Surf and Rescue: George Freeth and the Birth of California Beach Culture

Univ. of Illinois. Jun. 2022. 248p. ISBN 9780252086526. pap. $24.95. SPORTS
Now that beach property is the ne plus ultra of luxury, it’s easy to forget that American waterfronts were once undesirable, neglected landscapes and the ocean was considered more menacing than salubrious. In this deeply researched history, Moser (French literature, Drury Univ.; The Surfer’s Code) tells the fascinating story of an aquatic polymath whose abbreviated life was devoted to establishing lifeguards and surfers as legitimate professionals. Born on Oahu in 1883 to an Englishman and an Indigenous Hawaiian mother, George Freeth was a fixture at early U.S. bathing resorts, like Venice Beach and San Francisco’s Sutro Baths, and eked out a meager living as a performer of daredevil aquatic feats. One promotional stunt was a “fire dive” from a barnstorming airplane down into Venice lagoon while wearing a flaming, kerosene-drenched costume. Freeth was also a swim coach to Jack London and to Olympic swimming champ and “father of modern surfing” Duke Kahanamoku (paid gigs that made Freeth himself Olympics-ineligible). As a lifeguard, he pioneered open-ocean lifesaving techniques and rescued some 300 people. The quintessential athlete’s own premature death, in the 1919 influenza pandemic, is a poignant coda to Moser’s otherwise joyfully buoyant narrative.
VERDICT A valuable and absorbing biography, starring a forgotten founder of California beach culture.
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