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  • Andrew Cowell


Updated: Sep 28, 2020

Ua lehulehu a manomano ka ‘lkena a ka Hawai’i

(Great and numerous is the knowledge of the Hawaiians)

Let it be known that I’m not a Duke Kahanamoku historian. I’m just a 66-year-old body that encapsulates a surf-drunk kid. And as such, the “kid” needed some space, a remembrance, or a souvenir of his past, to commemorate sixty-six turns around the sun.

As a youngster, aged nine, and just getting turned on to surfing, my principle influences were my cousin, Encinitas local, Peter; Bruce Brown’s, THE ENDLESS SUMMER; SURFER magazine, and the five or six neighborhood, surf obsessed ruffians. At this age my parents, who weren’t all that excited with my surfing fascination, weren’t keen on me hanging around with the boys — all five years my senior. (A smart move on their part as the influences of these guys proved to be problematic in my upbringing.)

As I grew, I saw surfing and its attendant free and easy lifestyle as cultural currency, and I wanted to be as rich as Phil Edwards, Mike Doyle, and Lance Carson. SURFER was a quarterly publication then. Why Mom and Dad let me subscribe I’ll never know, but I’d anxiously check the mailbox as the delivery time drew near. At school I wasn’t the best student. I especially didn’t like reading, but when the issue did arrived I would devour everything about it. From cover-to-cover; read every advertisement and article, and putting to memory each photograph, wave and location, and the surfers who rode them. In those years Hawaii was the most featured locale, summer and winter. California got its fair share of attention, Australia too. But it was Hawaii that captured my surf-obsessed imagination. I was stoked on surfing, exotic Hawaii, and aloha.

Now, 55 surfing years later, and recalling those adolescent years, of all the great surfers in those early issues I came to admire, it was the great Hawaiian Olympian, “The Father of Modern Surfing”, the ambassador of stoke, Duke Kahanamoku who impressed me most. So much so that I created a shrine to him in a window-lit corner of my bedroom. In my mind, Duke was then, and still is the greatest waterman of all times.

To move forward with Duke’s story a little history is needed. In the Hawaii of the 1800s and early 1900s, had a cultural Endangered Species Act been in place, surfing and much of Hawaiian culture would have been catalogued. Facing extinction, surfing’s listing would have shown to be a direct result of the severity of the overly zealous, ultra-conservative, prudish by nature, and high-handedness of the Omnipotent Calvinist missionaries. There were pockets of outliers though. Places and individuals carrying on the grand Hawaiian institution of surfing. One such person was Waikiki native George Freeth Jr., the Hapa-Haole who, at the request of Alexander Hume Ford (more on him later) taught novelist Jack London to surf.

A little more history: The emergence of surfing on the world stage occurred prior to Duke Kahanamoku’s world-wide demonstrations. As an example, in 1907, Southern California land baron, Henry Huntington witnessed George Freeth Jr.’s surfing while in Hawaii. Seizing on a landmark opportunity, he hired Freeth, and in short order brought him to sunny Southern California in order to promote his Pacific Electric Railway and fledgling Red Car line. The Red Car, as Huntington billed it, was a connective artery to the promised land. Where, for a small sum, citizens of the inland valleys could escape the often oppressive heat and be carried away to the exhilarating coolness of the coast. It was at Redondo Beach that Southern Californians first glimpsed surfing. Sadly, Freeth died in the global flu pandemic (sound familiar) of 1919 while living in San Diego.

Back to Duke. One of my first remembrances of Duke is of a photograph that ran in SURFER magazine. It was a portrait taken by one of the greatest of surfing photographers, Ron Stoner. I think it was captured at Huntington Beach, during one of the annual U.S. Surfing Championships. Duke, sporting a classic pair of Wayfarer sunglasses, was resplendent in a classic Hawaiian aloha shirt: black background and white floral print. His rich Polynesian skin tones, and radiant face, sun-etched with lines of Hawaiian waterman wisdom and aloha, and slicked-back gray hair exuded the stately quality of Hawaiian royalty. Although not born to a prominent royal family, Duke’s ancestors were nobles in service to the Ali’i Nui — royalty. They were Kahu, retainers and trusted advisors to the Kamehameha’s.

From the beginning, the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean was as central to the Hawaiian way of life as eating and sleeping. Growing up a stone’s throw from the shore, the ocean’s influence captured Duke’s heart early. Under the tutelage of the Waikiki Beach Boys, (much like those five neighborhood upstarts I knew) Duke grew strong and wise in the ways of the ocean and its inhabitants. Early on, Duke’s father was told not to worry about his son’s ocean exploits. Wherever he swam or surfed the Amakua or shark would not bother him. Centuries of Hawaiian wisdom taught Duke to respect, but never fear the ways of the ocean.

Waikiki was then, and is now, home to the beach boy way of life. Mentored and coached by these experienced watermen; an education not gleaned in a traditional school setting. Here the subjects taught weren’t math, english or history. Duke’s subjects were the formation of waves, the effects of a reef on different breaks, and where the best fishing locations were. These men taught Duke a sense of environment. Their wisdom made the ocean a familiar and friendly place. Under their tutelage he was no more afraid of what might happen in the waves, as in crossing the street. Duke was taught and lived the principal of the ocean is your home.

As Duke matured, his swimming, bodysurfing and standup surfing skills advanced to a point where he became the best surfer around. Adept at using the tools needed to make surfboards — saws, planers, and sandpaper — Duke, in 1910 built himself a board measuring ten foot in length, and when finished proudly carved “DUKE” in the wooden deck. Innovative by nature, he was consistently refining his surfboards: a new shape, new contours, new balance, all in an effort to control the board in the waves, or in trying new approaches and developing new tricks. Surfing, he would say, was all about fun. In the waves he didn’t have to answer to anyone. The ocean was freedom. Here he was his own boss, saying, “I’m in charge... [I] do what I want.”

