charmian london : waikiki surf-riding, 1907-1917
Jack London at Waikiki, 1915.
|Facing page 24
The Snark, and the owner ashore.
Jack suggested that he make three at our table, and he talked a steady stream all through of information about everything under the sky, it would seem, for he has traveled widely.
he is interested in reviving the old Hawaiian sport of
surf-boarding on the breakers, and promised to see us at
Waikiki later on, and show us how to use a board.
When he left, we were able to draw the first long breath in two hours.
In his atmosphere one had the sense of being speeded up; but his generous good nature was worth it.
SEASIDE HOTEL, WAIKIKI BEACH, HONOLULU,
May 31, 1907.
there is something in the very name that smacks of the sea!"
caroled a visitor in the late 1800's. (?)
Waikiki the seaside resort of the world, for there is nothing comparable to it, not only in the temperature of its effervescent water, which averages 78 the year round, but in the surroundings, as well as the unusual variety of sports connected with it, surf-canoeing in the impressively
savage black-and-yellow dug-outs, surf-boarding, the ancient game of kings, fishing, sailing ; and all on a variously shallow reef, where one may swim and romp forgetful
hours without necessarily going out of depth on the sandy bottom.
The cream-white curve of beach is for miles plumed with coconut palms, and Diamond Head, "Leahi,"
that loveliest of old craters, which rounds in the south-eastern end of the graceful crescent, is painted by every shifting color, light, and shade, the day long, on its rose-tawny, serrated steeps.
And many's the sail comes whitening around the point, yacht or schooner or full-rigged ship, a human mote (?) that catches the eye and sets one a-dreaming of lately hailed home harbors and far foreign ports with enchanting names.
We keep repeating the word, for already it spells a new phase of existence.
Here but a scant twenty-four hours, and already Jack's Dream Harbor seems faint and distant, slipping into a mild and pleasant, not imperative memory, for the spirit of storied Waikiki has entered ours.
The air seems full of wings, Iam so happy making home, this time a tent.
Page 63Not twenty feet in front, where grass grows to the water's edge at highest tide, the sands, sparkling under blazing sunrays, are frilled by the lazy edges of the surf; and the flawed tourmaline of the reef-waters, pale green, or dull pink from underlying coral patches, stretches to the low white line of breakers on the barrier reef some half-mile seaward, while farthest beyond lies the peacock-blue ribbon of the deep-sea horizon.
breakfast, it is into the blissful warm tide, diving through
bubbling combers, coming up eyes level with tiny sails of
fishermen beyond the barrier reef.
The pretty, pretty strand!
All hours one hears the steady, gentle boom and splash of the surf not the big disturbing, ominous gnashing and roaring of the Pacific Coast rollers, nor the distant carnivorous growlings off the rock-jagged line of New England.
And under sun or moon, it is all a piece of beauty.
Toward Diamond Head, when the south wind drives, the swift breakers, like endless charges of white cavalry, leap and surge shoreward, flinging back long silver manes.
The thrill of these landward races never palls at Waikiki.
One seems to vision Pharaoh's Horses in mighty struggle against backwashing waters, arriving nowhere, dying and melting impotent upon the sand.
Jack, to whom beauty is never marred by knowledge of its why and wherefore, has explained to me the physics of a breaking wave.
"A wave is
a communicated agitation," he says.
"The water that composes a wave really does not move.
If it moved, when you drop a stone in a pool and the ripples widen in an increasing circle, there should be at the center an increasing hole.
So the water in the body of a wave is stationary.
If you observe a portion of the ocean's surface, you will see that the same water rises and falls endlessly to the agitation communicated by endless successive waves.
Then picture this communicated agitation moving toward shore.
As the land shoals, the bottom of the wave hits first and is stopped.
Water is fluid, and the upper part of the wave not having been stopped, it keeps on communicating its agitation, and moves on shoreward.
Ergo," says he, "something is bound to be doing, when the top of a wave keeps on after the bottom has stopped, dropped out from under.
