Considered the father of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968) developed the skills that would gain him international fame as an Olympic champion, swimmer, and surfer.
Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku was born into an old Hawaiian family and was one of the last full-blooded Hawaiians. His grandfather was a Hawaiian high chief. As the eldest of six sons, he was named Duke after his father, who had been born during a visit by the Duke of Edinburgh and had been named in his honor. Kahanamoku was raised in the Royal Palace, although his father was a policeman.
Kahanamoku's father and uncle taught him how to swim when he was a small boy in the traditional Hawaiian way—by throwing him over the side of an outrigger canoe into the surf. He learned quickly and was fearless in the water. Growing up, Kahanamoku spent all his free time on the beach. As noted in Great Athletes, "he could swim as easily as walk." In his teens, he dropped out of high school to swim, surf, canoe, shape surfboards, and live on the beach. He and his friends were among the first to be called "beach boys." A tall, trim man, Kahanamoku was a leader among his peers. He never drank or smoked, rarely fought, and trained consistently. Particularly interested in surfing, he had the biggest board of anyone. His 16-foot board weighed 114 pounds and was patterned after ancient Hawaiian designs. Around 1910, he persuaded others to try using longer surfboards; theirs were around eight or nine feet, while his was now a much shorter ten feet. To propel his long board smoothly through the surf required power. A scissor kick followed with a flutter kick gave him that power. His "Kahanamoku kick" would later be adopted by freestyle swimmers after he began shattering world swimming records.
Kahanamoku developed a swimming style along with his famous kick that made him nearly unbeatable in the water, especially at long distances. He swam with his head out of the water and achieved maximum push with each stroke. His brother boasted to Malcolm Gault-Williams, writing for Legendary Surfers, that "when he swam, his Kahanamoku kick was so powerful that his body actually rose up out of the water, like a speed boat with its prow up." His large hands and feet probably helped him too. It was also noted in Legendary Surfers that Kahanamoku "had fins for feet."
In 1911, William T. Rawlins, who would later become Kahanamoku's first coach, timed him in a 100-yard sprint at the beach off Diamond Head. Impressed, Rawlins encouraged him to enter the first sanctioned Hawaiian Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) swimming and diving championship. In his first race, on a course across Honolulu Harbor, he shaved 4.6 seconds off the 100-yard freestyle world record.
Despite the race being officiated by five certified judges and the course being measured four times, including once by a professional surveyor, AAU officials questioned the unbelievable result and would not recognize it. They even asked if an alarm clock had been used as the stopwatch. Later they would retract that position.
Local fans knew that if Kahanamoku went to the mainland and swam competitively, he would prove the judges wrong. His friends raised the money for him to go to the United States and compete in the Olympic trials. He beat records in the 50-, 100-, and 200-yard freestyle and won a spot on the 1912 U.S. Olympic team. New fans called him "The Human Fish" and "The Swimming Duke," labels that were especially appropriate since, according to the New York Times, he would "at one time [hold] every freestyle record up to a half-mile."
Kahanamoku was 21-years-old when he participated in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. He won his first gold medal and set a world record twice in the 100-meter freestyle race. He also brought home a silver medal as a participant in the 200-meter relay. The accomplishments of Kahanamoku and outstanding all-around athlete Jim Thorpe caught the attention of King Gustaf, who presented them their medals and Olympic wreaths on the Royal Victory Stand.
There was no Olympiad in 1916 because of World War I. During this time, Kahanamoku trained American Red Cross volunteers in water lifesaving techniques and toured the nation with other American aquatic champions to raise funds for the Red Cross.
At the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, Kahanamoku equaled his own world record in the semifinals, then set a new record in the final of the 100-meter freestyle on his 30th birthday. He had to swim twice to win the gold medal, because the Australian swimmer claimed he had been fouled. The outcome of the second race was the same, a victory for Kahanamoku.
As the 34-year-old defending champion, Kahanamoku came in second in the 100-meter freestyle after Johnny Weissmuller (the first Hollywood Tarzan) at the 1924 Paris Olympiad. According to Legendary Surfers, he would joke in later life that "it took Tarzan to beat me." Though he was on the 1928 Olympic team, he did not win a medal. He participated in the Olympics for the last time in 1932 in Los Angeles. He won a bronze medal as an alternate on the water polo team. As reported in the New York Times, Kahanamoku commented, "I was 42 then. You begin to slow down a little when you get around 40. That's why I switched to water polo." Kahanamoku continued to swim and enjoy water sports. He never formally trained anyone, but he often gave advice to young swimmers on how to improve their style.
Following the Olympics, Kahanamoku cast about for something to do. He read water meters, worked in a drafting office, and did surveying. None of these occupations measured up to his stature as an Olympic gold medalist. He began accepting invitations to exhibitions and swimming meets throughout the United States and Europe, and eventually New Zealand and Australia. Wherever he went, he would demonstrate surfing as well as swimming. Thereby, he became an unofficial ambassador for Hawaii and for surfing. According to Kings of the Surf, Kahanamoku was "the first to exhibit tandem surfing and the first to demonstrate wake surfing." His long board surfing was recorded on newsreels.
