Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku

(1890-1968)

DJ Name: DJ Duke Silver

“Let’s go to the beach-each, let’s go get a wave. – Nicki Minaj” – Duke Kahanamoku. Bad bitches like him are hard to come by. And by “bad bitch” we mean “super star surfer,” because even when the tide was high, Duke was holding on. Like a fish takes to water, Duke also…took to water as a young boy growing up in Hawaii and later became known as the father of modern surfing, brah. The Big Kahuna made waves as he reinvigorated Hawaiians’ love for and ties to surfing, and he lived through some pivotal moments on the islands. But before we take a lewk back at Duke’s life, he asks that you hang loose and crank up his playlist of favorite tunes. We must agree that they’re pretty far out, dude.

Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku was born on August 24, 1890, in Honolulu. He had five brothers and three sisters, and he grew up in Waikiki with his siblings and 31 Paoa cousins. His dad, also named Duke, was a policeman, and his mom was super religious and was a huge proponent of the importance of ohana. Both sides of Duke’s ohana were relatively prominent as lower-ranking nobles who were in service to royalty. Duke learned early on that he was most at home in the water. His toddler days of splashing around turned into swimming and surfing and wowing his fam with his skills. “Water you doing out there?!” they’d shout, but Duke was too busy befriending more fishies. 

Duke went to elementary school and entered Kamehameha Industrial School, but he dropped out before graduating so he could work and support his family. Because ohana means family and family means no one gets left behind or forgotten *aw*. For his first few jobs, he transported ice, shined shoes and sold newspapers. In his free time, he headed straight for the ocean. Early on, Duke used a traditional surfboard which he called his “papa nui,” which was made out of ancient Hawaiian olo boards. Hawaiian surfing dates back many centuries when Polynesians had the islands all to themselves. They used the stars to navigate, and Polynesian explorers said “I like what I sea here,” and settled with their surfboards among the island flora and fauna. Olo boards, which are long and narrow, were traditionally reserved for the chiefs, while alaia boards, which are short and thin, were for the commoners. Duke’s 16-foot-long, 114-pound olo board was made from koa tree wood. In Hawaiian, koa means “bold” or “brave” and that’s exactly how Duke presented himself on his koa olo board. As his career progressed and surfing tech advanced, Duke always preferred a wooden board.

In 1911, at 21 years old, Duke made his debut. He entered into the Amateur Athletic Union Championships of Hawaii, and he performed swimmingly. Freestyling in Honolulu Harbor, Duke whizzed past his competition and finished first in the 100-yard race at just 55.4 seconds. For the cherry on top, he shaved 4.6 seconds off the world record. And he wasn’t done yet: he also broke the record in the 200-yard race and equaled the 50-yard race record. But the Amateur Athletic Union said “aqua’nt believe it!” and refused to recognize his wins for many years because they thought that timers misread their watches and that the ocean currents helped him. He was one with water after all, right? A year later DJ Duke Silver qualified for the Olympics in Stockholm and won the gold medal for the 100-meter freestyle race as well as the silver with the U.S. men’s team for the 4×200 meter freestyle relay. A week later, Duke really made a splash and set a new record in Germany. What can we say, Kahanamoku kould kick but the world didn’t necessarily love him for it. 

His Olympic journeys continued on throughout his life and it seems like everytime the Duke competed he faced controversy. Judges were not fans of his fins (read: feet) and during the 1920 Olympics after the Duke lowered his own world record to 1:00.4 for the 100-meter freestyle, an Australian by the name of “Wet Noodle William Herald” protested the outcome because he claimed that American swimmer, Norman Ross, peed in his lane during the race. Ew. Ok, jk. Herald actually claimed that Norman fouled him (does that mean he was splashed?).  Olympic officials repeated the final and Duke won again. The Duke freestyled his way into another set of Olympic games four years later in Paris and returned to Hawaii with a silver medal for the 100-meter race. 

Along with his life as an Olympian, Duke also flexed his fins and competed in other swim meets and it was during these travels that he popularized surfing. From coast to coast in the U.S. and on the shores of Australia, Duke Kahanamoku became known as the “Father of Modern Surfing” because he spread his love for surfing, especially to kiddos who had access to water and could use surfing or swimming as a form of fitness. Along with the surfboard skillz Duke shared, many people were also inspired by his keep calm and swim on mentality which was grounded in the Hawaiian spirit of aloha. Sure aloha means “hello” and “goodbye” but it was also an expression of love, generosity and patience to those around you. Duke Kahanamoku said that aloha is his creed. While Duke was the “Father of Modern Surfing,” he was also the “Ambassador of Aloha.” 

While in Southern California, Duke decided to do more than catch waves and performed as a background actor in a few films. He also got involved with the Los Angeles Athletic Club to work as a lifeguard because life by the pool was cool. One day in The OC, a fishing vessel capsized in heavy surf while attempting to make its way back to the city’s harbor. Using his surfboard, Duke made multiple trips from shore to sea and rescued eight men by hoisting them onto his board with each trip. He shared

“Don’t ask me how I made it, for it was just one long nightmare of trying to shove through what looked like a low Niagara Falls,” Kahanamoku said. “I brought one victim on my board, then two on another trip, possibly three on another, then back for one. It was a delirious shuttle system. In a matter of minutes, we were making rescues. (People were) screaming, gagging, thrashing. Some victims we could not save at all. We lost count of the number of trips we made. Without the boards, we would probably not have been able to rescue a single person.”

Now, because of Duke, lifeguards use surfboards as standard equipment for water rescue.

Kahanamoku eventually said see ya lei’ter to the states and returned to his home of Hawaii where he ran for Sheriff in Honolulu, won and served in that position for 13 consecutive terms from 1932-1961. He also married his love, Nadine Alexander in 1940. One could say she had him at “Aloha.” Duke became the first person inducted into both the Swimming Hall of Fame and the Surfing Hall of Fame. But his recognitions don’t stop there because Duke also became a member of the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. After an extraordinary life of chasin’ waves, teaching cutbacks, collecting medals and spreading the aloha spirit, Duke Kahanamoku passed away on January 22, 1968 at the age of 77. His ashes were scattered into the ocean. Duke remains a surf icon and inspiration for the aloha lifestyle. 

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