Everywhere he went, Duke Kahanamoku rode atop his fame to introduce the world to the sport of surfing. Invited in 1915 by the New South Wales Swimming Association to give a swimming exhibition at the Domain Baths in Sydney, Duke spread the good word on wave-riding to Australia. At the time, Australians were only vaguely aware of surfing, yet the ocean-crazed people thrilled when Duke fashioned an eight-foot six-inch alaia board out of native Australian sugar pine and rode it at Freshwater Beach in Manly in February 1915. Duke’s ride single-handedly put Australia on a path to superpower status in the surfing world.
Duke was a busy man into the 1920s, competing in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics, hobnobbing in Hollywood, and proselytizing for surfing around the globe. But it was back home in Hawai’i in summer 1917 that Duke made himself legendary—and with a single ride. He caught a wave of near-mythological size at Kalehuawehe, which was now called Outside Castles. The wave took him well over a thousand yards, from Outside Castles, through Elk’s Club, Cunha’s, Queen’s, and all the way to the beach. It was a wave and a feat that have never been matched.
Following in the wake of George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku, the population of surfers in California grew slowly but steadily. Surfboards were mostly made of heavy and unwieldy redwoods and hardwoods with designs adapted from Hawai’ian shapes to fit California conditions. By 1928, a Wisconsin-born surfing convert named Tom Blake organized the Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships at Corona del Mar, the United States’ first wave-riding competition. The best surfers from all over California competed for the Tom Blake Trophy from 1928 to 1941, when World War II put an end to the event. Blake also became the first photographer to shoot surfing from the water.
Surfing was on its way to becoming more than just a sport in California; the lure of the waves was creating a lifestyle. One of the first Southern California men to become enamored with surfing in the 1920s and 1930s was John H. “Doc” Ball, a dentist who grew up near Hermosa Beach. Doc Ball got hooked by surfing as seriously as any man ever has, finding it “a great stress reliever” away from the confines of an office and the professional sadism of the dentist’s chair.
He struggled with the early redwood surfboards until he developed the strength and agility to handle them. Like Blake, Doc Ball was also fascinated by photography and he became the second serious surf photographer, shooting wave-riding from the water via a waterproof camera housing. But he also was capturing something more. Doc Ball turned his camera to document the emerging surfing lifestyle as it existed before, during, and after World War II. He was truly catching a new wave.
Surfing had traveled over a millennium from Polynesia to Hawai’i and on to California and Australia. But the love affair was just beginning.