Oahu

Duke Kahanamoku: The man behind the statue on Waikiki

Sunday, August 07th, 2016

The iconic Duke Kahanamoku statue stands at Waikiki beach as a memorial to the original "Big Kahuna", kahuna meaning important person in the Hawaiian language. Most people pass it by. Tourists will take a picture, and notice the tons of leis adorning his arms. But it is important to know the rich history and accomplishments Duke Kahanamoku achieved in his lifetime. This is a man that singlehandedly introduced the world to the sport of surfing while winning Olympic Gold Medals and serving in the U.S. Military. His larger-than-life presence helped America proclaim Hawaii as the 50th state, melding two cultures into one United States.

He is a man with a royal sounding name. But the name of Duke actually comes from his father, Duke Halapu Kahanamoku. A man who got the name after he was christened by Bernice Pauahi Bishop in honor of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who was visiting Hawaii at the time. The royal title became a fitting name that was handed down to the man that would become the de facto Hawaiian ambassador for the world.

Greatness in the Water

Born in 1890, Duke grew up in Honolulu. More fittingly, he grew up on Hawaiian surf. He earned his trademark sun tan by swimming, boating and surfing at Waikiki Beach, now famous the world over. His training and living in the island waters made it easy for Kahanamoku to beat the 100-yard swimming freestyle record in Honolulu Bay on August 11, 1911 - a record he shattered by 4.6 seconds. Not only that, he also outswam the 200-meter record and tied the 50-yard record, all at the young age of 19 years old. This was a man that lived in the water. He was so good that the Amateur Athletic Union did not accept his times. The AAU thought that the judges clocks were off or that Duke benefited from bouyant Hawaiian surf, and they discredited Dukes early achievements. It was not until years later that the AAU and the rest of the world were forced to accept Dukes greatness in the water.

His upbringing came at a time when Hawaii was a territory of the United States, not a state itself. That did not stop him from identifying as an American and even though Hawaii was not a state, the Big Kahuna represented them at the Olympics. With his trademark sun tan, the Hawaiian native easily qualified for the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. At the ripe age of 20, he crushed the competition to win the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle. But he wasn't done there. The youngster swam with the men's 4x200-meter freestyle relay to help claim the silver medal.

He followed that performance in 1920, where he won the gold in both the 100 meters and the relay in Antwerp. In Paris during the 1924 Olympics, he took home the silver medal in the 100-meter race, placing right before his brother, who took home the bronze. Even at the age of 34, his swimming ability was so respected that he served as an alternate to the US water polo team at the 1932 Olympics - gracefully ending his career in international competitive swimming. But the end of his Olympic swimming career was just the beginning.

Sharing The Ancient Hawaiian Sport Of Surfing With The World

Surfing has been a part of Hawaiian culture for generations but the Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated island chain in the world. This isolation has allowed the Hawaiian culture to grow rich in traditions without the influence of the outside world. But that isolation also kept the joys of surfing a secret from the world.

Duke, using his Olympic notoriety, launched a world tour swimming exhibition and took it upon himself to spread the ancient Hawaiian sport of surfing around the world. Surfing became a part of the swimming exhibition, exposing the extreme sport to crowds of people who have never seen it before. It caught on like wildfire. These exhibitions took place all over the world such as the East Coast United States, Southern California, Australia, New Zealand and even England.

Imagine that. Imagine being introduced to a worldwide phenomenon for the first time; seeing it unveiled; the birth of a brand new sport. it electrified crowds and sent people in a scurry to figure out how to surf. Duke set the world abuzz.

