[Book Review] Surf and Rescue: George Freeth and the Birth of California Beach Culture

Reviewed by Leanne Phillips

I’m on the seaside deck of a local café waiting for a coffee and looking out over the Pacific Ocean. In the water, I count nine surfers and two stand-up paddleboarders. A few brown pelicans fly overhead. At the water’s edge, a dozen sandpipers pick their breakfast from the wet sand. There are a couple of runners, three people walking their dogs, two little girls building a sandcastle, one real coastal grandmother out for a morning stroll, wearing blue jeans, a light windbreaker, and tennis shoes. On the beach, two lifeguard stations—a third station farther south of the pier is obscured by the morning fog—and one little, red patrol truck outfitted with two surfboards. Ten college students are playing volleyball—two are off-duty lifeguards. Another lifeguard is running sprints in the soft sand near the seawall, just below the boardwalk. A little over one hundred years ago, the scene would have been much different.

In Surf and Rescue: George Freeth and the Birth of California Beach Culture, writer and historian Patrick Moser tells the story of the man who is responsible for the contemporary California beach ethos. Moser paints a picture of California’s beaches at the turn of the twentieth century that is at once more tame and more dangerous than it is today. Most beachgoers played it safe, swimming in enormous pools constructed in bathhouses that held thousands of patrons. The bathhouses thrived in the beach towns that dotted California’s coast. They provided a less risky (and less adventurous) saltwater swimming experience. Those who did venture into the open ocean did so at the risk of their lives—early twentieth-century bathers generally didn’t swim well, didn’t surf at all, and didn’t understand riptides, undertows, water safety, or any of the myriad ways the unpredictable sea differs from a more placid body of water.

When George Freeth traveled from his native Hawaii to Venice Beach, California, in 1907, he was only nineteen. He brought surfing with him and “injected Native Hawaiian cultural attitudes about the ocean into the Southern California psyche.” Moser describes Freeth as “a Johnny Appleseed of sorts, spreading surfing and lifeguarding from Los Angeles to San Diego.” Freeth worked at local bathhouses as a lifeguard and taught people how to surf and swim. His dedication to helping people enjoy and feel safe in the water was selfless and remarkable.

Moser’s skillful writing and lyrical prose put readers into the moment:

What would a surf lesson have looked like in the summer of 1907? … California beach waves are shiftier and break faster than the long-rolling surf at Waikiki, so Freeth’s strength, reflexes, and balance would have been tested: a burst of paddling to catch the wave, a sudden jump to his feet, then a wide stance so that he didn’t fall in the white water. Unlike surfers today, Freeth didn’t have a fin on the tail of his board, so he normally kept his feet pointed toward the nose, more or less parallel, so that he could control the board’s direction by dragging a foot off one side or the other. His usual path was not horizontal across the face of the wave, as surfers ride today, but straight into shore.

Freeth also completely revolutionized lifeguarding. Moser reconstructs early twentieth-century lifeguarding in great detail: it consisted of men swimming short distances in calm waters, going out in small boats to attempt rescues if the conditions were right, or using lines to reel distressed swimmers to shore. Freeth single-handedly changed that. He created what is now contemporary lifeguarding, teaching lifeguards to swim in rough surf so they could reach distressed swimmers quickly and also teaching them to engage in water sports like swimming, surfing, diving, and water polo to learn to navigate currents and to stay in peak physical shape. His contributions to lifeguarding were many. For example, he is credited with inventing the “torpedo tube,” or “rescue can,” you see the Baywatch crew carrying as they run down the beach, as well as standardizing the red swimsuit uniforms they wear. “One of Freeth’s great legacies in California was the young generation of lifeguards he trained so that they wouldn’t doubt their abilities in the water.” In coastal towns where drownings were a regular occurrence, Freeth’s arrival meant safer beaches. “In the eleven years he lived and worked in California, there are no records of anyone drowning on his watch.” Moser recounts, however, numerous well-documented, dramatic, and breathtaking instances of Freeth saving multiple lives, often at the risk of his own.

One of the things Moser does extraordinarily well is to put Freeth’s life into a framework for readers. He documents the history of Freeth’s family, his upbringing, the social and political atmospheres into which he was born, and the historical context of the time, all of which shaped Freeth’s life. Freeth grew up in “an island world where ocean knowledge and skills were valued and celebrated at the highest levels,” Moser writes. Moser’s detailed account of Freeth’s childhood allows readers to grasp a life that otherwise seems unbelievable—Freeth was solely responsible for creating modern lifeguarding and for transforming California into a state that, in 2018, made surfing its official sport. Moser gives readers a full perspective from which to appreciate how Freeth could have credibly become this man who often seems more like a Greek god or a Marvel superhero than a mere mortal.

Especially relevant to Freeth’s story are the sexism and racism that were more prevalent, or at least more unabashedly visible, then. White writers characterized surfing as a “lost art” that had been abandoned by Native Hawaiians. In truth, Moser relates, surfing wasn’t lost. Rather, the colonization of Hawaii had led to a decline in the sport because of reduced numbers of Native Hawaiians, as well as white, non-secular disapproval of something that was considered pagan. In Freeth’s own Hawaiian culture, surfing was sacred and was meant for everyone. Moser pays special attention to Freeth’s encouragement and training of women who wished to compete in water sports during a time when women were relegated to bathing beauty contests.

