The Father of Modern Surfing
On a hot and humid summer day in 1963, my grandfather and I pulled the back
seat out of his stately Oldsmobile, exposing an unobstructed run of almost nine
feet from the back seat to the lip
of the trunk. Cars were bigger back
then. We made the drive from Point Loma north to Pacific Beach along the coast
route, admiring the quirky beach town sprawl that San Diego was famous for.
Along the way I craned my neck for glimpses of the waves almost by
instinct. I was just a kid, but I already had a serious case of surf fever
and we were on our way to pick up my first surfboard.
Duke Paoa Kahanamoku was born on August 24, 1890, in a large green Hawaiian-style cottage with white trim at the corner of
Kalia and John Ena roads
in downtown Honolulu, Hawaii. He was named Duke after his father, who had been named Duke in
honor of the Duke of Edinburgh's visit to Hawaii in 1869, but his pure blood
Hawaiian lineage can be traced back to the "Dowager Queen," Ka'ahumanu
who, it is said was the ali'i or member of the Hawaiian royalty who gave the
Paoa-Kahanamoku family their land. The Paoa-Kahanamoku family homes on an
acre of land near Waikiki were a central hub for the large traditional
polynesian family. Duke was
raised in the middle of it all along with his sister, five brothers and
innumerable aunties and uncles.
The late 1800's were a turbulent time in Hawaii. American commercial
interests, most notably the Dole sugar and pineapple business were playing an
increasingly powerful role in island politics and lobbying hard for Hawaiian
statehood. Upon the death of King David Kalakaua in 1891, the ancestral
rule fell to his young sister Lili'uokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch.
She was ousted in a coup a few years later, a fact that rankles Hawaiian
nationalists to this day. The coup was led by the powerful commercial
interests that had grown increasingly powerful in Hawaii, and supported by the U.S.
Navy. In short order, Sanford Ballard Dole became the first president of
the independent nation of Hawaii. Nationhood was short lived however and by 1898, the
American flag flew over
Hawaii. On April 30, 1900 as a result of the Organic Act that year, the ten year old
Duke became an American citizen.
Duke was baptized in the ocean in the traditional Hawaiian manner and often
remarked that he was more comfortable in the water than out of it. As a young boy he was taken out to
sea by his father and uncle in an outrigger canoe as a rite of passage. Once they were offshore,
the men threw him into the surf and, as Duke said later, "it was swim or
else." That marked the beginning of his lifetime career as a legendary
Growing up Hawaiian-style in the early 1900's meant savoring the simple
joys of life. Talking story with the extended family, singing along with the strumming of a ukulele or guitar, lots of laughter, good
food and of course the ocean. Waikiki Grammer School was situated across
the street from the beach, so when classes were finished for the afternoon, the
shoes came off and the kids hit the water. They surfed and swam, paddled
outrigger canoes and dove for coins tossed by
the passengers on visiting steamers in the harbor. They enjoyed the unconditional
love of a large polynesian family.
When we pulled up in front of the Pacific Beach Surf Shop, my eyes were
already scanning the lineup of shiny colorful sticks in the rack outside.
To me, surfboards have always had an almost erotic feel to them. The
smooth glossy perfection of the polyester gloss coat and the subtle curves of
rocker and rail make me want to close my eyes and run my hands along them.
To "see" them using a sense more intuitive than mere sight
Duke dropped out of school in his teens and became a beachboy, earning his
living by taking tourists into the waves, renting beach gear and putting on
exhibitions of surfing. He earned a living, but just barely, establishing
the minimalist approach to money that characterized most of his life. He didn't
smoke or drink and the years of swimming and paddling molded him into a superb
athlete. Grady Timmons1, one of Duke's biographers, described him
like this, "He stood six feet one and weighted 190 pounds. He had
long sinewy arms and powerful legs. He had the well-defined upper body
that all great watermen possess, his 'full-sail' shoulders tapering down to a
slim waist and a torso that was 'whipcord' tight." Duke also reported
had abnormally large hands and feet, leading the legendary surfer Rabbit Kekai
to remark that, "he had fins for feet." Photographs of Duke from this
era show a handsome young man with fine features and dark expressive eyes. The smile that graces his lips is at once both shy and confident. It's
easy to see the royal Polynesian in him.
The sport of surfing at that time was an almost forgotten art. As Duke
related to Joseph Brennan2, “surfing had totally disappeared throughout the
Islands except for a few isolated spots on Kauai, Maui and Oahu, and even there
only a handful of men took boards into the sea.” Duke and the other beachboys at
Waikiki were instrumental in revitalizing the sport and introducing
it to a broader audience. Duke had a passion for surfboard design and was not
happy with the rough eight foot planks that were currently in use. He was
constantly refining the boards he shaped and he pioneered the use of the
longer alaia and olo-type surfboards that allowed larger and more challenging
waves to be ridden. His group formed the first surf club, the Hui Nalu
around this time comprising the beachboys who clustered around the old hau tree
on Waikiki Beach. In 1898, Thomas Edison helped bring surfing back into the
public eye by capturing some of the surf riding action at Waikiki on one of his
first motion pictures. As the most prominent of the Waikiki beachboys, Duke was
dubbed the "Father of Modern Surfing."
