Revival by Patrick Moser
In the beginning Alexander Hume Ford created The Outrigger Canoe Club. And surfing was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of Ford moved upon the face of the waters. And Ford said, ‘Let there be a Surfing Club’: and there was a Surfing Club. And Ford saw the Surfing Club, that it was good: and He divided the light from the darkness.
Beginnings are so inspiring. The hustle and bustle, the promise, the possibilities, the pizzazz. All that form from void. The Old Testament writers, inspired by God as they say, knew how to hook a reader. Not in medias res, with the pushing and shoving already started, but at conception—in principio—which is a much more mysterious and comforting place. The words give us a sense of order and intent. I, for one, am glad to know that somebody’s in charge and has a plan.
Surfing has its own creation story. A place (Waikīkī), a date (May 1st, 1908), and a man (Alexander Hume Ford). Ford is more Jesus than Yahweh, since surfing had been practiced in the South Pacific for centuries—perhaps millennia—before he first walked on water at Waikīkī. So it’s more of a recreation story (excuse the pun). Surf historians christen this moment ‘the Revival,’ and Ford is credited with, if not creating surfing from the void, then at least bringing it back to life. A miracle, if you will.
Ford had two famous apostles: Jack and Charmian London. Let’s listen as they sing his praises:
Take surf-boarding, for instance . . . Not only did the Hawaii-born not talk about it, but they forgot about it. Just as the sport was at its dying gasp, along came one Alexander Hume Ford from the mainland. And he talked. Surf-boarding was the sport of sports. There was nothing like it in the world. They ought to be ashamed for letting it languish. It was one of the Islands’ assets, a drawing card for travelers that would fill their hotels and bring them many permanent residents, etc., etc.
“What are you going to do about it?” they said, when he buttonholed them into corners. “This is just talk, you know, just a line of talk.”
“I’m not going to do anything except talk,” Ford replied. “It’s you fellows who’ve got to do the doing.”
And all was as he said. And all of which I know for myself at first hand, for I lived on Waikiki Beach at the time in a tent where stands the Outrigger Club to-day—twelve hundred members, with hundreds more on the waiting-list, and with what seems like half a mile of surf-board lockers.
Amen, Jack. His wife, Charmian, wrote:
The only endeavor 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.
Praise be to Ford. Let us pray.
Jack London’s tribute appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1916 under the title ‘My Hawaiian Aloha.’ Charmian republished the material a year later in her memoir, Our Hawaii. The Londons offered two distinct views of Ford’s preeminent role in surfing’s revival. For Jack, our fiction writer, the meaning was more dramatic and miraculous: Ford brought surfing back to life. For Charmian, our memoirist (ever the more fact-based genre), the sense is closer to one that I will insist on in this essay: Ford brought ‘renewed attention and interest’ to surfing (following Webster’s), specifically for the elite white community of O‘ahu. The distinction is important, first of all, because this latter meaning is closer to the truth. Secondly, acknowledging this meaning allows us to honor the contributions of surfing’s true shepherds during this era: the Waikīkī beachboys.
Hume Ford, as he was known in Honolulu, wasn’t a bad guy. He was forty years old in 1908, and a colossal pest by all accounts. A tireless promoter of causes, he arrived from the East bursting with the great industrial energy of turn-of-the-century America. Not a selfish man, as Charmian noted. He didn’t come to Hawai‘i to get rich. He had much in common with Jack London when they met at Waikīkī in 1907. Men of their times, they believed in progress, in the self-made man. Ford in particular saw an opportunity to promote the new territory of Hawai‘i (annexed in 1898) for white Americans. He fought most of his life for the Pan-Pacific Union, an international league through which he envisioned America spreading its high standards of civilization (as he saw them) to the peoples of the Pacific. He was above all an idealist, and in terms of surf history, the worst that can be said about the man is he ended up believing his own press.
It’s not hard to imagine where the Londons got their information about Ford and the Outrigger Canoe Club. Ford ‘talked,’ as Jack London wrote. He was a persistent man, and undoubtedly persuasive because he believed in what he said. Jack London may have wanted to trumpet Ford a bit too in ‘My Hawaiian Aloha’ since Ford had given him story ideas. But it remains true that most of the information in surf histories about the Revival comes from these two—I won’t say dubious, but certainly imaginative—sources: a professional promoter, and a fiction writer. The founding of the Outrigger Canoe Club is an inspiring story, and it’s been well-told for more than a century. Best of all, it’s based on true events.
