This past August, to mark the 125th anniversary of his birthday, Duke Kahanamoku was commemorated with a Google Doodle – the surest sign of a historical figure’s lasting importance. As David Davis writes in his new biography, “Until Barack Obama came along, no one born in Hawaii was more famous or revered than Duke Kahanamoku.” In this excerpt from his book, Davis describes the swimming champion’s first visit to Australia in 1914 – two years after winning Olympic gold and silver – and how Duke introduced crowds of Aussies to the sport that he first learned in his home waters of Waikiki.

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As the first foreign Olympic gold medalist to visit Australia, Duke Kahanamoku was an object of fascination from the moment he arrived in Sydney on December 14, accompanied by George Cunha, a top swimmer from Hawaii, and Francis Evans, the tour manager.

There to greet them was Cecil Healy [who had placed second behind Duke in the 100-yard race at the 1912 Olympics], serving as reporter for a sporting newspaper. “You’re getting fat!” Duke joked to Healy. “We’re all getting fat.”

After discovering that Cunha was “not an Hawaiian native as was thought, but a white man,” Healy turned to Duke and asked, “Oh! Did you bring your surfboard with you?”

“Why, no, we were told the use of boards was not permitted in Australia,” he replied. Seeing Healy’s disappointment, Duke quickly added, “But I can easily make one here.”

The party was whisked off to a reception at the Hotel Australia in Sydney. Kahanamoku’s formal statement was brief: “I’m not as good a speaker as the rest of the bunch here,” he said, “but, in the water, I’ll do my best to please everybody.”

His trip occurred at a time when the Australian government was forcibly removing aboriginal children from their families so as to “recivilize” them. In this era of “stolen children,” local reporters seemed required to comment upon Duke’s skin color. He was described, variously, as the “brown marvel,” the “dusky champion,” the “bronzed islander,” and the “dark- skinned Hawaiian.” When he surfed, he stood “like an ebony statue.” One wag called him “Kokobanana.”

Australia, it should be noted, was not insensitive concerning race and sports. Promoters in Sydney gave boxer Jack Johnson the opportunity to challenge Tommy Burns, the white champion, for the heavyweight crown in 1908, when no opponent or city in the United States allowed him that chance. Johnson defeated Burns on, appropriately enough, Boxing Day.

Kahanamoku himself was treated courteously in Australia. He avoided any hint of controversy or conflict— even on those occasions when he encountered racist jibes and snubs— an attitude that the press corps applauded. “All my glowing impressions of the Duke (as a man) were reestablished,” Healy reported. “I had managed to get a chance to shake hands and have a chat with him. He is a splendid dispositioned fellow, and I cannot conceive the thought of anyone taking other than an instant liking for him. I make bold to predict that he will have ingratiated himself into the affections of a large number of Australians before departing on his homeward voyage.”

Healy’s prediction proved to be correct, and crowds clamored to see Kahanamoku in action. Francis Evans juggled the swimmers’ schedule as the tour expanded to include the cities of Melbourne, Newcastle, and Brisbane, the northern beach towns of Queensland, and then on to New Zealand. Posters promoting “The Human Fish” were plastered everywhere: “Is Duke the Best? Book your seats!”

Once Kahanamoku confirmed that surfing was legal at Australia’s beaches, he was directed to a local lumberyard owned by timber merchant George Hudson. Duke penciled out a rough template design for a board. There was no available redwood of that size, but Hudson was able to supply him with an elongated piece of one-hundred-year-old sugar pine.

Kahanamoku finished the shaping by hand, likely with an adze, a knife, and sandpaper. He then coated the board with varnish so that the surface was “as slick as a dancing board.” The result was a solid plank that weighed roughly eighty pounds: a rough-hewn, round-nosed, square-tailed board that was about eight-and-a-half feet long, nearly two feet wide, and almost three inches thick.

Australians were eager to watch him surf. When one newspaper published a brief note that Duke was to give a surfing exhibition at a local beach, about 3,000 people showed up, only to be left extremely disappointed when he did not appear.

Over Christmas, Kahanamoku, Cunha, and Evans were guests of the New South Wales Amateur Swimming Association at the Boomerang Camp at Freshwater Beach, outside of Sydney. On December 24 Duke gave an unannounced surfing exhibition, viewed by reporters and members of the local club. In waves that weren’t all that special, he paddled out into the breakers about a quarter of a mile and then rode them back to shore, arms crossed against his chest as he moved across the water at top speed.

He surfed backwards at one point, causing the board “to describe a half circle or turn completely round without spoiling the shoot,” and then startled onlookers by standing on his head.6 Disbelief turned to jaw dropping amazement. 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 surfboard, 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.”

Kahanamoku surprised his hosts by ignoring the threat of sharks that inhabited the waters. “The lifeguards asked him, ‘Did you see any sharks?’” his brother Bill recalled Duke telling him later. “Duke said, ‘Yeah, I saw plenty.’ ‘And they didn’t bother you?’ the lifeguards asked. ‘No,’ Duke replied, ‘and I didn’t bother them.’”

