Duke Kahanamoku: the father of modern surfing

Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku was born on August 24, 1890, in Honolulu, Hawaii, just a few months before King David Kalakaua's death, when political tension was taking over the country's capital.

Kahanamoku, nicknamed "The Duke" and "The Big Kahuna," is considered the father of modern surfing.

The Hawaiian won five Olympic medals as a swimmer but also showed off in the movie industry, politics, and business life.

Duke had five brothers and three sisters. His father was a policeman, and his mother was a religious woman.

In his first years, Duke impressed everyone with his swimming skills and rapidly started winning competitions to become the ultimate Hawaiian waterman.

By the end of the 19th century, foreign missionaries had almost "erased" surfing - or the act of riding waves - from the Hawaiian Islands.

Only a handful of locals would hit the Waikiki rollers for a few rides.

Duke Kahanamoku: surfing Waikiki, his favorite spot

Always Active

However, Duke was in constant contact with the water. He would swim, surf, dive, and explore the multiple underwater spots of the island.

The young Kahanamoku finished elementary school and entered the Kamehameha Industrial School but never graduated because his family needed money.

Duke had to work to help pay the bills. He sold newspapers, transported ice, and shone shoes.

At 21, his swimming performances paid off; he beat the 100-yard freestyle world record by 4.6 seconds, but judges considered that race floats drifted, and the measurement was incorrect.

In 1912, Duke Kahanamoku wrote history for the Hawaiian flag. He won the 100-meter freestyle gold medal and the 4x200 relay silver medal at the Stockholm Olympic Games.

The sports world had a new hero. And he was an accomplished ukulele player.

Duke started touring the world to teach his famous "Kahanamoku Kick" swimming technique.

But he would change one country in particular. Forever.

On December 23, 1914, the dark-skinned athlete was the star of the first-ever surfing exhibition in Freshwater Beach, Sydney, Australia.

Freshwater Beach, Sydney, December 1914: Duke Kahanamoku introduces surfing in Australia

Medals and Public Service

Today, Kahanamoku's original pine surfboard is carefully kept at the Freshwater Surf Club. Duke and Australian surfers sealed an eternal alliance.

The star of the swimming world kept collecting Olympic medals (Antwerp, 1920, and Paris, 1924), and surfing was starting to become a global sport.

During his 30s and 40s, the Hawaiian waterman appeared in Hollywood movies, worked as a mechanic and lifeguard, and shared his swimming knowledge.

In 1925, Duke saved the lives of eight men when a giant swell hit the 40-foot yacht "Thelma" at Corona del Mar. The waterman made three trips to and from the beach to rescue a group of fishermen.

Duke Kahanamoku was the first person to be inducted into both the Surfing Hall of Fame and the Swimming Hall of Fame.

He met and worked with Tom Blake, married Nadine Alexander, and served as sheriff of Honolulu (1932-1961).

Duke Kahanamoku: the bronze statue erected at Waikiki | Photo: Luke H. Gordon/Creative Commons

The Ambassador of Aloha

In 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th US State, Kahanamoku was officially named State of Hawaii Ambassador of Aloha.

In the following years, he survived brain surgery and even danced the hula with England's Queen Mother, Elizabeth.

He lived 77 years and passed away on January 22, 1968.

Duke embodies the spirit of Aloha. His ashes were thrown into the Waikiki surf, and a bronze statue was erected in his memory at Kuhio Beach in Honolulu.

The Duke Kahanamoku statue welcomes everyone with open arms, and it is one of the most popular attractions in Hawaii.

But there's more. The Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon is a small man-made pool built in the 1950s, and it is often considered one of the best beaches in the United States.

"The Big Kahuna" lived through monarchy, provisional republic, republic, territory, martial law, and statehood.

He gave his life to surfing and touched the hearts and souls of millions of people around the world - what a splendid way to live life to the fullest.

Discover the best quotes by Duke Kahanamoku, and explore his eight commandments for living like a surfer.

Duke Kahanamoku: the redwood surfboard

Duke Kahanamoku in the Books

The life of "The Big Kahuna" has been the subject of multiple books and academic papers. Here are the most relevant publications:

Duke Kahanamoku in the Movies

The Duke starred in several short movies and feature films.

  • "Surfari"
  • "Free and Easy"
  • "This Is Your Life"
  • "Mister Roberts"
  • "Wake of the Red Witch"
  • "The Black Camel"
  • "Around the World with Douglas Fairbanks"
  • "Isle of Escape"
  • "Girl of the Port"
  • "The Rescue"
  • "Isle of Sunken Gold"
  • "Lord Jim"
  • "No Father to Guide Him"
  • "The Pony Express"
  • "Adventure"

Top Stories

The most successful competitive surfer of all time, Kelly Slater, rode what may have been the last heat of his 24-year professional career.

We can't choose our height, and 80 percent of it is genetic. But if you're into surfing, taller and shorter surfers feel noticeable differences in getting acquainted with boards, paddling for, and riding a wave.

Ryan Crosby is the new chief executive officer (CEO) of the World Surf League (WSL).

Nothing fuels more controversy in and outside the water than awarding scores for waves ridden in competitive surfing.