The Duke Kahanamoku statue in Waikiki

The Duke Kahanamoku statue in Waikiki

Who is Duke Kahanamoku?

A massive bronze statue of him welcomes me to Waikiki with open arms and, later, I enjoy a meal and a beer at a beachside restaurant named in his honour.

Embarrassed about this lack of knowledge, I Googled him when I got back to my hotel – and what I discovered about this famous surfer, Olympic champion, actor, hero and all-round legend makes me ashamed for not knowing who he was.

Also I really should do a bit more with my life than travelling around and writing about it.

Duke Kahanamoku was like a Hawaiian super hero…

The Hawaiian legend nicknamed “Duke” or “The Big Kahuna” won five medals (three of them gold) for swimming at three Olympic Games between 1912 and 1932.

That would be impressive enough – Kiwi swimmer Danyon Loader is still a legend in New Zealand for winning two gold medals in the pool at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta – but Duke’s also credited with spreading surfing around the world.

Apparently, when he wasn’t racing at the Olympics, Duke would put on surfing exhibitions around the world. One of these exhibitions, at Sydney’s Freshwater Beach in 1914, is regarded as a seminal event for surfing-mad country Australia. They couldn’t get enough of it after a visit from the Hawaiian Duke.

Meanwhile, the Duke spent time living in Southern California, where as well as featuring in several movies, he also continued to promote surfing to the locals.

He sounds a little bit like a surfing Johnny Appleseed, doesn’t he?

The hero part…

As well as featuring in both the swimming and surfing halls of fame, Duke Kahanamoku is also a hero. In 1925 he rescued eight men from a fishing vessel that capsized in heavy surf off the coast of California by carrying them to shore on his surfboard.

The Newport chief of police said at the time that it was the “most superhuman surfboard rescue act the world has ever seen”.

No wonder the people of Hawaii erected this 17-and-a-half-foot bronze statue of him at the entrance to Kuhio Beach in Waikiki. He’s still held in high esteem to this day, which is why people continue to lay leis at the statue’s feet and hang them in its arms.

What a legend.

About Simon Petersen 506 Articles
Travel blogger, journalist, sports and movie fiend. Chronicling the life and times of a Kiwi at home and abroad.

1 Comment

  1. No worries Simon. I had no clue who he was OR that he was The Big Kahuna until last week lol. I am house sitting in Bali and turns out the husband is a huge surfer with all manner of surf mags here. Learned a bunch about the Duke – not John Wayne 😉 – and how he is a father of modern surfing. Olympic athlete, all his feats are quite amazing.


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