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The Duke: Gold Medal Diver, World Renowned ‘Father of Surfing’, Visits California in 1925

Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, 1890-1968

A local Hawaiian boy, who grew up surfing and canoeing the Waikiki Beach in the early 1900s, became a world recognized legendary surf hero. When it was discovered he was beating world swim records in local competitions in Hawaii, Duke Kahanamoku was entered into the international Olympics in 1912. Duke soon earned a Gold Medal in 1912 at the Stockholm Olympics and four more Olympic medals in the years to come. After the 1912 Olympics, Duke toured the Untied States and abroad demonstrating his diving, surfing and - in an emergency – heroic life saving skills. He understood life on the ocean like a naturalist understands life on land – he knew about the animals and plants that lived in the sea, the weather and the seasons of the sea, and was as much at home on the water as on the land. During WWI, Duke trained Red Cross workers and the military learned from his skills in using a surfboard to save lives. Duke had parts in Hollywood films, swam in several water categories at the Olympics, was recognized as a wise, generous and respected man, and continued to live with the sea for the rest of his life.

Duke was moved to California inorder to become an actor in Hollywood in 1923, and surfed the Channel waters for several years. During a day at the beach near Newport in 1925, the following surf legend unfolded:

  "It was in 1925 when I accidentally introduced another kind of surfing to California," recalled Duke Kahanamoku, speaking of his introduction of the surfboard for lifesaving purposes. Long "recommended for the lifeguard service by Tom Blake ," the surfboard's utility as a lifesaving device was dramatically demonstrated by Duke on June 14, 1925, at Corona del Mar. This is how Duke tells the story of when he and a group of Hollywood actor and actress friends were picnicing on the beach and surfing: "... some surfing pals and I were on the beach at Corona del Mar, approximately fifty miles south of Los Angeles. It was a day when anything could happen -- and did happen...

  "Big green walls of water were sliding in from the horizon, building up to barnlike heights, then curling and crashing on the shore. Only a porpoise, a shark or a sea lion had any right to be out there. From shore we suddenly saw the charter fishing boat, the Thelma, wallowing in the water just seaward of where the breakers were falling with the CRUMP of tumbling buildings. The craft appeared to be trying to fight her way toward safe water, but it was obviously a losing battle. You could see her rails crowded with fishermen who, at the moment, certainly had other things in mind than fishing. Mine was the only board handy right then -- and I was hoping I wouldn't have to use it...

  "In that instant my knees went to tallow, for a mountain of solid green water curled down upon the vessel. Spume geysered up in all directions, and everything was exploding water for longer than you would believe. Then, before the next mammoth breaker could blot out the view again, it was obvious that the Thelma had capsized and thrown her passengers into the boiling sea. Neither I nor my pals were thinking heroics; we were simply running -- me with a board, and the others to get their boards -- and hoping we could save lives.

  "I hit the water hard and flat with all the forward thrust I could generate, for those bobbing heads in the water could not remain long above the surface of that churning surge. Fully clothed persons have little chance in a wild sea like that, and even the several who were clinging to the slick hull of the overturned boat could not last long under the pounding.

  "It was some surf to try and push through! But I gave it all I had, paddling until my arms begged for mercy. I fought each towering breaker that threatened to heave me clear back onto the beach, and some of the combers almost creamed me for good. I hoped my pals were already running toward the surf with their boards. Help would be at a premium. "Don't ask me how I made it, for it was just one long nightmare of trying to shove through what looked like a low Niagra Falls. The prospects for picking up victims looked impossible. Arm-weary, I got into that area of screaming, gagging victims, and began grabbing at frantic hands, thrashing legs.

  "I didn't know what was going on with my friends and their boards. All I was sure of was that I brought one victim in on my board, then two on another trip, possibly three on another -- then back to one. It was a delirious shuttle system working itself out. In a matter of a few minutes, all of us were making rescues. Some victims we could not save at all, for they went under before we could get to them. "We lost count of the number of trips we made out to that tangle of drowning people. All we were sure of was that on each return trip we had a panicked passenger or two on our boards. Without the boards we would probably not have been able to rescue a single person..." Of the 29 people on the Thelma, 17 died and 12 made it through. Of the 12, eight were rescued by the Duke using his surfboard. The whole incident was not quickly forgotten. Years later, in a front page story about the Duke, Los Angeles Times reporter Dial Torgerson wrote, "His role on the beach that day was more dramatic than the scores he played in four decades of intermittent bit-part acting in Hollywood films. For one thing, that day he was the star."