THE buzz is getting louder at Freshwater Beach, in Sydney’s north, as the centenary of a seminal moment in Australian cultural history approaches.
On January 10, 1915, a Hawaiian called Duke Kahanamoku, in Australia to participate in swimming races, strolled to the water with a 2.6m solid surfboard made of local sugar pine, paddled out in the 1m waves and put on a demonstration that, according to many, changed Australia forever.
Mika Flower, left, Hannah Rowbotham, Jasmin Riggs and Lilly McDonald during auditions this week to play Isabel Letham, who rode tandem with Kahanamoku 100 years ago.
Photo Courtesy RENEE NOWYTARGER
“What he did … surprised every spectator,” The Sun newspaper said two days later. “He, as he put it himself, ‘got it right several times’, and consequently was … seen at his best.”
This week, the organisers of the three-day centenary celebrations, called Duke’s Day, auditioned local teenage girls to play the role of 15-year-old Isabel Letham, who, according to legend, rode tandem with Kahanamoku that day.
Two were selected, Lilly McDonald and Mika Flower. They will ride a replica of Kahanamoku’s board in a re-enactment with Hawaiian Duane de Soto, one of a 15-person contingent flying in from Honolulu for Duke’s Day.
The event will consolidate the relationship between Hawaii and Australia that Kahanamoku helped to establish 100 years ago.
“He came from a culture where surfing was mainstream,” said Duke’s Day committee chairman Stephen Bennett. “But in Australia we probably thought there was a mystique about him. He wasn’t an average human being.
“The Hawaiians are blown away that Australia has a connection with Duke. They see him as a very special person.”
However, while the focus of Duke’s Day will be on the depth of Australian surfing history and the legacy of Kahanamoku’s aloha spirit — the Hawaiian tradition of generosity to strangers — the events of 100 years ago continue to cause debate. Kahanamoku’s well-publicised demonstrations undoubtedly popularised surfing at the time, but an often-overlooked Australian called Tommy Walker was already surfing in Australia at the time, riding a board he’d bought in Hawaii.
“I’m sure there will be some reference to him (Walker) at Duke’s Day,” Bennett said.
“As time’s gone on, people have recognised where they both fit in.”