Duke Kahanamoku Brings Surfing to the Stockholm 1912 Games — A story by Sandy Hall

June 10th, 2021
Duke surfing in 1909.

Article by Duke Kahanamoku biographer Sandy Hall.

Photos courtesy of TimDeLaVega.com.

By the time 21 year old Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, known today as The Father of Modern International Surfing, boarded the SS Finland in New York City en route to his first Olympic Games in 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden, he was already on his way to what today we would call rock star status. Expectations were high that the Native Hawaiian – – who had come out of nowhere and had unofficially shattered world swimming records —  would help the US Swim Team win swimming medals.

Of the 180 athletes on board on the almost 2 week trip, Duke attracted a great deal of attention from the handful of East Coast reporters and stringers who were anxious to write interesting newscopy for the readers back home. Ingenuity ruled the day, to keep the athletes in tiptop condition. A cork track was laid down for the runners. Discusses had holes drilled in them and a rope attached so that the track and field men could practice – -although that proved too dangerous.

Duke in 1911.

Duke got to know the carpenters who set up the harness contraptions rigged over the two improvised canvas swimming pools and he offered his suggestions.  His phenomenal kick doused water on bystanders on the deck, and the reporters described his fluid stroke in detail.  A demonstration baseball team was aboard to entertain the Swedes with America’s national sport after the Games. Duke practiced tossing with them and he was written about and praised for his throwing skill. There was much hilarity when he threw a ball over the side of the ship. Oops. American Indian Jim Thorpe, already designated the hope for the decathlon and pentathlon events, was declared unbeatable at everything including shuffleboard and pitching pennies. Even trivial tidbits found their way into national press—how Duke gave a superb rendition of Aloha Oe accompanied by the Finland orchestra. After seeing the strange sight of a turtle riding a wooden hatch mid Atlantic, Duke would have launched into a fascinating discussion about riding a surfboard. He had already promised his East Coast supporters he would give a surfing demonstration for them at Atlantic City, after his return from Stockholm. In fact, two redwood boards carved by his brother David, were waiting for him in Philadelphia.

Duke in Stockholm in 1912.

When the Finland docked in Stockholm Harbor at 9AM on June 30, it was met by 2,000 well wishers and Olympic officials. Reporters and photographers flocked onto the ship. Now it was the Swedish press’ turn to write about everything they could find out about him. Some papers ran a headshot of Duke, but the Swedish language Afton Bladet (Evening Magazine) scored a unique scoop running an intriguing photo of Duke surfing at Waikiki – -possibly a photo that Duke gave the reporter. Nothing explanatory was written underneath it.

Image of Duke used in the original Swedish article, by A. R. Gurrey Jr., circa 1909.

The editor was not sure how to title the photo and invented the poetic name “Foam Riding.” There was also confusion about his last name which became Kahunamoku (not bad, since a kahuna was a wise person in charge)

The Alfred Gurrey photo, taken in about 1909, showed Duke “semi-naked” by the standards of the time with bare chest and shorts. This would have created a great deal of discussion and even blushes among readers. The photo confirmed that Sweden, the Old World was still very modest, compared to the ways of the New World.  For the Olympic swimming races, suits had to cover the chest and carefully measured modesty briefs had to be worn underneath the pants/leg portion.

When Duke arrived at a scheduled training  session at the Olympic swimming venue, the word got around among the bored Aussies, who had already been in town for 6 weeks, and who were stacking weight on fast that, ”He’s Here! He’s Here! I’ve Seen Him.”  “He” and “him” were Duke. He had been written about extensively in the Australian press and the Aussies were thrilled to meet him at last. They were pleased and surprised that he offered to demonstrate his revolutionary Kahanamoku Kick. He swam to and fro so that they could study it, counting foot beats per minute, and noticing the positioning of his head, the angle of his elbow and his breathing.  This provided excellent newscopy for Olympian Harold Hardwick who sent details back to the Sydney Morning Herald. Duke was already an international celebrity before his first race.

