fredrick o'brien : surf-riding in the
Frederick O'Brien : Surf-riding in the
Frederick: White Shadows in the South Seas
Garden City Publishing, New York, 1919
& Stoughton, London, 1919.
Fredrick O'Brien was a popular author in the early 20th
century, writing many books with Pacific themes.
However, it is not always
clear to what extent his stories are based on personal
observation, and what has been influenced by other authors
Such is the case of this extended account
of native surfboard riding, and O'Brien's attempts at the sport,
in the Marquesas Islands in Chapter 34
It is unclear if
the bay of Atuona
would provide the conditions as suggested, and the lid of a
box that had enclosed an ornate coffin, used in his first
attempts on a large board, appears fanciful.
Like a coffin lid was a commonly used in early
descriptions of the shape of Hawaiian surfboards, and many
elements iof O'Brien's account echo the widely read articles
by Mark Twain (1872)
and Jack London.(1907).
Incidentally, Jeffrey Geiger (2007)
notes that he had a brief, but intense affair, with Jack
London's widow, Charmian.
Assuming this is an
embellished account of what O'Brien actually observed, it
illustrates the extent of surf-riding and its enduring appeal,
surviving the European influences that decimated much of the
indigenous cultures of the Pacific.
were discovered in1595 by the Spanish explorer
Álvaro de Mendaña, where
his Portuguese navigator De Quiros reported the use of
paddle-boards, their use similar to that recorded by Cook's
mariners in the Hawaiian Islands.
See 1595 De Quiros: Marquesas.
In 1813, Capt. David Porter also reported
that the natives of
Madison's Island employ a kind of surf
board, similar to that of the natives of the Sandwich
Islands, however, they are used chiefly by the
boys and girls, and are intended solely for paddling about
See 1813 Capt. David Porter: Madison's Island,
After working in
California as a newspaper editor between 1909-1913,
Frederick O'Brien had spent a year (1913-1914) on the island of Hiva
Oa living amongst native Marquesan islanders.
Completed on his return to California, the book
was not embraced by publishers, perhaps due to the
overriding concerns about the war in Europe.
The book was finally published in
1919 by Garden City Publishing, The Century Co., and Grosset &
Dunlap in New York and by Hodder & Stoughton of London.
- Geiger, Jeffrey: Facing the Pacific:
Polynesia and the U.S. imperial imagination, University of
Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2007
Note on Charmian
London page 74, publishing history pages 80-81.
In 1921, O'Brien commented on the demise of
surfing in Tahiti in Mystic Isles of the South Seas (see
below) and the next year he again wrote about
surf-riding in the Marquesas, with some of the
same characters, in Atolls of the Sun.
This work includes and account of.canoe-leaping and a
rare photograph of:a canoe in the surf at Oomoa, page 377
1922 Fredrick O'Brien : Surf
Riding in the Marquesas.
At 320 sq.klms, Hiva Oa is the second largest island in the
Marquesas Islands, in French Polynesia,
The island is famous as the final home of French painter Paul
Gauguin and Belgian singer Jacques Brel, both of whom are buried
in Calvary Cemetery, overlooking Atuona.
It is also home to the largest tiki sculptures in French
Wikipedia: Hiva Oa
Surfing at Atuona - Marquesas - August 2010
Hiva Oa, Enjoy to Ride in Hanaiapa.
Shadows in the South Seas- Film,
White Shadows in the South Seas is a 1928 American silent
film adventure romance produced by Cosmopolitan Productions in
association with MGM and distributed by MGM.
The movie was directed by W.S. Van Dyke and starred Monte Blue
and Raquel Torres.
Loosely based on the travel book of the same name by Frederick
O'Brien, the film is known for being the first MGM picture to be
released with a pre-recorded soundtrack, one of the first
non-fiction works made as a film, and also the first
time Leo the Lion (MGM) roars in the introduction.
Clyde De Vinna won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
Although outrigger canoes appear regularly throughout the film,
perhaps not surprisingly, there is no surfing.
Wikipedia: White Shadows
in the South Seas
Shadows in the South Seas
This page was revised
in 2017 following significant assistance from Gary Lynch.
To be busy
about anything not necessary to living is, in Marquesan
wisdom, to be idle.
the surf, lolhng at the via puna, angling from rock or canoe
or fishing with line and spear outside the bay, searching for
shell-fish, and riding or walking over the hills to other
valleys, filled their peaceful, pleasant days.
carefree life, lived by a people sweet to know, handsome and
generous and loving.
We arrived at
a merry scene upon the beach.
children were in the surf, or on rocks under the cliffs,
fishing for popo, the young of uua.
With bamboo poles twenty feet long and lines of even greater
length, we stood up to our necks in the sea and threw out the
hook baited with a morsel of shrimp.
tumbled us about, the lines became tangled, amid gales of
laughter and a medley of joyous shouts.
fishing, Vanquished Often and I would breast the creaming
waves side by side, to turn far out and dash in on the
breakers, overturning all but the wary.
