The Story of Britain’s Most Famous Surfer

Gentle afternoon walks by the river, enough tea to float a passenger ferry, possibly an affinity for cats; these are some of the images that may spring to mind at the thought of 20th century crime writer Agatha Christie.

In fact, such associations could not be further from the truth. Diaries and letters written by the world’s bestselling author indicate that not only did she travel the world from a young age, she was also one of the first British people to surf.

A couple of years after the publication of her first crime novel in 1920, Christie, along with husband Archie, left home and set off on a ten month round the world trip. He had been recruited for a job promoting the British Empire and in February 1922 the pair touched down in South Africa.

Exactly how Archie got on with his work is really beside the point. Agatha however spent several days at Muizenberg Beach in southern Cape Town, and it was here where she had her first experience of riding waves lying down. Quick to learn and obviously not lacking in confidence, Christie described surfing as “an easy sport and great fun”.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing though as she makes clear in her book The Man in the Brown Suit, describing surfing as an activity where “You are either vigorously cursing or else you are idiotically pleased with yourself”. We’ve all been there, and though never admitting to it, I can sympathise with her when she writes: “I got very angry and fairly hurled my plank from me”. What kind of place after all, would the line-up be without a bit of passion?

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Getting the hang of riding ‘prone’ at Muizenberg Beac

From South Africa, Agatha and Archie headed for Australia. Amazingly, in a country gripped by a wave riding revolution after the display by Duke Kahanamoku in 1914, there is no sign of Christie or her husband so much as dipping a toe during their stay.

Instead it was onto Hawaii in early August and Christie had every intention of building on her newfound skills. Heavy boards up to ten feet long and the additional power of the waves here would though take some getting used to. “I can’t say that we enjoyed our first four or five days of surfing – it was far too painful”. There was also the issue of surfing over coral, solved by wearing leather boots that were laced around the ankle.

Before long, they got the hang of it and learned to enlist the help of friendly locals who would not only tow them past the breaking waves and rescue runaway boards after a wipeout, but also offer some impromptu coaching: “No not this, not this, Missus… no, no wait – now!”

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Feeling herself back in control of the waves, Christie returns to describing the sensation of surfing as “one of the most perfect physical pleasures that I have known”. She goes on to detail her success, standing up for the first time:

 

“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.”

 

Concluding her surfing safari, Christie says “I learned to become expert, or at any rate expert from the European point of view.” Indeed she probably was. Wave Riding in the British Isles wasn’t happening until the early 1920s with stand up surfing not done on mass for another ten years.

In spite of the fun she had, there’s no evidence to suggest Agatha Christie attempted surfing when she returned home. The beaches of England probably seemed a little uninspiring but she did live by the coast in South Devon, and her love of the ocean has been documented. A regular guest at a writer’s retreat on Burgh Island near Bigbury, with a little imagination, she could have been the first to thread the long, sandy barrels at Bantham, a short paddle across the River Avon.

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When you find yourself in need of a little inspiration…


The Surfers’ Diary is a space for surfers to share their tales, ideas and inspirations. If you have something to share, get in touch.

And don’t forget to check out our app, Johnny on the Spot. It’s a personal, private diary that will help you keep a record of your surf sessions and learn the best time to surf all your favourite breaks.

Download it from the App Store here, or from the Google Play Store here.


Greg Hayward

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