Besides training, Duke had a week in which to explore the beautiful city, spread out over 14 islands, and dubbed “Venice of the North” for its waterways, lakes and canals. The only restriction was that they had to return to the Finland—their floating hotel–  and be in bed by the 10PM curfew. The heatwave like conditions suited him, with temperatures over 90. He was entranced by everything he saw. He did not have to worry about not speaking the language –the well organized and genial Swedes had planned for that—and each citizen who spoke a foreign language wore a lapel pin –“English” or “Italian” or “French.” 1500 uniformed Boy Scouts lived up to their motto “Be Prepared”– ready, willing and able to run errands or give directions.

Duke is honored by the King of Sweden at the 1912 Stockholm Games.

The ladies of Stockholm, over-dressed in their Edwardian finery—long sleeved, voluminous ground length dresses, with huge hats, took note of this tall, dark and handsome man of mystery. Their questions were not about his speed or swimming stroke or surfing, but were whether he was Royalty. While the USA official list of Olympic team members listed everyone as Mr, he did not appear as Mr Duke Kahanamoku. He was listed as Duke, confirming his royal status to many.

Duke was not the first dark-skinned royal; Sweden had had African members of court for centuries, the most famous of whom, Gustav Badin Couschi, whose full name was a string of royal names, was the subject of a 6 volume biography and countless portraits. He had been presented as a gift as a child to the then Queen of Sweden. He would later serve as a diplomat and ambassador and maintained 3 palaces. How would Duke compare with the Swedish-Africans?

Other questions were discussed — how civilized was Duke?  Was he like the feared South Seas cannibals Jack London the world’s best known popular author had encountered and written about. Where was Hawaii? Was it or was it not the Sandwich Islands?  Was it anywhere near the Islands French artist Paul Gauguin had run away to (Marquesas).  Was he married? Of special interest to everyone was whether he could legally compete in the Olympics –was he an American? That question was immediately resolved, yes, he was – Hawaii was a US Territory since 1900.

Duke with fellow lifeguards in 1920.

On July 4, America’s National Day, the Finland was gaily decorated with bunting and US flags galore.  . The Swedish press was invited aboard for an early breakfast and Duke was once again singled out for scrutiny — this time for his gleaming gold capped teeth which sparkled in the sunshine while he lounged against the ship’s rail.  Was gold a sign of great wealth, or some tribal symbol?

By now, the general agreement in press coverage was that he was indeed “chocolate brown” like the past Swedish-Africans. Occasionally he was called by the “n” word but no harm was intended. Every tiny detail about Duke –the only very dark skinned person apparently in the City– was interesting to the press and to readers.

After the never ending congratulatory breakfast speeches, Duke had the day off for the National holiday – and was keen to escape the invading public who swarmed on the wharf, waiting to inspect the ship—the largest vessel of its kind to ever visit Stockholm. Up to 10,000 visitors streamed aboard. USA had a special place in Swedes’ hearts because one million Swedes had immigrated to the USA, especially to the Midwest, from 1860-1910 to escape poverty.

Revelling on their being on land after the long trip –and with no traditional sandy beaches or ocean surf to hang out on –Duke and his friends set out for one of the most delightful lake side open air garden restaurants, Stromparterren. Shaded by ancient trees, the restaurant was under the very famous century-old Norrbro (North Bridge), which extended across the Strommen River. It linked the 500 room Royal Palace and grounds at the South end with the famous old Parliament House and Opera House at the North. A flight of steep steps took you down from the Bridge to the small island and Stromparterren.

My source for details of Duke’s surfing is the famous SCIF (Swedish Central Association for the Promotion of Athletics) founded in 1897 by Viktor Balck, the father of the Nordic Winter Games and the Olympic movement in Sweden. It was an incredible accomplishment for Sweden, a tiny nation of just 5.6 million people to be selected to host the Olympic Games in 1912.  Its capital Stockholm had a modest sized population of 350,000, compared to the previous hosts of the Games—London over 7 million and Paris 2.5 million.  Yet, Stockholm hosted one of the most successful Olympics ever–its granite Stadion erected for the occasion is still in use today, 109 years later.

