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Surfing & Lifeguarding Introduced to Southern California

George Freeth Bust at Redondo Beach Pier

George Freeth bust at Redondo Beach Pier. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

George Freeth, Jr. was born in Hawaii in 1883 to a mother who was partly Hawaiian and an English father. There he acheived a reputation for his skills as a swimmer and a practicer of the ancient Polynesian sport of surfing. Author Jack London, who, during a visit to Hawaii, saw Freeth surf, described him as “a Mercury—a brown Mercury. His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea.” In 1907, Freeth brought his skills to Southern California for the Hawaii Promotion Committee and with a letter of introduction from Jack London himself. At the same time, railway magnate Henry Huntington and developer Abbot Kinney were promoting their investments in the new beach communities of Redondo Beach and Venice respectively. They quickly saw opportunity in the young Freeth demonstrating this never-before-seen sport called surfing. They both employed him to give California's first surfing performances at Redondo Beach and Venice. Freeth is considered the "Father of Modern Surfing." According to the 1910 Census, he rented a room in Redondo Beach at 106 Pacific Avenue.

Freeth's amazing skills in the water also led to training lifeguards and ocean rescue volunteers. Drowning was dreadfully common along Southern California's beaches in the early days. Freeth was passionate about training lifeguards and often did so for free. Until that time, ocean rescues typically meant launching lifeboats and trying to extract people from the water. The process was difficult and time-consuming when water conditions were difficult. Freeth taught how to expedite rescues by foregoing lifeboats and expertly swimming out to those in distress. In 1908, he demonstrated this during that year's December winter storms, when several fishing boats were dashed by a squall against a breakwater off the Venich Pier. Freeth lept from the pier directly into the water and managed to swim out to the distressed boats. He rescued seven fisherman. For his lifesaving efforts, he was awarded the U.S. Volunteer Life-Saving Corps medal and, in 1910, the award he most treasured - the Gold Lifesaving Medal from the U.S. Coast Guard.* Besides being the "Father of Modern Surfing," Freeth is credited as the "Father of Body Surfing in the U.S." and "Father of Lifeguarding" in Los Angeles County.

Sadly, in 1919, as a victim of the global influenza pandemic at the time, Freeth died while working in San Diego. He was only 35 years old.

George Freeth, 1910

George Freeth in 1910. Courtesy Los Angeles County Lifeguard Trust Fund.

* Freeth has incorrectly been reported to have received the Congressional Gold Medal, almost from the very beginning. Actually, he received the U.S. Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal. The Almanac believes the mix-up is traced to early news articles that initially described Freeth's medal as "authorized by Congress," "by act of Congress," or "issued by Congress," which understandably led to the misunderstanding.

Also see: George Freeth: King of the Surfers and California's Forgotten Hero

L.A. Video

L.A. Videos

George Freeth, lifeguard

Tales from the Tower - George Freeth

George Freeth not only introduced surfing to Southern California, but also modern-day lifeguarding. This episode of Tales from the Tower tells the story of how Freeth brought ocean lifeguarding to Los Angeles.