Or a group of
us, climbing high on the cliffs, would fling ourselves again
and again into the sea, turning in mid-air, life and delight
quickening every muscle.
As the old
routine closed around me pleasantly; mornings in the shade of
my palms and breadfruit, eating the breakfasts prepared for me
by Exploding Eggs over the fire of cocoanut husks, baths in
the clear pool of the river with my neighbors, afternoons
spent in the cocoanut-groves or with merry companions on the
directed the surf board with a sure hand, lying flat, kneeling
or even standing on the long
plank as he
came in on the crest of the breakers.
I had now and
again succeeded in being carried along while flat on my
stomach on the board, but failed many-times oftener than I
Now I set
myself in earnest to learn the art of mastering the surf.
Three or four
o'clock in the afternoon was the time I usually chose for the
sport, and once I had made it a practice, all the boys and
girls of the village accompanied me, or waited for me at the
shore, sure of hilarious hours.
I must make
children my companions here, for my older friends were so
oppressed by the gloom of race extinction that save for
SIalicious Gossip and one or two others, there was no capacity
for joyousness left in them.
was my chum, paid as forager and firemaker, but giving from
friendliness his services as a wise and admirable teacher of
the unknown to one unmade by civilization.
The bay of
Atuona, narrow between high cliffs covered with
cocoanut-trees, was the scene of my lessons.
The tide came
booming into this cove from the Bay of Traitors, often with
bewildering force, and a day or two a month as gently as the
waves at Waikiki.
spread a broad mouth to drink the brine, and the white sand
was over-run by the flowered vines that crept seaward to taste
No house was
in sight, no man-made structure to mar the primitive, as our
merry crew of boys and girls sported naked in the surf, fished
from the rocks, or lay upon the shining beach.
For my first
essay I used the lid of a box that had enclosed an ornate
coffin ordered from Tahiti by a chief who anticipated dying.
It was large,
and weighty to drag or push through the surf to the proper
valiantly with it, I reached some distance from the shore, and
prepared a triumphal return.
The waves were big, curving above me in sheets of clearest
emerald, crested with spray breaking into foam and rising
again, endlessly reshaping, repeating themselves.
opportunity, I chose one as it rose behind me, and flung
myself upon it.
Up and up and
still higher I went, carried by resistless momentum, and
suddenly like a chip in a hurricane I was flung forward at a
fearsome speed, through rushing chaos of wind and water,
seeing the beach dashing toward me, shouting with exultation.
At the next
instant my trusty board turned traitor.
Its prow sank,
the end beneath me rose, and like a stone discharged from a
sling I was thrown under the waves, head over heels, banging
my head and body on the sand, leaped upon by following waves
that piled me into shallow water, rolling me over and over,
striking me a blow with the coffin-lid at every roll.
I lay high and
dry, panting and aching, while from all the beach rose shouts
rolled on the sand in his delight, holding his gasping sides,
scarcely able to remind me of the necessity, which in my
excitement I had forgotten, of keeping the prow of the board
pointed upward as I rode.
Often as I
repeated this instruction in my mind, firmly as I determined
to remember it while I toiled sea-ward again with
the coffin-lid, the result was always the same.
A moment of
rest in the unresting waves, a quick, agile stiring (?),
a moment of mad, intoxicating joy, and then -
I became a
mass of bruises, the skin scraped inch by inch from my chest
with the rough
I would not
give up until I had to, and then for a week I was
One stiff ache
from head to foot, I lay ignominiously on the sand, and
watched Exploding Eggs, with a piece of box not bigger than a
fat man's shirt-front, take wave after wave, standing on the
board, dashing far across the breakers to the shore, with
never a failure, while Gedge's little half-breed daughter, a
beautiful fairy-like creature, darted upon the sea as a
butterfly upon a zephyr.
weeks of effort and mishap, one day the secret came to me like
a flash, and the trick was learned.
I had been
using the great board and was weary.
with Exploding Eggs for a plank three feet long and fourteen
exhausted, I waited as usual with the butt of the board
against my stomach for the incoming breaker to be just behind
and above me, and then leaped forward to kick out vigorously,
the board pressed against me and my hands extended along its
sides, to get in time with the wave.
But the wave
was upon me before I had thought to execute these
instructions, I straightened myself out rigidly, and lo! I
shot in like a torpedo on the very top of the billow, holding
the point of the board up, yelling like a Comanche Indian.
So fast, so
straight did I go, that it was all I could do to swerve in the
shallow water and not be hurled with force on the sand.
metair" (?) cried my friends in excited
congratulation, while like all men who succeed by accident, I
stood proudly, taking the plaudits as my due.
afternoon I had most exhilarating sport,
this is the very king of amusements for fun and exercise.
tobogganing, skating, all land sports fade before the thrills
of this; nor will anything give such abounding health and joy
in living as surfriding in sunny seas.
afternoons on Atuona Bay I spent in this exhilarating pastime.
