These Were the Original Surf-Writers (and Riders) of Western Prose

by Owen James Burke

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Mark Twain, quizzically dropping in (Image: Mark Summers, The E-Museum)

Ever try to picture your favorite novelists surfing? Probably not. T.S. Eliot and F. Scott Fitzgerald were far too dainty, and James Joyce would have stubbornly squared up with the wrong wave in the wrong place at the wrong time. I could imagine Hemingway getting into fisticuffs while skirting his way through a tense lineup at Mavericks, or Hunter S. Thompson paddling into a crowded, “locals only” Venice Beach during its rough-and-tumble days, bourbon in hand, cigarette in mouth, and a .45-caliber pistol strapped to his waist, just in case things got hairy. Well, it’s probably a good thing neither of those two ever tried their hand at surfing, but there are a few iconic 19th and early 20th century authors who did. Not only did they help revitalize this ancient Hawaiian art, they became some of the first “Haoles” to even give it a go.


Hucks Fins.

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Mark Twain, Jack London and Agatha Christie all encountered difficulty with pearling, or “nosediving”
(Image via Encyclopedia of Surfing)

Mark Twain described surfing—distantly—in 1872 while visiting what was then the Kingdom of Hawaii in his semi-autobiographical travelogue, Roughing It, a prequel to his first book, Innocents Abroad:

In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf- bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express-train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.

If only he were around to see the likes of Kelly Slater today.


The Call of the Wild.

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Jack London surfing in Hawaii c. 1907 (Photo: Jack London Historical Society)

In 1907, Jack London recalled lazily watching local boys ride the surf at Waikiki Beach in Hawaii while sailing across the Pacific on his ketch, The Snark, which he chronicled in The Cruise of The Snark:

And suddenly, out there where a big smoker lifts skyward, rising like a sea-god from out of the welter of spume and churning white, on the giddy, toppling, overhanging and downfalling, precarious crest appears the dark head of a man. Swiftly he rises through the rushing white. His black shoulders, his chest, his loins, his limbs — all is abruptly projected on one’s vision. Where but the moment before was only the wide desolation and invincible roar, is now a man, erect, full-statured, not struggling frantically in that wild movement, not buried and crushed and buffeted by those mighty monsters, but standing above them all, calm and superb, poised on the giddy summit, his feet buried in the churning foam, the salt smoke rising to his knees, and all the rest of him in the free air and flashing sunlight, and he is flying through the air, flying forward, flying fast as the surge on which he stands. He is a Mercury — a brown Mercury.

The Polynesian children made surfing look simple to the hard-knock oyster pirate-turned writer, who figured he’d gotten a good enough grasp of the sport to try his own. Mr. London got hold of a surfboard, casually paddled out and proceeded to “fail utterly” at surfing.

Then along came Alexander Hume Ford, fellow Pacific adventurer and pleasure-seeker, who was on his way to Australia when he discovered and became inextricably intrigued by the wonders of wave-riding. (Shortly thereafter, he would go on to form Waikiki’s Outrigger Canoe Club, whose mission was—and still is—to sustain the sport of wave-riding and provide access to surf despite the hotels and mansions that had begun [yes, even back then] clogging the shores of Waikiki.)

“Get off that board,” Ford said. “Chuck it away at once. Look at the way you’re trying to ride it. If ever the nose of that board hits bottom, you’ll be disemboweled. Here, take my board. It’s a man’s size.”

…And inside of half an hour I was able to start myself and ride in. I did it time after time, and Ford applauded and advised. For instance, he told me to get just so far forward on the board and no farther. But I must have got some farther, for as I came charging in to land, that miserable board poked its nose down to bottom, stopped abruptly, and turned a somersault, at the same time violently severing our relations. I was tossed through the air like a chip and buried ignominiously under the downfalling breaker. And I realized that if it hadn’t been for Ford, I’d have been disemboweled. That particular risk is part of the sport, Ford says. …

Then there’s the risk of disemboweling others, which London almost came to know all too well:

