The Father of Surfing Turns 125 Years Old

Duke Kahanamoku revived surfing in Hawaii and eventually brought the sport to the mainland. As a high-profile athlete, he also faced racism in the Olympics and at home.

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Aug 24 2015, 9:35pm

Photo courtesy Flickr user Loren Javier

Paul Strauch, Jr., likes to tell this story about his friend and mentor Duke Kahanamoku. After Strauch joined the Duke Kahanamoku Surf Team in the mid-1960s, he often accompanied the legendary Hawaiian waterman on promotional trips to the mainland. One time, at a contest in Huntington Beach, Strauch and Duke were watching the awards ceremony together when the third-place finisher came up to receive his trophy.

"The guy takes the trophy, doesn't shake the presenter's hand, walks past the beauty queen, hurls the trophy into the garbage can, and stomps off the stage," recalled Strauch, who was recently inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame. "I said, 'Hey, Duke, did you see that?' He said, 'Yeah, Paul.' I said, 'What do you think of that?,' expecting him to say, 'Not much sportsmanship.' He said, 'Gee, Paul, these guys really want to win. Isn't that fantastic? There really is nothing like winning.'"

Strauch punctuated the story with an infectious, honking guffaw: the Duke was still capable of surprises, even in his late 70s.

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This week, on the 125th anniversary of the Duke's birth, surviving relatives, longtime friends, and fans will celebrate Duke Kahanamoku's singular, extraordinary life. He was Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps before chlorine; he was Laird Hamilton and Kelly Slater before foam boards and leashes. He was Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and Jackie Robinson before integration; he was Michael Jordan before "branding." His life contained the rags-to-riches arc of a Horatio Alger tale and the tumultuous sprawl of a James Michener novel, but its essence was rooted in the epochal saga of Hawaii.

"Duke was the bridge between ancient Hawaii and the modern world," surfer-shaper-journalist Dave Parmenter noted in Surfer magazine. "He was the hero to your hero's heroes . . . the ultimate template for every great waterman and surfer to follow."

Duke Kahanamoku was born on Oahu in 1890, when the Hawaiian Islands were an independent kingdom. He became an American citizen a decade later, after Hawaii was jolted from its splendid isolation in an imperialist grab by the United States that also enfolded Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. A high-school dropout, Duke was encouraged to compete in swimming in 1911 by William Rawlins, a member of Hawaii's newly formed AAU chapter. Duke's subsequent ascendancy to international fame was made possible by his newfangled stars-and-stripes citizenship.

When Duke ventured to the mainland and then on to Stockholm to compete in the 1912 Olympics as America's top swimming hope, few people could locate Hawaii on the map. Winning the gold medal in the 100 meters, in a stirring, controversial final, changed that. He returned home a national hero, on par with teammate Jim Thorpe. Duke had to wait eight years—all while in his physical prime—to defend his Olympic title, after the outbreak of World War I resulted in the cancellation of the 1916 Games. He then took the silver medal in the 100 in 1924, at the ripe old age of 34, yielding only to the youthful and well-coached Johnny Weissmuller, also competing for the U.S.

Critics later tried to downplay his Olympic achievements, arguing that Duke won "only" three gold medals and two silver medals in his three confirmed appearances (1912, 1920, 1924). They overlook the fact that the number of swimming events in the early Games was minimal. Duke did not have the opportunity – a la Spitz or Phelps – to boost his personal medal count with additional events, distances, and relays. Perhaps more important, Duke brought excitement to swimming, not to mention world records. Dubbed "the human fish" and "the greatest aquatic athlete the world has ever seen," his well-chronicled rivalry with Weissmuller helped position the sport as a headlining Olympic event. Yet for all of Duke's influence on swimming, his legacy overwhelmingly belongs to the world of surfing.

Duke in Southern California in the 1920s. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

By the turn of the century, the ancient tradition of surf-riding was virtually extinct in Hawaii, its birthplace. Duke and his buddies started the very first surf club, called Hui Nalu, on Waikiki, in 1908, and established the (unwritten) rules that govern surf etiquette to this day.

