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Who Caught the First Wave?

There's a good chance Ralph Noisat caught the first wave in San Diego. He died in 1980, and as he wasn't a man to brag, his pioneering role might have been lost were it not for his board. He made it himself when he was a boy, and it was still in the Noisat family home in 1998 when Ralph's daughter, Margie Chamberlain, was preparing to sell the Mission Hills residence. Chamberlain realized the heavy wooden board might have historic value, so she called the California Surf Museum in Oceanside. No one there knew anything about Noisat, but the museum staff was thrilled to accept the board when they heard what Chamberlain had to say about her father. Chamberlain, who has lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, for more than 30 years, doesn't know the whole story. What she does know is that her father's maternal grandfather worked on the construction of the Pioneer Sugar Mill in Lahaina, Maui. Her father's mother spent at least part of her childhood there, before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, marrying, and having Ralph in 1896. From what her father later told her, Chamberlain got the impression he was close to his grandfather; he may have even visited him in Hawaii, where the older man lived for many years. "My dad knew some of the Hawaiian royal family members," Chamberlain says. "He had a lot of the sense of Hawaiian history, which I can only imagine he got from his grandfather."

Although Chamberlain doesn't know how her father came to make the seven-foot-long, square-tailed board, "He always talked about the wood being koa," she says. She has the impression he may have surfed on it in Northern California before 1910, the year he and his mother moved to San Diego. He would have turned 14 that year. Noisat enrolled as a freshman at San Diego High School and got involved with track and field and student government; he managed the football team. He also surfed from 1910 to 1914, he told his daughter years later. Chamberlain doesn't know where he surfed, but he wasn't riding the waves alone. "When he was telling me these stories of his youth, it always sounded like he had this little circle of friends," his daughter says. Whether his pals borrowed his board or fashioned copies is another detail that's been lost.

Before he reached his 18th birthday in 1914, Noisat enlisted in the Navy, embarking on a military career that would last 30 years. Chances are he wasn't here when one of the most famous surfers in the world arrived.

George Freeth, born in Oahu in 1883, was the son of an Englishman and a half-Hawaiian woman. A champion swimmer and high diver, Freeth taught himself the ancient Hawaiian art of riding waves, a skill that by the end of the 19th Century had almost disappeared from the islands. By 1907 he was so adept he caught the eye of writer and travel adventurer Jack London, who later described Freeth's aquatic prowess in The Cruise of the Snark. London was among those who provided letters of introduction to the young Hawaiian as he prepared to sail to California, where he hoped to make his fortune promoting surfing and other water sports.

Less than three weeks after departing Oahu (on July 3, 1907), Freeth was surfing at Venice Beach. The spectacle attracted the attention of at least one newspaper reporter and has since inspired the claim that Freeth was the first person to surf in California. (This seems unlikely, according to the staff at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. They point to a newspaper article that details how, in 1885, three members of the royal Hawaiian family who attended a military school in San Mateo surfed at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz.) Freeth's water skills distinguished him from most Americans of that era. Drownings were so commonplace they were scaring away tourists from resorts in Venice and Redondo Beach. To counteract the negative publicity, railroad magnate and Redondo developer Henry Huntington hired Freeth to show off his surfing skills, and the developer of Venice followed suit. Freeth's performances included standing on his head while riding the waves. And in the years that followed, he improved water safety off Southern California, teaching fundamental water-rescue skills to a cadre of young men who later formed the lifeguard services of Los Angeles County, Long Beach, and San Diego. At times Freeth took a more hands-on approach to lifesaving, most notably when he rescued 11 Japanese fishermen during a violent winter storm in December 1908. Eighteen months later, the United State Congress saluted his bravery by giving him a Congressional Gold Medal.

For all the acclaim, Freeth struggled to make a living. He got a break in 1915 when the moneyed and well-connected San Diego Rowing Club asked him to coach the club's swim team. Freeth took the job, and it seems likely he would have surfed in San Diego at least in the summer months, when to earn extra money he taught swimming in Coronado. By May 1918, after 13 men died in a single day in rip currents off Ocean Beach, that community had secured Freeth's services as a lifeguard, and as a July 17, 1918, San Diego Union article attests, he couldn't resist showing off. "Four thousand beachgoers received a surprise and enjoyed a succession of thrills and healthy laughs yesterday at Ocean Beach when George Freeth, lifeguard, presented his unannounced surfboard dive," the paper reported. "Riding on the crest of the wave in the usual manner, Freeth suddenly leaped, clearing the board by at least three feet, turned a somersault, regained his balance on the board again, then completed his stunt with a dive."

If he wasn't the first to surf in San Diego, Freeth's presence here had more impact than Noisat's. For one thing, Duke Kahanamoku almost certainly came to San Diego because of Freeth. Seven years younger than Freeth, Kahanamoku was another champion swimmer and accomplished surfer from Hawaii, where Freeth had been his coach and they had become friends. In October 1914, Kahanamoku came to California and joined the Los Angeles Athletic Club's swim team, then being coached by Freeth. After Freeth moved to San Diego, the Duke (considered the father of modern surfing because of his later promotion of the sport) traveled down the coast to visit his buddy. That was around 1916 or 1917, according to local amateur surfing historian John Elwell. Elwell says Kahanamoku surfed the OB Pier, and when he did, he asked a teenaged lifeguard named Charlie Wright if he could store his board in Wright's beach shack. Elwell, who interviewed Wright a few years before his death in 1994, says Wright encouraged Kahanamoku to use the shack but asked if he might try the board. "So Charlie surfed the board and also got the dimensions and later copied it," Elwell says.

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