A horse-and-buggy carriage was employed to ferry Duke’s board to other surfing excursions. At a session at Dee Why Beach, north of Freshwater, Kahanamoku motioned for Isabel Letham, a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, to join him. “To say I was dumbfounded was putting it mildly,” Letham later recounted. “[I had] never seen a surfboard before in my life – [and now] to go out with a raging sea with the world’s greatest surfboard rider, and ride tandem with him on this great big killer wave.”

Duke paddled out with Isabel and picked out a wave. “I said, ‘OH NO! NO! NO!’ ” Letham remembered. “He said, ‘OH YES! YES! YES!’ and he got me by the scruff of the neck and yanked me up in front and of course I got this wave.”

When she reached shore, all she wanted to do was do it again. “I was sold on surfboard riding then,” Letham said.

Whenever Kahanamoku heard about excellent waves – at Dee Why, at Cronulla, or at Manly – he detoured to catch them. “I was staggered,” said Charles “Snow” McAlister, then 11, after watching Duke’s surf-riding exhibition. “Everyone just clapped and clapped.” The son of a mailman, McAlister was so excited that he immediately procured the necessary wood to shape his own surfboard.

Journalist W. F. Corbett sought out Kahanamoku to talk about his “surf shooting” experiences. “You have hundreds more surf shooters at work in one day around Sydney than we see in a week, or perhaps a much longer stretch of time, at Honolulu,” Duke told him, “but I think the old island has the pastime at greater perfection, which is only to be expected considering its antiquity with us.

“You ask me if I held the championship as a surf shooter,” he continued. “I did not, because we had no competitions, but I do not mind telling you that there were none around Honolulu whom I knew anything about able to shape [surfboards] better than me.”

 

Kahanamoku interrupted his surfing escapades in early January for the first swim meet on the Australian tour. Upwards of 8,000 people packed the extensive grandstands at the Domain Baths in Woolloomooloo Bay, outside of Sydney, to watch Duke take first place in the 220-yard event, beating Longworth and Cunha, and second place in the 440, behind only Tommy Adrian of Manly.

In his specialty, the 100 yards, Kahanamoku started slowly on the straightaway course. Then he accelerated, leaving Bill Longworth, Cunha, and Albert Barry behind. His clocking of 53.8 seconds broke his world record by nearly one second. He seemed so relaxed in the water, according to one eyewitness, that the time “seemed preposterous, so easily had been the accomplishment of it. One could not help but wondering how few seconds Kahanamoku could swim 100 yards in if he swam ‘all out’ all the way.”

It was not the first or the last time that reporters commented on Kahanamoku’s habit of easing up during races. Some believed that Duke’s stroke was so smooth that he looked like he wasn’t trying. Others whispered that he slowed down so as not to humiliate his opponents. Kahanamoku shrugged and kept winning.

Kahanamoku, Cunha, and Evans traversed thousands of miles along the east coast of Australia, drawing massive crowds and filling the coffers of local clubs. Duke did not win every race on the tour due to arcane “handicap” rules that gave opponents a considerable advantage from the start, but his form dazzled. “The feet revolve like the blades of a steamer’s propeller,” according to one newspaper.

[…]

At the end of March, when Kahanamoku left Australia for Hawaii, he had been away for nearly four months. He swam in sixty events and surfed at numerous beaches, providing a bright note at a time when scores of men – including Cecil Healy, as it turned out – were leaving home to fight in Europe. When he bequeathed the surfboard that he had made to a teenager named Claude West, the design became the default model for a generation of shapers down under – its Rosetta stone, as it were.

The trip also initiated Kahanamoku’s deep connection with athletes from Australia and New Zealand, which he repaid with aloha whenever their surfers and swimmers came through Hawaii. Duke himself returned to Australia several times, most notably in 1956, as a revered guest at the Melbourne Olympics.

His surfing excursions in 1914-15 were later mischaracterized or, at the least, enshrouded in legend. The narrative set forth was that Kahanamoku was the first person to ever surf in Australia and New Zealand. Numerous historians and journalists have repeated this like a mantra, including Duke himself. “My memories of Australia go back to 1915 when I was world freestyle champion and gave the first demonstration of surfboard riding in Australia,” he later wrote.

Contemporary scholars, while respectful of his stature, have exposed the Duke-as-originator story to be “a romantic myth.” They point out that several locals, including William and Tommy Walker (who acquired his surfboard when he visited Hawaii), surfed in and around Sydney before Duke’s arrival in 1914 and have displayed photos and newspaper clippings as evidence.

That said, Kahanamoku was the first expert to surf in Australian waters. 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 1914-15 trip – Claude West, “Snow” McAlister, and Isabel Letham – grew up to become influential figures in Australian surfing circles. Once again, Duke had played the role of apostle, seeding the ancient pastime of surfing in distant locales and generating immense, positive publicity for Hawaii.

 

Adapted from Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku by David Davis, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2015 by David Davis. Available from the University of Nebraska Press

David Davis is author of Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze. His writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian, and The Best American Sports Writing. David tweets @DDavisLA.