Duke Kahanamoku: The Fastest Thing in Water

Duke Kahanamoku
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Duke Kahanamoku

Everyone growing up here in the Twentieth Century knew of Duke Kahanamoku. (Since Duke served as Sheriff of Honolulu for 13 consecutive terms, many persons quickly explain just how they knew him.)

Even before becoming Honolulu’s Official Greeter, he was the personal symbol of what was best of ‘Being Hawaiian.’


Everyone knows of his swimming fame as an Olympian, he won five Olympic medals in swimming from 1912 to 1924. The Swimming Hall of Fame also recognizes how he popularized the crawl stroke and the, then, new way of kicking that crawlers still use.

He is known for being the “Father of Surfing” and for popularizing it here after it’d waned during Missionary Days. (They discouraged such frivolity.) He helped to make surfing a worldwide sport by introducing it to California and Australia.

Being a former Eastern sculler, I’m eager to give you this little-known insight on the most versatile aquatic athlete of all time:

Duke Kahanamoku was Hawaii’s sculling and sweep rowing champion.

Kahanamoku rowed when Regatta Day was Hawaii’s major sporting event. King Kalakaua’s birthday on November 16 was observed with a yearly Regatta Day.

Back then, Honolulu Harbor presented an animated appearance. Wharves were crowded with spectators and sailing vessels were decorated with bunting. But over and above all was the display of humanity on every yard and spar; the long line of masts and yards was thick with boys and men. (I’m not being sexist, there were women spectators who wore dresses in those days, but they didn’t crawl up on the masts.)

Of course, this was when sailing vessels, such as the Falls of Clyde, were the means of transportation.

Duke loved it. It was the only sport in which he could really hear and feel the crowd’s excitement. (You can’t do that when your head is underwater or you are beyond the reef on a board.)

It looked effortless for him; he was so steady. He drove his legs hard, like a breast stroke kick, moved his arms in a rhythm similar to when he was paddling a surfboard a great distance. It’s how one sculls.

Duke Kahanamoku

At Regatta Day in 1917, Duke defeated his nearest rival in the senior sculls race by five boat lengths.

The big event, as always, was the senior six, a two-mile race.

According to the Honolulu Star Bulletin, wagers were as much as $1,000 for the winner between the Healani Blue, champions for the past seven years and the Hilo team.

(And that’s when a dollar had huge value.) The Myrtle Reds, with Duke as stroke, were rowing a new boat for the first time. They weren’t considered in the running. Myrtle members voted to name the boat after Kahanamoku, the newspaper said, “Inasmuch as the Duke is the fastest thing in the water.”

It described the race: “Duke’s shining bronze body stood out from the rest as the sun glistened on it. He wore a sailor hat, by now one of his trademarks.

In a very close race, Duke pushed his crew to finish first with several hard strokes, just ahead of Hilo.

It reminded spectators of the way Duke finished his swimming races, he always paced himself and kept enough energy in reserve to win.

Back then, spectacular 14-oared double banked cutters raced. King Kalakaua, his sister Princess Liliuokalani, and two other princesses were coxswains in Regatta Day’s eight-oared races in 1879.

I am writing the absolute truth! Our monarchs did more than sit on a throne (which some persons sought to topple them from).

After sliding seats were invented in America, King Kalakaua had boats built to use this innovation. In Hawaii’s first sliding-seat race, five-man crews went to and around a bell buoy in Honolulu Harbor, a distance of about 3½ miles.

Have you ever seen the photo of the King and Robert Louis Stevenson enjoying a luau? The royal boat house for sliding-seat sweeps is where the King held luaus (and it’s where he sang his song “Koni Au I Ka Wai”, which relates to “drink up.”

“Wai,” which means water, was also a synonym for “Gin”, which looked like water. Interpret the song as you wish. I can sing it easily after a couple of martinis.)

In recent days, The Royal Hawaiian Challenge attracted mainland and overseas crews. Sweep roaring calls for calm water, even if it is as dirty as the Ala Wai’s.

Crews from Oregon, California, Australia, and Japan rowed right over the top of the muck, only to get stuck in a sand bar. Maybe someone will think about sweep rowing being resurrected on this wai.

Back to Duke: An artist symbolized his warmth and openness with a sculpture at Waikiki. Duke is portrayed having arms stretched out in a welcoming gesture, a surfboard is behind him.

Duke was the childhood hero of every Twentieth Century Hawaiian. He was kind to me because my dad, James Arthur Rath, Jr., was the swimming coach who took Hawaiian boys to the mainland where these junior Olympians–using Duke’s techniques– beat everyone.

Duke embraced and kissed Don Ho to seal the deal that brought Don to Waikiki from his mother’s bar where he started going “big time” in Duke’s Hawaiian bar.

Most everyone of our generation has a “Duke” story. He could surf, swim, sweep, and scull and was as fast on top of the water as he was in it. Duke epitomized Hawaiian pride and graciousness. Aloha!

J. Arthur Rath is a Hawaii writer who can be reached by e-mail at mailto:imua@spamarrest.com

Photo courtesy of Hawaii magazine