What makes Dukes mastery of surfing even that much more impressive is his use of the ancient Hawaiian surfboard, carved from the Koa tree. This dense, Hawaiian wood made the 16-foot long traditional surfboard weigh 114 pounds, nearly as much as the Duke himself. The "olo" boards of ancient Hawaii also lacked a skeg, the small shark fin rudder that helps stabilize the board in the water. It takes a true master of the surfboard to tame this ancient beast and Duke did it with ease, adding to the spectacle that he brought to the rest of the world. It also made is world-famous water rescue that much more impressive.
duke-with-surfboard

The Surfing Savior

After his world tour was over, while living in Newport Beach, California, a fishing vessel began to capsize in white capped surf at the mouth of the city's harbor, sending twenty-nine fishermen into turbulent water. The Big Kahuna sprung into action. Using his surfboard, he made short-burst trips out to the imperiled fisherman, saving them one by one. The Duke saved eight fishermen while two other surfers nearby were able to save four, while 17 fishermen perished. His heroism did not go unnoticed, with the chief of police saying that what he witnessed was,

"The most superhuman surfboard rescue act the world has ever seen."

This single act of heroism changed the way lifeguards perform rescues all of the world. The surfboard is now an integral part of saving lives at sea and it is something that you can notice at lifeguard stations the next time you visit the beach. But daring rescues were not the only thing that made Duke famous in Southern California. He was also an actor in the movies, performing in background roles as well as playing several characters. His notoriety in Hollywood further exposed the world to the ancient sport of surfing.

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All of these accomplishments made Duke the first person to be included in both the swimming and surfing Hall of Fames. He is also a member of the US Olympic Hall of Fame, with plenty of surfing competitions around the world named after him.

Later Life

After his stint living in Southern California, he moved back to his beloved Honolulu. He used his experience as a military policeman to become Sheriff of Honolulu, being elected to 13 consecutive terms. During his time as Sheriff of Hawaii's biggest city, he appeared on multiple television programs.

His death in 1968, at the age of 77, inspired the island of Oahu to put on a funeral for the ages. His ashes were brought down the streets of Honolulu to Waikiki Beach accompanied by a massive police escort. His ashes were scattered as the massive crowd sang traditional Hawaiian songs.

You can still see Duke's influence all over the Hawaiian Islands, especially in Honolulu, where Dukes Canoe Club and Barefoot Bar bears his name. Not too far from the restaurant you'll find his bronze statue, where a muscular young Duke stands in front of his favorite ancient Hawaiian surfboard. Thousands visit this monument every day.

Visiting Duke

The bronze statue of Duke at the entrance of Waikiki Beach is a favorite tourist attraction for people all over the world, including local trolley and walking tours. The statue can get a bit crowded, so to beat the crowd make sure to show up early in the morning. Otherwise you'll be waiting in long lines in order to take a picture with The Big Kahuna himself.

But if you don't mind the crowd, you can take advantage of the location's iconic status. If you wait around the bronze Duke statue long enough, you'll likely see traditional Hawaiian dances breakout as an ode to the surfing legend. You'll also see waves of people gently place fragrant leis on Duke's outstretched arms. With a little boost, you might be able to place one around his neck.

But if you want to beat the crowds altogether, you can visit one of the lesser known statues of Duke. There is one in Nawiliwili Bay at the Duke's restaurant on the western island of Kauai. It is not far from the airport in Lihue and just a short walk from the cruise ship port. And while it may not be as impressive as the one in Honolulu, it is still a beloved landmark.

But most travelers say that you can really feel the presence of Duke at the iconic Duke Kahanamoku statue on Oahu. If you catch the statue at just the right angle, you can see the expansive white sand beach in the background, tumbling into the azure blue of the Pacific ocean. Take a second to reflect on the positive impact the man from Honolulu had on people all over the world. And always treat the statue with respect. You might even be able to feel his presence because the Duke himself has surfed there, bronze skin shining in the sun, smile on his face, and a massive Koa-wood surfboard under foot.

The Big Kahuna was a rare cultural figure, one that was able to bring people from different cultures together from all over the world. His stardom and effervescent personality made it easy for the American public to embrace Hawaii as its own, incorporating it as a state in 1959 at the end of Duke's life.

And every time you look out into the ocean and see people surfing, you can now think to yourself - they're cheating! They are doing it the easy way! Try Duke's way, using a 114-pound wooden board with no rudder.