Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Surf's Up!

I love the new Hawaii Five-O. It is fun and sexy and filmed in Hawaii, the place I am determined to retire to in my old and hopefully rich age. It has guns and hot well muscled men. (My friends love to tease me for my lust of Scott Caan and Alex O'loughlin) Plus I just plain love Hawaii. All these things combined and I’m good. It also has a reoccurring character named Duke. Now I know what you all are thinking, what does a minor character on a TV show have to do with American History? Well I am so glad you asked. The character of Duke is so named for Duke Kahanamoku, the man considered to be the father of modern surfing.  

Duke Kahanamoku was born in Haleakala on the island of O’ahu in 1890. (At the time Hawaii was not a state nor was it a U.S. territory. In 1891 Queen Liliuokalani became the last queen of Hawaii. She ruled until 1893 when she was forcibly removed from her throne by some American Planters staging a coup– but that is a tale for another blog. ) He was named after his father, Duke Kahanamoku was in turn named after Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. Our Hawaiian Duke was one of nine children and spent much of his childhood on the shores of Waikiki. It was there he developed his surfing and swimming skills. Duke surfed on a board made of Koa wood that was sixteen feet long and weighed 114 pounds. Today’s surfboards are downright wimpy compared to old school boards.  That’s right all you surf loving boys out there reading this blog…you’re wimps.

In 1911 while competing in an amateur swim meet, Duke clocked in 100 yard freestyle at the time of 55.4 seconds, which was 4.6 seconds faster than the world record.  This was in the choppy saltwater of Honolulu harbor. (For reference, Michael Phelps who is arguably the fastest swimmer in the world can do 100 meter freestyle in 44.8 seconds)

Duke went on to qualify for the 1912 Olympics where he broke several more world records and won gold medal and silver medals. He also swam in the 1926 Olympics in Paris, winning a silver medal to Johnny Weissmuller’s gold. (Weissmuller for those movie buffs on the blog is well known for playing Tarzan for years. The standard Tarzan call used today in films and TV is actually a recording of Weissmuller) Duke also played for the water polo team in the 1932 Olympics. Interestingly enough, at this time Hawaii was still not a state but a U.S. Territory that is why Duke was able to swim for the American Team. Dude was a serious fish.

When not competing in the Olympics, and after he retired from competition, Duke traveled around giving surfing expeditions. These shows of surfing prowess helped to spread the sport around the world. You see blog lovers; Surfing did not start in California or in Australia. You hear me, Beach Boys? The world got surfing from those tiny islands in the South Pacific. Hawaii is where surfing began. In fact prior to about 1830, surfing had all but died off. It was considered as one of the “forbidden” vices by the Christian Missionaries who came to convert the Islands (Don’t get me start on this one, kids) 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. Duke carved the board himself from a piece of sugarpine he had found. He made surfing popular in mainland America first in 1912 while in Southern California.

My favorite of Duke’s amazing surfing feats was his “mile ride” in 1917. The coast of Japan had been wracked by an enormous earthquake and is often the case with oceanic earthquakes on the ring of fire, huge swells hit Waikiki beach. Our king of the surfers grabbed his 16 foot board and hit the waves while most everyone else was heading for the hills. Duke managed to stay upright on his board and surf the distance of roughly a mile and a half along the shoreline. Legend makes it out to be more like several miles, but it was really only 1.5, which is still darn impressive.

In 1940, Duke married Nadine Alexander and moved back to Honolulu permanently. He then served as sheriff for 13 consecutive terms. He became the first person to be inducted into both the swimming hall of fame and the surfing hall of fame.

In 1968, Duke Kahanamoku suffered a heart attack and died in Hawaii. A statue stands at Waikiki Beach in his honor. It is almost continuously draped in flower leis out of love and respect .

In 2002 a stamp was issued by the postal service honoring Duke. When the post offices on the mainland were asked for the Duke stamp many workers assumed the customer was asking for the John Wayne stamp.

Let’s say a hearty mahalo nui loa to Duke Kahanamoku for helping the world to get a little up close and personal with the sport of surfing. Surfing would have survived and thrived without Duke, but it would never have been the same.

There is a webcam focused on the statue, and Waikiki Beach, that is worth checking out.