In a 1910 account of the founding of the Outrigger for the Hawaiian Annual, Ford wrote that surfing ‘was rapidly dying out owing to the fact that Waikiki beach was becoming closed to the small boy of limited means.’ Here his concept of a ‘revival’ is much more restricted. Surfing was in decline not because the Hawaiians (or ‘Hawaii-born,’ as London wrote, which I take to mean the haole population) had forgotten about it, not because no one practiced it, but simply due to a lack of beach access on one particular stretch of sand. Ford repeated this version the following year in the inaugural issue of the Mid-Pacific Magazine, a publication he founded and edited.
Ford’s Waikīkī , of course, was very different from the one we know today. Only two hotels sat on the beach in front of the surf break: the Moana (opened in 1901), and the SeaSide (1906). The electric trolley had been running tourists down from Honolulu since 1903. The two major private residences were the Bishop and the Judd Estates. To protect their land from beach erosion, the owners had cement walls built along the shore, effectively cutting off public access. This was the scene in 1908 when Ford proposed the Outrigger Canoe and Surfboard Club.
As time passed, however, the Outrigger’s role in surfing’s revival became grander. In a 1912 article for Mid-Pacific Magazine, Ford reported on a French camera crew who’d arrived to film surfing. The article began, ‘How nearly the surfriding on boards came to extinction few realize.’ He went on to state: ‘On the Island of Oahu, it is doubtful if a surfboard has been launched for a generation, save at Waikiki Beach. Here the sport of surfriding is kept alive, not by natives, but by white-men and boys who have learned the sport within recent years.’
Surfing’s revival, then, originally cast in the narrow sense of granting beach access for local boys, quickly morphed into something more epic. The story got great traction with the help of Jack London, and today the creation story is complete: the Outrigger and its members saved surfing from extinction. As the founder of the Outrigger, a club whose ranks admitted only the elite haoles of Honolulu, Ford truly divided the light from the darkness.
Which is an odd legacy for someone like Ford, who spent most of his life promoting racial harmony through the Pan-Pacific Union. Nevertheless, his version of historical events obscures the contributions of native Hawaiians who’d kept their cultural traditions alive and passed them on to Ford and others. Give Ford credit for his work on behalf of surfing—stirring up interest, helping to provide surfboards and access to the waves, generally being a huge booster for the sport. He trained a spotlight on surfing, and many generations of surfers have benefitted from this act (including yours truly). But let’s also give credit to the surfers who were paddling out before Ford arrived at Waikīkī, the same ones who taught him how to surf and who remained to teach others long after he left.
Their voices are not easy to locate. Ford often drowned them out. Here’s a good example of how his enthusiasm boldly established himself as an authority on surfing while completely obscuring the real authority—in this case the most influential surfer of the twentieth century, Duke Kahanamoku.
The lead article in Ford’s inaugural Mid-Pacific Magazine (1911) is titled ‘Riding the Surfboard,’ authored by ‘Duke Paoa.’ Ford wrote the article in Duke’s first-person voice. ‘I have never seen snow,’ he began, ‘and do not know what winter means. . . .’ Ford proceeded to explain the native Hawaiian traditions of the sport, including how to shape and ride a surfboard. Farther along in the article he wrote (still in Duke’s voice): ‘I hope I shall be forgiven if I quote largely from the writings of others, as I am not a writer myself, but know when I read a description of surfing whether or not it is correct.’ What follows is a lengthy description of surfing written by Alexander Hume Ford.
This is very odd. Ford assumed Duke’s identity, then has Duke referring to another authority, which is Ford himself. Ford has neatly positioned himself atop the line-up with none other than Duke Kahanamoku blocking for him. In plain terms, a white man speaks for a native Hawaiian who then defers to the white man as the real authority on the matter. This is how much of surf history has been recorded: a collection of white voices looping back on themselves (add my voice to the mix).
Ford is clearly the author of the article. The Mid-Pacific was his magazine, and surfing his pet project. If we needed further proof, we could look to his correspondence (housed in the Huntington Museum) with Jack and Charmian London, some fifteen letters in all that detail his troubles running the magazine. On January 10th, 1913, he wrote: ‘I . . . write half the articles myself under assumed names, and beg, borrow or steal the others.’
Ford was the editor and publisher. He had deadlines to meet every month, space to fill. He wasn’t a patient man, and he liked to do things himself. He had put Duke on the cover of the first issue, and given him credit for the lead article. In an editorial bracket, he introduced Duke as ‘the recognized native Hawaiian champion surf rider,’ and he acknowledged Duke and other members of the native Hawaiian (and part Hawaiian) surf club, Hui Nalu, with providing the information for the article. Ford wasn’t a bad guy. He was a mover, a pusher, and he didn’t take much time to ask about the traditions that he later took credit for saving.
