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
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The Independent Online

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