Think of Hawaii and the magnificent coastline that hugs the islands springs to mind. The oceans are a major part of the culture, not just for tourists but for the locals too. Ever since the Polynesians ventured out in their canoes and fishing boats and stumbled across these incredible islands, indigenous people have been using the sea as their main source of living.
From food and water to general living and entertainment, Hawaiians have honed their skills of the seas for thousands of years, and they are still evident today. Whereas mere mortals like us need boat rentals and surf lessons to reach surf spots, the locals embrace the water. Whether it’s navigating the ocean, surfing big waves or paddle boarding, a Hawaiian’s expertise is second to none.
Today, the islands have become a tourist hotspot, filled with visitors wanting to take advantage of our whale watching tours and snorkel rentals to channel their inner waterman. We are happy to oblige as we want to continue the excellent work of previous generations, but we must all show respect.
So, it’s only right to pay homage to the surf legends that opened the doors and made it possible. Without them, the Polynesian way of life wouldn’t be as celebrated and the next generation of watermen wouldn’t take up the challenge to be better.
Duke’s precocious skill goes back to the end of the 19th century when he was born. Since 1890 and the subsequent years that followed, Duke showed a passion for ocean-based activities, from swimming and surfing to paddling. It wasn’t from his namesake, the Duke of Edinburgh who visited the islands in 1869, were his talents developed. Instead, it was the Aussie swimmers who visited Hawaii at the turn of the 20th century. After watching them closely, Duke tried to emulate what he saw and soon created the “Hui Nalu” club.
Called the “Club of the Waves” in English, Duke and the other members aimed to receive recognition as expert swimmers. It was clear it wouldn’t take too long after the first official timing that he sent to the Amateur Athletic Union that broke the record for 100m. Unfortunately, the AAU wasn’t impressed and didn’t believe Duke could swim this fast and sent a reply that accused him of cheating. “Hawaiian judges alerted to use stopwatches, not alarm clocks,” part of the response read. Undeterred, he traveled to the mainland and entered a 100m race, which he won decisively and qualified for the Stockholm Olympics.
Of course, the story can’t go this swimmingly, and his moment of glory was almost dashed by himself. He nearly slept through his alarm and missed the start of the race! Thankfully for Duke and the whole of Hawaii, he made it in time and proceeded to smash the Olympic record and win two golds. His Olympic adventures didn’t end in Stockholm – eight later in Belgium, he won two more gold medals and became a swimming legend. He was so good that the US Swimming Team poached him in 1924 to represent America, meaning Duke was 35 years ahead of his time! He became a member of the US Water Polo Team in 1932.
However, his achievements can’t only be measured in fast times, memberships, and medals. Duke was also a protector of the oceans and used his skills to guard those who didn’t understand the dangers. In 1925, for instance, there was a fishing boat accident off the coast of Newport Beach. Duke saved eight people using his surfboard to move the survivors to safety. As a result of his heroism, US lifeguards started using boards in their attempts to rescue people. Helping others was in Duke’s nature, and when he was out of the water, he spent the next 26 years as the Sheriff of Honolulu.
After his involvement in the Olympics, Duke used his platform to raise awareness of swimming and surfing. During international exhibitions, he used his board as part of the show. As a result, Duke brought the sport to Australia thanks to his event as Freshwater Beach in Sydney, 1914. Australia continues to recognize Duke with a statute in Freshwater Beach, as well as showcasing the board he used at the event that he made from a piece of pine.
Hawaii and Australia celebrated him as a mega-star, and so did Hollywood. Starring in a selection of movies, his biggest picture was with Clint Eastwood in the “Wake of Red Witch.” Duke’s contribution to his homeland, which is still evident today, earned him a role as an Official State of Hawaii Ambassador of Aloha. Although he died in 1968, his legacy lives on. Now, Duke is regarded as the greatest athlete Hawaii has ever produced who paved the way for decades of watermen to enhance their skills and Hawaii’s reputation.
The “Father of Modern Surfing” popularized the indigenous sport of Hawaii while representing the islands at the highest level and saving people in the process. For that, Duke Kahanamoku will always be remembered.
Herbert Kawainui Kane
Born in 1928, 38 years after Duke Kahanamoku, Herbert Kawainui Kane’s love of the oceans took time to develop. Initially, Herb, as he was affectionately known, followed his passions for art, history, and writing. He authored books, made sculptures and advertised art as a student of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
It didn’t take long for his interest of the seas to come to the forefront, however. As the first captain of Hokule‘a, he became a founding member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. From there, he joined the navy and used his talents to help his country. But, it was the age-old debate surrounding Polynesian navigation that piqued Herb’s interest. For years, people debated whether the first settlers to find Hawaii had done it purposely or by accident. Computer simulations of tides and wind patterns proved it was no fluke.
