HONOLULU, August 24, 2009 – Surfers from around the world are gathering here in Waikiki to remember the greatest waterman of all time: Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, born August 24, 1890. In honor of his life, the annual Duke’s OceanFest is underway, staged at Queen’s Beach at the foot of his bronze statue and on the sands where surfing, as we know it today, began.
While a single Olympic gold medal is enough to substantiate many an athlete’s life, Kahanamoku won six, three gold for swimming, two silver for swimming, and a bronze for water polo. Yet today he is most widely renowned for being the father of modern day surfing.
During his 77 years on Earth, Duke rolled 10 lifetimes of accomplishments into one to emerge as Hawaii’s most famous native son after King Kamehameha the Great: An Olympic career that spanned an incredible 21 years; esteemed outrigger canoe steersman; Hollywood actor; bodysurfer; Sheriff of Honolulu; diver; official State of Hawaii Ambassador of Aloha; sailor; and surfer of all surfers.
He is remembered today most fondly as an exemplary human being and the greatest waterman that ever lived.
“To see Duke coming in at Waikiki on his long olo board was to see surfriding at it’s best,” wrote Tom Blake, whose own life and lifetime of achievements were inspired by Kahanamoku. He continued:”To me, the Duke is… the man by which to measure the race, the surfrider by which to measure the surfriders of all time.”*
There’s not a surfer worth their salt today who hasn’t at some point pondered the life and contributions of Duke and longed to have had the opportunity to share a wave or spend a moment in his presence.
One so fortunate was Hawaii’s Fred Hemmings, the 1968 world surfing champion who was part of the Duke Kahanamoku Surf Team in the late ’60s. Hemmings traveled around the country with Duke and spent daily time with him during his final years.
“Duke was a man of great virtue and spiritual worth,” recalls Hemmings. “The most valuable of all was his humility. He wholly believed that a human being’s greatest value is in the worth of their soul, not their pocketbook.
“He was a wealth of wisdom but never so presumptuous as to instruct in a pedantic way. It was up to you to find the message with Duke. You learned through osmosis and he offered many great opportunities.”
The eighth annual Duke’s OceanFest kicked off this morning with a blessing at Duke’s statue. In the days to come, OceanFest will continue the celebration with various surf meets including the Rabbit Kekai Toes on the Nose Pro Longboard Classic (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday); the C4 Waterman stand-up paddle surfing event (Wednesday, Thursday); the Gidget Women’s Pro Open longboard competition (Thursday, Friday); waterman relay competitions; and surfboard water polo.
Today would have been Kahanamoku’s 119th birthday.
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*Sandra Kimberley Hall, Duke. A Great Hawaiian, p. 65.