Local History, Local stories...Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku
When legendary Hawaiian surfer and Olympic-medal-winning swimmer Duke Kahanamoku visited Australia during the summer of 1914/15 he caused a sensation. After breaking his own 100 yard swimming world record before a crowd of 6000 at the Domain Baths in Sydney, and putting on thrilling displays of surfing at Dee Why beach on a board ‘as big as the bottom of a boat’, it was the Sutherland Shire’s turn to play host to the superstar.
On 7 February 1915 Kahanamoku and his party, (which included fellow Hawaiian swimmer, George Cunha, and Australian freestyle champion, Harry Hay), were met at Sutherland Station by members of the Cronulla Surf Lifesaving Club. The sportsmen were whirled off in a convoy of motor cars on a sightseeing tour to Waterfall, returning to the National Park via Lady Carrington Drive for an alfresco lunch at Audley. It was noted at the time that many of the Sydney men in the entourage remarked how extraordinary it was that ‘they should have missed the beauties of that gully so near Sydney all their lives.’

After lunch a launch took Duke Kahanamoku and the others up the river to Cronulla where the beach was decorated with bunting and packed with people. Unfortunately (as the St. George Call newspaper described it) ‘Jupiter Pluvius and Father Neptune were in a bad mood and spoilt the afternoon.’ In other words, it was raining and there wasn’t much surf!

Never-the-less an impromptu alarm reel race was quickly staged between Kahanamoku, Cunha and Hay with the Cronulla clubmen acting as linesmen. There was much speculation over who would win as Hay was one of the fastest beltsmen in the State and the two Hawaiians had never competed in such a race before. Cunha, who swam a ‘crawl stroke’, struggled to get used to swimming with the belt and line and apparently nearly wrenched his toes off when he caught them on the line. But Duke was a natural and Hay lost by a yard to the Olympic champion and his famous ‘Kahanamoku Kick’.
By then the waves at Cronulla had improved and so to the delight of the spectators, Kahanamoku took to the water for an exhibition of surfboard riding – standing upright, standing on his head, diving off, twisting the board. ‘It all looked so ridiculously easy,’ declared the St. George Call, ‘and so it was to the Duke, but local men who tried after came to the conclusion that they had a lot to learn about the game. One wants to try and stand on that unstable piece of wood, even in smooth water, to appreciate fully the sight of that bronze statue tearing in through broken and choppy seas.’
The day ended with tea at Cronulla’s new pavilion followed by music at the Surf Lifesaving Club captain’s house where the guests of honour entertained their hosts with Hawaiian songs accompanied by Duke Kahanamoku strumming on his ukulele.

For more historical photographs of the Sutherland Shire visit sutherlandshire.nsw.gov.au/history