Poster for Duke Kahanamoku at Newcastle Ocean Baths 10 February 1915 – State Library of NSW

In the summer of 1915, Newcastle welcomed an unexpected guest,  a Hawaiian champion swimmer and surfer whose name had already become legendary in swimming.

Duke Kahanamoku was a Hawaiian swimmer who is credited with also popularising the sport of surfing, particularly in Australia. 

Born in 1890, Duke grew up in Waikiki as a member of a prominent Hawaiian family considered ‘low ranking nobles’. 

A powerful swimmer, he’s thought to have preferred surfing but represented the US at three Olympic Games – 1912 in Stockholm, 1920 in Antwerp and 1924 in Paris – but between the Olympics and following his Olympic career, Duke travelled widely to perform swimming and surfing demonstrations. 

In 1914/15, Duke Kahanamoku toured Australia and New Zealand for demonstration competitions that were fundraisers for swimming associations.

While in Australia, Duke broke his own world records and it was estimated that around 6,000 people paid to see him swim at the Sydney Domain Baths on 2 January 1915 when the NSW Swimming Association opened the Annual State Championship Carnival.

In December 1914, Duke constructed his own surfboard from solid pine after arriving in Australia without one as he believed they were banned. A carpenter in Glebe did the initial rough shaping for him, and by the time he’d finished it, it weighed around 40kg. It’s now on display at Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club, where his appearance in the surf is considered one of the most important events in the history of surfing in Australia.

Sadly, the only association not to make a profit was Newcastle due to the 8pm event being subject to bad weather – described in the newspapers as a ‘south-easterly gale’. If it was anything like what we now call East Coast lows, we can easily imagine just how awful the night was! 

“This south-easterly gale which had been raging during the day abated somewhat, but the strong wind and the waves washing over the corner of the baths, together with a heavy shower of rain, made the conditions unpleasant”.

Sydney Morning Herald, 11 February 1915.
Sun (Sydney) 3 Jan 1915 – Duke Kahanamoku at the Domain Baths

Newcastle Ocean Baths 10 February 1915

Referee (Sydney 1886 – 1939)

Entries for the Northern District Association’s Kahanamoku Carnival, to be carried out in the Ocean Baths, Newcastle, on February 10, will be received up till Monday evening, 1st proximo. The open events consist of a 200yds Inter-club Relay Race and 100yds First-class Handicap, limited to competitors doing 1min 10sec or better. 

The Hawaiians will figure in a 150yds Invitation Handicap. It is to be hoped a big contingent of metropolitan officials and swimmers elect to undertake the trip, as it provides a unique opportunity of resurrecting a laudable practise that was at one time a feature of the swimming, as it is now of the surfing, world. The annual visitation of metropolitan surfers to Newcastle, In Particular, has not only benefited the pastime tremendously at that destination, but, in addition to the social pleasures of the outings, has led to reciprocal visitors of no mean order.

Arrangements have been completed for a team of Manly Life-saving Club members to visit Melbourne and participate in the Melbourne Club’s Carnival, at which Kahanamoku is appearing. 

Referee (Sydney 1886 – 1915)

Duke Kahanamoku and his small party arrived in Newcastle 9 February 1915 to an informal midday reception by the Mayor Alderman John Reid at the Great Northern Hotel, then a tour around the harbour visiting the Basin and Dyke ‘coal loading appliances’ before heading to Walsh Island and the steelworks. Unfortunately, the launch they were on struck a submerged object, damaging the propellor, and the passengers were transferred to another vessel to return to Newcastle.

Freshwater now hosts a statue of ‘the Duke’ by sculptor Barry Donohoo in 1994. 

Duke Kahanamoku by sculptor Barry Donohoo (1994) – photo Alec Smart

Duke Kahanamoku visits Newcastle 1915


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