Duke Kahanamoku

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Duke Kahanamoku
Duke Kahanamoku (1915 postcard)
Personal information
Full name Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku
Nickname(s) "The Duke," "The Big Kahuna"
Nationality  United States
Born (1890-08-24)August 24, 1890
Haleʻākala, Honolulu, Hawaii
Died January 22, 1968(1968-01-22) (aged 77)
Honolulu, Hawaii[1]
Height 6 ft (180 cm)[1]
Weight 190 lb (86 kg)[1]
Sport Swimming
Stroke(s) Freestyle
Club The Beach Boys

Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku (August 24, 1890 – January 22, 1968) was a Hawaiian-American competition swimmer who was also known as an actor, lawman, early beach volleyball player and businessman credited with spreading the sport of surfing.[2] Kahanamoku was a five-time Olympic medalist in swimming.

Early years[edit]

His birthplace is disputed with many sources stating Haleakalā on Maui or Waikiki on Oahu. According to Kahanamoku, he stated he was born at Honolulu at Haleʻākala, the home of Bernice Pauahi Bishop which was later converted into the Arlington Hotel.[3] He had five brothers and three sisters, including Samuel Kahanamoku. In 1893, the family moved to Kālia, Waikiki (near the present site of the Hilton Hawaiian Village), to be closer to his mother's parents and family. Duke grew up with his siblings and 31 Paoa cousins.[2]:17 Duke attended the Waikiki Grammar School, Kaahumanu School, and the Kamehameha Schools, although he never graduated because he had quit to help support the family.[4]

"Duke" was not a title or a nickname, but a given name. He was named after his father, Duke Halapu Kahanamoku, who was christened by Bernice Pauahi Bishop in honor of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who was visiting Hawaii at the time. The younger Duke, as eldest son, inherited the name. His father was a policeman. His mother Julia Paʻakonia Lonokahikina Paoa was a deeply religious woman with a strong sense of family ancestry.

When Duke became a household name due to his swimming feats, many people assumed he was of Hawaiian royalty. It was assumed by many that he was a duke and that it was his title. He was a very modest and unassuming man who got a chuckle of being thought of as royalty and never hesitated to set the record straight about his lineage.[4]

Although not of royal birth, his parents were from prominent Hawaiian families; the Kahanamoku and the Paoa clans were considered to be lower-ranking chiefs or nobles, who were of service to the aliʻi nui or royalty.[3] His paternal grandparents were Kahanamoku and grandmother Kapiolani Kaoeha,[5] a descendant of King Alapainui. They were kahu, retainers and trusted advisors of the Kamehamehas, whom they were related to. His maternal grandparents Paoa, son of Paoa Hoolae and Hiikaalani, and Mele Uliama were also of chiefly descent.[2]:9[6]

Growing up on the outskirts of Waikiki, Kahanamoku spent his youth as a bronzed beach boy. At Waikiki Beach 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 career, he would often use smaller boards but always preferred those made of wood.

On August 11, 1911, Kahanamoku was timed at 55.4 seconds in the 100 yards (91 m) freestyle, beating the existing world record by 4.6 seconds, in the salt water of Honolulu Harbor. He also broke the record in the 220 yd (200 m) and equaled it in the 50 yd (46 m). But the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), in disbelief, would not recognize these feats until many years later. The AAU initially claimed that the judges must have been using alarm clocks rather than stopwatches and later claimed that ocean currents aided Kahanamoku.[7]

Career and legacy[edit]

The Salt Lake Tribune featuring Duke Kahanamoku in 1913

Kahanamoku easily qualified for the U.S. Olympic swimming team in 1912, breaking the record for the 200 meter freestyle in his trial heat for the 4×200 relay. He went on to win a gold medal in the 100 meter freestyle in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, and a silver with the relay team. During the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, he won gold medals both in the 100 meters (bettering fellow Hawaiian Pua Kealoha) 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. At age 34, this was Kahanamoku's last Olympic medal.[1] He also was an alternate for the U.S. water polo team at the 1932 Summer Olympics.

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 these visits as well. His surfing exhibition at Sydney's Freshwater Beach on December 23, 1914 is widely regarded as a seminal event in the development of surfing in Australia.[8] The board that Kahanamoku built from a piece of pine from a local hardware store is retained by the Freshwater Surf Club. There is a statue of Kahanamoku on the headland at Freshwater. He made surfing popular in mainland America first in 1912 while in Southern California.

Duke Kahanamoku with longboard, Los Angeles, 1920

During his time living in Southern California, Kahanamoku performed in Hollywood as a background actor and a character actor in several films. In this way, he made connections with people who could further publicize the sport of surfing. Kahanamoku was involved with the Los Angeles Athletic Club, acting as lifeguard and competing on both swimming and water polo teams.

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.[9] 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.[10] 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."

In 1940, he married Nadine Alexander, who accompanied him when he traveled. Kahanamoku was the first person to be inducted into both the Swimming Hall of Fame and the Surfing Hall of Fame. The Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championships are named in his honor. He is a member of the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. He served as sheriff of Honolulu, Hawaii from 1932 to 1961, serving 13 consecutive terms. During this period, he also appeared in a number of television programs and films, such as Mister Roberts (1955).

A modern Hawaiian life guard's surf board ready for use.

Kahanamoku was a friend and surfing companion of heiress Doris Duke, who built a home (now a museum) on Oahu named Shangri-la.

