Duke Kahanamoku Part 2: The Day He Saved Eight Souls

Vultee Hale Herwig and Kahanamoku after the rescue
Just days after the rescue, four of Four of the heroes pose for a picture. From left to right: Gerry Vultee, Owen Hale, Bill Herwig and Duke Kahanamoku. ,Courtesy of Paul Burnett

It was a lazy weekend at Newport Beach in Los Angeles on June 14, 1925. Three-time Olympic gold-medal-winning swimmer, Duke Kahanamoku, had just woken up and stepped out of his tent on the beach at 6:40 in the morning for a swim. When he looked out onto the choppy waters of the Pacific Ocean, he saw a disaster unfold. A yacht named Thelma, carrying 17 people heading out to sea looking for tuna did not see the checkered flag, indicating unsafe waters.

Suddenly, a squall struck and waves as high as twenty feet high, were pounding the Thelma, and Kahanamoku watched the yacht list at a 45 degree angle on top of high waves, glass breaking, rigging and men flying overboard. Kahanamoku grabbed his surfboard and lept into the frothy waves.

Waterman CoverKahanamoku grabbed one man, then two, then a third, plopping them all on his surfboard before heading back to shore. By then, two of his camp friends, Owen Hale and Jerry Vultee, met him halfway and took the three survivors to safety. Back went Kahanamoku, as thrillingly relayed by David Davis in his biography of Kahanamoku, entitled Waterman.

Duke turned around, inhaled mightily, and jumped on his board. He dug into the water toward the Thelma. He secured two flailing fishermen and maneuvered them onto his board, then kicked towards Hale, Vultee, and safety. (Local meteorologist Antar) Deraga telephoned for assistance while his wife and a nurse, Mary Grigsby, wrapped the survivors in blankets and tried to resuscitate the unconscious men. Two bystanders, Charlie Plummer of Balboa and William McElhannon from Santa Ana, assisted in the rescue. For a third time, Kahanamoku turned to the sea. He picked up stragglers and placed them on his board until, finally, he could do no more.

Of the 17 on the Thelma, 12 were rescued, 8 saved solely by Kahanamoku.

Kahanamoku said little of this superhuman feat. But said J. A. Porter, chief of police in Newport Beach, “The Duke’s performance was the most superhuman rescue act and the finest display of surfboard riding that has ever been seen in the world.”

While surf lifesaving has become a profession as well as an international sporting competition, particularly in Australia, Davis explains that Kahanamoku himself wrote that his actions over 90 years ago made the surfboard de riguer for beach lifeguards.

“{The rescue] helped sell lifeguard service on the wisdom of keeping paddleboards at he guard towers. The boards soon became standard equipment on the emergency rescue trucks as well as at the towers. In short, some good sometimes comes from the worst of tragedies.”