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.  

Waikiki Beachboy 

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 waterman

Growing up Hawaiian-style in the early 1900's meant savoring the simple joys of lifeTalking 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 allows.  

The first surf club, Hui Nalu

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 athleteGrady 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. Daniels, 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 beauty.  

Surfing's Ambassador

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 CityGeorge 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, " 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 beach."

"... 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 accomplishments:
Malcolm Gault-William's surfing legends website:

Copyright 2003 TheMeyerGroup All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission prohibited. Removal of this notice constitutes violation of copyright.

CST Approved