Of course, the wave-top starts
forward, down, cresting, overcurling, and crashing.
So, don't you see ? don't you see ? " he warms to his illustration, "it is actually the bottom of the wave striking against the rising land that causes the surf !
And where the land shoals gradually, as inside this barrier reef at Waikiki, the rising of the undulating water is as gradual, and a ride of a quarter of a mile or more can be made shoreward on the cascading face of a wave."
Hume Ford, true to promise, appeared to-day with an enormous
surf-board, made fun of the small ones that had been lent
us, and we went down to the sea to learn something of hee-nalu,
sport of Hawaiian kings.
The only endeaver of fish, flesh, and fowl, which Mr. Ford seems not to have partially compassed, is that of the feathered tribe undoubtedly from lack of time, for his energy and ambition seem tireless enough even to grow feathers.
Jack, who seldom stops short of what he wants to accomplish, finds this man most stimulating in an unselfish enthusiasm to revive neglected customs of elder islands days, for the benefit of Hawaii and her advertisement to the world.
Although we have seen a number of natives riding the breakers, face downward, and even standing upright, almost no white men appear to be expert.
Mr. Ford, born genius of pioneering and promoting, swears he is going to make this islands pastime one of the most popular on earth, and, judging by his personal valor, he cannot fail.
board, somewhat coffin-shaped, with rounded ends, should be
over six feet long for adults. This plank is floated out to
the breaking water, which can be done either wading
alongside or lying face-downward paddling, and there you
wait for the right wave.
When you see it coming, stand ready to launch the board on the gathering slope, spring upon it, and keep on going if you can.
Lie fiat on your chest, hands grasping the sides of the large end of the heavy timber, and steer with your feet.
expert, having gauged the right speed, rises cautiously to his knees, to full stature, and then, erect with feet in the churning foam, makes straight for the beach, rides up the sparkling incline, and steps easily from his arrested sea-car.
breeze this afternoon, with a rising surf, brought out the
best men, and we saw some splendid natives at close range,
who took our breath away with their reckless, beautiful
One, George Freeth, who is only one quarter Hawaiian, is accounted the best surf-board rider and swimmer in Honolulu.
glowing eyes, and a well-known firm expression about
the jaw, told me he would be satisfied with nothing
less than hours a day in the deep-water smokers.
As it was, in the small surf, he came safely in several times.
I accomplished one successful landing, slipping up the beach precisely to the feet of some stranger hotel guests, who were not half so surprised as myself.
It took some while to learn to mount the board without help, for it is a cumbrous and unruly affair in the heaving water.
rising tide was populous with Saturday afternoon
Facing page 74
Duke Kahanamoku, 1915.
times, on my own vociferous way, I was spilled diagonally
adown the face of a combing wave, the board whirling as it
overturned and slithering up-ended, while I swam to bottom
for my very life, in fear of a smash on the cranium.
And once I got it, coming up wildly, stars shooting through my brain.
And once Jack's board, on which he had lain too far forward, dived, struck bottom, and flung him head over heels in the most ludicrous somersault.
His own head was struck in the ensuing mix-up and we were able to compare size and number of stars.
Of course, his stars were the bigger because my power of speech was not equal to his.
It seems to us both that never were we so wet in all our lives, as during those laughing, strenuous, half -drowned hours.
just sometimes, when I want to play the game beyond my known
vitality, I almost wish I were a boy.
I do my best, as to-day ; but when it comes to piloting an enormous weighty plank out where the high surf smokes, above a depth of twelve to fifteen feet, I fear that no vigor of spirit can lend my scant five-feet-two, short hundred-and-eleven, the needful endurance.
Mr. Ford pooh-poohs :
"Yes, you can.
It's easier than you think but better let your husband try it out first."
WAIKIKI, Sunday, June 2, 1907.
day, this, especially for Jack, who is in bed thinking it
over between groans, eyes puffed shut with a strange malady,
and agonizing in a severe case of sunburn.
