Mark Twain and Jack London: America’s First Surfers

        A time long ago when surfing was at its very roots, two men of similar careers shared one passion. Yet never known to each other the other’s love of surfing, what started as a mere trip to the South Seas began the history of surfing and it’s first documented accounts by a westerner. In 1866 at the beginning of his writing career a 31 year old man by the name of Samuel Clemens better known by his pen name ‘Mark Twain’ wrote an excerpt called ‘Roughing It’ and so it was written…

Photo: Jack London Historical Society
Photo: Jack London Historical Society

“I tried surf riding once, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too, but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me. None but the natives ever master the art of surf riding thoroughly.” 

It behooves me to find that a remarkable great American novelist from Hannibal, Missouri can find himself wave riding with natives in what was at the time called the Kingdom of Hawai’i. Twains master of colloquialism and flow of narrative is one of the reasons he is one of very few authors to have published best sellers in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries as he asked for his autobiography not to be published until one-hundred years after his death.

By chance or the simple fact that some fellow’s just rub elbows with some of the most influential people of their time. In 1911 a young American writer from San Francisco named Jack London was invited to prominent Piedmont house where it was said that he featured a flannel shirt where Mark Twain is quoted saying “It would serve this man London right to have the working class get control of things. He would have to call out the militia to collect his royalties.”

It is unknown to this day if they ever spoke to each other that night and if so if what words were exchanged in conversation. It is not far fetch to say that if the Hawai’ian Islands were brought up that the possibility of conversation of surfing could have indeed sparked a new friendship. To just think about them sharing stories of adventure and there passion for surfing as did the kapunas or great Hawai’i an ancestors shared with them. Learning about surfing and listening to the native’s stories and watching them surf waves on a 17-foot, 200-pound finless alaia board. I can just see them sharing a laugh about how in the world did the natives manage to keep their Hawaiian traditional wave riding trunks on? Maiu, is a loin cloth that goes around a man’s groin area that was used while surfing. All in great love and respect to the traditions of the Kingdom of Hawai’i both London and Twain documented there adventures in the Hawai’i islands and there records of surfing are known to be the first accounts written. 

Captain Cook an English Navy man is the first European to explore Hawai’i. He is also noted as the first to document surfing in his journal in 1778. Unfortunately for Cook he had what I call the ‘Curse of Lono’ and was killed by the natives at Kealakekua Bay, Hawai’i in 1779. Though a remarkable navigator of the seas, Cook was not a writer and therefore his documents are less known. Wave riding described to us by two of the most prolyphic writers of our time, Twain and London were the only two men that have ever written any recollections about the hobby since Cook and with great detail.

London’s fame is very evident as his works have been published all over the world. Even though there is relatively no recollection of London and Twain meeting anywhere else besides the Piedmont, American literary scholars in universities around the world showed much interest in the unique parallel between Jack London and Mark Twain.

Charles Walcutt in his book titled Jack London was amongst first of these scholars whom presented a unique hypothesis that the “Leopard Man’s Story & That Spot” were both written by London under the influence of ‘Twain’ or as some describe as he was drunken off ‘Twain’. Some critics have even mentioned that Jack London more so than Mark Twain, represents the naive, restless, and hopeless romantic temperament of American culture. Some of the most beautiful descriptions of surfing are its first. An excerpt from Jack London’s ‘Cruise of the Snark’

Jack London

“We had sailed across two thousand miles and more of ocean and had met with no sharks. Within five minutes after Bert finished his swim, the fin of a shark was cutting the surface in circles around the Snark. There was something wrong about that shark. It bothered me. It had no right to be there in that deserted ocean. The more I thought about it, the more incomprehensible it became. But two hours later we sighted land and the mystery was cleared up. He had come to us from the land, and not from the uninhabited deep. He had presaged the landfall. He was the messenger of the land.

Twenty—seven days out from San Francisco we arrived at the island of Oahu, Territory of Hawaii. In the early morning we drifted around Diamond Head into full view of Honolulu; and then the ocean burst suddenly into life. Flying fish cleaved the air in glittering squadrons. In five minutes we saw more of them than during the whole voyage. Other fish, large ones, of various sorts, leaped into the air. There was life everywhere, on sea and shore. We could see the masts and funnels of the shipping in the harbor, the hotels and bathers along the beach at Waikiki, the smoke rising from the dwelling—houses high up on the volcanic slopes of the Punch Bowl and Tantalus. The custom—house tug was racing toward us and a big school of porpoises got under our bow and began cutting the most ridiculous capers.

That is what it is, a royal sport for the natural kings of earth. The grass grows right down to the water at Waikiki Beach, and within fifty feet of the everlasting sea. The trees also grow down to the salty edge of things, and one sits in their shade and looks seaward at a majestic surf thundering in on the beach to one’s very feet. Half a mile out, where is the reef, the white—headed combers thrust suddenly skyward out of the placid turquoise—blue and come rolling in to shore. One after another they come, a mile long, with smoking crests, the white battalions of the infinite army of the sea. And one sits and listens to the perpetual roar, and watches the unending procession, and feels tiny and fragile before this tremendous force expressing itself in fury and foam and sound. Indeed, one feels microscopically small, and the thought that one may wrestle with this sea raises in one’s imagination a thrill of apprehension, almost of fear. Why, they are a mile long, these bull—mouthed monsters, and they weigh a thousand tons, and they charge in to shore faster than a man can run. What chance? No chance at all, is the verdict of the shrinking ego; and one sits, and looks, and listens, and thinks the grass and the shade are a pretty good place in which to be.

