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George Freeth - Biography


Legend has it that during a conversation with famed novelist Jack London, Alexander Hume Ford once described George Freeth as "… a man of deeds, not words. His walk alone is eloquence in motion." It’s a description that should seemingly end with “Stay thirsty my friends” as if these two were discussing some phantom being. On the contrary, Freeth was all too real. This Hawaiian-Irish son of island wealth was not just a phenomenal waterman (before there was such a term), but he went on to earn a living as a wave rider almost 100 years before the birth of professional surfing (well, before the ASP really got rolling). As if that wasn’t enough, he set the standard for west coast lifeguarding and even developed a new life saving device. With a combination of luck and an intense passion for the ocean, George Freeth became a cultural icon before his life’s untimely and tragic end.

Born November 8, 1883 in Hawaiian, Freeth became famous in an 1907 article in Woman's Home Companion in which Jack London described the Waikiki beach boy culture and in particular a 23 year old surfer, George Freeth. His surfing was described in heroic hyperbole that captured the intangible essence of surfing during the sport’s most golden of ages. Freeth is described as a “god bronzed with sunburn” with grace and poise amid the face of nature’s violence. He could have never planned for where that encounter with London would lead him. Within the year, the publicity from London’s article earned Freeth an opportunity to travel to California as the world’s first paid surfer. Railroad tycoon Henry Huntington invited Freeth to demonstrate this strange new art of wave riding to train passengers in order to promote his Redondo to Los Angeles railway line. To be clear, Freeth wasn’t the first ever to surf in California. In fact, three Hawaiian royals attending a San Mateo military school reportedly surfed in Santa Cruz in 1885. He was, however, certainly the first SoCal surfer and for sure the first professional wave rider. Within a year, Freeth had gone from free-wheeling beach boy to historical surf culture trail blazer.

After his stint with Henry Huntington, Freeth remained in the golden state, and continued to dedicate his life to the ocean. In 1908, the Hawaiian transplant established the first lifeguard training at Redondo Beach, becoming America’s first official lifeguard. He even conceived the first “rescue can” which is a submarine shaped flotation device with easy grip handles. If you go to the beach today, lifeguards still carry one of these life saving devices. Although, he pulled countless souls from the chilly Pacific waters, Freeth’s most famous life-saving foray was his rescue of a boatload of Japanese fishermen in Santa Monica Bay which earned him a Congressional Medal. Still in the prime of his life, Freeth was poised for greatness to come.

However, sadly, at 35, George Freeth died of Influenza in 1919. But his role in the development of both modern surfing and lifeguarding cannot be understated. Ironically, his fortuitous encounter with Jack London on that sun drenched Honolulu day set the young beach boy on a path with both an early death and cultural immortality in the history of surfing.

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