Editor’s Note: The following article has been condensed by Barbara Del Piano from a paper recently written by Malcolm Gault-Williams, one of surfing’s foremost academic scholars and an avid California surfer. It was sent to the Club’s Historical Committee by Joseph “Skipper” Funderburg of North Carolina who has been researching the family of Outrigger Canoe Club founder Alexander Hume Ford for more than 10 years and is considered by the Fords to be their family historian.
By Malcolm Gault-Williams
Alexander Hume Ford was one of the main surfers who helped revive surfing during the first two decades of the Twentieth Century, helping to found the Outrigger Canoe Club, and promote George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku as surfing’s first stars of international stature. He also helped start board surfing in Australia and the East Coast of the United States. “I thought Duke Kahanamoku did that,” I can hear you say. Read on.
In early 1907, at age 39, Ford, “a slight, quick-moving man, with a pointy goatee and enormous whisk-broom mustache,” settled in Honolulu. Two decades later, he would claim that “It was the thrill of the surfboard that brought me to Hawaii.” Ford wrote that “As a boy I used to sit in school building air castles over the picture in my geography book of Hawaiian men and women poised upon the crest of monster rollers. Thirty years later I stood on the beach at Waikiki and saw that my boyhood dreams might be realized.
Ford spent considerable time trying to learn how to surf, with negative results. He had hired more than one local beach boy to teach him, but “It seemed to me that my teachers must give me up as an inept pupil, and they did.” Undeterred, Ford kept trying.
His perseverance was rewarded when “A young hapahole took pity on me. He was the champion surfer of the islands, George Freeth. I learned in a half an hour the secret I had sought for weeks.”
Ford introduced surfing to Australian Percy Hunter, the head of the New South Wales Immigration and Tourism Bureau. By 1910, when he visited Australia, Ford noted that there were already several surfboards stashed at Manly Beach. This was a full four and a half years before Duke Kahanamoku visited Australia.
In 1907 Ford met the world famous adventure writer Jack London and his wife, Charmian. Although both men shared the common interests of writing and traveling, it was Ford’s interest in the ancient Hawaiian sport of surfing that really caught London’s attention. London was so taken with Ford’s description of wave riding that he promised to join Ford on a “surfing excursion.”
True to his promise, Ford appeared…the following Saturday with an enormous surfboard. Although London suffered from severe sunburn and a bump on the head from a loose board, he wrote enthusiastically about his surfing session. Charmian got into the act, too, ending a successful ride on the beach.
London wrote an impassioned article about wave riding, entitled “Riding the South Seas Surf.” It was published in the October 1907 issue of Woman’s Home Companion. London wrote: “Surfboarding was the sport of sports. There was nothing like it anywhere else in the world.”
Ford would go on to promote surfing and Hawaii in such popular American magazines as Colliers and St. Nicholas. He wrote, “The white lad has taught the native boy to play baseball and the native has taught his fair-skinned cousin all the sports of his forefathers.”
Ford met lecturer, traveler, and writer Burton Holmes; both stayed at the Seaside Hotel. Perhaps influenced by the robust growth of surf clubs in New South Wales, Ford talked with Holmes about forming one at Waikiki. Ford was also prompted, in part, by concerns of over-development.
“Just as surfing’s revival was underway, the construction of large hotels and private residences at Waikiki had slowly begun to close off beach frontage. The closest equivalents to surf clubs in the Honolulu area were swimming clubs like the Healani, Myrtle and the Waikiki Swimming Club.
“Ford and Burton talked about doing something similar, but having surfing and canoeing the focus. Ford approached the trustees of the Queen Emma Estate and petitioned them for a plot of land next to the Moana Hotel.
“In a memoir published in 1944, a year before his death, Ford wrote: “I got a 20 years lease on what is now the Outrigger Canoe Club grounds for $5 a year, provided the dues for boys under 16 would not be over $5 a year. I wish it were so now. Such dues made it possible for every kid with guts to live at least half the day fighting the surf.”
Charter members numbered 86 adults and some 15 junior members.
After helping organize the Outrigger Canoe Club, Alexander Hume Ford continued to promote surfing through surf carnivals, competitions, and his own writing. As a promoter, he was nonstop.
A perfect example of this was after George Freeth moved to Southern California in 1907, Ford lost no time in finding a new surf hero in Duke Paoa Kahanamoku. Several years before Duke became famous as an Olympic swimmer, Ford was already promoting Duke as Hawaii’s “Champion Surf Rider.”
Ford also promoted Hawaii by the use of photography. The first photographs of surfers, taken in the 1890s, were portraits of Hawaiians holding their surfboards. Ford went a step further by shooting action shots around 1908 that were, perhaps, the first photographs of surfing ever to appear in magazines.
When the Londons returned to Hawaii in 1915, Jack commented: “I am glad we’re here now, for someday Waikiki beach is going to be the scene of one long hotel.” London also found that surfboarding had come into its own and was especially surprised to find the Outrigger Canoe Club at 1,200 members, “with hundreds more on the waiting list, and with what seems like half a mile of surf-board lockers.”
Ford also promoted water sports on the East Coast. According to the December 1919 Charleston News and Courier, Ford showed “motion pictures of Hawaiian surfboard riding to boys of the Crafts School and their friends.”
At the age of 77, Alexander Hume Ford died early Sunday morning, October 14, 1945. Today, he is remembered as “the guy who turned Jack London on to surfing, the promoter of George Freeth, Duke Kahanamoku, and of Hawaii, itself.
“Most significantly, Alexander Hume Ford is best remembered by us surfers as the founder of the Outrigger Canoe Club; a man who – more than most anyone of his time – helped revive Hawaiian surfing.”