Enter Alexander Hume Ford, a malihini (newcomer) to Hawaii. As described in David Davis’ excellent book, WATERMAN, The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku, Ford was “an inveterate schemer and striver.” His fingerprints were on many organizations, like the exclusive Outrigger Canoe Club. His mission was to promote a Hawaiian paradise, its resources and people as the “land of opportunity for the quick, courageous white man and to aid the haole population in asserting greater control over Hawaii and the region. In this pursuit he found surfing. The first to publicize Duke’s surfing, Ford knew all too well that sport would become the cultural currency of the emerging modern world. In surfing he saw a healthful sport and exercise, exclaiming that surf-riding had no equal. In Duke he saw surfing’s image. Thus, he set about to amend his promotional to-do list; now to make surfing palatable for a white population.

Yet it was another haole who brought Duke to international prominence. William Rawlings, a Yale Law School graduate, and the assistant U.S. attorney for Hawaii was astonished at Duke’s raw strength and speed when swimming. Politically connected and ambitious, Rawlings had made inroads into the Hawaiian chapter of the Amateur Athletic Association (AAU). The AAU and its all-important National Championships were stepping-stones to the Olympics, and Rawlings knew that. But in order to compete, athletes like Kahanamoku, had to be members of an AAU sanctioned club. With prodding from elder beach boy, Edward “Dude” Miller, Rawlings pursued Duke and his fellow Hui Nalu members to register with the AAU and become eligible to compete on the national stage.

On August 12, 1911 the first AAU sanctioned Hawaiian swimming contest was held. Duke and the Hui Nalu were there. In the sprint events, Duke blew all comers out of the water. In the 100-yard freestyle sprint he smashed the existing one-minute record by 4.6 seconds. In the 50-yard dash, he exploded the existing record of 24.2 seconds by 1.6 seconds. So astounded were the onlookers that it prompted one Honolulu reporter to write: “On land he is like a fish out of its element. In the water he is a seal, or a whale, or a shark, or anything else that is popularly supposed to be born in the briny deep.” The Olympic legend that would be Duke Kahanamoku was soon to be cemented. At the 1912, 1920, and 1924 Olympic’s, Hawaii’s native son would bring honor and recognition to the Islands with three gold medals and two silver.

Recognized for his phenomenal athletic achievements, Duke traveled the world giving swimming demonstrations. Whenever there was an ocean nearby, he would also demonstrate surf-riding. The first of these was on his return from the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Arriving in Atlantic City, New Jersey, two surfboards he’d had shipped from Honolulu awaited him. Following on the heels of Freeth, Duke gave surfing demonstrations to electrified onlookers.

When not competing, Duke traveled internationally giving swimming and surfing exhibitions: America in 1912; Australia in 1914; and in 1925, while surfing in a heavy surf at Corona Del Mar, California, Duke, in a herculean effort rescued eight fisherman whose vessel had capsized at the mouth of the Newport Beach harbor entrance. Of the twenty-five onboard, only ten survived. The Newport Beach Police Chief stated, “[This was] the most superhuman surfboard rescue act the world has ever seen.”

Always, surfing held first priority for Duke. In 1965, his manager, Kimo Wilder McVay, along with the 1968 World Surfing Champion, Fred Hemmings, created a legendary surfing contest, The Duke Kahanamoku Surfing Classic. The invitees to the inaugural event featured twenty-four of the world’s best surfers. The Classic was to be held in the thundering winter surf of Sunset Beach, on Oahu’s North Shore in December. The contestants entered the water on December 15th, in eight-foot waves. The heats were stacked with big wave veterans: Mike Doyle from California was in it. As were Hawaii’s George Downing and Joey Cabell, and Peru’s “wild bull of Punta Rocas’ Felipe Pomar. Yet in the end, the unpredictable happened. A red-hot junior, seventeen-year-old Jeff Hakman took top honors, shocking the surfing world. Today’s professional surfers owe much to the Duke Kahanamoku Surfing Classic, as it created a firm foundation for the growth of surfing as a professional sport.

As one who reads almost everything Duke related, I think Matt Warshaw’s, ENCYCLOPEDIA of SURFING gives a real assessment of Duke and his surfing accomplishments. “[Duke Kahanamoku was] a skilled wave-rider, but his real gift to surfing was the way he presented the sport as something that could be practiced with grace, humor and generosity.” “You know,” he would say, “there are so many waves coming in all the time, you don’t have to worry about that — wave come. Let the other guys go; catch another one.”

Fred Hemmings in THE SOUL OF SURFING IS HAWAIIAN recounts Duke’s last surf. “Duke loved the ocean. He was 76 and after an illness that left him frail, he asked me to take him surfing. ‘Are you sure, Duke?’ I asked him. He wanted to go surfing, and instructed me to get out the huge, 13-foot board that was given him for his 75th birthday.... I asked myself why is he wanting me to get to get out this board? I could barely carry it. [He] emerged from the locker room with a plastic seat cushion and a paddle. I put the board in the water. He sat on the cushion and paddled... out to the edge of Old Mans surf. He caught a few waves sitting regally on his board, as the gentle waves carried him toward the shore as they had done for over 70 years. He paddled back to the beach with a smile on his face.” Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, Hawaii’s Ambassador of Aloha, passed from this earth on January 22, 1968.

Photograph - A. R. Gurrey Jr

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