth, King of the Surf Board, Captain of the Venice Basketball team, First Lieutenant of Venice Volunteer Life Saving Corps, and leader in Aquatic Sports and General Good Fellowship, is reliable, sober, industrious.’”
“’We, his comrades and citizens of Venice, extend our best wishes and a watch, that he may continue to keep abreast of the time to the century mark at least.’” (Verge)
On December 16, 1908, Freeth’s water safety skills were put to a test. That day, a tremendous winter squall suddenly descended upon Santa Monica Bay. Gale force winds and high surf trapped several Japanese fishing boats off the Venice Pier.
For the next 2 ½-hours, Freeth braved gale force winds, pounding surf, and a frigid ocean temperature to save single-handedly the lives of seven men. The Venice Lifesaving Corpsmen launched their boat to assist Freeth. More were saved.
As a result of these collected statements and the first-hand news accounts of the rescue, a special act of Congress dated June 25, 1910, awarded Freeth the nation’s highest civilian honor: the Congressional Gold Medal.
In 1915, lured away by the prospects of a better income and the chance to promote Hawaii and the sport of surfing, he joined the San Diego Yacht Club as a lifeguard/swim coach. Unfortunately, the club suffered from financial problems and Freeth was let go; a sympathetic club member then found Freeth a job at a sporting goods store in downtown San Diego.
On a warm spring day in May 1918, 13 swimmers drowned together in a massive rip current. Ocean Beach officials who hadn’t thought it necessary to have lifeguards saw their beach resort community empty as tourists stayed away.
Twelve days later the legendary lifeguard and surfer was in charge of the beach. There, Freeth performed on his surfboard, trained youngsters to work as lifeguards, and to the delight of everyone, not a single swimmer drowned.
Sadly, the flu pandemic of 1918-19 was sweeping through San Diego. Worldwide, 20 million people died from the flu in four months, as many as were killed in all of World War I. Rather than the young and the old, the victims were mostly healthy and middle aged. Among the stricken was Freeth. (Verge)
Freeth is credited as being the “First great waterman of the modern era” – Swimmer, diver, boatman, fisherman, outrigger canoeist, sailor, first professional lifeguard in California, Congressional Gold Medal for bravery, founded lifesaving service in California and introduced waterpolo to California. (UCSB)
George Douglas Freeth, Jr was born on Oʻahu on November 9, 1883; he died of the flu in San Diego on April 7, 1919 at the age of 35.