There were no contests back then, so Duke didn't rack up championships like Slater has. The surfers had to carve their own boards from wood; these solid behemoths weighed as much as 150 pounds—board "technology" so crude that Duke couldn't possibly attempt the monstrous waves that Hamilton has navigated. (No one even thought about surfing the North Shore in wintertime.) Still, Duke and his pals returned the stoke to surfing, first among the children and grandchildren of the haole missionaries who settled in Hawaii and then among the tourists who visited and the servicemen stationed there.

Duke used his Olympic fame to become a Johnny Apple-surf of sorts, propagating the sport around the globe. His exhibitions in Atlantic City, New Jersey, immediately after the 1912 Olympics drew huge crowds, as did his many appearances along the California coast, from San Diego to Santa Cruz, beginning in 1913. The board he shaped on his first visit Down Under in 1914-15 is regarded as a holy surfing relic.

When he deployed his longboard to save the lives of eight would-be drowning victims off Corona Del Mar, in 1925, surfing made national headlines. "Duke became the public image of the surfer," historians Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul noted in The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing. "[His surfing] displays, covered by local papers, helped sow the seed of surfing on the mainland. Duke's graceful, easygoing and photogenic smile, in addition to his physical prowess, made him a natural ambassador for surfing."

In fact, Duke's image is so tied to swimming and surfing that few people remember the pioneering role he played in the birth of other non-traditional sports. He was among the first to participate in activities that didn't yet have names, including standup paddling (SUP) and aquaplaning (precursor to water-skiing). Duke brought the nascent sport of beach volleyball from Hawaii to the sands of Southern California, where it generated its own following.

His influence extended beyond the sports. When Duke and his fellow beachboys put catching waves at the center of their universe rather than chasing the 9-to-5 grind, they forged the "Hey, brah" lifestyle that others have come to value and emulate. Their uniform was board shorts and ukuleles, not business suits and briefcases; one of Duke's first major endorsement deals was to promote "aloha-wear," those garishly colored shirts and swim trunks that scream leisure and pleasure.

Duke, left, with his brother. Photo courtesy Bettman Collection, Wikimedia Commons

Duke Kahanamoku was among the handful of non-white athletes who were able to succeed at a time when, for instance, African-Americans were barred from major league sports and most collegiate sports programs. His Hawaiian roots were considered exotic, even erotic, and he dealt with prejudice at every turn. In 1911, after he shattered two world records at a swim meet in Honolulu harbor, sports powerbrokers refused to accept that a "kanaka" (a pejorative term for Hawaiian) could swim faster than a white man. Once Duke proved himself by winning the gold medal at the 1912 Olympics, their reasoning changed: Duke was fast because he was pure-blood Hawaiian.

On the mainland, Duke was denied service at restaurants because of his skin color. When he moved to Los Angeles in the 1920s to pursue a movie career, Hollywood studios weren't prepared to have a dark-skinned man play the hero and get the girl. Duke was offered only extra roles portraying "ethnics" (Arabs, Native Americans, Mexicans). Of course, when a champion swimmer who was white came along, the Anglo was made an icon: Johnny Weissmuller, Duke's archrival in the pool, played Tarzan for a decade.

He confronted racism by competing at private athletic clubs with restricted membership and whipping their white hopes. When he traveled to California and discovered that the "public" beaches were reserved for whites, he grabbed his board, caught waves up and down the coast, and dared authorities to stop him. (They didn't.) He had an affair with tobacco heiress Doris Duke, as well as other white women, at a time when inter-race relations were considered taboo (or worse), and was photographed tandem surfing with white women straddling his broad, bronzed shoulders. He later married a white divorcee and, together, they bought a home near Diamond Head in what was previously an all-white neighborhood.

Duke was never a firebrand. He was a humble man of few words. But he understood his value as a high-profile athlete, and used that status to fight injustice with quiet acts of rebellion. On his return from Stockholm, he shirked the arcane rules of Olympic competition, which held that amateur athletes could not receive remuneration for their talents, such as accepting a house and other rewards. Duke received a house through a trust in 1913 and later joined one of the first mass protests staged by athletes, when the 1920 U.S. Olympians united to decry horrid conditions onboard the ship sailing to Antwerp.

After his competitive career was over, Duke landed in politics. He became a stalwart of the Republican Party, a vocal advocate of statehood, and 1934 was elected sheriff of Honolulu. He was seen as a unifying figure that every hyphenate group on Oahu—native Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and haole—could embrace and respect. He was re-elected as sheriff 13 consecutive times, through Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and World War II, until statehood came to Hawaii, in 1959, after which the post was eliminated.

