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Ford, Freeth & London, June 1907


Alexander Hume Ford was another main character in surf riding's revival scenario. Ford was a Mainlander who got hooked on wave riding and took it upon himself to personally boost its revival and popularization. Ford gave surfing classes for kids on the beach at Waikiki and his most noted pupil was American writer Jack London, who also got some help from George Freeth.

"Out there in the midst of such a succession of big smoky ones," wrote aspiring gremmie, hard-drinker and chain-smoker Jack London, "a third man [besides him and Ford] was added to our party, one [George] Freeth. Shaking the water from my eyes as I emerged from one wave and peered ahead to see what the next one looked like, I saw him tearing in on the back of it, standing upright with his board, carelessly poised, a young god bronzed with sunburn. We went through the wave on the back of which he rode. Ford called to him. He turned an air spring from his wave, rescued his board from its maw, paddled over to us, and joined Ford in showing me things..."

It was a hot June afternoon in 1907 that Jack London paddled out with Alexander Hume Ford and George Freeth to watch and learn the sport. In awe, he described Ford's and Freeth's quarter-mile rides to shore and about "the physics of surfing" itself: "

"Lie out there quietly on your board. Sea after sea breaks before, behind and under and over you, and rushes in on shore, leaving you behind. When a wave crests, it gets steeper. Imagine yourself, on your board, on the face of that steep slope. If it stood still, you would slide down just as a boy slides down a hill on a coaster. 'But,' you object, 'the wave doesn't stand still.' Very true, but the water composing the wave stands still, and there you have the secret. If you ever start sliding down the face of that wave, you'll keep on sliding and you'll never reach the bottom. Please don't laugh. The face may be six feet, yet you can slide down it a quarter of a mile, or half a mile, and not reach the bottom. For, see, since a wave is only communicated agitation or impetus, and since the water that composes the wave is changing every instant, new water is rising into the wave as fast as the wave travels. You slide down this new water and yet remain in your old position on the wave skidding down the still newer water that is rising and forming the wave... between you and the shore stretches a quarter mile of water. As the wave travels, this water obligingly heaps itself into the wave, gravity does the rest, and down you go sliding the whole length of it...

"All rules have their exceptions. It is true that the water in the wave does not travel forward. But there is what may be called the send of the sea. The water in the overtopping crest does move forward, as you will speedily realize if you are slapped in the face by it, or if you are caught under it and are pounded by one mighty blow down under the surface panting and gasping for a half a minute. The water in the top of the wave rests upon the water in the bottom of the wave. But when the bottom of the wave strikes land, it stops, while the top goes on... Where was solid water beneath it, is now air, and for the first time it feels the grip of gravity, and down it falls, at the same time being torn asunder from the lagging bottom of the wave and flung forward. And it is because of this that riding a surfboard is something more than mere placid sliding down a hill. In truth, one is caught up and hurled shoreward as by some Titan's hand."

The same day Jack London rode with Ford and Freeth, London's wife Charmain watched from the beach and wrote of what she saw: "The thick board, somewhat coffin-shaped, with rounded ends, should be over six feet long. This plank is floated out to the breaking water, which can be done either wading alongside or lying face-downward paddling; and there you wait for the right wave. When you see it coming, stand ready to launch the board on the gathering slope, spring upon it, and -- keep going if you can. Lie flat on your chest, hands grasping the sides of the large end of the heavy timber, and steer with your feet. The expert, having gauged the right speed, rises cautiously to his knees, to full stature, and then, erect with feet in the churning foam, he makes straight for the beach."

Jack and Charmain London spent several weeks in Hawai`i in the summer of 1907. They lived in a bungalow at the Hau Tree Inn (now the Halekulani Regent Hotel). The bungalow itself was situated on open grounds opposite one of Waikiki's better breaks: Number Threes. From the bungalow, it was only a few minutes' walk to the then six year-old Moana Hotel, on Kuhio Beach. "This stretch of sand was the daytime haunt of surfriders, who numbered only a few in those days," wrote Leonard Lueras in Surfing, The Ultimate Pleasure. "There, under an old hau tree, and in and around the old Moana Bath House, he [London] found the spiritual 'ancestors' of today's famous Waikiki beachboys, the most obvious of that chang-a-lang gang being a loose clique of Hawaiians and part-Hawaiians who had formed a hui, or club, they called the Waikiki Swimming Club. This informal group was the precursor of two other beach clubs -- the Outrigger Canoe Club and Hui Nalu ('Club of the Waves') -- organized in 1908."

Soon after surfing with Ford and Freeth, Jack London wrote an impassioned article on the "Royal Sport." It was published in the October 1907 issue of Woman's Home Companion, a well-read American magazine of the time. London wrote about "a royal sport for the natural kings of earth" and his own "ecstatic bliss" of riding his first waves. This article and its adaptation, in 1911, as a chapter in his popular adventure book The Cruise of the Snark attracted further interest in wave riding both among Hawai`i's residents and those on the Mainland.

At that tenuous time of surfing's revitalization, our sport couldn't have wished for a more influential spokesman. Burly and brash, London was a best-selling literary lion, having already achieved international fame with adventure novels such as The Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea Wolf (1904) and White Fang (1906).