I can sympathize to some extent, for, in addition to a considerable roasting, my whole body is racked with muscular quirkings and lameness from the natatorial gym-
the past forty-eight hours.
Our program to-day began at ten, with a delirious hour of canoe riding in a pounding surf.
While less individual boldness is called upon, this game is even more exciting than surf-boarding, for more can take part in the shoreward rush.
canoes are themselves the very embodiment of royal barbaric
sea spirit dug whole out of hard koa logs, long, narrow,
over two feet deep, with very slightly curved perpendicular
sides and rounded bottoms ; furnished with steadying
outriggers on the left, known as the "i-a-ku" - two long
curved timbers, of the light tough hardwood, with their
outer ends fastened to the heavy horizontal
float, of wili-wili, called the "a-ma."
The hulls are painted dull, dead black, and trimmed by a slightly in-set, royal-yellow inch-rail, broadening upward at each end of the boat, with a sharp tip.
There is an elegance of savage warlikeness about these long sable shapes ; but the sole warfare in this day and age is with Neptune, when, manned by shining bronze crews, they breast or fight through the oncoming legions of rearing, trampling, neighing sea cavalry.
several men on a side to launch our forty-foot canoe across
sand into the shoring tide, and altogether eight embarked,
vaulting aboard as she took the water, each into a seat only
just wide enough.
Jack wielded a paddle, but I was placed in the very bow, where, both out and back, the sharpest thrills are to be had.
As the canoe worked seaward in the high breaking flood, more than once breath was knocked out of me when the bow lunged right into a stiff wall of green water just beginning to crest.
Again, the canoe poised horizontally, at right angles to the springing knife-edge of a tall wave on the imminence of overcurling, and then, forward-half in midair, plunged head-into the oily abyss, with a prodigious slap that bounced us into space, deafened with the grind of the shore-going leviathan at our backs.
I could hear Jack laughing in the
Page 78abating tumult of sound, as he watched me trimming my lines so as to present the least possible surface to the next briny onslaught.
despite my desperate clutches at the canary streak on either
hand, and my uncontrolled
noise, that I was having the time of my life, as, from his own past experience, he had told me I would have.
It was more
than usually rough, so that our brown crew would not venture
out as far as we had hoped, shaking their curly heads like
serious children at the big white water on the barrier reef.
Then they selected a likely wave for the slide beachward, shouting strange cries to one another
that brought about the turning of the stern seaward to a low green mounting hill that looked half a mile long andridged higher and higher to the burst.
"'A hill, a
gentle hill, Green and of mild declivity.'. . . It is not!"
Fred Church quoted and commented on his Byron and
the threatening young mountain, with firm hands grasping his
paddle, when, at exactly the right instant, he joined the
frantic shrill ''Hoe ! Hoe ! '' (Paddle ! paddle like
everything!) that sent all paddles madly flying to maintain
an equal speed with the abrupt, emerald slope.
Almost on end, wiki-wiki, faster faster, and yet faster, we shot, over the curl of white water behind, above, overhanging, menacing any laggard crew.
Once I dared to look back.
Head above head I glimpsed them all ; but never can fade the picture of the last of all, a magnificent Hawaiian sitting stark in the stern, hardly breathing, curls straight back in the wind, his biceps bulging to the weight of canoe and water against the steering paddle, his wide brown eyes reflecting all the responsibility of bringing right-side-up to shore his haole freight.
And then the stern settles a little at a time, as the formidable seething bulk of water dissipates upon the gentle up-slope of the land before the Moana, while dripping crew and passengers swing around in the backwash and work out to repeat the maneuver.
canoes were tempted into the surf to-day, but we saw one
capsize by coasting crookedly down a wave.
The yellow outrigger rose in air, then disappeared in crashing white chaos.
Everything emerged on the sleek back of the comber, but the men were unable in the ensuing rough water to right the swamped boat.
