Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World, with Some Unexpected Results

Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World, with Some Unexpected Results

by Michael Scott Moore


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609611408
Publisher: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 05/24/2011
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

MICHAEL SCOTT MOORE is a novelist and journalist from California. He was a 2006-2007 Fulbright fellow in Berlin, where he currently works for Spiegel Online and writes a column for Miller-McCune Magazine. His first novel, Too Much of Nothing, was published by Carroll & Graf in 2003. He's written on politics and travel for publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, and the Financial Times. He's also at work on a second novel.

Read an Excerpt


George Freeth aquaplaning, c. 1915

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, the George Freeth memorial in Redondo Beach, California, was a saltbitten bust of a lifeguard who gazed with the stoicism you'd expect from an early surf hero into the deep mysteries of a concrete parking garage. His back was to the Redondo Pier. Most locals jogged or skated past the sculpture without examining the plaque, which read, disingenuously, FIRST SURFER IN THE UNITED STATES, then related the story of how Freeth was paid by the Los Angeles real estate and streetcar magnate Henry Huntington in 1907 to lure people to ride the Red Line tram to Redondo Beach on sunny afternoons and watch a new kind of athlete trim the waves. "George Freeth was advertised as 'The Man Who Can Walk On Water,'" according to the plaque. "Thousands of people came here on the big red cars to watch this astounding feat. George would mount his big 8-foot-long, solid wood, 200-£d surfboard far out in the surf. He would wait for a suitable wave, catch it, and to the amazement of all, ride onto the beach while standing upright."

I remember passing the sculpture on my bike as a kid.1 Redondo Beach was, and still is, a glamour-resistant Los Angeles suburb. In the early '80s the beach was drab and blighted with rusting Coppertone trash cans and piles of seaweed. So I wondered why it would have occurred to people in 1907 to come here and watch a man do something so normal: "ride onto the beach while standing upright." Big deal. Could he do aerials? The surfers I saw in magazines—Martin Potter, Mark Occhilupo, Shaun Tomson—could all do aerials.

At the time I was a new and not very good surfer who walked to the beach some mornings before school with a lanky mathematician named Tim who had a dark sense of humor and an oversized Adam's apple. Tim, with his brilliant technical mind and his nerdy leather briefcase, didn't feel welcome at Mira Costa High. He tested out before graduation, I think during his junior year. Other kids who surfed, the California punks and spoiled rich sons of industry, floated in the lineup in expensive, colorful wetsuits and set a tone of cool neither of us could match. But Tim wanted to surf in contests. He pushed himself in the water the way he pushed himself in class, and under his influence I learned to appreciate the magisterial command of pros like Tom Curren and Mark Foo; the aggro wave-whacking styles of Occhilupo and Brad Gerlach; and the clever innovations of guys like Cheyne Horan, who won surf titles on boards he'd invented himself.

By then surfing was too far along for me to imagine any individual as the "first surfer" in America. Surfing was too obvious. It was an ancient sport in Hawaii; how come it took until 1907 to reach America? Didn't native Californians—the Chumash, the Ohlone—surf? (Actually, no.) But my teenage skepticism was justified. Freeth was only the first celebrity surfer in California. The first men on record to surf North America were three Hawaiian princes who noticed that waves at the San Lorenzo River mouth in Santa Cruz were up to snuff. In the late nineteenth century, Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana'ole, heir to the Hawaiian throne, and his brothers David and Edward attended a military school in San Mateo, over the hill from Santa Cruz. They shaped their own boards from local redwoods and hauled them out to the beach one day in 1885 for a little fun. "The young Hawaiian princes were in the water," wrote a local paper, "enjoying it hugely and giving interesting exhibitions of surfboard swimming as practiced in their native islands."

1 In the summer of 2008 thieves knocked the original bronze bust of Freeth off its plinth, probably to sell for scrap.

There's also the story from Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast about Hawaiian crewmen from a ship called the Ayacucho, which met Dana's ship near Santa Barbara in 1835. It was Dana's first California landing. A rowboat full of his shipmates was waiting in high evening surf for a chance to row in when a launch from the Ayacucho "came alongside of us, with a crew of dusky Sandwich-Islanders, talking and hallooing in their outlandish tongue. They knew that we were novices in this kind of boating," so they showed the haoles how it was done. The Hawaiians had had outrigger practice, and outriggers are close ancestors of surfboards. Dana then sets down the earliest English description of riding California surf. "We pulled strongly in, and as soon as we felt that the sea had got hold of us, and was carrying us in with the speed of a race-horse, we threw the oars as far from the boat as we could," imitating the Hawaiians, "and took hold of the gunwales, ready to spring out and seize her when she struck, the officer using his utmost strength, with his steering-oar, to keep her stern out. We were shot up upon the beach, and seizing the boat, ran her up high and dry, and, picking up our oars, stood by her, ready for the captain to come down."

