I learned to bodysurf by doing it, including a few near-drownings where I dropped over the falls, pushed under by the force of a wave so that I was in a dark, churning cauldron. My limbs and head were violently twisted in different directions from my body. I would see nothing but bubbles and, a few times, floating black dots from hypoxia, lack of oxygen. I’d surface just in time for a quick breath that was half salt foam before the next big wave in the set would hammer me back down again. Eventually I drown-proofed myself in 6-8 foot San Diego waves and got to enjoy some great adrenaline rushes along with the occasional scare and/or injury.
But enough about my feeble attempts to imitate a dolphin. Let’s talk about how Jack London introduced surfing to California.
As even the youngest grommet knows, surfing, or he’e nalu (wave sliding), was the Hawaiian sport of kings. Although Hawaiians of all classes participated, the Olo, the first true longboard, was reserved for the ruling alii class. About 700 years later, on July 20, 1885, three visiting Hawaiian Princes, Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole, David Kawananakoa, and Edward Keli’Iahonui rode 15-foot, 100-pound redwood boards that they ordered from a local sawmill off the main beach in Santa Cruz. The locals were impressed with the first recorded incident of surfing for fun in California.
Soon the local boys of Santa Cruz were in the surf trying to “wave slide” like the Hawaiians, but few people knew about this isolated, cold water ritual.
“He is Mercury – a brown Mercury. His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea.”
This was Jack London’s report after seeing his first surfer in 1907. After having spent some of the royalties from Call of the Wild to build a boat called the Snark, he and his wife and sailed to Hawaii. He was standing on the beach at Waikiki when he made his initial observation.
London was a natural waterman. Growing up in San Francisco, Jack was largely self-reared and self-educated, working 12-18 hour days in a cannery by the age of 13. Desperate for a way out, he borrowed money from his black foster-mom, an ex-slave named Virginia Prentiss, and bought a small sloop, becoming an oyster pirate and skilled sailor on the bay. After the boat was damaged, he was hired on with the California Fish Patrol (later writing Tales of the Fish Patrol). At age 17, he signed aboard a sealing schooner bound for Japan. At 21, he joined the Klondike Gold Rush to Alaska where he went hungry and developed scurvy. On his return he began working full-time as a writer, using his own experiences as the basis for his stories. Call of the Wild became a National Best Seller, and fame came with the accolade.
By the time Jack and Charmian arrived in Hawaii, he was a world-famous celebrity admired for the same muscular brand of outdoor adventuring that defined then-President Teddy Roosevelt. So it was no surprise that his first reaction on seeing the local “Kanakas” surfing was to join them, taking half a day to learn how to stand up on Waikiki’s gentle rolling waves. Immediately he wrote a long essay, entitled A Royal Sport, displaying the kind of unbridled enthusiasm for surfing he usually reserved for brave dogs. Run in the October 1907 edition of the widely circulated Women’s Home Companion, it brought surfing into the national conversation from whence, dude, it’s never quite departed.
For more about the history of California’s surfers, sailors, ocean explorers and other watermen and women please read my book, The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea or check out the 4 minute book video.