Hoping to acquire a particular photograph of Duke in Stockholm, I had written to SCIF in 2012. They replied that they had the photo I was looking for. They startled me with a short message that, I might be interested to know that they had a scrapbook that included a newspaper clipping of Duke “Kahanamsku” surfing. In a follow up they sent me the undated and uncited clip with a short summary in English —  that in the heart of Stockholm, the Gamla Stan the Medieval Old Town, “Duke showcased the new sport.” He was described by an observer from a distance as “a naked, slim, figure who appears to be flying over the water surface in a proud and vigorous pose in the waves and vortices of the Strommen River at Norrbro.” The summary concluded, “The swimmer from Honolulu introduced surfing in Stockholm.”

I needed more information.  SCIF confirmed that it was “on the waters between the Royal Palace and the Royal Opera House.”  Unfortunately the scrapbook creator had not noted the newspaper name or date.

Very misleading was a clumsy sketch of a man standing on a log with a long pole in swirling waters, wearing a wrap- around skirt.  The only realistic detail was the towering buildings in the background, and the unique balloon-like nets on fishing boats — otherwise it could be anywhere on earth. I figured out some details myself —  of course Duke was not naked, but with his dark skin and black swimsuit he might appear to be.

Norrbro (North Bridge) where Duke surfed. Water volume is unpredictable and varies greatly over the year.

There were readily available vintage and modern photos of Norrbro online, many showing ripples, rapids or wavelets. I also discovered with the help of ex-pat writer/photographer/singer and board member pf the American Club of Sweden Germaine Thomas, I learned that the short river, Norrstrom that flows beneath Norrbro (North Bridge) drains from Lake Malaren flowing from west to east and because Malaren is higher than the Baltic Sea which it flows into, rapids form under Norrbro. It is a very popular fishing spot, but while it is not navigable for traffic, it is popular for whitewater kayakers.

The pieces of the surfing mystery started to fall into place when by chance I met a research scientist Dr. Bengt Fadeel MD PhD and a Dept Head at the famed Stockholm Karolinska Institutet who was admiring Duke’s lei draped statue at Waikiki. We talked and he said he had heard of Duke. When I said I had an article about Duke in Swedish, he kindly offered to translate the mysterious article.

With his translation into modern English and taking into account changes in the language from 109 years ago, I could now contact the National Library of Sweden to see if they could locate and verify the article. Was it from a magazine, a tabloid or a reputable newspaper? I hazarded a guess that it was around about July 4, when Duke had time off, as he was unavailable from July 5, the opening ceremony, and his first race on July 6.

Duke in 1913.

As good luck would have it, It took less than a week for the Library to email me that the article had run in Sweden’s oldest, and most widely circulated newspaper, Dagens Nyhet (DN) which had now been digitized because of its importance. “Selim” was a staff reporter who would also cover some of Duke’s the Olympic  races. He had indeed, by good luck, chanced upon Duke’s impromptu surfing, on July 4. It was not an official demonstration. Duke had gone surfing in the strong current and swirling rapids of the Norrstrom —  like Englishman George Mallory, the mountaineer, who was asked why he wanted to climb Everest in 1924, and said, “Because it was there.” Duke had to try the water because . . .it was there and called to him.

Duke chose what was probably the only “surfable” spot in the City. If anyone could surf in less than-ideal conditions and inconsistent tiny wavelets or choppy conditions, it was Duke. He had started surfing at Waikiki as a child using kerosene cans pounded flat with rocks, or on broken down wooden biscuit boxes, before he graduated to proper wooden boards. But, what did he surf on in Stockholm? The only detail was “a planka, 7 inches wide” which obviously was an error in conversion from centimeters to inches. It was possibly more like 57 CM  (22 inches.) We can speculate that since the Finland was in port for an extended stay of 17 days, that one of its carpenters had the time and was happy to make a simple surfboard for him.

I can imagine that Duke left his belongings and towel with his friends at the Stromparterren Restaurant. While they enjoyed the infamous Stockholm Punch and the wonderful food — meatballs, meats, pastries, breads and berry jams– that Duke would remark on “If I was a swimmer who lived here, I’d be growing fat from all the good food.”

Duke plunged into the River and Selim then picked up the story from up on the Norrbro.

