Books

Review: Two books dive into the lives of two remarkable figures in swimming and surf

“Surf & Rescue: George Freeth and the Birth of California Beach Culture” by Patrick Moser. Photo: University of Illinois Press

Watermen and waterwomen are revered figures in Hawaiian culture. These individuals not only excel at such sports as surfing, diving and swimming, but also have a mastery of the ocean — currents, tides, navigation and, by necessity, shark behaviour.

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If the tradition reaches far back into Hawaiian history, for the most part it had no counterpart on the US mainland until well into the 20th century. While these days we take beach culture for granted, and learning to swim is a childhood rite of passage, during the late 1800s, few Americans could even dog-paddle. And the ocean wasn’t a destination for hot fun in the summertime but a brooding place of danger and mystery.

Patrick Moser is the author of “Surf & Rescue: George Freeth and the Birth of California Beach Culture.” Photo: University of Illinois Press

A pair of new books trace the emergence of swimming as a sport and leisure-time recreation by examining the lives of George Freeth, the Hawaiian waterman who helped bring surfing and lifeguarding to the West Coast, and Olympic gold medal swimmer Charles Daniels.

The more successful book is Patrick Moser’s “Surf and Rescue: George Freeth and the Birth of California Beach Culture.” It details Freeth’s Hawaiian upbringing (he was born on Oahu in 1883) and his days in California, where he popularized what he called “the lost art” of surfing and pioneered lifeguard techniques that greatly reduced the dangers of a day at the beach.

Sadly, Freeth died when he was just 35 during the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Moser, a professor of writing at Drury University in Springfield, Mo., who edited “Pacific Passages: An Anthology of Surf Writing,” certainly puts Freeth’s considerable accomplishments during his brief life into perspective — even if Freeth, as a personality, remains remote .

“The Watermen: The Birth of American Swimming and One Young Man’s Fight to Capture Olympic Gold” by Michael Loynd. Photo: Ballantine Books

Moser points out that Freeth was uniquely suited to serve as an ambassador for surfing and the beach lifestyle. Of native Hawaiian heritage on his mother’s side and the son of a father born in England, Freeth lived the pure Hawaiian beach life while growing up in Honolulu and at a largely undeveloped Waikiki. He also spent time on the distant Pacific outpost of Laysan Island, where his father supervised a guano mining operation. But as Moser writes, once on the West Coast, Freeth’s Anglo appearance allowed him “to maneuver through racial hierarchies in California that relegated darker-skinned residents to the social and economic periphery.”

He was a true waterman. Freeth once said, “I cannot remember the day when I couldn’t swim,” and his friend Ludy Langer, a silver medalist at the 1920 Olympics, later recalled, “To see him in the water — well, I can’t describe it. He had absolutely no fear of it. It was his natural place.”

Moser ably assembles the events of Freeth’s life and brings alive the excitement of early California surfing demonstrations and a long litany of lifeguarding heroics. There are estimates that Freeth saved as many as 300 people. And in one famous incident during a December storm, Freeth rescued seven men and spent two hours in the frigid water; then, while being treated for hypothermia, returned to the ocean for yet another lifesaving attempt.

Moser’s book will bring renewed attention to Freeth, whose contributions to surf and beach culture in California have typically been overshadowed by those of his fellow Hawaiian waterman and protege Duke Kahanamoku. Because Freeth didn’t leave a collection of letters or journals, we mostly hear from him in secondhand accounts, and Moser largely avoids the temptation to freely speculate on Freeth’s state of mind. So if Freeth’s achievements are well-chronicled, the man himself is still somewhat unknowable.

Michael Loynd is the author of “The Watermen: The Birth of American Swimming and One Young Man’s Fight to Capture Olympic Gold.” Photo: Jocelyn Seagraves

Michael Loynd’s “The Watermen: The Birth of American Swimming and One Young Man’s Fight to Capture Gold” resurrects the story of Charles Daniels, winner of four swimming gold medals at the 1904 and 1908 Olympics. Daniels held the record for total medals by an American swimmer until Mark Spitz overtook him in 1972 and is credited with originating the American crawl. He set world records in the freestyle at every distance from 25 yards to 1 mile. The guy was no slouch.

Daniels managed all of that while battling serious anxiety issues, as well as a scoundrel of a father who abandoned him and his mother. Not to mention trying to learn to swim during a time when, as Loynd points out, there were only 600 competitive swimmers in the entire country and instruction were rudimentary techniques at best; Daniels nearly drowned the first time his father brought him to a pool for a lesson.

Daniels’ tale is certainly worth telling, and Loynd’s extensive research illuminates everything from the social pressures of Buffalo, NY (the Danielses were a prominent family in what was then one of the country’s wealthiest cities) to the origins of the modern Olympic Games. But if the book aspires to the page-turning, underdog heroics of Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat,” it’s often slowed by details and metaphors that get in the way of a compelling story that doesn’t need so much embellishment.

A bit of tough-love editing would have helped. One swimmer is described as “looking carved from steel” and “iron-chested, yet still slender,” before the passage continues: “His neck stretched like a periscope. His muscular arms fanned out with an impressive wingspan. His powerful grasshopper legs stretched forever.”

And someone might have flagged, “Swimming wouldn’t even constitute the proverbial road less traveled.”
Considering this is a book about a revolutionary time in the sport of swimming and would make for an inspiring beach read, there’s sometimes a whole lot of chop to wade through.

Surf & Rescue: George Freeth and the Birth of California Beach Culture
By Patrick Moser
(University of Illinois Press; 240 pages; cloth $110, paper $24.95)

The Watermen: The Birth of American Swimming and One Young Man’s Fight to Capture Olympic Gold
By Michael Loynd
(Ballantine Books; 416 pages; $30)

Author event

The California Historical Society presents a webinar with Patrick Moser: Virtual. 5:30 pm July 19. Free. Register at californiahistoricalsociety.org




  • Matt Jaaffe

    Matt Jaffe is an award-winning journalist and author who has spent much of his career writing and reporting on the environment and culture of California, the Southwest, Mexico and Hawaii.

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