On This Day, Duke Kahanamoku Played Hero’s Role to Perfection

The day, June 14, 1925, was made for legends.

There on the beach near the Newport harbor mouth was Duke Kahanamoku, the Olympic swimming champion-turned-actor, lounging with a group of Hollywood cronies who came to Newport Beach for long weekends during the summer.

A handful of Duke’s fellow surfers also were enjoying one of those days with a Monet sky and large, translucent waves pounding the shoreline.

Suddenly the serenity was shattered by a woman’s screams. Someone else ran down the beach yelling for lifeguards. In the harbor, the pleasure yacht Thelma had capsized with 29 on board.


In the midst of the chaos, Kahanamoku grabbed his 114-pound redwood surfboard and paddled through the giant breakers toward the panic-stricken victims. He reached one, pulled him on his surfboard and then paddled toward shore.

He repeated the effort several times, each time rescuing more survivors as a crowd along the beach stood and watched.

After the ordeal, 17 had died. Of the 12 saved, Kahanamoku had rescued eight.

“His role on the beach that day was more dramatic than the scores he played in four decades of intermittent bit-part acting in Hollywood films,” The Times wrote. “For one thing, he was the star.”