Still, the data wasn’t enough for Herb, and he decided to put the simulations to the test by building a replica of the ancient, Polynesian canoe. Thanks to his time in the navy and at school, he understood how to make a vessel and had a solid knowledge of the oceans. However, Herb could only come up with a basic plan on his own and needed help to take the project to the next level. So, he asked for volunteers, and they came in their droves. Hundreds of Hawaiians showed up, resulting in the launch of the boat that made two 5,500 mile roundtrip journeys in 1976 and 1980. Later on, in 1985, Herb went further and completed a 16,000-mile adventure that started and finished in Hawaii, taking in New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Tonga, and Samoa.
The boat still needed a title, and Hokule‘a was chosen after the indigenous name for a star used to navigate by ancient Hawaiians. Because of his endeavors, Herb proved that the appetite for Hawaiian culture was by no means dead. Thanks to him, there was increased awareness and popularity that lasts to this day, resulting in his Living Treasure of Hawaii election in 1984.
Eddie Aikau was basically dragged into the sea by his dad. It wasn’t anything untoward, just a good, old-fashioned use of free labor by his father! Eddie used to take his dad’s board into the sea for him, but there was a problem – it was made from a Californian Redwood. So, after getting bored of doing all the work and getting none of the rewards, he took up the sport and joined his father off the shores of Kahului in the 40s and 50s.
Eddie’s love of the sport stayed him well into the 50s and 60s, developing into more than a hobby. It was a passion for him, and he was like all Hawaiians in that he dreamt of spending his days in the Pacific. So, he dropped out of school. Getting an evening job, Eddie spent his mornings surfing and honed his skills as a big wave surfer at various surf locations. Soon, Eddie caught the eye of city officials in Honolulu. Working for the City & County of Honolulu, he became the North Shore’s first lifeguard at Waimea Bay.
Waiting for good things to happen wasn’t Eddie’s style – re: dropping out of school – and he didn’t stand on ceremony. Without a high school diploma, he became Lifeguard of the Year in 1971 after he saved countless lives in hazardous conditions. Eddie Aikau was such a natural waterman that he changed perceptions of what was thought unsafe conditions to enter the water. In his spare time, he emulated surf legends by winning countless competitions, namely the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational in 1977. As a result, Eddie propelled himself into legendary surf status alongside his idols.
Sadly, Eddie Aikau’s story had a tragic end. After being selected to take part in the second edition of Hokule‘a, the team was pressured to leave before it was safe. Not long after setting sail, the boat started to leak and then capsized in the ocean, leaving the team members to float overnight clinging to scraps of the boat. Eddie, realizing search efforts couldn’t see them, made a courageous decision to go it alone on his board. Without a life jacket, he ran into rough conditions and was never seen again. Hours later, the stranded Hokule’a team was spotted and the US Coast Guard rescued them.
Thankfully, Hawaiians never let the bravery of Eddie Aikau fade from their memory. Today, the world’s most prestigious big-wave surf competition is held in his memory. The Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau only takes place when the waves can’t get any higher. And, participants take part by invite-only after being voted in by their peers.
“Eddie Would Go” is now a phrase that is a testament to the outstanding skill and courage of a man who gave his life for watersports.
Charles Nainoa Thompson
Charles Nainoa Thompson was introduced to the ocean by a milkman of all people. Yoshio Kawano showed Nainoa the ways of the sea and led him to develop a passion that was similar to the rest of the surf legends on this list. By the 1960s, years after his birth in 1953, Nainoa graduated from school and began working odd jobs. However, the one that changed his legacy forever was paddling outrigger canoes with the Hui Nalu Club. Our Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Tours are based on the experiences Nainoa had as a young man.
At the Hui Nalu Club, he met the designers of the Hokule’a – Tommy Holmes, Ben Finney, and Herb Kane. Needing someone to test out their handiwork, the three men asked Nainoa to paddle out into the open ocean, and he gladly obliged. Due to his commitment to the Hokule’a project, the founders picked him as one of the thirty members to set sail on a roundtrip adventure to Tahiti. Unfortunately, there was a glitch because the team didn’t have a navigator and one of the last known experts paddled into the sea never to be seen again. Luckily, a man from Satawal in Micronesia offered his services. Satawal, needing to source food for the island, still used the ancient method of navigating.
The story’s sea blocks didn’t end there as Mau Piailug decided to leave in Tahiti, leaving Nainoa to pick up the pieces for the return journey. But, Mau heard about the death of Eddie Aikau in 1979 and returned to Hawaii to teach Nainoa the art of wayfinding. Using basic methods and equipment, and plenty of patience, Charles Nainoa Thompson became the first Hawaiian to learn and practice the skill on long ocean trips since the 14th century.
With such knowledge, Nainoa became a pivotal part of the culture and didn’t shirk his responsibilities. As well as crafting educational programs for kids, he developed a new canoe made from traditional materials called “Hawai’iloa.” Hawai’iloa became part of an international team named the “The Voyaging Families of the Vast Ocean” directed by Nainoa himself.