Ford, Valerie Noble wrote in her biography, Hawaiian Prophet, was ‘a natural-born starter.’ He founded the Outrigger Canoe Club, the Trail and Mountain Club, the Pan-Pacific Union, and countless other organizations. For the longest time I had this idea about surfing’s Revival that Ford founded the club in 1908 and boom! surfing hit the beach like a tsunami. Everybody and their brother suddenly grabbed a board and paddled out. And that groundswell kept growing. Jack London’s words echoed through my brain: Twelve hundred members, with hundreds more on the waiting-list, and with what seems like half a mile of surf-board lockers. Half a mile! The Revival was the fiat lux moment of the sport. This is where the modern story of surfing began.
Beginnings are inspiring. They’re exciting and full of hope. We want to believe in them like we want to praise heroes and despise villains. The truth of the Outrigger in the early days, however, lies in financial struggle and absent leadership. A quick look at Harold H. Yost’s history of the club, The Outrigger (1971), shows that Ford founded the club in May of 1908, then left toward the end of that year to promote business opportunities for Hawai‘i on the mainland. He was gone for over a year and subsequently had little or nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the club. Were it not for the local business community, and specifically the leadership of Sanford B. Dole (the first governor of Hawai‘i), the Outrigger would have collapsed faster than Waimea shore break.
Ford, then, was not the force behind the racial segregation at the Outrigger. He believed in promoting Hawai‘i for whites, but the club’s financial support came from the long-established haole population, and they dictated terms. Ford’s absence in 1908, and his subsequent removal as President, simply codified matters. If Ford showed overt racism, it was mostly directed toward Asians, the Japanese in particular. This was a sign of the times. About 75,000 Japanese had arrived in the Islands to work in the sugar cane fields between 1898 and 1907. That year—the same year Ford arrived in Hawai‘i—the United States and Japan signed the Gentleman’s Agreement to limit Japanese emigration. The total Asian population in Hawai‘i by this time was over 100,000, compared to about 15,000 whites. Ford’s 1909 article in Collier’s (‘Our Japanese Territory’) sounded the alarm of the fast-growing Japanese population: ‘[A]nother generation may see Hawaii a State of the United States with yellow Senators sitting in our Capitol at Washington. The hope of the people is otherwise, and a campaign with limitless capital behind it is now in progress to repeople the Islands with white men.’ Ford had left Hawai‘i, and the Outrigger Canoe Club, to spearhead that campaign. Surfing was one of the attractions he used to bring in white mainlanders.
Initial membership in the Outrigger was encouraging: eighty-six adults and fifteen juniors. Low initiation fees ($10 for adults, $5 for boys) and yearly dues ($12 and $5 respectively), however, quickly put the club in financial straits. It was saved by private donors and the arrival of a woman’s auxiliary in 1909, which added sixty members. Judging by era photographs, not many women in the haole community surfed. The boards were heavy, coarse affairs, built by carpenters hired by the club and sold for two bucks a piece (a substantial sum at the time, equal to nearly half a junior’s yearly dues). Yost reminds us that the Outrigger Club would’ve only been a weekend or holiday gathering spot for the hard-working Protestant stock. Waikīkī at this time was still an isolated place outside the city proper, without retail stores and largely undeveloped.
As for surfing’s revival, Yost writes that ‘young members of the Outrigger, and others, who might have been good membership prospects, often devoted more time to competitive swimming and diving than they did to surf riding.’ These club haoles, mostly educated on the East Coast, favored such Ivy League sports as rowing. ‘It took time, and a certain amount of money,’ Yost writes, ‘to overcome these early handicaps. Time, to rekindle or create from scratch, enthusiasm for sliding along the face of a foaming wave. Money, to provide the outrigger canoes and surfboards which many Club members could not personally afford.’
Needless to say, London’s statement about the club’s ‘Twelve hundred members, with hundreds more on the waiting-list’ was a magnificent exaggeration in 1916. Membership records for the Outrigger’s early years are spotty, but Yost estimates about 800 members by the early 1920s (not including the women’s auxiliary). That’s still a substantial number, but most of these had joined only after the club had gone ‘all out for a greatly expanded athletic program’ that included swimming, volleyball, football, and track. The Outrigger fielded competitive teams in all of these sports.
And what about surfing?
