Duke Kahanamoku surfing Waikiki
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Riding the Wave
The "father of surfing," Duke Kahanamoku, born August 24, 1890 in Haleʻākala, Honolulu, was an American competition swimmer widely credited with spreading the sport of surfing.
His nickname, "The Big Kahuna" is taken from the Hawaiian word for a "priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession."
In his youth, Kahanamoku preferred a traditional surf board, which he called his "papa nui", constructed after the fashion of ancient Hawaiian "olo" boards. Made from the wood of a koa tree, it was 16 feet (4.9 m) long and weighed 114 pounds (52 kg). The board was without a skeg, which had yet to be invented.
At the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, he won a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle, and a silver medal with the second-place U.S. team in the men's 4x200-meter freestyle relay. During the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, he won gold medals both in the 100 meters and in the relay. He finished the 100 meters with a silver medal during the 1924 Olympics in Paris, with the gold going to Johnny Weissmuller and the bronze to Duke's brother, Samuel Kahanamoku.
Between and after Olympic competitions, Kahanamoku traveled internationally to give swimming exhibitions. It was during this period that he popularized the sport of surfing, previously known only in Hawaii, by incorporating surfing exhibitions into these visits as well. His surfing exhibition at Sydney's Freshwater Beach on December 24, 1914 is widely regarded as a seminal event in the development of surfing in Australia.
While living in Newport Beach, California on June 14, 1925, Kahanamoku rescued eight men from a fishing vessel that capsized in heavy surf while attempting to enter the city's harbor. 29 fishermen went into the water and 17 perished. Using his surfboard, he was able to make quick trips back and forth to shore to increase the number of sailors rescued. Two other surfers saved four more fishermen. Newport's police chief at the time called Duke's efforts "the most superhuman surfboard rescue act the world has ever seen."
For more on this famous surfer, click the vintage travel advertisement featuring "The Big Kahuna."