Duke’s Day Centennial: 100 Years of Australian Surfing

Duke Kahanamoku in Australia in January of 1915, with the surfboard he made of sugar pine to put on surfing demonstrations for Australians.
Pho­to cour­tesy War­ringah Pub­lic Library

One hun­dred years ago, Duke Kahanamoku was the Michael Phelps of the ear­ly 20th Cen­tu­ry. At the 1912 Olympics in Stock­holm, Swe­den, Duke shook up the world—a big, smil­ing, hand­some brown man from an island in the mid­dle of nowhere who trav­eled all the way to Europe to beat the best of the world in the 100 meter freestyle where he won a Gold medal, and a sil­ver in the 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay.

By 1914, Duke was world famous and received a lot of invi­ta­tions to trav­el and put on swim­ming dis­plays. Duke loved Hawaii and his warm home waters, but he loved to trav­el and see the world. In 1914 he accept­ed an invi­ta­tion to trav­el by ship to Aus­tralia and put on swim­ming demon­stra­tions in the pools and beach­es of Sydney.

The invi­ta­tion to Aus­tralia came by way of Aus­tralian swim­mer Cecil Healy, who fin­ished sec­ond to Duke in the 100 meters and thought him a decent bloke. Accord­ing to Duke’s biog­ra­ph­er San­dra Kim­ber­ley Hall, the invi­ta­tion came offi­cial­ly from, “The Aus­tralian Swim­ming Asso­ci­a­tion, who were already ramp­ing up to win hon­ors for 1916 Games. They even had a tri­al Olympics in the Par­ra­ma­ta River—but the Berlin games of course were aban­doned in 1916, due to World War I.

“Duke accept­ed the invi­ta­tion because he was unem­ployed. There are lots of roman­tic notions and leg­ends about the whole trip.”

Also, the Aus­tralians had shown them­selves to be good sports, allow­ing Duke and oth­er Hawai­ians to re-swim their heats when they showed up late and missed the sched­uled competition.

On Novem­ber 30, 1914, Duke board­ed the RMS Ven­tu­ra with 19-year-old swim­mer George Cun­ha and team man­ag­er Fran­cis Evans. Two weeks lat­er, Duke arrived in Syd­ney, the first leg of a swim­ming tour that would “trav­el Australia’s East Coast in the height of one of the worst heat waves in Oz his­to­ry,” Hall said. “From Syd­ney to Rock­hamp­ton, and from Syd­ney to Mel­bourne.” The Aus­tralian press were excit­ed and all over it. His swim­ming exhi­bi­tions were expect­ed, but Aus­tralians knew a bit about surf­board rid­ing and when Duke was asked if he had brought his surf­board, he respond­ed: “’Why no, we were told the use of boards was not per­mit­ted in Aus­tralia.’ When he saw the looks of dis­ap­point­ment on the faces of those around him, Duke said: ‘But I can eas­i­ly make one here.’”

And that’s what Duke did. By Decem­ber 20, Duke was being host­ed by the Fresh­wa­ter Surf Life Sav­ing Club, and they lead him to a tim­ber firm called George Hudson’s, who pro­vid­ed Duke with a donat­ed piece of sug­ar pine that was nine feet long, two feet wide and three inch­es thick. Accord­ing to W.F. Cor­bett in The Sun news­pa­per on Decem­ber 24, 1914: “The board used by Kahanamoku weighed 78lb, and was sug­ar pine. He would have pre­ferred red­wood, but a prop­er­ly sea­soned piece of that par­tic­u­lar tim­ber, suf­fi­cient­ly long, could not be pro­cured in Sydney.”

Duke only need­ed a cou­ple of days to fin­ish the board, appar­ent­ly, because by Decem­ber 22, the Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald announced “an exhi­bi­tion of break­er shoot­ing and board shoot­ing” at Fresh­wa­ter beach on Wednes­day, the 23rd of Decem­ber, at 11:00.

When Duke needed a tandem partner, he chose 15-year-old Isabel Letham. She began surfing on her own and is considered an Eve figure in Australian surfing.
Pho­to cour­tesy War­ringah Library

Accord­ing to Aus­tralian surf jour­nal­ist Nick Car­roll: “Duke did a cou­ple of sep­a­rate demon­stra­tions at Freshie, one on Decem­ber 24 which was attend­ed by a few jour­nal­ists and the mem­bers of Freshie swim­ming club, and another—the more well attend­ed one that end­ed up fea­tur­ing Isabel Letham—on Jan­u­ary 10 1915. He also did surf­ing demos at Cronul­la and Dee Why.

Surf and beach activ­i­ties were very well estab­lished on Syd­ney beach­es when Duke showed up, which was one rea­son he made such a splash, peo­ple were ready to see surf sports tak­en to the next lev­el. If he’d just shown up out of the blue to a non-surf-edu­cat­ed crowd, he wouldn’t have had the same effect I reckon.”

