Duke Kahanamoku Part 1: Surfing’s Johnny Appleseed Inspires Australia’s Pioneering Surfers and an Entire Sports Culture

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Surfing is as Australian as vegemite. Champion surfers from Australia are commonplace. The image of an Aussie lifeguard on his surfboard to the rescue is now clichéd. Some of the biggest brands in surfing wear – Quicksilver and Billabong – are Australian. And even though the UGG Australia is an American brand, the company was started by an Australian surfer.

Australia is over 5,600 miles away from Hawaii. But when Duke Kahanamoku came to Australia in 1914, the locals must have thought he was from another planet. Kahanamoku was world famous, which is saying a lot for that time. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, a natural on the water, Kahanamoku was such an amazing swimmer that he got on the US Olympic team and won a gold medal in the 100 meters, and a silver in a relay race at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

Duke Kahanamoku surfing in Australia
Duke Kahanamoku, Cronulla Beach Australia, 7th February 1915

Thanks to the stunning photos of Kahanamoku standing erect on his board while riding the waves in Hawaii, and his accomplishments at the Olympic Games, Kahanamoku was invited to compete in swimming events in Australia and New Zealand. He had heard that surfing on the beaches of Australia was illegal, so he didn’t bring his board. But when he arrived and was told that surfing was in fact legal, he said he would build a board himself. According to author David Davis in his wonderful biography of Kahanamoku, Waterman, Kahanamoku went to a lumberyard, got the wood he wanted, and shaped an eight-and-a-half foot “round-nosed, square-tailed board”.

Kahanamoku wowed them. Davis quotes The Sunday Times (Sydney), from December 27, 1914:

Duke Kahanamoku in Australia
Duke Kahanamoku at the Freshwater Clubhouse, Australia, with the board he made on arrival

“Kahanamoku was the ‘human motor boat,’ wrote one observer. ‘So lightning like was the movement that all one could see was a dark figure – it might have been a post for all that the spectators knew – flying through space. We had known him only by repute; we had seen him in pictures in one of his famous attitudes – standing on his surf board, being borne shorewards on the crest of a wave, a smile on his dusky countenance, and there were a lot of us who imagined the poster to be grossly exaggerated; too theatrical, in fact. But we are wrong. The man on the poster is the Duke all right, but the picture errs on the side of modesty.'”

It is legend that Kahanamoku was the first to surf on Australian shores. But that is not the case. Brothers, William and Tommy Walker of Australia appear to have purchased a surfboard in Hawaii and brought it back to Sydney before Duke was on the scene. But there is no doubt that Kahanamoku, his presence, demeanor and skill, made him and surfing a phenomenon.

“Kahanamoku was the first expert to surf in Australian waters,” wrote Davis. “And, as he had done previously in places like Atlantic City and Southern California, his skill at ‘walking on water’ inspired numerous followers. At least three of the young people whom he directly touched on the 1914-1915 trip – Claude West, “Snow” McAlister, and Isabel Letham – grew up to become influential figures in Australian circles. Once again, Duke had played the role of apostle, seeding the ancient pastime of surfing in distant locales and generating publicity for Hawaii.”

Claude West was only 16 years old when he saw Kahanamoku in Sydney. He was so inspired that he convinced Kahanamoku to not only give him surfing lessons, but also to give him the board that was hand made in Australia. West would go on to become a surfing evangelist, constructing his own boards. In fact, as Davis explains, (Kahanamoku’s) “design became the default model for a generation of shapers down under – its Rosetta stone, as it were.”