Remembering Duke Kahanamoku

Remembering Duke Kahanamoku

Posted by Hawaiian Isles on 1/24/2018 to Best of Hawaii
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Say Aloha to Duke Kahanamoku, Hawaii’s Ambassador of Aloha & Father of Modern Surfing.

On Kuhio Beach, a bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku welcomes everyone to Waikiki with open arms, and it's one of the most popular attractions in Hawaii.

No doubt when you think of Hawaii, the image of surfing pops into your mind. If you’ve been to the islands, it’s likely that you’ve given the sport a try–or at least watched others as they catch a wave. If not, you should add a surf lesson to your bucket list for your next Hawaii visit.

While winter is the season for those epic monster waves that pound the north shores of each of the Hawaiian Islands, it’s also a great time for beginners to hit south shores to learn how to ride a wave.

Here, you can take a lesson from the next generation of Waikiki Beach Boys who operate booths stringing along the sands of both Kuhio and Waikiki beaches. Also offering lessons in Waikiki is the Hans Hedemann Surf School and Ty Gurney Surf School.

Catch Waikiki’s gentle South Shore swells. Photo credit: Matthew Dillon via Flickr

Far from a trend created by suntanned dudes wanting to strut their ocean prowess, he`e nalu (meaning surfing or more literally "wave sliding") wasn’t even considered recreation by the ancient Hawaiians. It was actually an art form integrated into their culture.

The surfing ritual began as a kahuna (meaning priest) guided those who were mostly Hawaiian ali`i (meaning royalty) through a spiritual ceremony of building a board from the strong woods of the koa, ulu, and wiliwili trees.

Ancient Hawaiians considered surfing as spiritual journey.

When the western missionaries arrived in Hawaii in the 1800s, many cultural icons like surfing became kapu (meaning taboo). The missionaries were driven by religion and stressed modesty. As they enforced this morality to surfing, Hawaiians very quickly lost interest in the sport.

Renaissance of the ancient Hawaiian sport of surfing

Fortunately, surfing was revitalized on Waikiki Beach in the early 1900s, thanks to its international exposure from Duke Kahanamoku. This legendary waterman was one of the original “Waikiki Beach Boys”, who spread aloha by teaching Oahu visitors how to surf and paddle outrigger canoes.

Surfing was making a comeback but was still mostly an obscure and local pastime.
Duke was about to change that forever.

Olympic fame catapults Duke to international celebrity and sports superstar

He was a Michael Phelps-style sports celebrity of his era who rode his Olympic fame to promote both swimming and surfing.

Capturing a total of five swimming medals in the 1912, 1920, and 1924 Olympic Games, Hawaii’s “Father of Modern Surfing” revitalized the art form as he globetrotted for swimming and surfing expeditions that followed his Olympic fame. His advocacy of the sport will reach yet another a high note as it rides into the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Salt Lake Tribune, Sunday Morning, February 2, 1913

Most people had never seen anyone surf before, and Duke made it look like a lot of fun!

In 1914-1915, Duke won the Australian National Swimming Championship and popularized surfing “Down Under.” His surfing exhibition at Sydney's Freshwater Beach on December 24, 1914 is widely regarded as a catalyst event in the development of what is today a burgeoning surf scene.

He also sparked an epic interest in the sport while living in Southern California and performing in Hollywood as both a background and character actor. In that process, Duke made connections with people who could help him by further publicizing the sport of surfing.

The Surfing Legend Lives On

Duke’s impact was so great on a global scale that he was named “Surfer of the Century” by Surfer Magazine in 1999.

Standing on Kalakaua Avenue at Kuhio Beach, you’ll find a bronze statue of this surfing ambassador with his arms opened to welcome visitors to the popular spot with its gentle breaks and long, steady waves. No doubt the striking monument was draped in leis on Jan. 22, the 50th anniversary of Duke’s passing.

Each August, Duke’s legacy is celebrated at the annual Duke's OceanFest that features ocean sports that were near and dear to the legendary waterman’s heart–longboard surfing, paddleboard racing, swimming, tandem surfing, surf polo, beach volleyball, and stand-up paddling. It’s a great time to see how this Hawaiian hero continues to contribute to the aloha spirit.

The Duke Kahanamoku statue on Waikiki Beach. Photo Credit: Michele Meyer via Flickr



We hope you enjoyed our little taste of Aloha! If you ever have any questions or story ideas, please e-mail us at [email protected]!


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