His surf­ing exhi­bi­tion at Fresh­wa­ter was well-attend­ed and pho­tographed, pass­ing into Aus­tralian and surf­ing his­to­ry as the spark that ignit­ed all that has come since in Aus­tralian surfing—from Snowy McAl­lis­ter to Midget Far­rel­ly, Rab­bit Bartholomew to Tom Car­roll, Gary Elk­er­ton to Mick Fanning.

Aus­tralia is now a surf­ing pow­er­house, and while some his­to­ri­ans point out that surf­ing wasn’t com­plete­ly unknown to Aus­tralians before Duke’s vis­it, they also con­cur that it was Duke that lit the fire of surf stoke in the land down under.

Duke's Day McCoy - Beach overview with people - 1-13-2015Aus­trali­a’s Fresh­wa­ter Surf­ing 100 Years Lat­er
Duke’s Day is a two-day fes­ti­val at Fresh­wa­ter Beach, with dig­ni­taries fly­ing in from all over the world to cel­e­brate his con­tri­bu­tion to Aus­tralian surfing.

From Hawaii, Duane Des­o­to flew down under and was giv­en the hon­or of reen­act­ing Duke’s famous ride on that sug­ar pine board. The real board still exists and is on dis­play at the Fresh­wa­ter Surf Life Sav­ing Club. That is arguably the most valu­able surf­board in the world and not to be rid­den, so Des­o­to rep­re­sent­ed Hawaii on a replica.

Also from Hawaii, Fred Hem­mings, Paul Strauch and Joey Cabell are the three sur­viv­ing mem­bers of the Duke Kahanamoku Surf Team—circa 1964. Hem­mings was in Aus­tralia on his birth­day and his posts on Face­book gave his angle on the whole deal:

Fred Hemmings with the original board Duke Kahanamoku made of sugar pine to put on surfing exhibitions in Australia in 1014. Photo: Fred Hemmings.
Pho­to: Fred Hemmings.

“I’m in Aus­tralia as a guest to help cel­e­brate the Duke Kahanamoku cen­ten­ni­al anniver­sary of surf­ing. In Jan­u­ary 1915 Duke made a surf­board and rode the gen­tle waves of Fresh­wa­ter Beach in the sub­urbs of Syd­ney. It is a joy­ous occa­sion and my surf­ing mates of Aus­tralia are absolute­ly the best. My broth­ers who were on the Duke Surf team Joey Cabell and Paul Strauch are here along with a del­e­ga­tion of Hawai­ian surfers, dis­tin­guished lead­ers and loved ones, and plen­ty Keaulana and Moniz kids. Every­one brought with them much alo­ha as Duke did a hun­dred years ago.”

Duke’s Day was as hyped and well-attend­ed in 2015 as it was a hun­dred years ago. There was a pro­ces­sion of ancient Hawai­ian surf­boards cov­ered in frangi­pani and oth­er leis dec­o­rat­ing the stat­ue of Duke that has kept watch over Fresh­wa­ter Beach going back to 1994.

Duke Statue at Diggers Club Photo Fred Hemmings.

Nick Car­roll was there, and enjoyed what he saw and felt:

“The whole occa­sion was incred­i­bly relaxed and kicked back. It’s mid-sum­mer in Syd­ney and it’s very warm and humid and there’s not much surf—in oth­er words pret­ty much just how it was when Duke was here in 1914/15. From the look of the pics from Jan­u­ary 1915, it seems there were about 400 peo­ple watch­ing Duke and Isabel; about the same num­ber watched the re-enact­ment. Duane did a great job and every­one was stoked.”

The whole surf indus­try machine was con­spic­u­ous­ly absent which lent a very non-cor­po vibe to the two days — instead every­thing focused around the cen­te­nary and also the Duke Surf Team mem­bers, Fred, Paul, and Joey, who along with Midget, Pam Bur­ridge, and Bri­an K put on a great show, relat­ing all their surf sto­ries and philosophies. 

Hall added her thoughts about what she saw and felt on Duke’s Day:

“Freshie and Dig­gers Clubs re-cre­at­ed a scene that to my eyes was bril­liant, detail perfect—except that the 1915 pho­tos were b&w and of course yes­ter­day was bril­liant col­or. Duke’s Day trans­port­ed us back to 1915, with the crowd behav­ior like 1915, of awe, with peri­od cos­tumes etc. Duane was absolute­ly per­fect. Like Duke he stood up on his first wave, and the crowd roared with enthu­si­asm, bounc­ing off the neigh­bor­ing sand­stone cliffs. He adopt­ed Duke’s pose, with his feet plant­ed per­fect­ly, his stance per­fect, and with his hands plant­ed on his waist.”

Sandy K Hall added: “Aus­trali­a’s best surf­ing his­to­ri­an Tim Bak­er, said ‘This was a new peb­ble cast in the big pond between Hawaii and Oz, and it will be inter­est­ing to see what hap­pens in the next 100 years.’”

Duke's Day McCoy - Kids with surfcrafts