On June 14, 1925, a chubasco–an unexpected swift and violent squall, shocking in its violence and strength–came barreling through Southern California. The Newport Beach harbor entrance was swollen and badgered by unrelenting big swells, growing to 20 and 30 feet. The troublesome and unseen sandbars were shifting. Unable to ride out the storm, The Thelma, a 40-foot sport fishing boat, made an attempt to enter the harbor.
It is hard to believe, but at one time, Newport Beach was a rough and tumble town, struggling to call itself an actual port. In 1925, the Newport harbor entrance was very dangerous to ship and sail. On the bright side, it also offered the “best surfing in the world,” according to global surfers of the time.
A huge wave smashed across the bow of the Thelma, flooding the engine room. Twenty-nine fishermen were thrown into the roiling waters. According to the Los Angeles Times, the vessel “was caught broadside in the teeth of three tremendous breakers and rolled completely over three times from starboard to port on the sand of the shallow bar.” No shipmate had time to grab a life preserver.
Duke Kahanamoku had motored down from Los Angeles to catch some waves. At the time, he was giving swimming exhibitions at the Los Angeles Athletic Club and living the good life as an Olympic hero in Tinseltown. He was not rich of pocket, but rich in spirit. At thirty-four years old and pals with everyone, he had a large car filled with Hollywood swells and a few long redwood boards.
Kahanamoku knew his beaches and he loved surfing Newport at Corona del Mar. The long ride was like Waikiki. Authors Claudine and Paul Burnett wrote in their book Surfing Newport Beach, “(Kahanamoku) rode the waves of Newport Bay in a canoe, and when he could, he borrowed an actual surfboard from his friend Felix Modjeski, grandson of famous Polish actress Madame Helena Modjeska, who owned a nearby beach cottage. Eventually, Duke and some of his friends brought their own surfboards to Corona del Mar and left them at the Sparr Bathhouse, starting what would become one of the first surf clubs in the United States—the Corona del Mar Surf Club.”
In those early days, “The Duke asked me to watch over their boards (at the Sparr Bathhouse) and see to it that no one stole them,” wrote Judge Robert Gardner in his book Naughty Newport. “Steal them? An average man couldn’t even lift one. They were made of mahogany, twelve feet long, probably six inches thick, and must have weighed well over two hundred pounds. Nevertheless,” Gardner recalled, “the Duke asked me to watch over the boards. I did so, and in return, he would take me out for a ride on his shoulders. He was a powerful man, and I weighed less than a hundred pounds, so by what seemed no more than a flick of the wrist he had me on his shoulders and probably didn’t even know I was there during the ride.”
In an interview quoted by biographer Malcom Gault Williams in his book Legendary Surfers, Duke Kahanamoku says, “From shore, we suddenly saw the charter fishing boat, the Thelma, wallowing in the water, trying to get to safe water and it was a losing battle. The prospects for picking up victims looked impossible.”
Instinct kicked in and Kahanamoku and two of his surfing buddies leapt onto their boards. “Neither me nor my pals were thinking about heroics, we were simply running–me with my board and the others to get their boards–hoping to save lives.”
Unthinking of their personal safety, Duke paddled through the madly pounding waves to the struggling men and began a fast roundtrip to save the drowning. Kahanamoku says, “Don’t ask me how I made it, for it was just one long nightmare of trying to shove through what looked like a low Niagara Falls.” The waves were, in his words, “building up to barn-like heights.”
The Thelma had rolled over three times. Everyone was in the water, with nothing to hang on to. The water was full of angry chop. Clothing was heavy. Kahanamoku says, “Fully clothed persons have little chance in a wild sea like that.”
In 1925, surfing and surfboards were an oddity, a strange ancient Hawai’ian phenomenon that had only recently been introduced to the mainland. “I brought one victim on my board, then two on another trip, possibly three on another, then back for one. It was a delirious shuttle system,” Kahanamoku recalled.
“In a matter of minutes we were making rescues; (people were) screaming, gagging, thrashing. Some victims we could not save at all,” Kahanamoku recalls, “We lost count of the number of trips we made. Without the boards, we would probably not have been able to rescue a single person.” Before this moment, the mainlander had never considered the surfboard to be a life saving device.
On that day, seventeen souls perished and twelve were saved from drowning. Duke Kahanamoku was responsible for eight of those rescues. Captain James Porter, the Newport Beach Chief of Police, told the Los Angeles Times, “Kahanamoku’s performance was the most superhuman rescue act and the finest display of surfboard riding that has ever been seen in the world.”
Befitting his humble personality, Kahanamoku didn’t stick around to try to grab headlines. He left the scene before reporters even arrived. The story made national news. The event is often referred to as “The Great Rescue of 1925.”
Kahanamoku was legendary, again. At this time, the nation was already enthralled with South Seas culture. Two-thirds of all published music was influenced by Hawai’i and the Pacific. I wonder how much of this craze was due to the four time Olympic medalist, two Gold and two Silver. His fresh smiling face exposed his fundamental genuineness. He was a man of aloha.
Duke Kahanamoku introduced the Sport of Kings to the mainland in the 1920s and planted a seed of thought that grew into the gentle, respectful and earth-conscious ways of the beach culture. He lived a charmed and fortunate life. He is the acknowledged Father of Modern Surfing and an innovator of lifeguard technique and water safety. He traveled the world with the greatest of welcome. The Duke was a Prince.
If you’re in the Orange County Area, Paul Burnett, author of Surfing Newport Beach: The Glory Days of Corona del Mar, is giving a talk tonight (June 15th) athe the Sherman Library and Gardens in Newport Beach.
Gordy Grundy is an artist and arts writer. His visual and literary work can be found at www.GordyGrundy.com