First Session at Huntington Beach

Matt Rode

by on

Updated 32d ago

Our First Session series peels back the legend on the first surfers at various famous spots from across the globe. We've already covered Teahupoo, Waimea, Anchor Point, Cloudbreak, Bali, J-Bay, Puerto Escondido, Mundaka, Hossegor, Jaws and Byron Bay. Let us know in the comments if there is anywhere else you'd like us to shine a spotlight on.

It’s not always easy to confirm the first person to have surfed a particular wave. Some spots require extensive research, while others simply don’t have any verifiable information available at all. But when it comes to places like Huntington Beach, the history of surfing is well documented. As the self-proclaimed “Surf City, USA,” HB has wave riding in its DNA, and the first session there was a momentous occasion not only witnessed by throngs of people, but also written about dozens of times over the past century.

While most surfers are aware that Duke Kahanamoku spent years travelling on a goodwill tour after the 1912 Olympics, putting on surfing and swimming exhibitions and introducing the sport of wave riding to coastal people worldwide, few realise that fellow Hawaiian surfer George Freeth was also one of the first surfing evangelists. Part Hawaiian and part Irish, Freeth was “hapa” but looked more Caucasian than local, and was considered to be the first haole to become an expert at surfing.

George Freeth, the father of surf for HB.

George Freeth, the father of surf for HB.

During a visit to Hawaii in 1907, industrialist Henry Huntington saw Freeth surfing and offered to bring him to California to demonstrate his surfing prowess there. By 1910, Freeth was living in Redondo Beach, lifeguarding and serving as a one-man surfing exhibition—"the man who walked on water.”

In 1914, Henry Huntington invited Freeth to do a surfing exhibition at the dedication of the newly constructed, concrete pier in Huntington Beach. Thousands of people were in attendance, and they were reportedly amazed at Freeth’s ability to ride a wave upright all the way to the beach. The early foundations of Surf City were born that day.

Monthly overview data for Huntington Pier. See more info, including swell consistency, here.

Monthly overview data for Huntington Pier. See more info, including swell consistency, here.

A decade later, Duke Kahanamoku was living in Newport Beach and began surfing Huntington Beach regularly with local lifeguards Bud Higgins and Gene Belshe. By this time, Kahanamoku had popularised surfing throughout Southern California, and his frequent presence in HB helped stoke the flames of a quickly growing local pastime. Kahanamoku inspired Belshe and Higgins to shape their own boards out of redwood, and Higgins is credited with being the first person to shoot the pier.

By the mid-1950s, surfing was huge in Huntington Beach, and it was only a matter of time before a surf club was started and the first surf shop was opened. Then, in 1957, Jack Hokanson opened Jack’s Surfboards straight across from the pier, and it was official—surfing was quickly becoming one of the city’s main attractions.

© 2021 - Klein.

From there, things went into overdrive, and over the next 60 years Huntington Beach played host to some of surfing’s most memorable moments. From the Curren vs Occy rivalry and the OP Pro riots to the modern circus that is the US Open, Huntington Beach has been at the centre of the California surf industry practically from the beginning—a fact that the city leaders take quite seriously. The surf fervour arguably peaked in the early 2000s, when Huntington Beach and Santa Cruz actually entered into litigation with each other over the right to call themselves “Surf City.”

Today, Huntington Beach remains as relevant to surfing as ever, and the city owes much of its success over the years to that first session by George Freeth. Tragically, Freeth died quite young while living in California, a 35-year-old victim of the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic.

Just over a century later, we are currently in the midst of another global pandemic—one that has made international surf trips relatively difficult and caused many people to look for other domestic travel options. This past week, a young hapa surfer from Hawaii named Noah Seible found himself in California visiting his grandparents, and decided to take the opportunity to check out the local surf spots.

Over the next seven days, he surfed the north side of Huntington Pier virtually alone, blissfully unaware of the normally crowded lineup that had been cleared by June Gloom and a steady dose of onshore winds.

While both Huntington Beach and surfing in general have changed dramatically over the past 100 years, if you happened to be on the beach near HB pier last week, you could have been forgiven for thinking you were seeing history replayed as a solitary hapa surfer from Hawaii rode waves upright to the beach, over and over, in front of thousands of gaping tourists.

Cover shot by Miah Klein.