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When Writing Saved Surf
By Joel T. Smith


It is unlikely that Jack London had more than the vaguest notion of surf riding when he arrived in Honolulu in May 1907. The ancient Hawaiian sport was moribund, barely surviving into the 20th Century. To be sure, there were still a few hardy enthusiasts, about. A 23-year-old surfer named George Freeth was delighting to rare visitors to Waikiki with his classic surf-riding maneuvers; but nobody knew and, more importantly, nobody cared. Surfing was simply neglected; considered by most, if it was considered at all, a distant memory of Hawaii's past.

Jack London would change all this. Within a year of his arrival, London would catalyze the events that ushered in surfing's Golden Age. Young George Freeth would cross the Pacific to Southern California, planting the seeds of a new surf culture on the West Coast. A powerful organization would be formed, backed by the Hawaiian territory's political elite, for the sole purpose of preserving the sport. And surfing would become indelibly linked with the new public image of Hawaii--and its burgeoning tourist industry.

This was a remarkable revival after a century of decline. Surfing went from near extinction to a vibrant rebirth almost overnight. As to be expected with such a dramatic turnaround, there were a number of contributing influences, some obvious and some obscure, but at the root of it all is the simple truth--Jack London got stoked.

London had sailed into Honolulu on a the first stop of an around-the-world cruise with his wife, Charmain, aboard their 43' ketch, the Snark. The mission of this voyage was bluntly stated--"adventure."

outing"I know Adventure is not dead," wrote London as they embarked upon their journey, "because I have had a long and intimate correspondence with Adventure."

Though this smacks of braggadocio, London had plenty of experiences to back it up. He was an adventurer. He had faced typhoon seas in the North Pacific and frozen threats in the Klondike. But London didn't just seek new sensations--he wanted challenges.

He found both in the high-rolling surf of Waikiki.

On June 1, 1907, Jack London paddled out on a borrowed 75-pound plank, wrestled the board around in front of a thundering line of whitewater and, "Ad, delicious moment when I first felt that breaker grip and fling me ON I dashed, a hundred and fifty feet, and subsided with the break on the sand. From that moment I was lost."

Like many another surfer, London knew from his very first wave that surfing was something special. Not only was there the adventure he savored, but surfing rewarded its challenger with an "ecstatic bliss." He fairly glowed with the experience.

"I tackled surf-riding," he wrote, "and now that I have tackled it, more than ever do I hold it to be a royal sport."

London also tackled writing about it, to help fulfill contracts with publishers who were underwriting his voyage. His descriptions are flushed with admiration and delight, elevating the Hawaiian surf riders with images of glory.


Continue reading Joel T. Smith's opus to our founding fathers in "Reinventing the Sport: Part I." Available for download in the TSJ archives.