Agatha Christie rides the waves - 1922
added to the surf history archives on Jul 27, 2011
By Pete Robinson, Museum of British Surfing
Acclaimed author Agatha Christie spent her teenage years on the south coast of England around Torquay where sea bathing was a common practice in the early 1900s – but in 1922 she would become one of Britain’s earliest “stand-up” surfers.
“In fact, on a rough day I enjoyed the sea even more,” she said.
After the First World War her husband Archie was offered a position to help organise a world tour to promote the British Empire Exhibition to be held in London in 1924. The couple left England in January 1922, leaving their baby daughter in the care of Agatha’s mother and sister.
They arrived in Cape Town, South Africa in early February and immediately took to sea bathing at Durban, and were soon introduced to prone surfboard riding at the popular Muizenberg beach. She would write about her experience in her novel published two years later The Man in the Brown Suit.
“Surfing looks perfectly easy. It isn’t. I say no more. I got very angry and fairly hurled my plank from me. Nevertheless, I determined to return on the first possible opportunity and have another go. Quite by mistake I then got a good run on my board and came out delirious with happiness. Surfing is like that. You are either vigorously cursing or else you are idiotically pleased with yourself.”
The party continued their tour through Australia & New Zealand before arriving in Honolulu on August 5th 1922. Agatha and her husband quickly took to riding surfboards standing up at Waikiki (as Prince Edward had done two years earlier), although the larger boards and surf proved a tough test of their new skills.
The couple were badly affected by sunburn, cut feet from the coral and the near destruction of Agatha’s silk bathing dress by the Waikiki surf. To protect their feet they purchased soft leather boots and her flimsy costume was replaced by “a wonderful, skimpy emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I though I looked remarkably well!”
The local beach boys would tow them out through the break, help them select suitable waves and retrieve their lost solid wood surfboards.
Staying in Hawaii until October that year Agatha said, “I can’t say that we enjoyed our first four or five days of surfing – it was far too painful – but there were, every now and then moments of utter joy. We soon learned too, to do it the easy way. At least I did – Archie usually took himself out to the reef by his own efforts.”
“Most people, however, had a Hawaiian boy who towed you out at you lay on your board, holding the board by the grip of his big toe, and swimming vigorously. You then stayed, waiting to push off on your board until your (beach) boy gave you the word of instruction. ‘No, not this, not this, Missus… no, no wait – now!’”
“At the word ‘now’ off you went and oh, it was heaven! Nothing like it. Nothing like that rushing through the water at what seemed to you a speed of about two hundred miles an hour; all the way in from the far distant raft, until you arrived, gently slowing down, on the beach, and foundered among the soft flowing waves.”
“It is one of the most perfect physical pleasures that I have known. After ten days I began to be daring. After starting my run I would hoist myself carefully to my knees on the board, and then endeavour to stand up. The first six times I came to grief, but this was not painful – you merely lost your balance and fell off the board. Of course, you had lost your board, which meant a tiring swim, but with luck your Hawaiian (beach) boy had followed and retrieved it for you.”
“I learned to become expert, or at any rate expert from the European point of view. Oh, the moment of complete triumph on the day that I kept my balance and came right into shore standing upright on my board!”
Research is now underway to see if she continued surfing on returning to the UK, but it’s known a writer’s retreat was built at Burgh Island, Bigbury in South Devon in the 1930s – overlooking some classic surf breaks. Among the regular visitors to ‘Beach House‘ were Agatha Christie and Prince Edward who had both learned to surf in Hawaii a decade before.