He described what he saw, along with a dose of imagining what his fellow Swedes were thinking as they watched. He did not want to spoil his article by telling his readers that he knew that it was Duke.  He wrote that he chanced upon the crowd “that just materialized out of nowhere” just as the police were also arriving to try and sort out the major traffic jam. He heard someone call out, “Hey, look over there!  There’s a Natïve sliding on the water!” The crowd rushed to the East side of the bridge and was so tightly packed, Selim worried that the bridge might collapse. The police whistles, cars slamming on their brakes, and trams sounding their shrill warning bells made a horrendous noise. But, even that was drowned out by the people cheering “hooray” at what they could see way down belowin the water. Only the people against the railing could see anything, but everyone, even at the back, “who haven’t a hope of seeing anything, wave their hats.” Selim boldly “leaped over his fellow citizens” (more likely pushed his way forward) and was able to climb onto an outer wall, where he had an “eagle’s eye unobstructed view of the ladies and gentlemen’s sea of hats below.” Then he finally saw what people were cheering about.

Duke with the US swim team at the 1924 Paris Games.

At first glance, it looked like a graceful figure floating or flying on the “swirling currents” of the River Strom. Because the “water is cloudy and churned up . . . it’s hard to make out what the figure is.” What am I looking at? Is it the proud and regal Nike, the ancient Greek goddess of Victory? How does it float? (He cannot see the board). My brain is buzzing and confused. Maybe it’s just a clever contraption, like a rubber doll inflated like a balloon?  Aha!!  Now I can see more clearly. It’s a man!!  He’s alive. He’s turned towards us, he’s smiling!  He deftly dives into the water and holds his board and starts swimming towards the shore.

Selim rushed down the steep flight of steps from the bridge and arrived just as the man emerged up  from the steps from the water to the Stromparterren. “The waitresses are startled and pull back a bit, torn between modesty and curiosity,” as the wet merman arrived and shook the water off.

I bow reverently and say to him in English, “Very glad to meet you, your Lordship.” His Royal Highness the Duke Kahanamoku of Honolulu bestows a huge dazzling smile on me . . . I tell him how thrilled we all are that Your Highness has taken the time to demonstrate your Native sport, board gliding.”

I ask him what he thinks of the water.

He says it’s too calm for a good board riding demonstration, but it is very invigorating.

Then he says, “Would you like to try surfing yourself?” He offers me the plank!

I have to decline as I have to get back to the newsroom to tell the astonished citizens of Stockholm of the unbelievable feats of his Royal Highness.

Selim had only had a glimpse of a few seconds of Duke’s surfing but it was enough and the crowd was so impressed and thrilled that he had to record it for posterity. Apparently no further articles about Duke’s one-off surfing were published. No one took photographs.

Duke’s surfing was forgotten in Stockholm, but his swimming victories—winning gold in the 100m freestyle against 32 others, and a silver medal  in the relay — and his winsome personality, was long remembered. He was also singled out by the King to give a private swimming demonstration to the Royal family.

Duke never forgot his first Olympics and his first medals and treasured his victor’s laurel wreath. In 1948 some loose clips in Duke’s Bishop Museum Archive show how he was still written about in the newspapers there, and in the Spring of 1961, a few months shy of 50 years after the Stockholm Olympics, he returned as an honored guest  to publicize an inaugural route for Pan Am Airways between New York City – Stockholm and other Scandinavian cities.

Thousands of adoring fans waited to greet him at the airport. A newsman said that it was as though time stood still. Duke was still very fit, and carried himself with dignity. His hair was silver, his smile was as wide, and his eyes sparkled as much. He weighed just 5 pounds more than he had back in 1912. He had emotional reunions with long-time Swedish friends . “Duke looked like a king, when he was with the Swedish King.”  He was presented with Stockholm’s highest recognition—the key to the City of Stockholm.

He had already gifted them all those many years ago, with Hawaii’s unique gift to the world – with his historic surfing demonstration–his first surfing demonstration outside of Hawaii, 109 years ago.

And now, with surfing’s inauguration as an Olympic sport in Tokyo, this long forgotten story can be told.

Duke’s obituary in 1968.
Your cart

No products in the cart.