Freeth was perfect ambassador for surfing
Part 2 of 3
Two weeks ago I began the story of George Freeth, considered the "Father of California Surfing." This is part two and takes up where the young Freeth leaves his native Hawaii and lands in California in July of 1907.
The arrival of the Hawaiian surfer came at a perfect time for the development of the Southern California beaches. Just to the south of Santa Monica, a wealthy business dude named Abbot Kinney had put together a huge development that was in the image of Venice, in Italy, complete with canals and the whole deal.
Not too far south of that, Henry Huntington was busy trying to get his resort town of Redondo Beach up and running. Both had been having issues with people drowning in the ocean and had built large salt-water swimming pools near the beach to give people an alternative to swimming in the ocean.
But more people than not preferred the ocean, and with no working lifeguard system in place back then, people kept drowning. In Venice they put together a volunteer lifeguard department and purchased a two-man dory for lifesaving purposes. Unfortunately for them, one morning a couple of the lifeguards capsized the dory and one of them drowned right in front of the rest of the lifeguard department.
Obviously, that publicity did not help things out at all for the purpose of assuring beach goers a safe experience in the ocean. Things were not looking good for either Huntington or Kinney, as headlines continued to scream of the dangers of swimming in the ocean.
And then this good-looking and intelligent Hawaiian surfer shows up and is spotted surfing up and down the beaches of the Santa Monica Bay. George is the perfect guy to save the day. Not only is he a great waterman but also is a friendly and easygoing dude who is an excellent teacher of water sports and safety.
In no time at all George is working for both Huntington and Kinney. In Redondo Beach he was doing two surfing exhibitions a day under the billing of "The Hawaiian Wonder." He would travel on Huntington's Pacific Electric Railway up to Venice where he not only put on surfing exhibitions but also worked with the volunteer lifeguards.
His appearances drew huge crowds and also helped promote the salt-water swimming pools. When he was not dazzling the crowds by surfing while standing on his head, he worked as a lifeguard at the pools. The dude was like the savior for the whole beach scene at that time.
George's real passion was teaching water safety. His work with the growing lifeguard services would lead to the formation of the Los Angeles County, Long Beach and San Diego Lifeguard departments. He taught ocean swimming, the use of ocean-going dorys (small boats) and paddleboard skills. His knowledge of the ocean and the use of its currents was unmatched along the shores of the mainland.
That and his great personality and love of what he was doing made him extremely popular with everyone he worked with along with the thousands of people who flocked to the beaches to see his skills on the surfboard.
In short, the dude was a real hero.
One of his swimming pupils, Ludy Langer, wound up setting three world records. In a 1980 interview she stated:
"I remember George. You couldn't forget him. To see him in the water -- well, I can't describe it. He had absolutely no fear of it. It was his natural place. There was something else about George -- he was generous, generous to a fault. He coached I don't know how many of us -- four of us went to the Olympics -- and he never charged us a dime."
Check back next week for part 3 of this story.
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