A genuine surf legend and Hawaiian waterman, Nainoa couldn’t resist the call of the sea and is part of the team taking the Hokule’a on its Malama Honua voyage.
Waterman and surfing legends don’t come more packaged than Laird Hamilton. Born in San Francisco, Laird wasn’t introduced to surfing until he met Bill Hamilton after he and his mother had moved to Oahu. Bill would later become his adopted father, but he was more than a father figure because he introduced him to surfing via his surf shop.
Customizing boards for big waves had an impression on Laird, and he continued to hone his skills. However, he hated the politics of the professional circuit and decided not to pursue a career. Instead, People Magazine’s future “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” decided to finish his studies and become a model. Working as a construction worker on the side, his big break came to him in the form of movies. He starred in pictures ranging from “North Shore” to “Moving Target” and “Groove: Requiem in the Key of Ski” from 1987 through to 1990. His biggest movie was the 1995 hit Water world starring Kevin Costner, and Laird played Costner’s stunt double.
However, what set Laird on the trajectory as one of Hawaii’s surfing legends was his daredevil nature. During shooting for “Groove,” he decided to attempt something that had never been tried before – a strapped-in 360 degrees turn. This earned him a place in the group titled the “Strapped Crew,” and his stunts become bigger and bolder, finally transforming into the sport of Kite boarding. In his spare time, he and his friends also developed a new form of surfing. Using a tug boat, they towed people into waves that were usually too big to surf. Our boat rentals are still used for this very purpose in surfing locations around the world, so we should all thank Laird Hamilton for his dedication and imagination!
Laird’s legacy is cemented by his iconic achievement of ridding the “heaviest wave ever ridden” in 2000. Labeled as the most complete surfer in the world, surf fans and his peers often give him the title of “Best of the Best at Big Wave Surfing.” Laird shuns the praise, rather continuing to further water-sports by designing hydrofoil boarding for deep water surfing.
Dave Kalama has Hawaiian watersports in his blood. Ever since his birth in 1964, he heard about the achievements of his father and grandfather, both of whom were accomplished watermen. His dad won the U.S. Amateur Surf Champion in 1962, while his granddad introduced outrigger canoe paddling to California in the 50s.
So, it was apparent Dave’s future lay in watersports, but it wasn’t until a family vacation to Hawaii that it was cemented. Stopping over in Maui, he saw the north shore for all its glory and made a vow to return. He duly did when he was only 20 years old after he had sold all of his valuables to fund the trip. Thankfully, it was a risk that paid off once he met Laird Hamilton and helped develop modern water sports. From hydrofoil boarding to stand-up paddle racing and tow-in surfing, contemporary sports have Dave’s DNA all over them.
As a windsurfing champion of the world, he garnered attention and finally landed a role on a James Bond movie as a stunt double. Turn on “Die Another Day,” and you’ll see two Hawaii surfing legends in one place as Laird Hamilton landed a role, too. Their friendship has never faded and both remain close to this day. Due to his role in movies, he won the Beacon Award at the Maui Film Festival and was recognized for building awareness of the surf genre.
Dave isn’t only a man of the sea. In one week, he and Laird also biked the whole of the Hawaiian islands. If you want to replicate Dave and Laird’s efforts, our “Bike the Volcano” activity is tailor-made to give you a taster.
All of the above have inspired generations of kids to take up watersports and continue the great tradition of Hawaiian surfing legends and watermen. None of them encapsulate this more than Kai Lenny, a 27-year-old natural. He takes part in so many activities that we can’t list them all on this post!
What we can do is mention his outstanding achievements that have taken the art forms set out by the men above to new levels. He is already a 7-time SUP World Championship winner and is sponsored by the likes of Red Bull, Nike, Oakley, and GoPro. But, it’s his commitment to the oceans that is incredible. In 2017, his voyage with Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and The 5 Gyres grabbed headlines as the first-ever statewide beach cleanup powered by humans.
We can’t tell he will do next. However, there’s no doubt that with the examples set by Duke Kahanamoku, Herb Kane, Eddie Aikau, Nainoa Thompson, Laird Hamilton, and Dave Kalama, it will be great for both watersports and Hawaii.
The history of surfing legends and Hawaii means the world to us, and that’s why we offer our services. As well as your enjoyment, we love to see people learn more about the culture and what it took to get us to this point. So, our snorkel services, boat rentals, and kayak tours all invoke the history of Hawaiian water sports.
With us, you’ll replicate the most iconic voyages and adventures Hawaii has ever seen thanks to our human-powered outrigger canoe excursion. Plus, you’ll learn how to surf like an authentic Hawaiian while respecting the sea and Mother Nature. The same goes for our paddle board trips, too.
Of course, Hawaii is more than the ocean and water sports, which is why we offer everything from camping to motor home rentals. Whether it’s in a car on the road to Hana, on horseback or with a golf club in your hand, we want you to experience the real Hawaii.