This story is published in collaboration with OC Archives in Action.
Pinning one place or time as the birthplace of anything is always risky. Attributing it to one person is even trickier. Particularly when it comes to surfing history. Unless, that is, you don't mind getting a bar of wax thrown at your head. But if we were to trace back to a single place and time where California surf culture began, it was likely Corona del Mar in the 1920s. And the person who gave birth to it was Duke Kahanamoku — fittingly known as the "father of modern surfing."
In the 1920s there were a small handful of surfers in the entire state — some say under 100, others say closer to 20 to 30 — and they didn't call themselves "surfers" because the term hadn't been invented yet. (By comparison, there are an estimated 2.8 million surfers in California today.) Before Duke Kahanamoku, riding surfboards was seen as an oddity by a few and completely unknown to most. Nearly everything the public knew about it came from scattered travel articles by the likes of Jack London and Mark Twain, a two-minute film reel produced by the Thomas Edison Company, and the exhibitions of a young part-Hawaiian transplant named George Freeth.
In 1907, Freeth, an expert swimmer and board rider, was sent to the mainland to introduce surfing and promote the islands. (Though he was not the first to surf California. That credit goes to three young Hawaiian princes who surfed Santa Cruz in 1885.) Freeth started by giving daily "walking on water" exhibitions in Redondo Beach and later, at the behest of his patron Henry Huntington, performed up and down the coast to attract crowds to the land baron's many real estate ventures. From Los Angeles to San Diego, Freeth demonstrated his board riding talents. On June 20, 1914 he surfed Huntington Beach to some fanfare during the dedication ceremony for its newly built concrete pier. (Freeth's ride, reported in the Huntington Beach News, is possibly the first recorded account of surfing in Orange County.)
However, these showcases did little to promote the sport or turn it into anything other than a novelty act. It took the arrival of Duke Kahanamoku to truly ignite the surf craze.
Actually, calling it a surf craze at that point might be a bit of a stretch. It was more like a passing interest. By a handful of young men. Who had some time to kill. And lived near the beach. But like any culture worthy of the description, they had their own dress, language, rituals, artifacts, music and code — much of which was formed by emulating the Duke.
Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku was born in 1890 in Honolulu. Stoic and humble, he was characterized by his generosity, humanitarianism and championing of aloha everywhere he went. With a statuesque physique and other worldly athleticism, Duke was the epitome of a "waterman." He found sanctuary in the ocean amid a complex time in Hawaiian history. He was raised by it, thrilled by it and relied on it for his livelihood. The Duke was quoted saying "out of the water, I am nothing." Still, during Duke's long and storied life he became the celebrity face of Hawaii, and a native ambassador of its tradition, which included the ancient pastime of he'e nalu (literally "wave sliding"). But his rise to fame wasn't due to being Hawaiian, or because he surfed.
It was for swimming.
In fact, of all Duke's contributions, the one with the widest impact didn't come from a surfboard. Rather it was the flutter kick he developed for swimming the crawl stroke. Yep, that's right. If you ever swam freestyle, you were unknowingly doing the "Kahanamoku kick."
After breaking the world freestyle record during a meet in Honolulu, and then subsequently doing it again on his way to winning gold at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Duke became one of the most famous athletes in the world. His fame only grew after competing in two more games, swimming away with five medals in total. From then on, he was a sensation anywhere he went, and his victory laps around the world drew crowds in the thousands. He often performed swimming exhibitions on these trips, with a surfboard in tow, either brought from home or made right on the spot with whatever local timber could be found. Famously, surfing took off in Australia after Duke visited in 1914.
The same also happened in California.
Duke likely first surfed Orange County (and California as a whole) in July 1913, amidst public appearances following his Olympic win, at a time when he recalled, "There was nothing there but oil wells." While here, he visited his friend and occasional swim coach George Freeth, who showed Duke the best surfing spots along the coast. These appearances were widely covered by newspapers. However, there are unconfirmed urban myths that claim he surfed what is now Newport Beach the year prior, either en route to or returning from the 1912 games.
On September 14, 1914, following a ball in Duke's honor at the South Coast Yacht Club in Balboa, the newspapers described him wowing spectators by riding the breakers at nearby Corona del Mar.
Whether Duke found Corona del Mar on the advice of Freeth or happened upon it on his own is unclear. He could have learned about it from his good friends, and fellow Los Angeles Athletic Club members, Art and Gerard Vultee. The Vultee family lived in Corona del Mar and supposedly later even gave Duke a key to their home. It's also possible a guest at the ball — Felix Modjeski (grandson of the revered Polish actress and Orange County resident Helena Modjeksa) — put him onto the spot. Felix lived nearby and had a surfboard of his own. Or maybe while in the area Duke simply spotted the break from afar. Regardless of how he came across the long peeling waves at this fledgling seaside village, Duke found good surf. Really good surf. Others would later describe it as being on par with Waikiki. Some said it was even better.
Never one to pass up an opportunity for a fun ride, Duke decided to give his hosts at the yacht club an impromptu show. It was a "daring exhibition" that is well recounted in Claudine and Paul Burnett's book "Surfing Newport Beach." To start, Duke rode several long rides on a canoe, some a quarter of a mile long. Afterwards, he borrowed Felix's board and surfed a total of seven waves, the last of which he made clear across the channel while doing a headstand.
