A Tribute to ‘Waterman’ Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku

Most residents of Malibu know at least something about Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968)—maybe that Kahanamoku’s Malibu Restaurant is named after him or that he introduced Hawaiian surfing to the California coast nearly 100 years ago. But after seeing the new documentary about his life, “Waterman,” it’s plain that he was far more than a great surfer—he was the first Hawaiian and Polynesian to become famous on the mainland and introduce his culture to the world.

About 35 Malibu residents learned even more about Kahanamoku at a special “friends and family” sneak preview screening held at the Malibu Racquet Club in late October. 

Kahanamoku is described by various people interviewed in the film as a “racial pioneer,” “one of the world’s greatest athletes,” “the king of surfing” and “one of the biggest celebrities in the world.”

Co-producer and Point Dume resident David Ulich said in a phone interview that one of the most fascinating parts of Kahanamoku’s story is that “aloha” was not just a salutation. To Kahanamoku and many Hawaiians, the “spirit of aloha” is a way of life in which people practice kindness, trust and turning the other cheek; Kahanamoku introduced this way of life to the world by example—breaking a lot of color barriers.

“This was how he managed to deal with the many instances of racism he encountered in his life,” Ulich said. “It even influenced me—I find myself more often taking the high road, and it’s a good lesson to be learned.”

Although best known as a surfer, Kahanamoku was also a world-class swimmer, winning a total of five Olympic medals in the sport. In 1912, he won gold in the 100-meter freestyle and silver with the men’s freestyle relay. In 1920 he won two gold medals: the 100-meter and the relay. In 1924, he finished with a silver medal in the 100-meter, losing out to Johnny Weissmuller (who later became famous for playing the role of Tarzan). 

Ulich noted that Kahanamoku’s participation in the Olympics hurt him financially, because he would have lost his amateur athlete status if he had taken money for the surf and swimming exhibitions he held in various countries. He was quite a showman in these exhibitions and would surf standing on his head or with a girl on his shoulders; the shows helped bring tourism to Hawaii for the first time.

Kahanamoku later went to Hollywood, but only got bit parts and walk-on roles in 28 movies due to his dark skin color. He also taught and exhibited his surf and swim skills up and down the coast of California, and even spent time in Malibu. 

In 1925, he became a national hero after making a superhuman rescue off the coast of Newport Beach, when he witnessed violent waves throw 29 people off a sport fishing boat into the ocean. Kahanamoku used his surfboard to personally rescue eight of the victims before they drowned. It was because of this incident that California lifeguards first adopted the use of rescue boards.

The “Waterman” documentary was five years in the making and includes interviews with 37 people, including Malibu’s own big wave surfer Laird Hamilton as well as Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman (the real Gidget).

Director Isaac Halasima is a native Hawaiian who impressed Ulich with his “passion and enthusiasm” for the project; well-known Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa does the narration.

After years of world travel and acting, Kahanamoku returned to Hawaii in 1930—unemployed and lacking even a high school degree—but things turned around. He became sheriff for the city and county of Honolulu in 1934, and was re-elected 13 times. In 1960, he was appointed Hawaii’s Official Ambassador of Aloha and later inducted into the Swimming and Surfing Halls of Fame and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. Nearly 100 years after Kahanamoku’s original suggestion, surfing was finally added to the Olympic Games in 2020.

“Waterman” is the sixth documentary that producer and attorney David Ulich has made in six years with the nonprofit Foundation for Global Sports Development’s media division, Sidewinder Films. Of his previous critically acclaimed documentaries, two others also featured Olympians facing societal challenges: the Emmy-nominated “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” and the Emmy-nominated short “Munich ‘72 and Beyond.” This is the first to deal with the challenge of racism.

 “Waterman” opened the Hawaiian International Film Festival in Honolulu on Nov. 5. For other festival dates and virtual screenings, check social media. It is expected to be in theaters starting next April, and on PBS. To see the trailer, go to: sidewinderfilms.org/films/waterman.