I agree with other people who have stumbled across this scene and found it hard to imagine surf-experienced Hawaiians passing "perfect Rincon or Malibu" in masted ships and not improvising a board—or just diving in—for a session of some kind in the water. "A surfer is a surfer," wrote Ben Marcus (the surf writer, not the novelist), "and a wave is a wave."

But George Freeth helped rescue stand-up surfing from the Christianized sickness of nineteenth-century Hawaiian culture and brought it to Redondo Beach. Like African music that crossed in ships to America and became the blues, and then jazz, and then rock, surfing would merge with the American landscape and become something new. After the pop explosion of the '60s there would be no stopping it. I'd been vaguely aware of the sport's imperial march in the years since I took it up, when stickers for Body Glove wetsuits and Quiksilver board shorts plastered on road signs and school desks were part of the provincial mood of Redondo, Manhattan, and Hermosa Beach—collectively known as the South Bay, a coastal suburb of Los Angeles—but it wasn't until I saw the Quiksilver store in Paris and watched surfers in Munich, where people surf Isar River canals, that I noticed with a measure of dread that "surfing" is a big-business American export, up there with cowboys and Hollywood.

Munich doesn't just have a plashing corner of the English Garden where you can put your board in the water and impress your girlfriend. It has a small but thriving surf scene, with dreadlocked German teenagers, local attitude, and an annual contest sponsored by Quiksilver. It's as if European kids can't think of their own way to rebel. And finding this scene made me wonder whether the migration of surfing from the Pacific to the four corners of the earth is good or bad—a symptom of the universal delights of a simple Polynesian sport or a warning that California has conquered the world.

Not to piss off Australians. Surfing by now is no less "Australian" than it is "Californian," in the sense that it's really Hawaiian. The sport is a national pastime in Australia because most of the white population lives along the coast. Broadcasters there can report on big waves and shark attacks without the irritating reflex in American TV to treat surf culture as a quaint activity in some province ludicrously distant from New York. The sport also has deep Australian roots. After Duke Kah-anamoku gave a surf exhibition at a Sydney beach in 1915, "on a makeshift board [made] out of sugar pine," lifeguards and hobbyists took up surfing on redwood boards and kayaklike surf skis, the way Californians did just after Freeth. In the 1950s surfing was still a trundling curiosity in Australia until a hipper, faster version arrived from California (with the "Malibu chip" board), and it's the spread of modern surfing I'm curious about, the strange propulsion of it from America to just about everywhere.

The sport's early roots are older than writing in Hawaii and therefore untraceable. But it goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. Some historians think it grew out of the way tired Polynesian fishermen ended long outrigger rides: Instead of paddling in to shore, they learned to catch the rolling surf, like their descendants on the Ayacucho. Canoe or outrigger surfing was normal across Polynesia, and bodysurfing as well as bodyboarding was known not just in the South Pacific but also in places as remote from each other as Africa and Peru. The Hawaiian habit of riding surf may have started in Tahiti, which is the source of early Hawaiian culture; in fact, some Tahitians could even stand on their boards. But stand-up surfing—on long, coral-smoothed koa or breadfruit slabs—evolved in Hawaii, where it became a universal recreation practiced by men as well as women, peasants as well as kings.

The sport belonged to the islands like poi and roasted pig. It was a feature of the Makahiki new year festival, when people stopped work and even postponed wars to offer tributes to Lono, the fertility god responsible for sun, rain, storms, and abundant fish. Hawaiian tradition said Lono had once walked the earth, and the people hoped he would come again. To keep his cult alive, high priests in a procession of boats paraded a carving of the god around each island, clockwise, once a year, and Lono's surrogate rearrival was lauded in every district with tributes of taro, sweet potatoes, dry fish, slaughtered pigs, and fabrics. A clever class of tax collectors made sure this booty was loaded onto "tax canoes" and sent reverently out to sea. Meanwhile, people held surf contests, canoe races, boxing matches, lava-sledding contests (sliding down lava rock on slabs of wood), and elaborate feasts.