In 1915, Kahanamoku introduced board surfing to Australia. He had brought no board with him from Hawaii, so he constructed one there from sugar pine. The concave design of this board gave it greater stability in the rough surf. On January 15, he rode the board for three hours at Freshwater beach, while demonstrating various tricks. Before the demonstration, the lifeguards had tried to convince him not to surf in the shark-infested waters. Afterward they asked him if he had seen any sharks. As related in Legendary Surfers, Duke said, "Yeah, I saw plenty." When asked if the sharks had bothered him, his response was "No, and I didn't bother them." He showed the Australians how to build boards before he left.
Some of the surf rides Kahanamoku took are legendary. Perhaps his most famous occurred in 1917, on a monster wave generated by the aftermath of an earthquake in Japan. The sight of the wave caused many people to run for shelter. Kahanamoku propelled his surfboard to catch the wave, despite its apparent danger. According to Legendary Surfers, he later related: "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." Though legend has lengthened the ride to many more miles, he rode the wave for more than a mile as it cut across several beaches.
In 1925, Kahanamoku demonstrated another use for the surfboard—as a lifesaving device. He and a party of actors and actresses were camped on a beach when a yacht capsized off Newport Beach, California. Grabbing his surfboard, Kahanamoku took off into the wild surf. Of the 12 passengers rescued from the yacht, he was able to rescue eight. Kahanamoku was instrumental in the development and manufacture of the giant hollow surfboards of the 1920s and 1930s and their adaptation to lifesaving work. His book, World of Surfing, written with Joe Brennan, was published in 1968.
Hollywood took notice of Kahanamoku when he gave surfing demonstrations in southern California after the 1912 Olympics. Soon afterward, he began a career as a Hollywood extra and supporting actor. He made more than 30 motion pictures, both silent films and "talkies." The films he appeared in included Adventure and Lord Jim (1925), Old Ironsides (1926), Isle of Sunken Gold (1927), Woman Wise (1928), The Rescue (1929), Girl of the Port and Isle of Escape (1930), Gone With the Wind (1939), Wake of the Red Witch (1948), and Mr. Roberts (1955). He played opposite John Wayne and many other stars.
Of his movie roles, Kahanamoku once said: "I played chiefs—Polynesian chiefs, Aztec chiefs, Indian chiefs, all kinds of chiefs." He also was cast as a Hindu thief and an Arab prince. Rodney D. Keller noted in Great Athletes that Kahanamoku "was physically well qualified for these chief roles because he was 6 feet 3 inches tall and had a majestic bearing and posture."
For a short time, after his early years in Hollywood, Kahanamoku operated two Union Oil Company gas stations. In 1932, he ran unopposed for sheriff of the City and County of Honolulu as a Democrat. Several years later, he switched to the Republican Party, but his political popularity remained undiminished. As sheriff, he acted as an unofficial greeter for the island.
When he left his sheriff's post in 1961, Kahanamoku was paid to greet film stars, politicians, and royalty. As noted on the "Planet-Hawaii" website, the Duke Kahanamoku Foundation was founded in 1963 "to assist young people in [Duke's] areas of interest—water sports, police work, and international relations." In his last years, he also was involved in water sports endorsements, contests, and a restaurant.
In the 19th century, King Kamehameha prophesized that Hawaii would one day be overrun by white men. Before that happened, one Hawaiian man would bring fame to the islands. To many in his generation, Kahanamoku was that man. He died of a heart attack in Honolulu on January 22, 1968. His ashes were placed in the sea, from which he believed he had come.
The Big Book of Halls of Fame in the United States and Canada, edited by Paul Soderberg and Helen Washington, Bowker, 1977.
Great Athletes, Salem Press, 1992.
Olney, Ross R. and Richard W. Graham, Kings of the Surf, G.P.Putnam's Sons, 1969.
Truitt, Evelyn Mack, Who Was Who on Screen, Bowker, 1983.
Wallechinsky, David, The Complete Book of the Olympics, Penguin, 1984.
New York Times, January 23, 1968.
"Duke Kahanamoku, Father of Surfing," Watermen, Surf Culture website, http://www.surfart.com/duke-kahanamoku/Duke.html (October 27, 1999).
"Legendary Surfer Duke Paoa Kahanamoku," Legendary Surfers, Volume 1, Chapter 5, http://www.best.com/malcolm/surf/legends/duke.shtml(October 27, 1999).
"Memories of Duke," Planet Hawaii … website http://planethawaii.com/duke/memories.htm (October 17, 1999).
"The Outrigger Duke Kahanmoku Foundation," Planet Hawaii … website http://planet-hawaii.com/duke/ (October 17, 1999).