Ford’s exuberance inflated the popularity and importance of the sport. The only surf competitions noted by Yost were held once a year at athletic carnivals. What this means for surf history is a flash-in-the-pan moment in 1908. By the end of that year Ford was gone, and the Outrigger was in financial trouble. Surfing had attracted converts at the club, true enough, but it took many years to build the sport’s popularity. ‘I’m not going to do anything except talk,’ Jack London reports Ford saying, ‘It’s you fellows who’ve got to do the doing.’
Ford wasn’t a bad guy, and it’s not my intention to drag him down. It is my intention to acknowledge the fellows who did the real doing: the Waikīkī beachboys. They’d been around—if not in name, certainly in body and spirit—well before Ford caught his first sunburn. According to a recent documentary, Waikīkī: Riding the Waves of Change, the beachboy origins can be traced to the retainers of the ali‘i, or Hawaiian chiefs, in traditional native culture. The first modern beachboys, Grady Timmons writes in Waikiki Beachboy, started around 1901 with the opening of the Moana hotel, which had advertised surfing and canoeing for tourists as early as 1906. Part-Hawaiian George Freeth acted as a beachboy for the famous Congressional junket that arrived in Hawai‘i in 1907 to take stock of the new territory, a role that Jack London later captured in his short story ‘Aloha Oe’ (1908). Freeth had grown up at Waikīkī and started surfing there in 1902.
And then, of course, there’s Duke Kahanamoku and his five brothers, all of whom grew up at Waikīkī. In a 1926 article on the founding of the Pan-Pacific Union, Ford wrote: ‘On my arrival in 1907 there were about eight white boys and perhaps as many native boys who rode the surfboard.’ His estimate covers Duke, his five brothers, and two of their friends. The total seems a bit light. Ford may have needed to low-ball the figure initially to sell the idea of the Outrigger to the local community. After all, it’s easier to grab funding for campaigns that save things—whales, lakes, the environment—rather than simply sustaining them. Saving has more sex-appeal: it’s dramatic and humanitarian; sustaining is the plain-clothed step-sister down on her knees scrubbing the floors. Considering Ford’s track record, can we honestly look at his supposed Revival as anything more than a well-told tale? He dressed surfing up and took it to the ball, then ran off before the clock struck midnight and everything unraveled.
That might be too harsh a judgment. But a quick look at Island publications like Paradise of the Pacific in the years prior to Ford’s arrival nets us . . . a prior revival. ‘Surf Riding: The Poetry of Motion’ was published in September, 1898:
For years past there has been no place near Honolulu where the conditions were right for surf-board riding, and it became almost a lost art. Up to a few months ago there was only one native known in Honolulu who could ride the surf board standing upon it. But within the past two or three months a sand spit has formed off the Waikiki beach right in front of the suburban residence of Colonel George W. Macfarlane, which gives the perfect conditions. Surf-board riding has in consequence been revived, has, in fact, become a fad, and a large number of people, both whites and natives, have become expert in the art.
Once again we read that surfing was considered ‘a lost art’ which suddenly underwent a revival. The more we look into the traditional Dark Ages of surf history—the period between missionary Hiram Bingham’s departure in 1840 and the Ford/London arrival in 1907—the more evidence we find that surfing endured in native Hawaiian communities and among whites attracted to the sport.
The Waikīkī beachboys’ influence extended to music, and they helped to popularize Hawaiian tunes on the mainland beginning in 1915. Yet Grady Timmons laments how little recognition they received as composers and musicians in historical accounts. I find his definition of hapa-haole music—‘Hawaiian music given a Western tilt to make it more appealing to tourists’—a helpful analogy to understand the role of the Waikīkī beachboys as surfing’s popularity surged in the early 20th century. The beachboys were the inspiration, in many cases the instructors, for those who later grabbed the spotlight. Alexander Hume Ford’s Revival is hapa-haole surfing: a version given to Westerners to make it more appealing to our ears. Dance to it, if you will, and enjoy the music. But do not mistake his words for the traditions that inspired them.
Hawaiians practiced surfing for centuries before Westerners chanced across their island chain in 1778, and this cultural activity became an integral part of their spiritual beliefs, their rituals of romance, their social structures, and the storytelling that passed these traditions from one generation to the next. Included in this vast literature is the following proverb: ‘Hō a‘e ka ‘ike he‘enalu i ka hokua o ka ‘ale.’ Mary Kawena Pukui translates the saying—‘Show [your] knowledge of surfing on the back of the wave’—and glosses the meaning: ‘Talking about one’s knowledge and skill is not enough; let it be proven.’
The beachboys have proved—continue to prove every day at Waikīkī—their knowledge and skill on the back of the wave.