The First Real Waterman
by Corky Carroll
There is a new movie coming out called American Masters: Waterman – Duke, Ambassador of Aloha. Kind of a long title really, but it hits the nail on the head all the way around. Obviously it is about the life of the legendary Duke Kahanamoku. Well, I guess “obviously” to everybody over a certain age. These days a great majority of the younger crowd coming up in surfing, and in life, are not big on their history. They know who Kelly Slater and Kai Lenny are, but most likely not much from before what is fairly current. So, even though Duke is one of the biggest, most famous and certainly most respected names in not only surfing, but in sports period, he might not be in the known world to your average surf kid on the beach.
The title of the movie sort of says it all. “American Masters.” Duke is certainly a master. “Waterman.” Surfer of legendary status, Olympic swimmer with 5 gold medals and all around waterman of incredible skills. “Ambassador of Aloha.” This is the real bottom line of the story of Duke Kahanamoku, this guy lived the spirit of Aloha and took it around the world with him. He was the most famous and loved surfer/waterman of all time. This movie goes into depth showing what an amazing person he was along with all of his accolades and accomplishments. He was one of those rare people who are just bigger than life and as genuine as they come.
I first met Duke in the early 1960’s when they added the “Duke Kahanamohu all around best surfer” award at the United States Surfing Championships in Huntington Beach. Duke was there to present the award and many of us who were in the event got to meet him. It was pretty cool, kinda like meeting Elvis or something like that. Mike Doyle won it the first year and I won it 5 times in a row between 1966 and 1970.
Then there were the “Duke Invitational” events held in Hawaii beginning in the mid 60’s. The top 24 surfers in the world were invited to compete and for the first time were flown to Hawaii and taken care of with hotel and food etc. We always got to say hi and all that, had our photos taken with him a bunch of times. I was fortunate to get invited to the first seven “Duke meets,” and consider those to be at the top of the highlights of my competitive surfing years.
There were dinners at “Dukes” in Waikiki where he would be there and Don Ho would do a show. They gave all of the competitors these beautiful gold trophies that looked like “Oscars.” It was Duke standing in front of board, an image that became very famous and is now many statues around the world. Duke would hand them out to all of us and always thanked us by name when he gave us our “Duke.” It was like “Thank you so much for coming over Corky, aloha.” I always felt like he meant it.
My best personal memory of Duke comes from one day I was invited to ride out to the North Shore with him, Paul Strauch and Freddy Hemmings in Dukes personal Rolls Royce. I think Freddy drove. Amazing just what a tranquil and sweet person he was out of the limelight. You got the feeling that he really cared about you when he talked to you, wasn’t just thinking of himself or trying to be impressive. Really an easy guy to like. They loved him so much in Hawaii that no matter where he went for a meal it was always “on the house.” Cool side benefit of hanging out with Duke was it always meant free lunch.
“American Masters: Waterman – Duke – Ambassador of Aloha” premiers May 10 at 9 PM eastern time on PBS. The documentary has narration by Jason Momoa and features comments from some of todays surfing greats such as Kelly Slater, Laird Hamilton and Kai Lenny. It is a great film and should be required viewing by every serious surfer under the age of 40 or any others who don’t know the legend of the great Duke Kahanamoku. A beautiful and well done tribute.