Of his time in California one paper proclaimed, "Whenever Duke appeared with his board a great crowd gathered on the beaches to marvel at the ease with which he stood upright and rode the bucking waves as skillfully as a cowboy rides a bronco. Everywhere he was besieged with pupils anxious to learn his methods and his skill with the board is already a popular legend in a dozen great resorts."
Nowhere was this more true than Corona del Mar.
Years earlier, George Freeth had planted the seeds for California's surf culture. During his coastal demonstrations he taught surfing to local boys and showed those interested how to make a surfboard. These students formed the early surfing population of California during the 1910s and early '20s. But they were few and far between, and they usually surfed disparate breaks in isolated groups, rarely fraternizing with other board riders. At Corona del Mar, for the first time, a community began to take shape, thanks in large part to the Duke and the draw of his popularity as a waterman.
During the '20s, Duke moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. But any chance he had, he would escape to Corona del Mar to lounge on the shores and surf at his favorite local spot, remembering the ideal conditions he had found there on his previous visit a decade earlier. Word got out, and others followed.
One of these acolytes was Tom Blake.
After a chance meeting with the famous Olympic swimmer in a movie theater, an inspired Blake made his way to Southern California and devoted his entire life to board riding. Of his many accomplishments, including being the first surf author, the first to surf Malibu (in 1926), the first to use a waterproof camera housing, redesigning the surfboard and inventing the skeg (or fin), Blake is perhaps best remembered for pioneering what we know today as the "surfer lifestyle." Even Duke had other interests, but with a single-minded, all-consuming commitment, Blake let surfing define him entirely.
Other surfers who joined Duke at Corona del Mar included Art and Gerard Vultee, Owen Hale, Haig Prieste, Bill Herwig, Bud Higgins and Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison. Some may have been waywardly surfing the area already, but it was with the arrival of the Duke things really took root. He taught these early Californian wave riders how to shape grand ten-foot-plus surfboards in the classic style. Some of his native slang started to seep into their own. They delighted in his ukulele playing and singing of Hawaiian tunes. They imitated his riding style on the waves and embraced his smooth, laid-back demeanor on land.
Together at Corona del Mar, Duke Kahanamoku, Tom Blake and their friends made beach living look very appealing, especially to a certain breed of American youth drawn to the sea and increasingly eager to remove themselves from societal standards. Adding to the allure was the bustling nightlife on nearby Balboa Peninsula and a local bathhouse, where they could store their 100-pound wooden boards and whose entrepreneurial manager understood the value of having a famous Olympic athlete hanging around.
This coalition eventually led to the formation of the Corona del Mar Surf Club — the first surf club on the mainland — which in 1928 held the Pacific Coast Surf Board Championships — the first modern surf contest. (Tom Blake won. Despite being its headliner and main draw, Duke did not compete. Some say he had to film a movie that day. Others say it was a paid appearance at a L.A. Ford dealership that kept him away.)
But it wasn't all fun and games.
One morning, when the swell was particularly strong, Duke and several buddies witnessed the 40-foot fishing yacht Thelma capsize offshore. Dressed in heavy clothing, and ill prepared for the continually pounding surf, the passengers quickly sank. Duke jumped into action, joined by his friends and a Newport lifeguard. Duke battled through the heavy seas and made three successive trips carrying victims on his surfboard back to shore. All told, the group saved 12 men, eight personally thanks to Duke. This rescue notably led lifeguards in California to adopt surfboards and paddleboards as standard lifesaving equipment.
The Thelma incident, however, had town officials seriously questioning the safety of the mouth of the Newport Bay. Although it took them another ten years to do so, they eventually took measures to lengthen the channel jetties. This change dispersed the sandbars, weakened the waves and effectively killed off Corona del Mar as a surf spot.
But its budding surf community survived.
They sought out new waves. They found them in a hidden stretch of beach further south called San Onofre. Isolated with year-round, rideable swell, "Sano" (or 'Nofre) was the perfect locale for their surf cooperative to flourish. In the decades ahead, San Onofre became the de facto headquarters of California surf culture. (Later in the '50s and '60s Malibu took over the reins and spread what had been developing in the Southland to the rest of the country.)
By then Duke had moved back to Hawaii. In a way, his missing out on the Pacific Coast Surf Board Contest represented a symbolic shift or evolution in not only California surf culture, but modern surfing as a whole. The baton had been passed from Duke and the old school surf riding traditions to Blake and the next generation. They were now spreading out and taking the board shaping techniques, riding maneuvers and aloha spirit he had bestowed upon them and reimagining what it meant to be a surfer.
That's not to say Duke left surfing behind. He remained its figurehead for the rest of his life and beyond, especially in California. He returned several more times to Orange County, most notably throughout the '60s as the master of ceremonies for the United States Surfboard Championships, held yearly in Huntington Beach. By then, surf culture had taken full bloom. But its later members, despite never having even seen the Duke surf, were and still are fully aware of the pedigree that leads back to this legendary waterman.
As historian Matt Warshaw posits in his sprawling "The History of Surfing," "Surfing would have caught on without Duke Kahanamoku. But not as quickly, and not with the same opening bolt of style and élan."
Ever appreciative of this influence, today Orange County's local surf community continues to honor Duke's legacy. Some of the boards he shaped, including one from Corona del Mar, are preserved at the Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center in San Clemente. A bronze bust and permanent exhibit of his contributions resides at the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach. And just around the corner across from the pier, at the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Main Street, a becoming statue of an ageless Duke Kahanamoku watches over the ever-evolving lineup of surfers riding the swell he helped create.