Miles Kington: The unheralded god who walked on water

The star of the sea in 1907 was a man who was half Irish, half Hawaiian, and all Greek god

Share
Related Topics

The waves were big and strong and high, and almost impossible to reach because it was so hard to walk out through the incoming billows. If you looked along the water's edge, it was like peering down at one of my son's empire-building video games in which hundreds of bent figures are all trudging in one direction, in this case out to sea. (Hardly anyone was coming back. Only going out. Rather unsettling.) Every time a wave came in, they would be beaten back 10 yards and set off again. How any one of them ever got to the point where you can start surfing is beyond me, but they must have done, because ever and anon a man would appear on top of a wave standing more or less successfully on his board ...

Well, the rest of the time we spent safely inland, and when I got back home I remembered to do a search of the name Freeth on Google. This was because the late patriarch of the Freeth family was an excellent portrait painter called Hubert Andrew Freeth, whose works were scattered round the house, and I wanted to find out more about him. And so I did, but what I also found was that there was another famous yet unknown Freeth, called George Freeth. And who was he ? He was the father of surf-boarding, that's who.

It's an amazing story, as I learn from a fascinating article written by music veteran Ian Whitcomb, which I found bobbing around in the boiling surf of the internet. In 1907, the famous writer Jack London went to Hawaii, and witnessed surfing for the first time, a sport which Captain Cook had also seen and described, which was nearly driven into extinction by missionaries, but which still survived on Waikiki Beach. In 1907, the star of the sea was a man called George Freeth, who was half Irish, half Hawaiian and all Greek god, at least in the account that the starry-eyed Jack London promptly wrote about him.

That account was read by Henry Hartington, a rich Californian who was developing Redondo Beach into a resort. He lured George Freeth over with lots of money to be the star attraction on the beach, which he duly did by twice a day demonstrating walking-on-the-water (as the hitherto unknown art of surfing was publicised), introducing water polo, setting up California's first lifeguard unit and so on. Great man. Unfortunately, he caught a chill after rescuing some swimmers in 1919, and became a victim of the great Flu Epidemic of the time. Only 35. Whom the gods love, die young, and all that. And now George Freeth is pretty much forgotten, even by historians of surfing.

(The credit for being the father of surfing goes usually to a full-blooded Hawaiian who came just after Freeth, with the resounding name of Duke Kahanamoku. Like Freeth, he had a reputation of being a miraculous swimmer. So much so that he won the trials for the USA Olympic swimming team in 1912, went to Stockholm and won the 100 yards freestyle gold, beating the world record. Freeth might also have gone to Stockholm, but was barred from the Olympic trials on the grounds that, having been paid as a lifeguard, he was professional and ineligible. Strange to think that, nowadays, it is only amateurs who cannot get into the Olympics ...).

And now people all over the world ride the waves on successors to the board George Freeth brought on the ferry from Hawaii, and if I hadn't stayed in a house belonging to another Freeth, I would never have known about him, and nor would you.

This is No 216 in our ongoing series: Answers To Pub Quiz Questions You Will Never Get Asked

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Ashdown Group: Automated Tester / Test Analyst - .Net / SQL - Cheshire

£32000 per annum + pension, healthcare & 23 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A gro...

Day In a Page

Read Next
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a drink after agreeing a deal on carbon emissions  

Beijing must face down the perils of being big and powerful – or boom may turn to bust

Peter Popham
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook  

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot