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Sharp Breakers

George Freeth shares surfing with San Diego in the summer of 1918.

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1918 was a great summer of surfing for George Freeth. After nearly a dozen years of giving exhibitions in California, he still drew large crowds. Advertisements for Ocean Beach in the local papers urged visitors, “See Champion Freeth ride the surfboards.” 

As he’d done in Venice back in 1907, Freeth also gave free surf lessons to beachgoers and used the sport to keep his lifeguards fit and to teach them about waves and currents. His exhibitions were so popular by midsummer that Ocean Beach hired him to surf every afternoon for the rest of the season. He performed his normal routine while riding waves: standing on his head, lying down, doing dives. 

On July 14, in front of a reported crowd of 4,000, he was inspired to add a new move to his repertoire. The San Diego Union wrote: “Riding on the crest of the wave in the usual manner, Freeth suddenly leaped, clearing the board by at least three feet, turned a somersault, regained his balance on the board again, then completed his stunt with a dive. The trick was a thriller, and evoked a storm of applause.” 

Freeth, skimming in California, 1907. Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society.

Even considering the acrobatic aerials performed on today’s waves, it’s incredible to imagine a surfer doing a backflip on an 8-foot board in the middle of a ride and then continuing to surf. Freeth was 34 years old—still putting on a show for the crowd, still innovating and having fun on his surfboard.

When Jimmy McIntosh joined the lifeguard crew, Freeth updated his exhibitions to keep the shows interesting. He started tandem surfing with McIntosh—the two riding one board—and he and the other lifeguards gave free bodysurfing lessons every morning. Surfing received a big boost in mid August when a dozen soldiers from Honolulu joined Freeth in the waves. They were part of the 32nd Infantry Brigade at Camp Kearny. “With 13 surfboard riders racing to the beach on the crest of the breakers at one time,” reported The Evening Tribune, “visitors to Ocean Beach yesterday enjoyed a rare and wonderful sight.” It’s safe to say the “regiment of surfboard riders” was the largest crowd of surfers that’d ever paddled out together in California.

Perhaps because of the Honolulu surfers, rumors spread that the Army had lifted the ban on bathing at Ocean Beach, which went into place after ten soldiers drowned during a rescue attempt. Freeth reportedly set about organizing “surf board riding races” with the new arrivals. Lieutenant Colonel Harry D. Blastland, commander of the 32nd Infantry and acting commander of Camp Kearny, had to republish his orders in the Union that his soldiers were still forbidden to bathe at Ocean Beach or enter the water for any reason.

So the surfboard races never happened. Freeth continued to perform without the soldiers. He relied on Jimmy McIntosh and the other lifeguards to join him in exhibitions over Labor Day. In mid September he registered for the military himself—in the third round of Selective Service for men 18 through 45. His registration card listed his address as 1940 Abbott, so he’d been living at Ocean Beach since being hired as a lifeguard. While Freeth awaited orders, the local sandbars suddenly shifted, providing an early example of how good surf attracts tourists.

During the first week of October, the waves changed from “sharp breakers” into “long, rolling breakers,” which, according to Freeth, permitted “surfboard riding feats which have heretofore been impossible.” This was a boon for Ocean Beach businesses so late in the season. They quickly organized a special weekend program that featured Freeth riding the Waikiki-style waves each morning and afternoon.

In early November, Freeth appeared on a list of alternates for men shipping out to Kelly Field in Texas and to Camp Lewis in Washington. The armistice was signed on November 11, however, so Freeth was never called up to duty.

Excerpted from Surf and Rescue: George Freeth and the Birth of California Beach Culture by Patrick Moser. Copyright 2022 by Patrick Moser. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press and Patrick Moser. To buy a copy, click here.