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On Surfing: Agatha Christie's Love of the Sea

What image is conjured up in your head when you think of Agatha Christie? Perhaps it’s one of an older lady, with a sparkling brooch? Or, that famous photo of her surrounded by lots of her novels? We are willing to bet the first photo that comes to mind isn’t this one though, of a 31-year-old Christie enjoying the surf in South Africa.

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Image © The Christie Archive Trust

In fact, Agatha Christie was a very keen surfer, a sport she experienced for the first time in 1922, whilst on a trip with her first husband Archie. She is thought to be the first Western woman to stand up on a surfboard! This year the Summer Olympics features surfing as a competitive sport for the first time, and so we wanted to find out a little more about one of Christie’s unexpected hobbies.

Reading An Autobiography and The Grand Tour reveals the writer's passion for mastering the art of surfing, and a fair few challenges she faced as she got to know the waves.

Whenever we could steal time off - or rather when Archie could - we took the train and went to Muizenberg, got our surf boards, and went out surfing together.
An Autobiography

She revelled in the details of the boards in South Africa, and wrote repeatedly of her desire to improve her surfing skills in letters to her mother in 1922.

Nevertheless, swimming is a little tame after surfing! We are going to buy light curved boards (that don’t jab you in the middle) and absolutely master the art.
The Grand Tour, a Letter to her Mother, February 1922
In the afternoon more bathing at Muizenberg, and we bought surf boards with curved ends – much easier and less painful, and I believe one could have great fun with them at Paignton on a rough day.
The Grand Tour, a Letter to her Mother, February 1922

Buoyed with confidence by this pleasant experience in South Africa, Archie and Agatha took a trip to Hawaii when he was able to take some time off of his work duties on the tour. Christie recalls her excitement upon arriving in Honolulu:

We arrived in the early morning, got into our rooms at the hotel, and straight away, seeing out of the window the people surfing on the beach, we rushed down, hired our surf-boards, and plunged into the sea.
An Autobiography

But, as she humbly admits “We were, of course, complete innocents”. They had picked a bad day for surfing, one that should be reserved for experts of the sport, but admits foolishly “we, who had surfed in South Africa, thought we knew all about it.” Warned out of the water, by an alarmed observer, the couple were not perturbed though. Going back in the water day in, day out in Hawaii, facing blistering sunburn, neuritis and of course, the inevitable wardrobe malfunctions one comes to expect in the sea…

All our days were spent on the beach and surfing, and little by little we learned to become expert, or at any rate expert from the European point of view.
An Autobiography

Agatha Christie on Surfing

Nothing like it. Nothing like that rushing through the water at what seems 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.
An Autobiography

This adventurous spirit wasn’t just a holiday phenomenon though. Christie was also a keen swimmer in her native Torquay, and never missed a chance to do it. In her autobiography, she reflects fondly on her love of bathing:

Bathing was one of the joys of my life, and has remained so almost until my present age
An Autobiography

Christie is just one of many women who have shared their love of the sport so eloquently. She featured in a recent book about female surfers, and the pioneering women through the ages who have taken on the sport. She Surf: The Rise of Female Surfing, edited by gestalten and co-edited by Lauren L. Hill is an inspiring read, which also features the aforementioned picture of Agatha Christie.

After delving into Christie’s passion for surfing, it is surprising to read that it has only been in the last three decades that women’s participation in the sport has markedly increased. Women now make up 20 to 30 percent of surfers, and happily that number continues to grow, but it has previously been dominated by men. It seems Christie did not let that put her off.

In She Surf we are told that “The Hawaiin word for surf, nalu, also translates as “to investigate, to search after truth and the origin of things.”” This feels particularly poignant, bearing in mind what we know of Christie’s writing prowess, and her interest in the ‘how and why’ within her books.

Agatha Christie also showcased her love of surfing through the novel The Man in the Brown Suit. Her vivacious protagonist, Anne Beddingfeld, or "Anna the Adventuress" as the character nicknames herself, goes surfing in Cape Town and it is hard not to read her words as those of Agatha Christie, bearing in mind what we know about the author's passion for the sport.

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. I would not be beaten. 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.
Anne Beddingfeld, The Man in the Brown Suit
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We are excited to tune into the Olympics, and to imagine the excitement and freedom Agatha Christie felt when taking on this fascinating sport.

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