Hawaii music promoter Kimo Wilder McVay capitalized on Kahanamoku's popularity by naming his Waikiki showroom "Duke Kahanamoku's", and giving Kahanamoku a piece of the financial action in exchange for the use of his name. It was a major Waikiki showroom in the 1960s and is remembered as the home of Don Ho & The Aliis from 1964 through 1969.

Kahanamoku's name is also used by Duke's Canoe Club & Barefoot Bar, a beachfront bar and restaurant in the Outrigger Waikiki On The Beach Hotel. There is a chain of restaurants named after him in California and Hawaii called Duke's. A bronze statue at Waikiki beach in Honolulu honors his memory. It shows Kahanamoku standing in front of his surfboard with his arms outstretched. Many honor him by placing leis on his statue. There is a webcam watching the statue, allowing visitors from around the world to wave to their friends.

On August 24, 2002, which was also the 112th anniversary of the birth of Duke Kahanamoku, a 37c first-class letter rate postage stamp of the United States Postal Service with Duke's picture on, was issued. The First Day Ceremony was held at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki and was attended by thousands. At this ceremony, attendees could attach the Duke stamp to an envelope and get it canceled with a First Day of Issue postmark. These First Day Covers are very collectable.[11]

Duncan v. Kahanamoku[edit]

Kahanamoku was the pro forma defendant in the landmark Supreme Court case Duncan v. Kahanamoku. While Kahanamoku was a military police officer during World War II, he arrested Duncan for public intoxication. At the time, Hawaii, not yet a state, was being administered under the Hawaiian Organic Act which effectively instituted martial law on the island. Duncan was therefore tried by a military tribunal and appealed to the Supreme Court. In a post hoc ruling, the court ruled that trial by military tribunal was, in this case, unconstitutional.[12]


Kahanamoku died of a heart attack on January 22, 1968 at the age of 77.[13] For his burial at sea a long motorcade of mourners, accompanied by a 30-man police escort, moved across town to Waikiki Beach. Reverend Abraham Akaka, the pastor of Kawaiahao Church, performed the service. A group of beach boys sang Hawaiian songs, including "Aloha Oe". His ashes were scattered into the ocean.


Year Film Role Other notes
1925 Adventure Noah Noa
The Pony Express Indian Chief
No Father to Guide Him (short) The Lifeguard
Lord Jim Tamb Itam
1926 Old Ironsides Pirate Captain uncredited
1927 Hula Hawaiian Boy uncredited
Isle of Sunken Gold The Devil-Ape
1928 Woman Wise Guard
1929 The Rescue Jaffir
Where East Is East Wild Animal Trapper uncredited
1930 Girl of the Port Kalita
Isle of Escape Manua
1931 Around the World with Douglas Fairbanks Himself documentary
The Black Camel bit part as surf instructor at 0:01:36
1948 Wake of the Red Witch Ua Nuke
1955 Mister Roberts Native Chief (as Duke Kahanamoko)
1957 This Is Your Life Himself
1967 Free and Easy Himself documentary
Surfari Himself documentary


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Kelly Murphy with Hallie Fryd (2013). Historical Heartthrobs: 50 Timeless Crushes-From Cleopatra to Camus. USA: Zest Books. p. 109. Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c Hall, Sandra Kimberly. (2004). Duke: A Great Hawaiian. Honolulu, HI: Bess Press. ISBN 1-57306-230-8. 
  3. ^ a b Nendel, James D.; The Pennsylvania State University (2006). Duke Kahanamoku: Twentieth Century Hawaiian Nonarch. ProQuest. pp. 1–13. ISBN 0-542-84320-X. 
  4. ^ a b Herbert G. Gardiner, PGS, Grand Historian. "Duke Kahanamoku Paoa". Retrieved 2011-03-22. 
  5. ^ sometimes spelled Kahoea
  6. ^ Brennan, Joe (1968). Duke of Hawaii. pp. 74–76. 
  7. ^ "Duke Kahanamoku. Notable Asian Americans. Gale Research, 1995. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007.
  8. ^ Osmond, Gary. (2010). "'Honolulu Māori': Racial Dimensions of Duke Kahanamoku's Tour of Australia and New Zealand". New Zealand Journal of History 44 (1): 22–34. 
  9. ^ "Kahanamoku Helps Save 13 In Launch. Hawaiian Swimmer and Others Go to Their Rescue With Surf Boards. Five Are Drowned". New York Times. June 16, 1925. Retrieved 2010-11-02. ... swimming star, Duke Kahanamoku and his fellow surf-board experts, were the ... of the beach here, credited with saving the lives of thirteen persons. ... 
  10. ^ Gault-Williams, Malcolm. "Biography: Corona Del Mar Save". Legendary Surfers. Hawaiianswimboat.com. Retrieved 21 November 2008. 
  11. ^ USPS - July 30, 2002 - Father Of International Surfing To Be Honored On New Postage Stamp
  12. ^ "Answers.com - Duncan v. Kahanamoku". 
  13. ^ "Duke Kahanamoku Dies at 77. Leading Swimmer of His Time. Olympic Swimming Champion of '12 and '20 in Freestyle. Best-Known Hawaiian". New York Times. January 23, 1968. Retrieved 2010-11-02. Duke Kahanamoku, the Olympic swimming star, whose international sports career spanned 20 years and who became Hawaii's best-known citizen, died today at ... 
  14. ^ Duke Kahanamoku at the Internet Movie Database


External links[edit]