We lost sight of them as the next breaker set us zipping inshore, but on subsequent trips saw them swimming slowly in, towing the canoe bottom-upward, like a black dead sea monster, and apparently making a picnic of their disaster.
An hour of
this tense and tingling recreation left us surprisingly
tired, as well as cold from the strong breeze on wet suits
Mr. Ford, with a paternal "I-told-you-so" smile at our enthusiasm over the canoeing, was prompt for the next event on our program, which was a further lesson in surf -boarding.
After assisting me for a time, I noticed he and Jack were sending desireful glances toward the leaping backs of Pharaoh's Horses, and I knew they wanted to be quit of the pony breakers inshore the
wahine surf, as the native swimmers have it, and manful-wise ride the big water.
Our friend had a thorough pupil in Jack, who with characteristic abandon never touched foot to bottom in four broiling hours.
WAIKIKI, Tuesday, June 25, 1907
Here at the Beach life is so gay there is hardly chance to sleep and work, what with arrivals of transports and their ensuing dinners and dances in the hotel lanai, swimming and surf -boarding under sun and moon very circumspectly under the sun!
One fine day we essayed to ride the breakers in a Canadian canoe, and capsized in a wild smother exactly as we had been warned.
I stayed under water such a time that Jack, alarmed, came hunting for me ; but I was safe beneath the overturned canoe, which I was holding from bumping my head.
He was so relieved to find me unhurt and capable of staying submerged so long that promptly he read me a lecture upon swimming as fast as possible from a capsized boat, to avoid being struckin event of succeeding rollers flinging it about.
WAIKIKI, Friday, June 28, 1907.
To Mr. Ford we owe a new debt of gratitude.
And so does Hawaii, for such another promoter never existed.
All he does is for Hawaii, desiring nothing for himself except the feverish, unremitting pleasure of sharing the attractions of his adopted land.
Cleghorn also suggested that he could arrange a private
audience with Queen Liliuokalani at her residence in town,
if we desired.
Which reminds me that Jack holds a
introduction to her from Charles Warren Stoddard, who knew
her in the days of her tempestuous reign.
He and Jack have called each other Dad and Son for years, although acquainted only by correspondence.
But we have little wish to intrude upon the Queen, for it can be scant pleasure to her to meet Americans, no matter how sympathetic they may be with her changed state.
MAUI, Tuesday, July 23, 1907.
Facing page 162
Landing at Kalaupapa, 1907
with finest of sand for the babies to play in, and exciting surfing inside protecting reef, for swimmers.
Facing page 202
Picture a grand chief of chiefs, and his court of magnificent warriors, alii, springing gloriously upon their carved and painted
sledges, flashing with ever increasing flight adown this regal course until, at the crusty edge of the solid world, they breasted the surf of ocean !
a day passed before, in swimming-suits, we walked
down Kalia Road to the Seaside Hotel, and once more
felt underfoot the sands of Waikiki.
Facing page 246
Waikiki, 1915. Mr and Mrs. London (center) A.H. Ford (right).
had we here?
In place of those little old weather-beaten houses and the brown tent, the Outrigger Canoe Club had established its bathhouses, separate club lanais for both women and men, and, nearest the water, a
large, raised dancing-lanai, underneath which reposed a fleet of great canoes, their barbaric yellow prows ranged seaward.
At the rear, in a goodly line of tall lockers, stood the many surf-boards, fashioned longer and thicker than of yore, of the members of the Canoe Club.
A steel cable, whiskered with seaweed, anchored midway of the beach, extended several hundred yards into deeper water where a steel diving-stage had been erected 1, and upon it dozens of swimmers, from merest children to old men, ...
1 At this writing, 1917, the sands are again level with the seawall, shoaling as far as the diving-stage, rendered useless for lack of deep water.
their curving flights inside the breakers.
Several patronesses of the Club give their time on certain days of the week, from the women's lanai inconspicuously chaperoning the Beach.
the only landmark recognizable was the date-palm still
flourishing where had once been a corner of our tent-house,
now become a sheltering growth with yard-long clusters of
fruit, and we were told it was known as the "Jack London
For it might be said that in its shadow Jack wove his first tales of Hawaii.
this progress meant Ford ! Ford ! Ford !
