Sunburned Mercury

A chance discovery in a Jack London archive might finally illustrate one of surf history’s greatest chapters.

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It all started with dinner in Marin County, following a rare afternoon surf session at Ocean Beach. My hair was still wet and my feet were still cold when I rolled into San Anselmo and the home of Don Sibbett, a friend of many years and countless adventures/misadventures. Don and his sharp-as-a-tack wife, Brianna, helm a design group that, among other creative projects, specializes in sophisticated interpretive installations for numerous parks, museums, and learning centers. Stand on the Port San Luis Pier in Avila Beach, for example, and read the railing exhibit that tells you the difference between a harbor seal and a sea lion—Don and Brianna designed that. 

Their latest project, Don explained, was contributing to the renovation of the delightfully named House of Happy Walls Museum, former home of Charmian London, the second wife of author Jack London, and one of the prime attractions of the Jack London State Historic Park, in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County. 

“We’re developing story lines and interpretive themes to shape new exhibits,” he told me. 

“Well, you’re going to have to include surfing,” I said to Don’s obvious bafflement. “Jack London was one of most influential figures in the sport.”

Photo Courtesy of Jack London Collection/The Huntington Library.

London, I explained, was introduced to surfing after he dropped anchor in Hawaii on the first leg of what was intended to be an around-the-world sailing voyage in 1907. Traveling with wife Charmian and a small crew, his 45-foot cutter-rigged ketch, the Snark, turned out to be woefully inadequate for the planned seven-year circumnavigation, its many shortcomings revealed on the trans-Pacific crossing from San Francisco to Honolulu. 

Once in the Islands, one could almost forgive London for wanting to spend more time hiking to the crater of the Haleakala Volcano or watching polo in Kapiolani Park, rather than jumping right back in the ocean. Except he did find his way into the water, enthusiastically, after he was introduced to the Waikiki surf scene by magazine publisher and tourism promoter Alexander Hume Ford. The resultant writings about London’s exposure to surfing included the article “A Royal Sport,” first published in Women’s Home Companion magazine in 1907, which was later expanded into a full chapter of his 1911 travel-adventure volume The Cruise of the Snark. It was the very first, and still remains one of the very best, first-person, immersive examinations of what was then called “surf-riding.” 

The main appeals of “A Royal Sport” are constituted of London’s eloquent impressions of the sport and the chronicling of his travails in attempting to learn to surf. But the chapter also includes astute observations on the nature of wave physics, hydrodynamic theory, and surfing technique. 

“He was instrumental in introducing surfing to a broader audience outside of Hawaii,” I told Don, trying my best to sound academic. “He gave the 20th century its first real look at what had previously been an obscure Polynesian pastime.”

“Speaking of looks,” Don said. “Are there any photos of London surfing?”

I, along with just about every other surf history buff, have seen plenty of old photos chronicling London’s stay in Hawaii. He was, after all, a literary and cultural celebrity at the time, considered America’s most popular writer. His Waikiki stay, therefore, was well covered by photographers of the day. It’s all there in sepia-tone prints: London and Charmian splashing in the shorebreak, posing against and sitting in an outrigger canoe, lounging on the sand. 

Except there’re none of them surfing. At least none I’d ever seen.

“Hmmm,” said Don. And, for a time, that was the last I heard of it.

Then a few weeks later, I received an email from him explaining that the London surf story was indeed going to be included in one of the museum’s new exhibits, titled “Sporting Life.” They’d even contracted a San Francisco surfer/woodworker to build a period-specific replica of a redwood-plank surfboard, the type that London might have used during his surf sessions with Hawaiian hot-dogger George Freeth. 

And then there was this in the note: “I stumbled on the attached images in a photo album in the Huntington Library’s digital collection. The album is titled “Hawaii” and was created by the Londons, documenting one of their trips to Waikiki. The guy on the board, far left, has a similar profile as the attached image of Jack sitting during the same trip. For your consideration…”

The similarities in the hair and shape of the head make a pretty compelling case that this might be the first, and only, photo of London on a surfboard. Of course, the guy in the shot is only paddling for a wave, not actually riding it. 

White bucks and a tropic-weight suit, a mission oak furniture kit in the shade of a hau tree—London had Waikiki on absolute lock. Could that be the man himself having a go? Photo Courtesy of Jack London Collection/The Huntington Library.

Still, look closely at the body positioning, the obvious focus, and the trim of the board—all indicating that he’s going to miss the wave—and it seems plausible that this could very well be the man who wrote, “I saw it coming, turned my back on it, and paddled for dear life…till it seemed my arms would drop off. What was happening behind me I could not tell. One cannot look behind and paddle the windmill stroke…I shifted my weight back, but shifted it too far back and fell down the rear slope of the wave.”

If this doesn’t perfectly describe what the painfully pale, so obviously haole beginner in the photo was experiencing, well, consider London’s closing lines of “A Royal Sport.” 

“Upon one thing I am resolved: the Snark shall not sail from Honolulu until I, too, wing my heels with all the swiftness of the sea, and become a sun-burned, skin-peeling Mercury.”

That’s good enough for me.