The father of surfing: Duke Kahanamoku, 1890-1968 | A Hawaiian swimmer who popularized the sport of surfing

Duke Kahanamoku c. 1912

Duke Kahanamoku with his surfboard,1912
This style of surfboard is known as a “Waikiki board”

Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku (1890 – 1968) was a Hawaiian competition swimmer who popularized the sport of surfing. A Native Hawaiian, he was born to a minor noble family less than three years before the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. He lived to see the territory’s admission as a state and became a United States citizen. He was a five-time Olympic medalist in swimming, winning medals in 1912, 1920 and 1924.

Duke Kahanamoku with his solid redwood surfboard in Corona Del Mar California in 1921

Duke Kahanamoku with his solid redwood surfboard, in Corona Del Mar, California in 1921

Growing up on the outskirts of Waikiki, Kahanamoku spent much of his youth at the beach, where he developed his surfing and swimming skills. 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. In his later surfing career, he would often use smaller boards but always preferred those made of wood.

Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku, 1920s

Kahanamoku easily qualified for the U.S. Olympic swimming team in 1912. 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 4×200-meter freestyle relay.

Duke Kahanamoku 1912

Duke Kahanamoku, 1912

During the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Kahanamoku won gold medals in both the 100 meters and in the relay. He finished the 100 meters with a silver medal during the 1924 Olympics in Paris.

Duke Kahanamoku is the Father of Surfing

Between Olympic competitions, and after retiring from the Olympics, 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 his touring exhibitions as well. He attracted people to surfing in mainland America first in 1912 while in Southern California. He trained and loaned equipment to new surfers, such as Dorothy Becker.

His surfing exhibition at Sydney, Australia’s Freshwater Beach on December 24, 1914, is widely regarded as a seminal event in the development of surfing in Australia.

* Duke Kahanamoku was an actor and an extra in over 25 Hollywood movies.

Duke Kahanamoku and Nina Quartero in Isle of Escape 1930

Duke Kahanamoku and Nina Quartero in Isle of Escape (1930)

Kahanamoku died of a heart attack on January 22, 1968, at age 77. For his burial at sea, a long motorcade of mourners, accompanied by a 30-man police escort, traveled in procession across town to Waikiki Beach. A group of beach boys sang Hawaiian songs, including “Aloha Oe“, and Kahanamoku’s ashes were scattered into the ocean.

Dick Mahi and his Hawaiian Paradise Orchestra – Aloha Oe

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