Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, born on August 24, 1890, in Honolulu, Hawaii, is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of surfing. Commonly referred to as “The Duke” or ‘the father of modern surfing’, his legacy includes being an ambassador of Hawaiian culture, an Olympic swimmer, actor, and a pioneer in the world of surfing.

Art by Wade Koniakowsky

Growing up in Waikiki, on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, Duke spent much of his time in the ocean. A great all-around waterman, Duke was a world-class swimmer, representing the United States in the Olympics and setting world records. His fame, athleticism, and cultural heritage even attracted the attention of Hollywood, usually playing the parts of a native chief or a Hawaiian king.

Duke Kahanamoku honoured in a United States stamp in 2002

Surfing is a key part of Hawaii’s culture going back as far as history records. But the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778 changed everything. The introduction of white culture, greed, disease, and religion changed everything. Forced to adapt to a new way of life, native Hawaiians lost touch with their ancient ways, and surfing soon went into a major decline.

The 1900s saw a renewed interest in surfing, in part thanks to a group of resistant teens known as the “Beach Boys of Waikiki”, of which Duke Kahanamoku was a member. The skill and charisma of this group of local Hawaiian surfers — including George Freeth who introduced surfing to California in 1907 — helped introduce and popularize surfing as a recreational activity. Their presence on Waikiki Beach became synonymous with the laid-back surf culture that Hawaii is known for.

Duke Kahanamoku was also a prominent member of the Hui Nalu, one of the oldest and most prestigious surfing clubs in Hawaii. Founded in 1908, Hui Nalu, meaning “Club of the Waves(note: this website’s name!) played a crucial role in preserving Hawaiian surfing traditions.

A recreation of a photo of The Duke tandem surfing. Art by Jack Soren

As if he hadn’t already achieved and pioneered enough, in 1915, Duke Kahanamoku introduced surfing to Australia. Captivating onlookers, his surfing and introduction to building surfboards sparked widespread interest in the sport — giving rise to a prominent surf culture that would become part of Australia’s identity, producing some of the most influential competitive surfers in history.

Duke Kahanamoku died aged 78 (1968) and is remembered as one of the most important people in surfing history. He not only elevated the sport to new heights but also paved the way for future generations of surfers. Today, his name is synonymous with the spirit of aloha and the enduring connection between the people of Hawaii and the ocean.

Out of the water, I am nothing.

Duke Kahanamoku
‘The Duke’ by Jack Soren
Duke Kahanamoku surfing in Waikiki, Hawaii
Art by Wade Koniakowsky
More features

Sign up for our newsletter