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Surfing the Waves with Duke at Atlantic City

There’s been a huge buzz of interest generated in Duke, the Father of Surfing (1890-1968), since Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville and Landshark Bar & Grill on the AC Boardwalk opened.
Mark Fragale of Jimmy Buffett’s Beachcomber in Waikiki, is the Museum Curator and Aloha Ambassador, and helped theme out portions of the AC’s Margaritaville. It pays tribute to the rich surfing history of New Jersey.
On his return to Honolulu, he sat down in Waikiki with world-renowned Duke expert, Sandra Kimberley Hall (Sandy) to chat about Duke’s AC visit 100 years ago.

MF: Who was Duke?
SKH: Duke Paoa Kahanamoku was an unknown Native Hawaiian beach boy, who in his very first 100-yard freestyle race in 1911 in Honolulu Harbor, demolished the world’s record by more than 4 seconds. Amateur Athletic Union officials in New York City would not believe his feat. Determined to prove he had Olympic potential, the public raised money and sent him to the Mainland. He arrived in midwinter 1912. He nearly drowned in his first race in a freshwater swimming pool at the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. He had no idea how to turn at the end of a pool lap. By the way, Duke was his name, not a regal title.
MF: What was Duke’s connection to AC?
SKH:  He lived in Philadelphia and trained in the University of Pennsylvania’s indoor swimming pool. Duke won the National Championship and was selected for US Olympic team in Stockholm, Sweden. To prepare himself for any kind of situation, he trained in the Schuylkill River, and at Atlantic City’s famed heated Hygeia Pool. He wrote to his family in June 1912 that he “hoped to try the surf real soon.” The waves tempted him, and not a single person was surfing.
MF: People were very eager to see the extreme sport of Hawaiian surfing.
SKH: Yes, and Duke wanted to get into the ocean after the long winter.  Snow and cold were new to him. He wrote and asked his brother to make him some boards. Everyone was impatient for the boards to arrive. When time was running out before his departure, he promised that after he returned from Sweden, he would give an exhibit at Atlantic City.  They arrived 5 days after he sailed.
MF: What happened at the Olympics?
SKH: Duke won two medals - gold for the 100m freestyle, and silver for the 4-man relay. He was Hawaii’s first ever Olympian. He made front page news headlines throughout the world. He also won people’s affection because he was humble, modest-- and very good looking.
MF: Why did he surf at Atlantic City, and not at Long Island or somewhere else?
SKH: AC was accessible to Duke’s Philadelphia friends and supporters, by train or auto. Most importantly, he was keeping his promise. The Hawaii Promotion Committee (HPC) since 1910 had tried to entice wealthy tourists from the East Coast and Europe to visit Hawaii. HPC one year set up a booth on the Boardwalk, with Hawaiian musicians, and introduced “pines” (pineapples). They even served hot pine juice. Duke’s surfing would add to Hawaii’s allure and build on the HPC marketing goals.
MF: When did he surf?
SKH:  Sources give conflicting accounts, but we do know it was late August, the tail end of the summer holiday season. From a postcard to his father, we know he surfed 2 hours a day and that he had a wonderful time.  Interestingly, newspaper coverage was sparse. The only known photo that was ever published in AC, was actually one from 1911 in Waikiki.
MF: What was the weather like?  
SKH: Perfect. The daily high temperature was in the low eighties and the water temperature a refreshing 70 degrees. It was ideal for both the spectators and the Duke.
MF: What type of board did he use?
SKH: It was made of redwood, handmade and polished by Duke’s 18-year-old brother, David. He sent two boards, so that Duke had a spare. They were typical Waikiki boards for that time. They made a heavy shipment, as each weighed about 75 pounds and measured 9 feet long.  The boards were 2 ½ feet wide and 2 inches thick. They had no fin or leg leash, which meant that it would take a novice a week or two to learn to maneuver it.
MF: Where did he surf at AC?
SKH: Since the public wanted to see Duke close up, and not just as a speck in the ocean, he surfed the break alongside Young’s Million Dollar Pier. Waves naturally formed around the pier supports, from the sand movement under the water.
MF: Describe the scene.
SKH: From Duke’s own postcards home and newspaper reports we can picture how he carefully checked the tide and currents before choosing the ideal spot, well seaward of the breakers. He heaved the board from the Pier, into the water, 18-feet below. That in itself was exciting to the crowd. Then he dived gracefully into the water, surfacing near the board.
MF: What kind of “tricks” did he do, besides standing up?
SKH: He climbed onto the board, pointed it beachward, and sat, scanning the horizon for the right wave. Once he was underway and stable, “moving at 20 miles per hour” he suddenly stood up and the crowd roared with delight. This was the first time he had surfed outside Hawaii but he quickly adapted. Depending on the length of the wave, he had an arsenal of famous “tricks” -- he could surf with his back to the beach, standing on his head in a handstand, or for laughs, pretend he could not find his board when he first dived in. Once he reached the sand, he picked up his board, turned seaward and headed back out to the break. Depending on that day’s surf, he demonstrated ways of “paddling out” to the surf break– kneeling and paddling if it was relatively flat, or jumping off his board, while holding onto his board, and his breath, forging into and through a breaking wave.
MF: Who watched?
SKH: People paid admission to Young’s Pier. The crowds were enormous, “in the thousands” Duke wrote. They included well-heeled resort guests, local day-trippers, and visitors from Europe “summering at the shore.” One young boy, Sam Reid, was mesmerized and vowed to be a surfer. He later moved to the West Coast and later met Duke.
MF: Why is Duke called the Father of Surfing?   
SKH: Travelers had long been interested in this “royal sport of kings” popularized in accounts by writers Jack London and Mark Twain. Duke is called its father, because he popularized it throughout the world --  the US Mainland, especially California, Australia, and New Zealand. Almost everywhere Duke competed in swimming races, he was asked to surf. Surfing is called “Hawaii’s gift to the world.”
MF: Any other thoughts about Duke?
SKH: Duke excelled in all water sports, including outrigger canoe paddling, water polo, surf polo, SUP and sailing. After seeing him swim and surf, people overcame their centuries’ old fear of the water. He competed in four Olympics, retiring at age 42. He became Ambassador of Aloha when Hawaii became the fiftieth State. He is long remembered as the “ideal Olympian” for his sense of fair play, his humility, and his aloha spirit. We celebrate his birthday annually with a massive Oceanfest at Waikiki. In 2013, it will be held from Aug 17-Aug 25.  Everyone, please come!
MF: How is your latest Duke book coming along?
SKH: Great! I have traced Duke’s footsteps around the world, for over a decade, including yes, two visits to Atlantic City. I have unearthed extraordinary, and unknown stories about him. It is a huge responsibility and undertaking, and I am honored to be his biographer. I hope to wrap it up next year. Readers can in the meantime, find my book Duke: A Great Hawaiian online or from Bess Press.