The story of Duke Kahanamoku–the Hawaiian who, in 1912, first drew the world’s collective gaze upon the art of surfing–reads like mythology. Born in Honolulu in 1890, he is credited in over a dozen feature films, surfed the world’s most imposing swells before Californians knew what surfing was, won five Olympic medals in swimming and was elected sheriff of his beloved home county thirteen times.
The Big Kahuna was a tremendous athlete, to be sure, and by all accounts staggeringly cool, but he also had a proclivity for heroics–one morning in 1925, just as dawn crept into the summer sky over Newport Beach, a 40-foot fishing vessel called the Thelma found herself in the grip of a sudden and violent squall. Waves hammered the Thelma’s deck, and the vessel succumbed to the thrashing breakers, stranding its crew in the surf. The Duke, who watched from the shore as he prepared for that morning’s ride, rushed headlong into the maelstrom with his surfboard and, along with three friends, managed to wrest twelve men from the clutches of the Pacific.
Despite his charisma on the screen and two decades of Olympic triumphs, it is perhaps for moments like these–for his character, his ease in the water, his deep and unending love of Hawaii and her oceans–that Duke Kahanamoku is remembered most. He brought surfing to the world, and by force of his magnetism and singularly Hawaiian spirit helped The Islands achieve statehood. Today, on his 125th birthday, Matt Cruickshank recalls the legend of the “Ambassador of Aloha” with a Doodle of his iconic, 16-foot wooden surfboard and his warm, blithe smile. “Most importantly,” a reverent surfer remarks in a documentary about The Duke, “he was pure Hawaiian”.