We were on a mission that day, so I couldn't indulge in any board
fondling. We headed inside the shop to look for the manager, nicknamed Kahuna, who I'd
been pestering for weeks with this transaction. We found him in his usual
perch behind the counter with a crowd of local gremmies, skinny kids with bleached blond hair and sunburnt peeling noses
wearing their Birdwell trunks and carrying skateboards or
Churchill swim fins. Kahuna let them
hang around the surf shop in return for return for cleaning up and running
errands. I was totally envious, of their prized position in the world, but
today was my turn in the sun and my head was held high.
The Fastest Swimmer in the World
In addition to surfing and canoe paddling, Duke also had a passion for
swimming and, with his large hands and feet, was both fast and powerful in the
water. His brother Sargent remarked that when he swam, "Kahanamoku
Kick was so powerful that his body rose up out of the water like a speed boat
with its prow up." In 1911, Duke's swimming abilities were recognized
in a way that would change the course of his life. During one of his daily
swims off of Diamond Head, he was noticed by William Rawlins who would become
his first swimming coach. Rawlins was impressed with the twenty one year old
beachboy and encouraged him to enter the Hawaiian Amateur Athletic Union
championships. The contest was held on August 11, 1911 in the protected
waters of Honolulu Harbor and Duke swam the 100-yard freestyle in 55.4 seconds,
4.6 seconds faster than the current world record. Later in the day,
Duke tied the world record in the 50-yard freestyle, held by Charles M.
and swept the field in the 220 yard freestyle. After the race, sports
columnists in the Honolulu Advisor joked that Duke's size 13 "Luau
feet" helped propel him to his victory.
When the results of the event were telegraphed to the Amateur Athletic Union
(AAU) headquarters in New York, they were met with disbelief. How could an
unknown twenty one year old shatter a world record swimming in a murky flotsam filled
harbor? Despite the presence of five certified judges and a careful
measurement of the course, the AAU refused to accept the record breaking swims,
arguing that Duke must have been aided by some current in Honolulu Harbor.
Many years later, the AAU finally retracted their decision and recognized the
records but by then Duke had gone on to greater fame.
In 1911, Duke took the "Kahanamoku Kick" to the mainland to compete
in the Olympic trials held in Philadelphia. He qualified easily for the
100-meter freestyle in that event. A month later, in New Jersery, he qualified
for the 200-meter relay team, beating Daniels existing world record in the
process. At the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, it all came together
and Duke set a new world record for the 100-meter freestyle, winning a gold
medal in the process. He also won a silver medal as a participant
in the 200-meter relay. Duke and the native American Jim Thorpe were
personally called to the Royal Victory Stand to receive their gold medals and Olympic wreaths from Sweden's King Gustaf.
Duke became an instant sensation among the Europeans, many of whom assumed
that his name indicated a title rather than his given name. Sadly, he was
not accorded the same respect when he returned to the United States. On
his post-Olympic tour of the continental U.S., he experienced the racial
discrimination that was still rampant in parts of the country. He was refused
service by some restaurant owners, and was ignored by some members of the press
in favor of his friend and Olympic team mate George Cunha, who they referred to
as "The world's finest white sprint swimmer."
Over the course of the next twenty years, Duke solidified and expanded his
swimming career. He participated in four Olympic Games and won five medals
prior to retiring in 1932 after an extraordinary twenty year career. At
the age of forty two, he qualified for the U.S. Olympic water polo team and in a
trial meet, swam the 100-meter freestyle in 59.8 seconds, bettering the time
that had won him the Olympic Gold medal in 1912.
As soon as the Kahuna saw us, he stood up, well aware of why we were
there. He smiled at my grandfather, then silently nodded his head at
me. It was ready. He led us into the back room, and there on the
surf stands was my new board, a Duke Kahanamoku popout that only a clueless grem
like me could love. But in my eyes it was an object of almost unbearable
After the 1912 Olympics, Duke traveled extensively giving swimming and
surfing demonstrations wherever he went. On the east coast he
demonstrated surfing in Long Island, New Jersey and Atlantic City.
George Freeth was the first to introduce surfing on the mainland, but Duke's
highly publicized demonstrations in 1912 and 1916 got a lot of attention and
made a lasting impression. In Southern California, he surfed for
enthusiastic crowds in Balboa Beach and Corona del Mar, leaving a lasting
impression on the early pioneers of California surfing.
It was during these
trips that Duke caught the attention of Hollywood, paving the way for the many
acting roles he later played in early films. He later recalled "I
played chiefs, Polynesian chiefs, Aztec chiefs, Indian chiefs... all kinds of
chiefs." In 1948, he was cast with John Wayne as Ua Nuka, a
Polynesian chief, in the movie, The Wake of the Red Witch.