Everywhere one turned evidence of his unrelaxing brain met the eye.
But he, in turn, credits Jack with having done incalculably much toward bringing the splendid Club into existence, by his article on surf -board riding, " A Royal Sport."
Largely on the strength of the interest it aroused, Mr. Ford had been enabled to keep his word to Jack that he would make surf -boarding one of the most popular pastimes in Hawaii.
Upon his representations the Queen Emma estate, at a lease of a few dollars a year, to be contributed
to the Queen's Hospital, which her Majesty had established, had set aside for the Club's use this acre of ground, which, with the enthusiastic revival of surf-boarding, was now become almost priceless.
was the wife of Kamehameha IV, mother of the beautiful
"Prince of Hawaii," who died in childhood, herself
granddaughter of John Young, and adopted daughter of an
English physician, Dr. Rooke, who had married her aunt,
The Queen owned this part of the Beach, from which her own royal canoes were launched in the good old days, and where she also used the surf-board.
holds this land," Ford had said in 1907, "and I'm going to
secure it for a Canoe Club.
I don't know how; but I'm just going to."
And Jack, when writing "A Royal Sport," was not unmindful of the kokua
it might possibly prove in bringing about Ford's ambition
So keen had our friend been on the trail, that we had half wondered how soon we should be turned out of our Seaside quarters to make room for lumber and carpenters !
Page 290Upon the Beach at Waikiki it was seldom we missed the long afternoon. Jack worked in a kimono as of yore, his face and figure little changed, if more mature.
in bathing suit, bearing towels and a white dangling bag of
blue-figured Japanese crepe, knobby as a stocking at
Christmas time with books and magazines selected from the
boxes regularly shipped from the Ranch at home, and
bountiful cigarettes and matches, he would be seen walking
along Kalia Road with his light and merry gait to the
And "I'm glad we're here now," he would ruminate; "for some day Waikiki Beach is going to be the scene of one long hotel.
And wonderful as it will be, I can't help clinging, for once, to an old idea."
high lanai of the Outrigger, we lay in the cool sand between
canoes and read aloud, napped, talked, or visited with the
delightful inhabitants of the charmed strand, until ready to
swim in the later afternoon.
One special diversion was to watch several Hawaiian youths, the unsurpassed Duke Kahanamoku among them, performing athletic stunts in water and out.
And that sturdy little American girl we had known before, Ruth Stacker, now a famous swimmer herself, could be seen instructing her pupils in the wahine surf.
George Freeth, we heard, was teaching swimming and surf -boarding in Southern California.
Our own swims became longer from day to day.
Still inside the barrier reef, through the breakers we would work, emerging with back-flung hair on their climbing backs while they roared shoreward.
Beyond the combing crests, in deeper water above the coral that we could see gleaming underfoot in the sunshafts, lazily we would tread the bubbling brine or lie floating restfully, almost ethereally, on the heaving warm surface, conversing sometimes most solemnly in the isolated space between sky and solid earth.
gratified, I reminded him of the afternoon that first I swam
to the Snark in Pearl Lochs ; and more than many
times, swimming free in the breakers at Waikiki, hailing
with shout and wave of hand the surfing canoes and boards
flashing and zipping to every side, we referred to those
days when the farthest we swam together was an eighth of a
Jack held back because I could do no more.
thinker though he was, and worshipful of the brain-stuff of
others, he ever found shining things of the spirit in
courageous physical endeavor.
I think, in a dozen close years with him, year in and year out, "in sickness and in health," till death did us part, that never have I seen him more elated, more uplifted with delight over feat of one dear to him, than upon one April day at Waikiki.
out-and-out Kona gale had piled up a big, quick-following
surf, threshing milk-white and ominous under a leaden,
At the Outrigger beach no soul was visible ; but a group of young sea-gods belonging to the Club sat with bare feet outstretched on the railing of the lanai above the canoes.