In the 1960s, an aging Duke was coaxed into commercial projects by a savvy promoter-manager named Kimo McVay. McVay aligned Duke with the next generation of young surfers who were transforming a recreational pastime into a lifestyle in Hawaii, Southern California, and Australia. Together, they created "surf culture": the staccato sounds of Dick Dale and his guitar, the popularity of a book turned movie turned TV show called "Gidget," the allure of chasing waves in foreign lands in "Endless Summer."

Duke embraced his role as surfing's elder statesman, though he did not condone the drug use that became associated with surfing during the 1960s. He officiated at contests, where he dispensed wisdom and aloha, and lent his name to the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational, first held on the North Shore in 1965, with four top-ranked surfers – Paul Strauch, Joey Cabell, Fred Hemmings, and Butch Van Artsdalen – signed on to take part. (The Duke, as it was known, became the Olympics of the surfing world for a brief period.) His name was slapped onto surfboards, skateboards, sneakers, and T-shirts; his eponymous restaurant-nightclub became Waikiki's hottest tourist attraction, thanks to a young entertainer named Don Ho, whom Duke personally recruited to headline there.

Duke died in 1968, at age 77, having watched his homeland experience tumultuous change: from an independent monarchy to an American territory to the 50th state; from an Edenic paradise of natural wonders to an American military hub along the Pacific Rim; from a dot on the map to a glittering tourist destination.

"He was a god-like creature in a way," said his friend Arthur Godfrey, a longtime radio and television broadcaster. "He gave these islands a new dimension, winning the respect of the world for himself and his people. What Longfellow's Hiawatha, and later Jim Thorpe, had done for the Native Americans, Duke did for all Polynesians, especially Hawaiians. Nor did the legend ever fade for one moment, all these years."

Following his death, his widow and assorted devotees labored to keep his name and his sprawling legacy alive. They succeeded in erecting statues of his likeness on Oahu and in Australia and in producing a U.S. postage stamp. A small chain of restaurant-bars, called Duke's, has opened with locations in Hawaii and in Southern California.

The Duke and Babe Ruth. Photo courtesy of Linda Ruth Tosetti

In 1999, with the new millennium fast approaching, media organizations around the globe assembled panels of experts to rate the greatest athletes of the 20th century. Surfer, one of the oldest of the surfing publications, put Duke on its cover and called him the "Most Influential Surfer of the Century."

Beyond Hawaii and beyond the surf community, however, Duke's achievements were overlooked. Mainstream media organizations—including ESPN, the Associated Press, London's Independent newspaper, and Sports Illustrated—did not rank him in their polls of the century's greatest athletes. ESPN pundits named three racehorses among their top 100 athletes and included the likes of Bob Beamon, who enjoyed one transcendent moment in a fine but ultimately limited career as a long jumper.

Thankfully, his 125th birthday won't be ignored. Crowds will gather next to Duke's enormous bronze statue that stands sentry on Waikiki beach and, by tradition, talk story (a Hawaiian idiom) about his love affair with Hawaii and the Pacific Ocean. They'll wander through the halls of the stately Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, in Honolulu, where a new exhibition of rare photographs, ancient surfboards, and wondrous ephemera is on view. In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Museum will display one of the behemoth wooden boards that Kahanamoku himself shaped by hand and surfed with.

"We're lucky that he was who he was to show the rest of us the way to be," surf legend Joey Cabell said. "He was never out front saying, 'I'm the Duke.' He was always in the back just being the Duke. His nature was so gracious and humble. The love he had of Hawaii and its people was a beautiful thing. He represents Hawaii."

At his essence, he was a waterman. One time, when Duke was returning to Hawaii from a trip to the mainland, the steamer he was travelling on halted in the middle of the Pacific Ocean after a stowaway was discovered. The water looked so inviting that Duke felt compelled to shed his clothes, slip on his bathing suit, and take the plunge in the liquid depths.

"Oh, boy, it was wonderful," he said later. "And more buoyancy, too, out there in deep water. I was swimming around there, this way, that way. No sharks. Just good, nice Pacific Ocean for a swim."

Happy birthday, Duke. Mahalo.

David Davis is the author of Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku (Univ. of Nebraska Press), to be published on October 1.