Heroes of swimming: George Freeth

Even the best swimmers can get into difficulty in the water, especially in the open ocean. There are any number of dangers (most of which boil down to hubris): currents, waves, tides, cramp, even unexpectedly swimming into a thick, swirling shoal of mackerel. Don’t laugh: it happened off Brighton to one of Heroes of swimming’s friends, an experienced sea swimmer who got into such a froth that he nearly drowned.

Anyone who’s ever felt the cold grip of panic in the water as they realise that they might not make it back to shore; anyone who’s waved their hands above their head to attract the lifeguard’s attention; anyone, certainly, who’s been hauled out of the ocean gasping and spluttering … they all owe an unspoken debt to George Freeth.

Freeth was born in Hawaii in 1883, close by the beach at Waikiki. He was part Hawaiian, part Irish, and came from a well-connected family: his grandfather had been Hawaii’s foreign minister. But there was little chance of Freeth becoming a man of affairs: from a young age, he had fallen under the spell of the water. Every spare moment was spent submerged, at the beach or in a pool, surfing or swimming.

There was no radio or TV at this time: instead, live entertainment was popular, both with locals and visitors to the islands. Among the biggest attractions were water carnivals, grand displays of aquatic skill and daring. Freeth, 17 years old at the turn of the century and already a top competition swimmer, was one of the stars of these shows. One source records that his “high and fancy” dives were especially popular.

Freeth was also a surfing champion. In fact, it was said to be him who first revived stand-up surfing, which Christian missionaries had almost killed off, in the islands. It was surfing that first brought Freeth to wider attention, when Jack London visited Hawaii and published this description of him in action:

“I saw him tearing in on [the wave], standing upright with his board, carelessly poised, a young god bronzed with sunburn.”

London’s descriptions of surfing created tremendous interest in the USA. Freeth headed for California to spread the word – a reverse missionary, bringing the religion of surfing to the haoles.

Freeth reached California at just the right moment. The seaside resorts of Redondo and Venice Beach had recently been built, but the developers were finding that high surf on the beaches put off visitors and prospective residents. The situation got worse in March 1907, when a trainee volunteer lifeguard drowned in front of his colleagues. Freeth’s arrival in May of that year was, essentially, the solution. He performed surfing demonstrations twice a day at Redondo, bringing crowds from Los Angeles to see the “Hawaiian Wonder” for themselves. At Venice Beach he not only surfed, but also trained a team of volunteer lifeguards. Alumni of this group would go on to develop the LA County, Long Beach and San Diego lifeguard services.

Today, any beach lifeguard would recognise the skills Freeth taught: rescue swimming, the technique for getting a surfboat out through big waves, how to paddle a rescue board. He showed how rip currents could speed you out to swimmers in trouble – much against the thinking of the day, which branded such currents “undertow” on the basis that they pulled swimmers down. Freeth’s students undertook sand running, ocean swimming, paddle-boarding and surfing to maintain their fitness, and were trained in the latest resuscitation techniques. Within a few years, they had been credited with saving hundreds of lives.

Freeth’s most famous rescue happened in the winter of 1908. A sudden squall hit Santa Monica Bay, wreaking havoc in a fleet of small Japanese-crewed fishing boats, which began to founder. The rescue boat could not get out, but Freeth could. He spent over two hours in the chilly waters of the bay, at the end of which he’d rescued seven men from drowning. Despite being hypothermic he went in again, swimming to the aid of three more drowning men. His strength was at an end, though: all he could do was keep them afloat. It was the turn of the volunteers he’d trained. They at last managed to get a rescue boat out through the raging surf, bringing Freeth and the three men back to shore.

The heroics of 1908 had several outcomes. First, the Japanese fishing village nearby is said to have changed its name to Port Freeth in gratitude. Freeth himself became a household name, at least in the Santa Monica Bay area. But the most important result was to set a new trend in lifesaving: where before an unwieldy crew of men in a boat had rescued swimmers, now a single, skilled lifeguard quickly made his way out through the waves.

In 1913, Freeth was in a motorbike accident and broke his ankle. While recovering, he took a job as chief swimming instructor at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Freeth’s time in charge began the rise of what would become one of the most successful swim teams in the USA, the training ground for Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, Esther Williams and others.

In May 1918, after a disaster in which 13 people drowned, Freeth was hired a chief lifeguard for Ocean Beach, California. He and his crew had a successful summer: there was not one further drowning in the area, which then and now is famous for its strong rip currents. But on 15 January 1919, Freeth caught influenza. It was part of a pandemic that swept the world, and which is estimated to have killed between 50 and 100 million people. Freeth, sadly, was one of them. He died on 7 April, at the age of 35. His legacy, though, can be seen on every beach where a lifeguard sits on a tower, rescue board propped nearby.

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