Makahiki celebrations lasted from mid-October to early February. They coincided with the end of harvest and the cycles of the moon—and, conveniently, with Hawaii's big-wave season. Unlike modern contests, which are judged on style, ancient surf contests were races: Rivals caught the same wave and raced to a buoy anchored in the shallows. The stakes in a contest might be a fishing net, a pig, a bride, a canoe, or lifelong servitude. Hawaiians would bet just as heavily on someone else's performance as on their own. "It was common for a man to lose everything he owned when betting on a favorite surfer," wrote Duke Kahanamoku. But commoners didn't surf against chiefs. When Hawaiian chiefs were in the water, it was taboo to paddle out. Male and female chiefs had retinues of servants who chanted encouraging songs from the beach, and Ben Finney and James Houston report in their short history Surfing that for royal contests, the servants would bake a dog in an underground oven so the athletes could paddle in for a snack.

No one knows whether Hawaiians chased big surf. They had no fin technology, meaning their flat-bottomed boards would have spun away on a towering face. A few chiefs, like Kamehameha I, were good at "canoe-leaping," which involved catching a swell in a canoe piloted by someone else, then jumping with your board into the wave. The only point to this maneuver, I think, is to catch a wave you can't paddle after with your own two arms, meaning Kamehameha and his "favorite wife, Ka'ahumanu," may have gone canoe-leaping in fairly big surf. I'm not saying that even the best ancient surfers dropped in on sixty-foot Haleiwa surf with a canoe and a wiliwili board; but canoe-leaping seems to anticipate tow-in surfing, the modern sport's big technical innovation of the 1990s. Tow-in surfers strap their feet to fiberglass boards and get hauled like water-skiers behind noisy spitting Jet Skis into waves once thought impossible to catch.

The point is that while Tahitians were struggling to stand on their bodyboards and Peruvians rode surf boats made of woven reeds, Hawaiians were leaping from outriggers and even surfing on their heads. They'd refined the sport of stand-up surfing into a ritual unique in the world by the time James Cook arrived in 1778 and '79.

Cook's first two voyages to Australia and Polynesia had been scientific and charting expeditions that carried him around the southern rim of the Pacific. On the third voyage, sponsored by the Earl of Sandwich, he cut north. He discovered a new island called Atooi and noted that it belonged to a chain, but kept moving. The earl and his other sponsors wanted him to find the nonexistent Northwest Passage. But ice thwarted Cook's mission near Alaska. On his way home he decided to stop at the Atooi archipelago to replenish his ships. The Discovery and Resolution—both colliers, designed for shipping coal, with shallow drafts and big cargo holds—missed Atooi (Kauai) but landed on "Mowee" in late 1778, then moved on to a big island called "Owhyhee." They circled this landmass with great care, stopping now and then to trade with islanders who came off in canoes. By the time the ships laid anchor at Kealakekua Bay, in January 1779, Cook and his men were well known. Word may have spread that this pale character in gaudy clothes who had arrived at the height of Makahiki and then circled the island, clockwise, in an exotic Yorkshire collier—flying white sheets that resembled the banners flown by priests during their annual procession—was, well, Lono himself. A painting by one of Cook's men shows a fleet of outriggers and canoes crowding Kealakekua Bay to greet the Second Coming. One man paddles a surfboard.

Impersonating a god may have helped Cook the way it had helped Cortes in Mexico, or else honoring him as a god may have been strategic for the Hawaiians around Kealakekua Bay. At any rate, they were happy to resupply his tax canoes. Cook and his men stayed in Hawaii for about three weeks, and his lieutenant, James King, set down a passage in his log in early 1779 that isn't the first Western description of stand-up surfing but must count as the most colorful.

A wave, King wrote,

sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity, & the great art is to guide the plank so as always to keep it in a proper direction on the top of the Swell. . . . On first seeing this very dangerous diversion I did not conceive it possible but that some of them must be dashed to mummy against the sharp rocks, but just before they reach the shore, if they are very near, they quit their plank, & dive under till the Surf is broke, when the piece of plank is sent many yards by the force of the Surf from the beach. . . . By such like exercises, these men may be said to be almost amphibious.

Table of Contents

Author's Apology vii

Chapter 1 California and Hawaii: As Civilization Advances 1

Chapter 2 Indonesia: Bulé Bulé 33

Chapter 3 Germany: The Fun-Gesellschaft 67

Chapter 4 Morocco: Kilroy Was Here 95

Chapter 5 United Kingdom: English Incomers 137

Chapter 6 Israel and the Gaza Strip: Two Opposed Ideas 171

Chapter 7 Cuba: La Otra Revolución 217

Chapter 8 São Tomé and Príncipe: The Stern of an Old Canoe 249

Chapter 9 Japan: Plastics 283

Bibliography 319

Acknowledgments 322

Index 323

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