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Traveling in Style : LAST STOP : The Call of the Wave : Far From the Klondike, a Versatile Novelist Discovers the Wonderful Waters of Waikiki--and Rides Them on a Surfboard

May 15, 1994|Jack London | John (Jack) Griffith London (1876-1916) was illegitimate, a onetime hobo, an adventurer, both socialist and racist, an alcoholic, ultimately a suicide. He was also a prolific, often surprising writer--said to have been the highest-paid author in America at the height of his career. Besides his well-known Alaskan canine adventure tales, "The Call of the Wild" and "White Fang," and his Nietzschean sea saga, "The Sea-Wolf," he wrote nearly 50 books from 1900 to his death 16 years later--works of fantasy ("The Star Rover," "Before Adam," "The Iron Heel"), existential short fiction ("When God Laughs," "The Game"), a semi-autobiographical temperance tract ("John Barleycorn")--even a sort of travel book, "The Cruise of the Snark," based on his wanderings in the Pacific aboard his ketch of that name. From that volume, published in 1911, comes this edited account of London's stay on the sands of a long-vanished Waikiki and his encounter with the then-little-known (beyond Hawaii) sport of "surf-riding," in the days before sun block

The grass grows right down to the water at Waikiki Beach, and within 50 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 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.

The water that rolls in on Waikiki Beach is just the same as the water that laves the shores of all the Hawaiian Islands; and in ways, especially from the swimmer's standpoint, it is wonderful water. It is cool enough to be comfortable, while it is warm enough to permit a swimmer to stay in all day without experiencing a chill. Under the sun or the stars, at high noon or at midnight, in midwinter or in midsummer, it does not matter when, it is always the same temperature. It is wonderful water, salt as old ocean itself, pure and crystal-clear. When the nature of the water is considered, it is not so remarkable after all that the Kanakas (Hawaiians) are one of the most expert of swimming races.

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. One slides down the face of a breaker on his surfboard, but he has 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 slide.

I shall never forget the first big wave I caught out there in the deep water. I saw it coming, turned my back on it and paddled for dear life. Faster and faster my board went, till it seemed my arms would drop off. What was happening behind me I could not tell. One cannot look behind and paddle the windmill stroke. I heard the crest of the wave hissing and churning, and then my board was lifted and flung forward. I scarcely knew what happened the first half-minute. Though I kept my eyes open, I could not see anything, for I was buried in the rushing white of the crest. But I did not mind. I was chiefly conscious of ecstatic bliss at having caught the wave. At the end of the half-minute, however, I began to see things, and to breathe. I saw that three feet of the nose of my board was clear out of water and riding on air. I shifted my weight forward, and made the nose come down. Then I lay, quite at rest in the midst of the wild movement, and watched the shore and the bathers on the beach grow distinct. It was my second day of surf-riding, and I was quite proud of myself. I stayed out there four hours.

On the morrow I was in bed. I was not sick, but I was very unhappy. When describing the wonderful water of Hawaii, I forgot to describe the wonderful sun of Hawaii. It is a tropic sun and, furthermore, in the first part of June, it is an overhead sun. It is also an insidious, deceitful sun. For the first time in my life I was sunburned unawares. My arms, shoulders and back had been burned many times in the past and were tough; but not so my legs. And for four hours I had exposed the tender backs of my legs, at right-angles, to that perpendicular Hawaiian sun. Sunburn at first is merely warm; after that it grows intense and the blisters come out. Also, the joints, where the skin wrinkles, refuse to bend. That is why I spent the next day in bed. I couldn't walk. And that is why, today, I am writing this in bed. But tomorrow, ah, tomorrow, I shall be out in that wonderful water, and I shall come in standing up.

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