What makes a surfer legendary?
Some of our heroes are surf legends because they went first: rode a bigger wave, made a new kind of board, or tried a new approach. Other surfing legends make our list because of their dazzling skill – we just love to watch them perform. Many of our surf legends are great because they embody the spirit of surfing at its best: embracing each other as a community, respecting the ocean and environment, living simply and honestly for the pure joy of surfing.
One by one, we’ll be writing about the dozens of surfing legends we look up to as heroes, trailblazers, sportsmen, and amazing human beings. Look for writeups coming soon on:
King Kamehameha, Greg Noll, Buzzy Trent, George Downing, Mickey Munoz, Wally Froiseth, Fred Van Dyke, Peter Cole, Butch Van Artsdalen, Woody Brown, Miki Dora, Pat Curren, Mike Stang, Paul Strauch, Mike Martinson, Ben Aipa, Herbie Fletcher, Dale Velzy… and more.
DUKE KAHANAMOKU (1890-1968): FATHER OF MODERN SURFING
Duke Kahanamoku introduced the spirit of aloha and the joy of riding waves to the first generation of modern surfers. Duke’s life revolved around the ocean and, as surfing’s first ambassador, he spent it generously sharing his enthusiasm for wave riding.
The Hawaiian patriarch of our sport excelled as a world-class athlete and multi-faceted man of enormous ability. He was the first great waterman of our time. He shone on the world stage – the Olympics – for over a decade and is credited for making important advancements in ocean lifesaving techniques.
Growing up in Honolulu, he was the strongest and most skilled of the Waikiki beach boys. As a young man he mastered the arts of surfing, swimming, diving, and the outrigger canoe. Tom Blake writes, “He was on the beach all day long, swimming and surf riding or sleeping in the sun.” On one such day, he was noticed by a swimming coach and subsequently clocked in the 100-yard freestyle with a time that shattered the world record by four seconds! Because of his huge hands and feet and pioneering flutter-kick, newspapers later referred to him as the “human fish.”
Over the next dozen years, he won six medals, highlighted by Olympic Gold in 1912 and 1920, and a silver medal in 1924, when he came in second to one of the greatest swimmers of the 20th century, Johnny Weissmuller (the first Tarzan). Duke also played on the 1932 Olympic water polo team…in his 40’s! His Olympic accomplishments allowed him to travel the world for swimming and surfing exhibitions. A kind of stately Johnny Appleseed, Duke Kahanomoku dropped the seeds of stoke on two continents. He introduced surfing to Australia and America and instantly became famous as the world’s foremost surfer. Surfers on both continents can trace their surfing roots to the exact day Duke rode a wave in their country. To this day, the board Duke rode in his first Australian exhibition is the most coveted piece in Australia’s surf museum.
Duke’s prowess as a surfer was not limited to impressing newcomers abroad. In 1917 he rode a wave for a mile at Waikiki on equipment (16-foot wooden board with no fin) unfathomable by today’s standards. He also became known as a major contributor to ocean lifesaving techniques after what Newport Beach’s police chief called, “the most superhuman surfboard rescue act the world has ever seen.” In 1925, while surfing in rough water, he saw a fishing vessel capsize with 29 men aboard. His ability to make quick trips between the wreck and the shore – on his surfboard – saved eight lives and ushered in the use of rescue boards by lifeguards.
Duke’s legacy is not only being the first, but also being the best. As surfing’s, and Hawaii’s, first ambassador to the world, he carried himself with dignity and distinction. He embodied the characteristics of a true sportsman – grace, strength and humility – and in doing so set a high standard. Later in life, he offered the following advice to young surfers: “Just take your time – wave comes. Let the other guys go, catch another one.” As usual, his take on surfing was on point, foretelling crowded lineups and extolling the primary virtues of surfing – patience and fun. If ever there was a surfer owed a wave – of gratitude – it is Duke Kahanamoku.
Passionate fans of all sports love to debate “who’s best?” Surfers don’t need to spend much time on the subject. If you gauge it by world titles, innovations in surfing, or number of supermodels dated, the name is well-known and the presumption rarely challenged. We know who our sport’s greatest all-time champ is: Kelly Slater.
Speed, power, flexibility, and freakish tube-riding skills are the meat in his over flowing lunch pail of tricks. During contests, the fact that he routinely lays down sick maneuvers with speed, power, and poise, at the most inopportune times for his opponents, has propelled him to the pinnacle of the sport and netted him eight (going on nine) World Titles!
One part competitive animal and the other natural-born talent, Kelly Slater is hard to beat and, to date, impossible to beat consistently. At 38, he sits astride surfing’s throne holding court as the best surfer in the world. A quick glance at the rise, and further rise, of surfing’s modern-day monarch provides a fuller picture of the man and his career.
Kelly Slater was not born into a “wave-rich” environment. Raised in the surf capital of Florida, Cocoa Beach, he took to less than ideal waves and surf contests with gusto. The small and inconsistent surf of Central Florida was the kiddie pool in which he learned to generate speed and power. He probably also developed an undying appreciation for serious high-performance waves, in which he would later excel.
Like any aspiring East Coast talent, he clocked many trips with older surfers to Central America and the Caribbean while competing in contests up and down the eastern seaboard. During this period, he honed his speedy turns and vertical attack, and developed his signature power and contortionist-like moves, all the while absorbing competitive experience. A talent poised to explode, Kelly would not wait long to showcase his preternatural repertoire.
In 1992, Kelly burst onto the world stage and scalped the first of his eight world titles. Through his surfing, he not so subtly announced the arrival of a new generation, and established himself as its leader. From 1994 to 1998, he ran off four more titles, crossing the line from great surfer to one of the greatest. Along the way, he starred in Baywatch and dated Pamela Anderson and other high-profile beautiful people, but he never lost his reputation as the man to beat. Unlike other great world surf champs, he didn’t choose to recede into a cushy surf industry job or pursue an enviable (non-competitive) life of ripping long walls in exotic locations for free. Like legends in other sports (see Muhammad Ali or Lance Armstrong) he took some years off only to come roaring back to reassert his dominance by winning more world titles (’05,’07, ’08) against much younger men.
Boil away all the accolades and flowery adjectives, and one simple statement personifies his greatness. Kelly Slater was the best surfer in the world in 1992 and unquestionably remains at the pinnacle of the sport in 2008. Great athletes accomplishments flirt with degrees of permanence or fade quickly, while a legend’s resonate for generations. Kelly Slater’s competitive supremacy and mastery of the art of riding waves earns him the moniker “living legend.” It is difficult to call the most dominant surfer of all time anything else.