Father of modern-day surfing is honored in local’s documentary

David Ulrich (center) “Waterman,” telling the story of Duke Kahanamoku, to be aired on PBS in May. Contributed photo.

The inspiring story of Duke Kahanamoku, often called the father of modern-day surfing, is finally coming to television. A documentary on the surfing pioneer was produced by Malibu resident David Ulich. 

The film “Waterman” premiered in October 2021 at the Hawaiian International Film Festival, where it picked up Best Documentary. It’s been making the rounds on the festival circuit ever since and won “Best of” honors at the Malibu Film Festival. You’ll now be able to watch the informative movie on the man who popularized surfing Tuesday, May 10, when it premieres on PBS as part of the “American Masters” series.

Because Kahanamoku died more than five decades ago, many might not know about his remarkable life. Ulich admits he didn’t. As a 40-year Malibu resident, he knew of Kahanamoku’s namesake restaurant because he drove past it every day on his way to work as a lawyer. Ulich, who is also married to former Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich, was for years also a board member of the U.S. Olympic Committee. He founded the Foundation for Global Sports Development “that uses sports as a way to help mentor inner-city kids and at-risk youth through after school sports and education programs that teach teamwork, good sportsmanship and drug-free living habits.” 

Eight years ago, Ulich helped make a documentary on the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. The short documentary was honored with an Emmy nomination. Since then he’s produced educational documentaries and has been honored with an Emmy Award and nominated for other Emmys and an Oscar. 

His association with the USOC ended, however, after the scandal of the disgraced women’s gymnastics team doctor who abused hundreds of young women and eventually went to jail. 

A division of his foundation, Sidewinder Films, made a feature-length documentary about the incidents. Victim advocates pressured the Olympic Committee “to do more about it.” Ultimately Ulich resigned from the board because, in his words “we didn’t think they did enough.” 

When the filmmaker was asked to produce a documentary on Kahanamoku he said, “I thought, OK, Hawaiian surfer. That’s not enough, we’re trying to do films on more important things.” However, Ulich soon found out there is so much more to Duke’s story.

“I learned not only was he a surfer, he was a five-time Olympic medalist (three gold), and he dealt with racism and economic hardship,” Ulich said. “He spread the whole notion of aloha. Most people when they think of aloha they think it means the greeting hello, but aloha means much more than that. It’s the spirit of love, friendship and caring for other people. He really put Hawaii on the map in the early 20th century. Through his spirit of aloha he created an entire tourism industry in Hawaii.”

The documentarian and his team gathered a few well-known watermen and women to participate in the film. Two locals interviewed include big wave surfing legend Laird Hamilton and the real Gidget, Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman.

If Duke Kahanamoku is the father of modern-day surfing, its mother surely is Kohner-Zuckerman who for 20 years has held the title “Ambassador of Aloha” at Duke’s Malibu. Her father Frederick Kohner’s book, “Gidget,” a fictionalization account of her early surfing life, touched off the surfing craze that’s been riding a never-ending wave 65 years on. Kohner-Zuckerman carries on Kahanamoku’s spirit spreading “a warm welcome aloha.” 

Kohner-Zuckerman praised all the staff at Duke’s and added, “Duke’s legacy lives in the smiles and warmth of the summer sunshine, smiles of our waitstaff and impeccable charm of a legend of the waves. He makes us all long for the ride on our boards, to seize the day, to breathe our ocean air, and to walk quietly with grace and amour.”

Ulich also applauded Kahanamoku’s approach to life’s difficulties. 

“When he dealt with adversity and there’s so much conflict in the world today, you can choose to be confrontational or choose to step back,” he said. “As Laird Hamilton says in the film, ‘Duke’s approach to life was there’s only one race, the human race.’ Even though he was discriminated against, in a difficult situation he would always take the high road.” 

Due to the theatrical success of “Waterman,” plans are underway to turn Kahanamoku’s extraordinary life story into a feature film.

LtoR Brian Keaulana David Ulich Billy Pratt
“Waterman,” telling the story of Duke Kahanamoku, to be aired on PBS in May. Contributed photo.