Alexander Hume Ford*

Alexander Hume Ford was the founder of the Outrigger Canoe Club, a place where Aloha prevails and “the sports of old Hawaii shall always have a home.” Ford was also responsible for promoting Duke Kahanamoku and George Freeth to an American audience, but he may best be remembered as the person who turned Jack London on to surfing — that is, if he is remembered at all. 

Duke Kahanamoku is widely thought to have introduced surfing to the East Coast. But the real credit may lie with Ford. Prominent surfing historian Joseph “Skipper” Funderburg came upon several early 20th-century postcards that suggest surfing was happening in isolated pockets prior to Duke Kahanamoku’s East Coast surfing demonstrations in 1912 and 1916. Bearing dates as early as 1909, the postcards depict young boys riding waves at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina on boards whose shapes match boards used in Hawaii at the turn of the century.

But what accounts for the similarity? In the early 1900s, Ford settled in Honolulu, where he met Jack London, who was vacationing at the Moana Hotel on Waikiki Beach. He offered to teach the famed author how to surf. London would go on to describe the experience in an October 1907 article, “Surfing: A Royal Sport,” which introduced the Western world to the sport. 

In 1908, Ford founded the Outrigger Canoe Club, the first formal organization with a mission of preserving surfing. Ford petitioned Queen Liliuokalani for use of a tract of land on Waikiki to popularize old Hawaiian watersports and to provide a surfing spot for the mauka, the people who lived in the hills and had no seaside of their own. 

Although Ford’s club was founded for the mauka, when it opened it was restricted to haoles, white people from the mainland. Ford urged the Hawaiians to start a club of their own. They organized the Hui Nalu Club, whose best swimmer was Duke Kahanamoku, and the two clubs began to compete against one another. 

After establishing the club, Ford continued to promote surfing through various events and in his writing and photography. After Freeth moved to the US mainland in 1907, Ford promoted Duke Kahanamoku as “Hawaii’s Champion Surf Rider.” He was one of the first photographers to capture action surfing shots — thought to be the first photographs of surfing ever to appear in magazines. 

Ford’s promotion of surfing extended wherever he went. In 1908, while on a visit to Australia, Ford introduced surfing to an Australian named Percy Hunter. By the time Ford visited again in 1910 — nearly five years before Kahanamoku went to Australia for the first time — there were several surfboards on the local beaches

The earliest known record of Ford’s promotion on the East Coast was in 1919, when he formed an aquatic club with the boys of Charleston’s Crafts School. Surely a bit of evidence is yet to be unearthed that proves Ford’s passionate campaign is to account for the images in those early 20th-century postcards.

Photos courtesy Outrigger Canoe Club, Honolulu, HI