Remembering The Father of Surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, on His Birthday
There’s nobody like The Duke. Never has been. Never will be.
Today, August 24th, is the birthday of the Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968). It is well known that the “Father of Surfing”, as he is affectionately named, spread the sport/lifestyle of surfing throughout the world in the early 1910’s. But few know how incredible his life truly was.
Although surfing originated in Hawaii centuries earlier, the missionaries that arrived in the early 1800’s branded it as immoral and banned it in 1821. Slowly surfing faded into obscurity, even in it’s homeland, and very few Hawaiians surfed by the turn of the century.
Born in Haleakala in 1890, Duke was one of nine children. His dad was a Honolulu policeman who named him after the Duke of Edinborough who visited Hawaii earlier in the 1800’s. As a boy he earned a living (it was common for kids to work back in the day) being a beachboy in Waikiki and also finding work at the Honolulu Harbor Docks. He would spend his free-time surfing the many waves of the South Shore with his brothers and generally had an enjoyable childhood. As he grew up, he and his brothers entertained tourists by surfing in Waikiki and performing tandem rides to their delight.
All this time in the water made Duke develop into a true waterman and an excellent swimmer. By the time the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm rolled around, the Duke was the fastest swimmer in the world! He won the gold for the USA in the 100m freestyle and set a new World Record, leaving his competitors many seconds behind. The 1916 Olympics in Berlin were cancelled due to WWI, but Duke came back at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp and won a gold medal for the 100m freestyle again, and also a gold in the 4x200m freestyle relay! He stepped down to a silver in 1924.
His Olympic success made him an instant celebrity throughout the world, just like Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt today. But instead of cashing in on endorsements, Duke wanted to share his beloved pass-time of surfing to the world.
Duke made the trek to Freshwater Beach, Australia in 1914 and perplexed onlookers with his wave-riding demonstrations. He constructed a board from a local sugar pine tree and skillfully navigated the overhead surf to the crowd’s amazement. He took a young woman for a tandem ride and instantly made her, Isobel Latham, the first surfer in Australia.
Kahanamoku continued to travel and perform wave-riding demonstrations through the 1910s. He visited the East Coast in New Jersey and gave demonstrations at several West Coast breaks. Both coasts had never seen surfing before his demonstrations. While he wasn’t the first surfer, no one did more in the way of popularizing the sport worldwide.
After his travels had finished, Duke led a peaceful life on Oahu and was the the honorary Sheriff of Honolulu for 25 years. Hollywood caught on to his popularity and appeal, and he appeared in several movies as a bit-part actor alongside the likes of John Wayne, among others. He was also the official Hawaiian greeter for dignitaries, celebrities, and heads of state until his death in 1968. Everyone from the Queen of England to JFK were giddy at the chance to meet the Hawaiian legend and posed with Duke in many photos.
Unfortunately, Duke’s dream of surfing becoming an Olympic sport was never realized (not yet anyway). Duke wrote in his autobiography that, “Even as early as…(1918), I was already thinking of surfing in terms of how it could someday become one of the events in the Olympic Games. Why not? Skiing and tobogganing have taken their rightful place as official Olympic events. I still believe surfing will one day be recognized, voted in and accepted.”
Although the Duke’s contributions to surfing are long out-dated, they are more cherished and respected than ever. The story of his infamous ride on a 20ft+ wave that broke from Castles to Publics (over 2 miles) is still discussed in surf media. A statue of Duke in a prime location sits on the beach in Waikiki. In 1999, Surfer Magazine put Duke on the cover of their collector’s “big issue” with the honor of “Surfer of the Century.” In 2002, the Postal Service immortalized Duke by putting him on a postage stamp that ended up being printed 62.8 million times – just about the number of surfers that Duke’s life has affected.