Freeth was a light-skinned, mixed-race Hawaiian with black hair and brown eyes. He was able to move easily in white society, likely because it was to white society’s benefit. But, “[t]hough Freeth was naturally fair-skinned, there is a tradition of whitewashing his racial background. He has often been described as having more Nordic features ….” And his acceptance into white society didn’t prevent his being erased from surfing’s history by white writers. Moser’s account of Freeth’s acquaintance with author Jack London is particularly fascinating—Freeth taught London to surf and inspired his famous essay “The Royal Sport,” among other things. Alexander Hume Ford originally extolled Freeth’s skills as a surfer and instructor but later brazenly wrote that “surfriding is kept alive, not by natives, but by white men and boys.” Moser calls out Ford’s hypocrisy:

A second photograph that appeared in Ford’s article in the Honolulu Advertiser—this one of Ford himself—embodies the role that he and other haole often play in histories of surfing: Ford is able to stand on the surfboard only because Freeth swam underneath the plank and held it steady while the photographer snapped the picture. In essence we have a Native Hawaiian, rendered invisible, literally holding up a white man so that this latter can claim authority and expertise.

Moser also shines a light on one of the great tragedies in Freeth’s life—he was seemingly singled out by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to be barred from competing. Freeth trained four Olympic athletes, including Duke Kahanamoku and Ludy Langer, but was consistently barred from competitions which would have led to his own Olympic success. The AAU repeatedly classified Freeth as a professional athlete based on his work as a lifeguard, swim instructor, and surf instructor, despite the fact that other athletes held the same types of jobs. Freeth’s battle with the AAU runs as an important thread throughout Moser’s book. But, Moser notes, Freeth’s “personal loss in terms of potential individual honors in amateur sports turned out to be an immense gain not only for the people whose lives he saved but also for the development of lifeguarding in California and beaches around the world.”

Moser quite obviously put in the research and the work to write a book that is both a biography and a history. It is compelling, complete, and backed up by voluminous notes and resources, which the author shares with readers in the back matter. One of the things I most appreciate about Moser as a writer and as a historian is that, if he isn’t able to unearth an answer in his comprehensive research, he doesn’t assert it as fact. And if he doesn’t know something but can imagine it based on what he does know, he makes that clear, too. He writes, for example, that we can “speculate” as to who gave Freeth his first surfboard, then lays out a solid argument as to why he believes it was more likely one Hawaiian prince rather than another.

Sadly, Freeth died in 1919, at the age of thirty-five, in the third wave of last century’s global influenza pandemic. “Part of the reason why Freeth’s name and accomplishments are not more broadly known,” Moser writes, “is because he never stayed in one place very long. He also died young at a time when tens of millions—soldiers and civilians—died around him in the influenza pandemic during World War I. One Hawaiian lifeguard, penniless and itinerant, hardly caused a stir.”

With Surf and Rescue, Moser revives interest in an important figure and helps save George Freeth from obscurity, which is one of my favorite ways for a historian to use their superpowers. As you read Surf and Rescue, you’ll find yourself saying “wow” under your breath every few pages. I’ve lived in California my entire life, rarely more than a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, but I was astounded to learn so much about California’s history, beach culture, and surfing that I didn’t already know.

One of Freeth’s contributions to surfing was to democratize the sport. He made people believe that anybody could learn how to ride waves at their own beach, and he took the time to show them how to do it.
Freeth’s work with children was especially important. … Freeth calmed any fears they may have inherited about the ocean from a previous generation and gave these young Californians a new connection to nature that helped form their own identities and that of the region.

Freeth spent his last summer in Coronado, California, where I spent my childhood. Growing up on California’s beaches, I wore puka shells in the seventies, listened to the Beach Boys, named my dog Gidget, and watched Frankie and Annette play Beach Blanket Bingo. I attempted to surf. It’s a shame I’d never heard of George Freeth before now because, as I’ve learned from reading Moser’s stirring account of Freeth’s life, he single-handedly gave birth to the beach culture I grew up with and still enjoy. I’m grateful to Patrick Moser for introducing me to Freeth and for treating his subject so thoroughly and with such care and diligence. Surf and Rescue is an informative, engaging, and fascinating account of the way one man forever changed the world for the better.

And once you’ve read Surf and Rescue, I’d recommend reading Michael Scott Moore’s Sweetness and Blood next. In many ways, Sweetness and Blood picks up where Moser’s book leaves off. Moore grew up in Redondo Beach, where George Freeth spent most of his time in California and where the spread of surfing arguably began. He begins with a chapter on Freeth and surfing’s roots in Hawaii and California, then writes about the way surfing spread across the globe. Moore travels to Indonesia, Germany, Morocco, the United Kingdom, Israel and the Gaza Strip, Cuba, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Japan to experience the surf culture in those places and to find out who surfed in each place first.

Leanne Phillips is a writer and a lifelong Californian. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California at Riverside, Palm Desert. Her work has appeared in Kelp Journal, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle.