"Mahape a ale wala'ua," Duke would say.
"Don't talk -- keep it in your heart."
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Under the Hau Tree | Olympic Gold, 1912 | Surfing's Ambassador | Duke Surfs Freshwater, January 15, 1915 | Duke's Mile+ Ride of 1917 | Olympic Gold and Silver | Corona del Mar Save, June 14, 1925 | The Father of Modern Surfing | Twilight Years, 1962-68 | Sources
During the first half of the 20th century, Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku -- known to most as Duke or The Duke, and as Paoa to Hawaiian and long time island friends -- "emerged as the world's consummate waterman, its fastest swimmer and foremost surfer, the first truly famous beach boy," wrote biographer Grady Timmons. Duke Kahanamoku is best known to surfers as, "the father of modern surfing. As a sign of Duke's importance to the sport, one of his early surfboards, with his name across the bow, is preserved in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
Born on August 24, 1890, "he was among the last of the old Hawaiians, raised next to the ocean at Waikiki," wrote Timmons. As the eldest son, Duke was named after his father. His father was named "Duke" in July 1869, following an official visit to the islands from the Duke of Edinburgh, when some families named their sons after him. When Duke gained worldwide recognition for his Olympic swimming gold medals, there were attempts made to link him to royalty, because of his name. Duke would always humbly reply, "My father is a policeman." Duke was baptized in the ocean according to ancient custom. His father and uncle took him out in an outrigger canoe when he was a small boy and threw him into the surf. "It was swim or else," Duke later recalled. "That's the way the old Hawaiians did it." Duke and his brothers were encouraged by both parents and, no doubt, other relatives as well. His brother Sargent remembered, "Mother used to tell her children, 'Go out as far as you want. Never be afraid in the water.'" Waikiki Grammar School was located directly across from the beach. After school, the only logical thing for the kids to do was hit the water. Attending the school along with Duke were his sister and five brothers; Sam, Dave, Billy, Louis and Sargent. "All we did was water, water, water," Louis remembered. "My family believes we come from the ocean. And that's where we're going back."
In his teens, Duke dropped out of high school and took up the life of a beach boy, gathering daily with other beach boys by a hau tree at Waikiki. This is where the original expression "beach boy" actually comes from. Together, Duke and his peers surfed, swam, repaired nets, shaped surfboards and sang. This group was the nucleus of what later became the Hui Nalu, one of the very first surf clubs. As the best waterman among the formidable group of young watermen at Waikiki, Duke became the group's leader. He set a good example. He did not drink or smoke and if he did get into a fight it was after being hassled and even then he would not punch, preferring to slap, instead. He seldom raised his voice. He used his eyes to communicate what he didn't vocalize.
Years of surfing, rough-water swimming and canoe paddling as a boy and then as a young man molded Duke Kahanamoku into a superb athlete. "He had glistening white teeth, dark shining eyes, and a black mane of hair that he liked to toss about in the surf," wrote Timmons. "He stood six feet one and weighed 190 pounds. He had long sinewy arms and powerful legs. He had the well-defined upper body that all great watermen possess, his 'full-sail' shoulders tapering down to a slim waist and a torso that was 'whipcord' tight." As impressive as the rest of his body was, his hands and feet were extraordinary. A veteran Outrigger Canoe Club member remembered that Duke's hands were so large that when he scooped up ocean water and threw it at you in fun, it looked like a whole bucket of water coming your way. "He could cradle water in his hands, cupping it between his palms, and just shoot a fountain at you. It came with great force. He would often cross his hands in the water -- slapping the surface -- and it would just be boom! boom!" Whether fact or fiction, some claimed Duke could steer a canoe with his feet alone. "He had fins for feet," declared Rabbit Kekai. "He didn't need a paddle."
Duke was among the few who dared ride Castle's, a primo surf spot at Waikiki, known for its size of waves on a good swell. Duke had the biggest board of anyone. It was a 16-footer, made of koa wood, weighing 114 pounds, and designed after the ancient Hawaiian olo board. To Duke, big boards were for big waves. An expression heard the most, when he caught a wave, was his yell of "Coming down!"
"Duke was never afraid of anything in the sea," recalled Kenneth Brown, a prominent part-Hawaiian who sailed the turbulent inter-island channels with Duke. They often sailed to the Kona coast, on the big island, where Brown had spent part of his youth. "Duke reminded me of many of the Hawaiians I had met there. Their sense of their environment was unusual. They didn't differentiate much between what was above and below the sea. They had place names for all the hills and bays like we do, but they also had place names for things down in the water. That's the way it was with Duke. The ocean was such a familiar, friendly environment for him. He was no more afraid of what might happen to him at sea than you or I would be of getting hit by a car crossing the street. The ocean was his home."
Duke favored traditional Hawaiian customs and manners. He spoke Hawaiian as much as he could, preferred Hawaiian foods like poi and lau-lau (fish), and saw more in the old Hawaiian surfboard and canoe designs than most anyone else of his time. In his youth, he was perhaps stricter about the traditional designs than he would later become. There's this story about a surfer nicknamed "Mongoose," who sharpened the rounded nose of his board so that he could more easily cut left and right across wave faces. Duke watched from a distance, disapproving, but saying nothing. One day, when Mongoose's pointed-nose board was left unattended, Duke "liberated" it and sawed off the nose altogether. Yet, Duke declared that even while he was still attending school, "I was fired up with a mania for improving the boards and getting the most out of the surf. I was constantly redoing my board, giving it a new shape, new contours, new balance. Others, too, began building new boards and experimenting in various ways. Everyone wanted to outdo the other. Apparently my enthusiasm was catching. No one was content to simply come up with the best possible board; everyone wanted to excel as a surfer -- and the rivalry was keen. I, for one, spent countless hours working at every phase of controlling my boards in the waves, trying new approaches, developing new tricks. When I wasn't at school, I was in the surf."
Duke once said, "I have never seen snow and do not know what winter means. I have never coasted down a hill of frozen rain, but every day of the year where the water is 76, day and night, and the waves roll high, I take my sled, without runners, and coast down the face of the big waves that roll in at Waikiki. How would you like to stand like a god before the crest of a monster billow, always rushing to the bottom of a hill and never reaching its base, and to come rushing in for a half a mile at express speed, in graceful attitude, of course, until you reach the beach and step easily from the wave to the strand?" Duke Paoa Kahanamoku was related by blood to Bernice Pauahi Paki Bishop, "the last of the Kamehamehas." In the period of 1909-10, he began to get others interested in longer alaia-type surfboards. "They grew from eight to nine feet or so," wrote another legendary surfer, Tom Blake, in his book Hawaiian Surfboard, published in 1935. "Duke's new one being ten feet long and three inches thick."