When all is said and done, it is my steadfast belief that homicide is worse than suicide. Ford saved me from being a homicide. “Imagine your legs are a rudder,” he said. “Hold them close together, and steer with them.” A few minutes later I came charging in on a comber. As I neared the beach, there, in the water, up to her waist, dead in front of me, appeared a woman. How was I to stop that comber on whose back I was? It looked like a dead woman. The board weighed seventy-five pounds, I weighed a hundred and sixty-five. The added weight had a velocity of fifteen miles per hour. The board and I constituted a projectile. I leave it to the physicists to figure out the force of the impact upon that poor woman. And then I remembered my guardian angel, Ford. “Steer with your legs!” rang through my brain. I steered with my legs, I steered sharply, abruptly, with all my legs and with all my might. The board sheered around broadside on the crest. Many things happened simultaneously. The wave gave me a passing buffet, a light tap as the taps of waves go, but a tap sufficient to knock me off the board and smash me down through the rushing water to bottom, with which I came in violent collision and upon which I was rolled over and over. I got my head out for a breath of air and then gained my feet. There stood the woman before me. I felt like a hero. I had saved her life. And she laughed at me. …

Whereas Twain was a plain humorist about everything and everyone, London seemed to have reached a genuine degree of interest and enlightenment with surfing:

The whole method of surf-riding and surf-fighting, I learned, is one of non-resistance. Dodge the blow that is struck at you. Dive through the wave that is trying to slap you in the face. Sink down, feet first, deep under the surface, and let the big smoker that is trying to smash you go by far overhead. Never be rigid. Relax. Yield yourself to the waters that are ripping and tearing at you. When the undertow catches you and drags you seaward along the bottom, don’t struggle against it. If you do, you are liable to be drowned, for it is stronger than you. Yield yourself to that undertow. Swim with it, not against it, and you will find the pressure removed. And, swimming with it, fooling it so that it does not hold you, swim upward at the same time. It will be no trouble at all to reach the surface.

And, just as he knew the terrors of the cold during the Gold Rush in the Yukon territory of Alaska, Jack London was quick to understand the perils of surfing, too:

The person who wants to learn surf-riding must be a strong swimmer, and must be used to going under the water. After that, fair strength and common sense are all that is required. The force of the big comber is rather unexpected. There are mix-ups in which board and rider are torn apart and separated by several hundred feet. The surf-rider must take care of him or herself. No matter how many riders swim out with you, you cannot depend upon any of them for aid. …

…I shall never forget the first big wave I caught out there in the deep water. I saw it coming, turned my back on it and paddled for dear life. Faster and faster my board went, till it seemed my arms would drop off. What was happening behind me I could not tell. One cannot look behind and paddle the windmill stroke. I heard the crest of the wave hissing and churning, and then my board was lifted and flung forward. I scarcely knew what happened the first half-minute. Though I kept my eyes open, I could not see anything, for I was buried in the rushing white of the crest. But I did not mind. I was chiefly conscious of ecstatic bliss at having caught the wave. …

He may have been built like an ox, but before the advent of sunscreen, his northern skin could do nothing to bear the wrath of the tropical sun:

…When describing the wonderful water of Hawaii I forgot to describe the wonderful sun of Hawaii. It is a tropic sun, and, furthermore, in the first part of June, it is an overhead sun. It is also an insidious, deceitful sun. For the first time in my life I was sunburned unawares. My arms, shoulders, and back had been burned many times in the past and were tough; but not so my legs. And for four hours I had exposed the tender backs of my legs, at right angles, to that perpendicular Hawaiian sun. It was not until after I got ashore that I discovered the sun had touched me. Sunburn at first is merely warm; after that it grows intense and the blisters come out. Also, the joints, where the skin wrinkles, refuse to bend. That is why I spent the next day in bed. I couldn’t walk. And that is why, today, I am writing this in bed. It is easier to than not to. But tomorrow, ah, tomorrow, I shall be out in that wonderful water, and I shall come in standing up… And if I fail tomorrow, I shall do it the next day, or the next. Upon one thing I am resolved: the Snark shall not sail from Honolulu until I, too, wing my heels with the swiftness of the sea, and become a sunburned, skin-peeling Mercury.”


Murder She Rode.

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Agatha Christie, clad in her “wool bathing dress” for wave-riding with her surfboard, “Fred” c. 1922 (Photo: The Times)

The Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie, was likely the first female of the west to drop in, and in South Africa, no less. She was introduced to “the art” of surfing in February of 1922, in waters just as foreign to the sport as she herself: those off the coast of South Africa at Muizenberg Beach. She was hooked for life:

Swimming is a little tame after surfing! We are going to buy light curved boards (that don’t jab you in the middle) and absolutely master the art.

