Today, millions of people around the world will learn about the father of modern surfing thanks to Google’s doodle tribute to Duke Kahanamoku on what would have been the great man’s 125th birthday. Best known to the wider world as an Olympic gold medal swimmer and the “Ambassador of Aloha” (an official title decreed upon him when Hawaii gained state-hood in 1960 and his then-current position as the Sheriff of Honolulu was abolished), Kahanamoku was the world’s most famous surfer through the first half of the twentieth century and helped spread surfing as we know it from Hawaii to mainland USA, Australia and New Zealand.
Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku was born in Honolulu in 1890 and was the eldest of nine children born to Duke Halapu and Julia Paoa Kahanamoku. His father had been named in honor of the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh to Hawaii in 1869, and Duke shared this name although his family called him by his middle name, Paoa. A true Hawaiian, Duke was a natural waterman and excelled as a swimmer, bodysurfer, surfer, diver and paddler, often riding longer than average surfboards to allow him to paddle further out and catch larger waves and get longer rides. In 1911, aged just twenty-one, he left the Outrigger Canoe Club to form the Hui Nalu Club with two friends, and then in the summer he entered a swimming contest in Honolulu Harbor; Duke’s prowess as a swimmer was well known locally, but beating the world record for the 100 yards freestyle by 4.6 seconds suddenly thrust him onto a much larger stage. He travelled to the US Olympic trials a year later and broke the 200m freestyle world record, before winning a gold and silver medal for the 100m freestyle and 200m freestyle relay at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games. He competed in three more Olympic games in a competitive career spanning twenty years. On his way home from the 1912 Stockholm Olympics he stopped off at Atlantic City in New Jersey to give swimming exhibitions, and introduced surfing to the East Coast of America. Duke’s fame as a record-breaking swimmer saw him travelling widely to compete and give swimming exhibitions, and he often included surfing demonstrations in these visits. In 1914 he travelled to Australasia and on December 24th gave a surfing exhibition at Freshwater Beach in Sydney on a surfboard that he shaped himself using local timber, a moment regarded by many to be the dawn of Australian surfing. In 1915 he then re-introduced surfing to New Zealand.
Duke Kahanamoku surfing Waikiki in 1910, by A.R. Gurrey, Jr.
Duke spent significant amounts of time in Southern California at various times between 1915 and the early 1930s where he helped to popularize swimming and surfing as well as appearing as an actor playing small parts in Hollywood films – something that he continued to do until the 1950s. In 1940 Duke married Nadine Alexander. Between 1934 and 1960 he was re-elected 12 times as the Sheriff of the City and County of Honolulu, before being appointed the Ambassador of Aloha in 1960. Throughout the 1960s Kahanamoku’s fame and popularity were used for commercial gain, with his name being used by a bar/restaurant (a chain of Duke’s restaurants then opened in Hawaii and California in the mid-90s) and also to help sell various lines of clothing, footwear and surf gear. Between 1965 and 1984 the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Classic was televised from Oahu’s North Shore. In 1965 he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and then into the International Surfing Magazine Hall of Fame in 1966 – the only person to have been inducted into both. In 1968, aged 77, Duke Kahanamoku died of a heart attack at home in Honolulu.
Beyond the gold medals, world records and movie appearances, Duke’s greatest achievement was arguably sharing his beloved surfing and acting as an ambassador for both surfing and his homeland of Hawaii. He had the opportunity to showcase surfing as he knew it, as a graceful and wholesome pursuit, and as a result the act of wave riding spread around the world.
Surfing is fortunate to have had Duke Kahanamoku. Hau’oli la hanau, Duke.