The Father of Surfing

Known as the “father of surfing,” Duke Kahanamoku was the greatest Hawaiian waterman of his day, and perhaps of all time. While Duke did not invent the sport of surfing, he helped to revive the sport of kings at a crucial time in history. At the turn of the 20th century, surfing had nearly gone extinct due to 80 years of missionary influence. Not only did Kahanamoku help resurrect the ancient sport in Hawaii, he also helped spread the sport around the world. Born in downtown Honolulu on August 24, 1890, Duke Paoa Kahanamoku grew up in the eastern end of Waikiki where the Hilton Hawaiian Village now stands. The oldest of 10 siblings, Duke spent his youth on the beach, swimming, surfing, paddling canoe and diving with the Waikiki Beachboys. Kahanamoku first achieved international acclaim at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm by winning the gold medal in the 100 meter freestyle, and setting an Olympic record of 63.4 seconds in the process. Earning an additional silver medal in the 4×200 meter freestyle relay for the United States, Duke was an instant celebrity. Due to this popularity, Duke was invited around the world to give swimming exhibitions. In 1914, Kahanamoku traveled to Sydney, Australia for a demonstration. While at Freshwater Beach, Duke cut down a tree and shaped himself a surfboard (which is still displayed at the Freshwater Surf Lifesaving Club). He then proceeded to dazzle the crowd on the beach with his prowess and grace surfing. After Australia, Duke traveled to the North Island of New Zealand and introduced surfing to the Kiwis at Lyall Bay in Wellington. With no 1916 Olympics due to World War I, Kahanamoku once more competed in the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium. Again, Duke won the gold medal for the 100 meter freestyle, and also earned a second gold medal in the 4×200 meter freestyle relay. Duke’s last Olympic medal was at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where he won a silver medal in the 100 meter freestyle. Moving to Los Angeles, Duke began a decade long career in Hollywood. Appearing in about 20 films, Duke’s movie career spanned from the end of the silent movie era into the “talkies.” Returning to Hawaii in the early 1930s, Duke was elected Sheriff of Honolulu in 1934, a position he held until 1961. After Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, Kahanamoku acted as the Ambassador of Aloha, greeting Presidents and royalty visiting the islands. He even danced the hula with Queen Elizabeth during her visit in 1966. Duke was the first person to be inducted in both the swimming and surfing halls of fame. He died in 1968 at the age of 77. A 9-foot bronze statue was installed in 1990 on Kuhio Beach in Waikiki to celebrate Duke’s 100th birthday. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring the “father of surfing.”

Written By: