Surfing had been a popular sport in the Hawaiian Islands for centuries until the arrival of missionaries from Europe. The missionaries felt any sport done purely for recreation was sinful and discouraged it. Surfing began to die out, but was never totally lost.
In 1890, the man who would re popularize the sport of surfing was born. Duke Paoa Kahanamoku was born in Honolulu, Hawaii to Duke and Julia, who were full blooded Hawaiians and descended from Hawaiian royalty. Duke spent his youth on the beach at Waikiki swimming and surfing. He preferred a board fashioned after the ancient “olo” surf boards. His “papa nui” was made from the wood of a koa tree. It was 16 feet long and weighed 114 pounds.
At age 21, Duke won several freestyle swimming races in Honolulu Harbor. This was just a warm up for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where he won a Gold medal while setting the world record for the 100 meter freestyle and a Silver with the U.S. freestyle relay team. These were the first in his long Olympic career, medaling in the 1920, 1924 and 1932 Olympics.
Between Olympic gold medals, Duke was active in bring back the lost sport of surfing. He mixed surfing in with his swimming exhibitions, and many people saw the sport for the first time. In 1914, he first took surfing to California, where it was a hit. The active water sport fit in well with the California life style. His surfing exhibition at Sydney’s Freshwater Beach in 1914 is considered the beginning of surfing in Australia. There is a statue of him in commemoration on Freshwater Beach.
While in California in 1925, Duke was out surfing one day and a luxury fishing boat was capsized by a wave. With no regard for his personal safety, he swam out into the waves with his 15 foot surf board. Using the board, he rescued 12 of the victims from the heavy surf. The sheriff of Newport Beach called it, “the most superhuman surfboard rescue act the world has ever seen”. His rescue revolutionized life saving in America, as life guards revamped their procedures to use a board to help with water rescues.
As he got older, Duke eventually married settled down in Honolulu, where he became the sheriff and served 13 consecutive terms. In 1942, a case of a soldier who was arrested by Duke for drunk and disorderly made it to the Supreme Court. Hawaii was not a state yet, and therefore the case was heard by a military tribunal. The Supreme Court ruled the case should have gone to a civilian court.
Duke stayed in the water and became a surfing companion to Doris Duke. Duke died of a heart attack at the age of 77 in 1968. His ashes were scattered in the ocean at Waikiki beach as a group of beach boys sang Hawaiian songs. A bronze statue was erected at Waikiki beach in his memory showing him with arms out stretched and his surf board behind him. Many people wind flower leis on the statue’s outstretched arms to honor him.
Sources available on request