Joining them, Jack inquired if they were "going out."
Young Lorrin Thurston tossed back his sun-bleached mop of gold hair from his golden-brown eyes
and looked at the others quizzically.
"Nothing doing," one laughed.
And another, "This is no day for surf-boards and a canoe couldn't live in that water."
"But we are going to swim out," Jack said.
"You'd better not, Mr. London," the boys frowned respectfully.
"You couldn't take a woman into that surf." "You watch me,"
Jack returned. "I could, and shall."
It was not in order to be spectacular that Jack took me out that day.
This was not bravado.
With the several weeks' training he had given me in sizable breakers, he expected as a matter of course to see me put that training to use.
And I felt as one with him.
The thing was, first, to get beyond the diving-stage, for a big freshet had brought down the little
river a tangled mass of thorned algaroba and other prickly vegetation, which, with a wild wrack of seaweed, made the shallow water almost impassable.
we forged out, and at length were in position where the
marching seas were forming and overtoppling.
Rather stupendous they loomed to small me, I will confess ; but, remembering other and smaller ones and obeying ...
scrupulously Jack's quiet "Don't get straight up and down
straighten out keep flat, keep flat!"
I managed not badly to breast and pass through a dozen or more that followed fast and faster, almost too fast for me to get breath between whiles.
But when I
finally ventured "I think I have had enough," immediately
Jack slanted our course channelward where the tide flows out
toward the reef egress.
Once in this smoother water it was plain sailing, so to speak, except that after half an hour we found we were not getting anywhere worse than that, drifting willy nilly out to sea.
By now, the young crews of the Outrigger had followed with their boards, fearing we might come to grief, and upon Lorrin's advice we made back toward the breakers and out of the current, and "came in strong" with our best strokes to the Beach.
less stormy day, in deep water Jack was seized with a cramp
in his foot, from which often he suffered at night, a
painful and increasing symptom of break down in his ankles,
accompanied as it was by rheumatism in both wrists and
Between us, he floating, I treading, we rubbed and kneaded the foot as best we could, until a strange surf-boarder hove in sight, fighting seaward, whom I hailed at Jack's suggestion through set teeth.
We got Jack on the board, and went more thoroughly at the ironing-out of the cramp with our palms, and presently he was able to swim ashore.
nothing whatever remarkable in these two incidents.
Having learned to put implicit faith in Jack's judgment, which I had never had reason to doubt, I merely
followed his directions and knew that he would give instant heed, in the first instance, when I claimed weariness.
But that a small, sensitive female of the species should follow him in water where experienced members of the Outrigger hesitated to go, and that she should not lose her head in his disablement, from his angle surpassed intellec-
achievement, because it called for spiritual courage.
"I'd rather see my woman be able to do what she did, than to have her write the greatest book ever published or unpublished" tersely summed up his philosophy of values.
|The newest brood of surf -boarders had
learned and put into practice angles never dreamed of
a decade earlier.
Now, instead of always coasting at right-angles to the wave, young Lorrin and the half-dozen who shared with him the reputation of being the most skilled would often be seen erect on boards that their feet and balance guided at astonishing slants.
Surf-boar ding had indeed come into its own.
And the sport never seems to pall.
Its devotees, as long as boards and surf are accessible, show up every afternoon of their lives on the Beach at Waikiki.
When a youth must depart for eastern college-life, his keenest regret is for the loss of Waikiki and all it means of godlike conquest of the " bull-mouthed breakers.'
No athletic-field dream quite compensates.
It remains the king of sports.
Facing page 316
Jack and Charmian London, Waikiki, 1915
London, Charmian Kittredge:
The Macmillan Company,
New York, San Francisco.
Macmillan and Co, Ltd,
Macmillan Co of Canada, Ltd,
Presented to the University of Toronto Library
by the Ontorio Legislative Library, 1980.