Mrs. Christie left her two-year-old daughter under the care of her sister while she traveled world with her first husband, Archie, who was commissioned to join a trade delegation on behalf of the British Empire. Also a queen of adventure, she took no displeasure in joining him. She constantly proclaimed her passion for bathing in the sea, so it should come as no surprise that Agatha Christie was to become an early (western) feminine vanguard and proponent of the waterborne slide.

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Both Christie and London used the adjective ‘delicious’ to describe surf bathing. Eat your heart out, Spicoli.

(Photo taken from The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery)

From South Africa it was off to Australia, New Zealand, and finally Hawaii. She claimed to have, over the period of a few months, become an accomplished surfer (and by all accounts, having been born in Torquay, England, she was no slouch of a swimmer, either):

An excerpt from The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery:

The thing I enjoyed most, I suppose, in Cape Province, was the bathing. Whenever we could steal time off–or rather when Archie could–we took the train and went to Muizenberg, got our surf boards, and went out surfing together. The surf boards in South Africa were made of light, thin wood, easy to carry, and one soon got the knack of coming in on the waves… It was occasionally painful as you took a nosedive down into the sand, but on the whole it was an easy sport and great fun.

She was also quick to appreciate the luxury of a thin crowd:

…It is amusing after the crowded beaches in England to come to a place where when there are ten people and three children on the beach, you hear someone murmur: ‘How terribly crowded it is today!’

An excited letter to her mother from South Africa, dated Tuesday, February 7th, 1922 (taken from The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery):

In the afternoon, I met Archie at the station and we went to Muizenburg and surf bathed with planks! Very difficult. We can’t do it a bit yet. But it was lovely there, with a bay of great mountains coming right down to the sea. I had no idea there were so many mountains. And the sea is really hot, the only sea I have ever known that you don’t shiver when you first put your toes in.”

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Christie and Naval Attaché Ashby pose for a photograph on Muizenburg Beach. Ashby was a natural, recalled Christie in a letter. Wonder how Mr. Christie felt about that…

(Photo taken from The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery)

On Thursday, February 9th, Agatha was at it again with a young Naval Attaché named Ashby, though a cold front and a pearling lowered her spirits a bit:

Today is grey and cold…I regret the heat. Sylvia, I, and the Naval Attaché (Ashby) went off to Muizenberg. High tide and shelving beach. I didn’t tilt my board up enough, and consequently it stuck in the sand, and jolted me violently in the middle! I at once loathed surfing! But recovered shortly. Ashby was rather good for a first attempt. Sylvia doesn’t bathe, in case she should get sticky. She snapped us both resting on our boards’…Archie came after lunch, stayed in an hour, and got very angry, because he didn’t get one good run! It was awfully funny to watch him trying so hard, and wave after wave passing him by.

“Surfing is very easy. You just push your board out to sea — and come in on the wave.” 

(Photo via the Agatha Christie Archive Trust)

Surfing looks perfectly easy. It isn’t. I say no more. I got very angry and fairly hurled my plank from me. Nevertheless, I determined to return on the first possible opportunity and have another go. Quite by mistake I then got a good run on my board and came out delirious with happiness. Surfing is like that. You are either vigorously cursing or else you are idiotically pleased with yourself.

Mrs. Christie took to the beach in style (not that we’d expect any less), wearing what she depicted to be a “wonderful, skimpy emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I thought I looked remarkably well!”

In August of 1922, she made shore in the Hawaiian islands, where at the end of August, with the help of a local boy, she managed to surf her first wave standing up. She spent over two months there, by the end of which she claimed to have “become expert—or at any rate expert from the European point of view—the moment of complete triumph on the day that I kept my balance and came right into shore standing upright on my board!”

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Edward Windsor, Prince of Whales, Hawaii c. 1920 (Photo: Museum of British Surfing)

It is worth mentioning that although Agatha Christie and her husband were probably among the first British surfers, Pete Robinson, founder of the Devon-based Museum of British surfing, notes that they were not the first, and that Prince Edward Windsor of Whales–perhaps not a writer by profession, but an avid correspondent by mail–had taken to standup surfing two years prior in Hawaii in 1920.

Still, I’d put my money on Agatha Christie as having been the first female of the west to drop in standing up.

–OB

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