To it we added
embellishments, multiplying excitements.
A score of us
would start at the same moment from the same line and race to
shore; we would carry two on a board; we would stand and kneel
and direct our course so that we could touch a marked spot on
the beach or curve about and swerve and jostle each other.
was the king of us all, and Teata was queen.
as effortlessly as a mermaid, her superb figure shining on the
shining water, tossing her long black hair, and shrieking with
we varied these sports by a much more dangerous and arduous
We would push
our boards far out in the bay, half a mile or more, diving
under each wave we faced, until after tremendous effort we
reached the farthest sea-ward line of breakers.
Often while I
swam, clinging to the board and struggling with the waves for
its possession, I saw in the emerald water curling above me
the shadowy shapes of large fish, carried on the crests of the
combers, transfigured clearly against the sky fins and heads
and tails outlined with light.
smoother water we waited for the proper moment, counting the
foam-crests as they passed. Waves go in multiples of three,
the third being longer and going farther than the two before
it, and the ninth, or
being strongest of all.
wave we waited for.
other meant being spilled in tumbling water when it broke far
from land, and falling prey to the succeeding ones, which
But taking the
ninth monster at its start, we rode marvelously, staying at
its summit as it mounted higher and higher, shouting above the
lesser rollers, until it dashed upon the smooth sand half a
kept the heart in the throat, the pulses beating wildly, as
the breaker tore its way over the foaming rollers, I on the
roof of the swell, lying almost over its front wall, holding
like death to my plank while the wind sang in my ears and sky
and sea mingled in rushing blueness.
To take such a
ride twice in an afternoon taxed my strength, but the
Marquesan boys and girls were never wearied, and laughed at my
ranked swimming with letters, saying of an uneducated man,
"Nee literas didicit nee nature".
He had neither
learned to read nor to swim.
The sea is the
book of the South Sea Islanders.
They swim as
they walk, beginning as babies to dive and to frolic in the
place them on the river bank at a day old, and in a few months
they are swimming in
At two and
three years they play in the surf, swimming with the easy
motion of a frog.
They have no
fear of the water to overcome, for they are accustomed to the
element from birth, and it is to them as natural as land.
It should be
so with all, for human locomotion in water is no more tiresome
or difficult than on the earth.
One element is
as suitable to man as the other for transportation of himself,
when habitude give natural movement, strength, and
who cannot swim is unknown, and they carry objects through the
water as easily as through a grove.
I have seen a
woman with an infant at her breast leap from a canoe and swim
through a quarter of a mile of breakers to the shore, merely
to save a somewhat longer walk.
Fredrick O'Brien: Mystic Isles of the South
O'Brien attributes the demise of surfing in
Tahiti to the frowns of the missionaries, to whom
athletics were a species of diabolical possession.
T'yonni's house was half a mile from my own.
A quarter of a
mile farther, and the same distance from the junction of
lagoon and river, we had our swimming-place.
On an acre or
two of grass and moss, removed from any habitation, grew a
score of lofty cocoas, and under these we threw off our pareus
or trousers and shirts.
The bank of
the stream was a fathom from the water which was brackish at
high tide and sweet at low.
With a short
run and a curving leap we plunged into the flowing water.
refreshing at the hottest hour.
seldom dived head first, as we did, but jumped feet foremost,
and the women in a sitting posture, which made a great splash,
but prevented their gowns from rising.
As I remarked
before, we three Americans bathed stark when with men, but the
modest Tahitian men never for a moment uncovered themselves,
but wore their pareus.
said that in their houses he had not seen a single instance of
immodesty, though families slept in one room.
that he had to make love to his girl models to induce them to
pose in the altogether, for money would not make them adopt
the garb of Venus.
did not enter the sea for pleasure.
The rivers and
brooks were their bathing- and resting-places.
attributed sicknesses to the too frequent touch of salt water.
They had not
the habitude of swimming within the lagoons, as at Hawaii; it
was not with them an exercise or luxury, but a part of their
every-day activities in fishing and canoeing.
A farmer after
his day's work does not run foot-races.
gatherings these people often vied for supremacy in every sort
of sea sport, and before time, in bays free of coral,
developed an astonishing skill in surf-riding on boards, in
canoes, and without artificial support.
Such skill was
ranked on a par with or perhaps the same as proficiency in the
pastimes of war, as did the Greeks, who addressed Diagoras,
after he and his two sons had been crowned in the arena: "Die,
for thou hast nothing short of divinity to desire."
ambitions had been ended in Tahiti by the frowns of the
missionaries, to whom athletics were a species of diabolical
possession, unworthy souls destined for hell or heaven, with
but a brief span to avert their birthright of damnation in
sackcloth and ashes.
Geoff Cater (2009-2017) :
Frederick O'Brien : Surf-riding in the Marquesas, 1914.