In 1914, Duke was invited to come to Australia by the New South Wales
Swimming Association. He was to take part in a swimming tour and surfing
demonstration. By that time he was known not only as the fastest swimmer
alive, but as an expert in the art of "board shooting," as the
Australian press then called it. When Duke arrived, after a two week
cruise, the first obstacle he encountered was the absence of a surfboard to
ride. Undaunted, he quickly made one from a slab of sugar pine donated by
Mr. George Hudson, who owned a local lumberyard.
On the morning of the demonstration Duke arrived at Freshwater Beach on the
north side of Sydney with his newly made surfboard to greet the hundreds of
spectators lining the shore. He was offered a tow outside the break by the
members of the local life saving club, but he politely declined and soon
outpaced them paddling through the breakers. Duke then proceeded to give
them their money's worth. In the words of the Sydney Morning Herald,
"...it must be admitted it was wonderfully clever. The conditions
were against good surf-board riding. The waves were of the dumping order
and followed closely one on top of the other. Then, too, Kahanamoku was at
a disadvantage with the board. It weighed almost 100lb, whereas the board
he uses as a rule weighs close to 28lb. But, withal, he gave a magnificent
display, which won the applause of the onlookers." As a finale, Duke
enticed a local girl, Isabel Letham, to be his partner and demonstrated what was
certainly the first example of tandem surfing in Australia.
Duke Kahanamoku's surfing demonstrations in Australia had a seminal influence
on the development of the sport. He showed them what was possible, jump started
their ideas about surfboard design and inspired a whole generation of
surfers. One of his converts to the sport was Claude West, who
dramatically illustrated the value of the surfboard in surf rescue operations
when he rescued the Governor-General of Australia, Sir Ronald Nunro Ferguson
using a board modeled after Dukes. Claude was also the happy recipient of
Duke's sugar pine surfboard at the end of the tour.
My new board was nine and a half feet long, and followed a template that
the Kahuna said was close to the Phil Edwards model. The nose was semi-round
with enough rocker to avoid pearling. It flared into it's full 22 inch
width about a third of the way back from the nose. The rails were egg
shaped in the nose, then gradually transitioned to a semi-down rail in the
mid-section. Three redwood stringers ran from nose to tail, and the
whole board had a light transparent yellow tint. Over all, it was an
object of rare craftsmanship and beauty.
The Longest Ride
The high point of Duke's surfing may have been the famous half
mile ride he got during a huge south swell in 1917. Duke described it this
way in his autobiography, World of Surfing3:
"Strangely, it was more
as though the wave had selected me, rather than I had chosen it. It seemed
like a very personal and special wave — the kind I had seen in my
mind's eye during a night of tangled dreaming. There was no backing out on
this one; the two of us had something to settle between us. The rioting breakers
between me and shore no longer bugged me. There was just this one ridge
and myself — no more. Could I master it? I doubted
it, but I was willing to die in the attempt to harness it."
"Instinctively I got to my feet when the pitch, slant and
speed seemed right. Left foot forward, knees slightly bent, I rode the
board down the precipitous slope like a man tobogganing down a glacier.
Sliding left along the watery monster's face, I didn't know I was at the
beginning of a ride that would become a celebrated and memoried thing. All
I knew was that I had come to grips with the tallest, bulkiest, fastest wave I
had ever seen. I realized, too, more than ever, that to be trapped under
its curling bulk would be the same as letting a factory cave in upon you."
"... I made it into the shallows in one last surging
flood. A little dazedly I wound up in hip-deep water, where I stepped off
and pushed my board shoreward through the bubbly surf. That improbable
ride gave me the sense of being an unlickable guy for the moment. I
heisted my board to my hip, locked both arms around it and lugged it up the
"... I never caught another wave anything like that
one. And now with the birthdays piled up on my back, I know I never
shall. But they cannot take that memory away from me. It is a golden
one that I treasure, and I'm grateful that God gave it to me."
From the moment I tucked that golden slip of foam and fiberglass under
my arm for the first time, the "Duke" came to represent all that was pure and heroic and good in the world. That status only grew as I came to learn about
the astounding accomplishments he had made as an Olympic swimmer, as an
ambassador for his home state of Hawaii and as a major factor in rescuing the
sport of surfing from obscurity. My grandfather agreed to help me buy that
surfboard because he recognized the name on the label. As it turned out he got
me off to a great start.
In Hawaii we greet friends, loved ones
or strangers with "Aloha," which means with love. Aloha is the key
word to the universal spirit of real hospitality, which makes Hawaii renowned as
the world's center of understanding and fellowship. Try meeting or leaving people with
Aloha. You'll be surprised by their reaction. I believe it, and it is my creed.
Aloha to you.
- Duke Paoa Kahanamoku
This message was printed on the back of
his personal business card
Footnotes & References
1 Duke biography: Duke: Duke: The Life of Duke
Kahanamoku, by Joseph Brennan (1994)
2 Duke's autobiography: World of Surfing, Duke
Kahanamoku (with J. Brennan), (1967)
3 Another notable Duke biography: "Waikiki Beachboy. by Grady Timmons (1981)
Website honoring the Duke's Memory and
Malcolm Gault-William's surfing legends website: http://www.legendarysurfers.com
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