Jack London -  Jack London Historical Society
Jack London – Photo: Jack London Historical Society

And suddenly, out there where a big smoker lifts skyward, rising like a sea—god from out of the welter of spume and churning white, on the giddy, toppling, overhanging and downfalling, precarious crest appears the dark head of a man. Swiftly he rises through the rushing white. His black shoulders, his chest, his loins, his limbs–all is abruptly projected on one’s vision. Where but the moment before was only the wide desolation and invincible roar, is now a man, erect, full—statured, not struggling frantically in that wild movement, not buried and crushed and buffeted by those mighty monsters, but standing above them all, calm and superb, poised on the giddy summit, his feet buried in the churning foam, the salt smoke rising to his knees, and all the rest of him in the free air and flashing sunlight, and he is flying through the air, flying forward, flying fast as the surge on which he stands. He is a Mercury–a brown Mercury. His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea.”

London’s wave riding excerpts were written in the October 1907 issue of Woman’s Home Companion Magazine.

“The whole method of surf riding and surf fighting,’ I learned, is one of non-resistance. Dodge the blow that is struck at you. Dive through the wave that is trying to slap you in the face. Sink down, feet first, deep under the surface, and let the big smoker that is trying to smash you go by far overhead. Never be rigid. Relax. Yield yourself to the waters that are ripping and tearing at you. When the undertow catches you and drags you seaward along the bottom, don’t struggle against it. If you do you are liable to be drowned, for it is stronger than you. Yield yourself to that undertow. Swim with it, not against it, and you will find the pressure removed. And, swimming with it, fooling it so that it does not hold you, swim upward at the same time. It will be no trouble at all to reach the surface.

The man who wants to learn surf riding must be a strong swimmer, and he must be used to going under the water. After that, fair strength and common sense are all that is required. The force of the big combers is rather unexpected. There are mix-ups in which board and rider are torn apart and separated by several hundred feet. The surf rider must take care of himself. No matter how many riders swim out with him, he cannot depend upon any of them for aid. The fancied security I had in the presence of Ford and Freeth made me forget that it was my first swim out in deep water among the big ones. I recollected, however, and rather suddenly, for a big wave came in, and away went the two men on its back all the way to shore. I could have been drowned a dozen different ways before they got back to me.

One slides down the face of a breaker on his surf board, but he has got to get started to sliding. Board and rider must be moving shoreward at a good rate before the wave overtakes them. When you see the wave coming that you want to ride in, you turn tail to it and paddle shoreward with all your strength, using what is called the windmill stroke. This is a sort of spurt performed immediately in front of the wave. If the board is going fast enough, the wave accelerates it and the board begins its quarter-of-a-mile ride.”

And now for another phase of the physics of surf—riding. All rules have their exceptions. It is true that the water in a wave does not travel forward. But there is what may be called the send of the sea. The water in the over toppling crest does move forward, as you will speedily realize if you are slapped in the face by it, or if you are caught under it and are pounded by one mighty blow down under the surface panting and gasping for half a minute. The water in the top of a wave rests upon the water in the bottom of the wave. But when the bottom of the wave strikes the land, it stops, while the top goes on. It no longer has the bottom of the wave to hold it up. Where was solid water beneath it, is now air, and for the first time it feels the grip of gravity, and down it falls, at the same time being torn asunder from the lagging bottom of the wave and flung forward. And it is because of this that riding a surf—board is something more than a mere placid sliding down a hill. In truth, one is caught up and hurled shoreward as by some Titan’s hand.

I tried for a solid hour, and not one wave could I persuade to boost me shoreward. And then arrived a friend, Alexander Hume Ford, a globe trotter by profession, bent ever on the pursuit of sensation. And he had found it at Waikiki. Heading for Australia, he had stopped off for a week to find out if there were any thrills in surf—riding, and he had become wedded to it. He had been at it every day for a month and could not yet see any symptoms of the fascination lessening on him. He spoke with authority.

“Get off that board,” he said. “Chuck it away at once. Look at the way you’re trying to ride it. If ever the nose of that board hits bottom, you’ll be disemboweled. Here, take my board. It’s a man’s size.”

I am always humble when confronted by knowledge. Ford knew. He showed me how properly to mount his board. Then he waited for a good breaker, gave me a shove at the right moment, and started me in. Ah, delicious moment when I felt that breaker grip and fling me.

Mark Twain goes surfing
Wipe Out According to an 1866 Excerpt from Mark Twain

On I dashed, a hundred and fifty feet, and subsided with the breaker on the sand. From that moment I was lost. I waded back to Ford with his board. It was a large one, several inches thick, and weighed all of seventy—five pounds. He gave me advice, much of it. He had had no one to teach him, and all that he had laboriously learned in several weeks he communicated to me in half an hour. I really learned by proxy. And inside of half an hour I was able to start myself and ride in. I did it time after time, and Ford applauded and advised”.

Now days you pay professional surf coaches like Brad Gerlach, Sean Mattison and Chris Gallagher for that kind of advice and information. Surfing has grown from a traditional native hobby to full blown mainstream culture and way of life. It would have only been a matter of time before some writer wrote about surfing, but who would have thought that it would have come from Mark Twain and Jack London’s pen.

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