In 2016, for the first time ever, the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame presented a Special Recognition Award. While it may initially seem strange that the honor was bestowed upon a non-East Coaster, the truth is it was Duke Paoa Kahanamoku who is credited with introducing surfing to our shores.
Born on August 24, 1890, Duke was named after his father, who himself had been named after Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh. Young Duke inherited his middle name, Paoa, from his mother, Julia Paakonia Paoa. The family’s Hawaiian roots were deep — the Paoas were the legendary Vikings of the Sunrise, who settled the Hawaiian Islands; the Kahanamoku family had long served as kahu, or trusted advisors, to the royal Kamehamehas. Almost from the moment he could walk, Duke began surfing and swimming.
Following the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden — where he won the Gold Medal and set a world record in the 100-meter freestyle swimming event — Duke stopped off on the East Coast to give swimming demonstrations. But in the waves of Atlantic City, New Jersey’s famous Steel Pier, he showed off a skill far truer to his heart and heritage. It just so happened that future East Coast Surfing Hall of Famer, Sam Reid (Class of 2006), then just seven, was standing on the boardwalk that day. After jumping off the pier, Duke rode a few small, mid-summer swells to the cheers of Reid and his fellow spectators. Many years later, Reid would recall the Duke looking “like a statue of Poseidon.” After Atlantic City, Duke traveled to New York’s Rockaway Beach and Coney Island, where he performed more surfing demonstrations.
After his historic East Coast surfing demonstrations, Duke went on to promote surfing around the world, including introducing the sport in Australia. In his later years, Duke transitioned from Olympian to lifeguard to Hollywood actor to sheriff of Honolulu, the latter a ceremonial position. In 1965, the Duke Kahanamoku Hawaiian Surfing Classic, known as The Duke, was held at Sunset Beach, where it began its storied twenty-year run, in which East Coasters and future Hall of Famers like Claude Codgen, Dick Catri, Bruce Valluzzi, Jeff Crawford, Mike Oppenheimer, and Greg Loehr would compete. You could say they were returning the favor.