A gift from Duke Kahanamoku

Mike Purpus emerges from the tube on the inside bowl at Sunset during the 1973 Duke Kahanamoku Invitational. He was riding a borrowed, 9-foot-2 Skip Frye spear, the perfect board for that day’s 15- to 20-foot barrels.

In the early 1960s I had two idols with two completely different personalities — Miki Dora and Duke Kahanamoku. Miki was surfing’s bad boy. He thrived on pissing everyone off. Duke, with his Aloha spirit, treated everyone with respect and grace. The Duke had a brand new Cadillac with a gold plated hood ornament of him surfing. If you won the United States Surfing Championships at Huntington Beach you got to drive it for two days and sit next to the Duke at the Don Ho show at Duke’s Restaurant in Waikiki Beach.
Duke Kahanamoku was the father of modern surfing. His three Olympic gold medals in swimming added to his stature. I sat next to the 6-foot-1, 200 pound legend on the awards stage at the 1964 United States Surfing Championships at Huntington Beach. He was wearing a dark blue and white Hawaiian shirt with cool, wrap around sunglasses. His dark brown tan set off his bright long silver hair, combed straight back, giving him the look of a real-life “Silver Surfer.” I was a 15 year old surf gremmie and so excited I didn’t know what to say to him.
Corky Carroll, Robert August, Mickey Munoz, Mark Martinson, Jim Irons, Bob Lonardo, Donald Takayama, and David Nuuhiwa were also on the awards stage. But I was the only one sitting next to the Duke. When I introduced myself, the Duke turned and said “Well, aloha Mike”.
The waves for the US Surfing Championships were solid 8- to 10-foot walls, scraping the bottom of the pier. I was thankful to make the finals and finish fourth in the junior men’s division because the waves got even bigger and scarier for the men’s final.
Mickey Munoz and Mark Martinson got a few good rights off the pier, but Robert August got the wave of the day. It was a 12-foot left that he picked up a block south. He raced down the monster’s face and barley missed two big pilings as he shot the pier. The crowd went wild and everybody thought Robert won.
Robert was sitting on the other side of me, holding the shopping bag full of goodies we all got for making the finals. Inside each paper bag were several bars of surf wax, trunks, walking shorts, a few T-shirts and several surf magazines.
The winner of the Men’s Division got a round trip ticket to Hawaii and was seeded in the semis of The Makaha International Surfing Championships. Robert finished third. His best friend Mark Martinson first, and nobody could figure out how Mickey Munoz got second place.
Robert was furious. He stormed up to get his trophy and knocked his chair over when he returned.
The Duke lowered his head and had a solemn look on his face.
“Robert is really a cool guy. He never acts like this but everyone told him that he won. He didn’t deserve to get third,” I said.
The Duke smiled at me and said, “I know how bad it feels to lose when you are trying so hard to win.”

The Super Bowl of surfing
The Duke always showed up at the Makaha International Surfing Championships, surrounded by all the best surfers. But even when I couldn’t get near him, he would wave to me and call out, “Aloha Mike.”
Duke Kahanamoku died in 1968 at the age of 77. But his memory lived on through the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championships. It was Super Bowl of surfing. Only the top 24 surfers in the world were invited to compete in waves that had to be 10-feet or larger on Hawaii’s North Shore. It was the first professional surf contest where everybody got paid just for being selected. The invitees were determined by a ballot sent out to the top surfers, surfing journalists, surf contest judges and surf photographers.
I had been spending every Christmas in Hawaii since 1964 with the Windansea Surf Club at the Waianae Baptist Camp a few miles down the road from Makaha. In ‘71 I was the fourth alternate on the Duke Invitation list. I didn’t get a chance to compete but was asked to be a judge. The following winter I was elated when I received enough votes to be included in the top 24 surfers.
The International Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Classic was usually held at Sunset Beach and a few times at Waimea Bay in surf well over 10 feet. There was a 10-day waiting period to make sure the surf was up at the start of the contest. Sunset is a scary place when it’s over 10 feet because the big sets come from different directions. There’s no safe place to sit. It’s very easy to get caught inside and be forced to swim the half mile to shore. The rip is like the Colorado River rapids going out to sea. You can’t swim against it so you have to swim in though the pounding waves.
The best peaks with the longest rides break between the inside peak and the outside point — right in the middle of no man’s land. It’s the easiest spot to get caught inside, but you have to go there if you want the best ride.
I borrowed my Aussie friend Rick de Ruiter’s 8-foot-6, 18-inch wide, red rocket for the 10- to 12-foot swell. On the first day I took off on two fun peaks and a classic wall from outside no man’s land and placed second in my heat to qualify for the semi-main the following morning.
The surf dropped a few feet on the second day, but still but still had enough size to make the middle peak to work. With five minutes left in the semi-main I lucked out on a wall off the point that connected with the inside bowl. I finished with a nice coaster that put me in the finals with Hawaii’s Booby Jones, Jeff Hackman, Barry Kanaiaupuni, Eddie Aikau, Australia’s Peter Townend, South Africa’s Gavin Rudolph, Florida’s Jeff Crawford, and fellow Hermosan Tiger Makin.
The waves for the final dropped to 6- to 8-foot, with perfect shape. I used my 7-foot-4 mini-gun. Everyone else rode their 8-foot-plus big guns. I grabbed the fast inside waves coming off the point, leaving everyone else to fight over the set waves. I was having a blast carving my roundhouse cutbacks and pulling up into the inside tubes. I only fell once when the ABC helicopter blew my board off the wave during a cut back.
I flipped off the pilot and he left me alone the rest of the heat. I thought I finished in the top three but wound up sixth. I was a little disappointed but I said to myself that I’ll win it next year.

The selected one
I was even higher on the invitation list the following year. I had taken fifth in The Smirnoff Invitational Professional Surfing Championships, which was first pro contest of the season and couldn’t wait for the Duke. The night before the Duke contest began there was a big dinner party for the contestants at The Kuilima Hotel (now The Turtle Bay Hilton). After dinner a Hawaiian Priest blessed all the surfers so no harm would come to them. Then they put the names of all the surfers in the priest’s ceremonial wooden bowl. The Duke’s wife Nadine, who was a 6-foot Caucasian who looked like Glen Close in blue Hawaiian print dress, was the guest of honor. The six-surfer heats were determined by the order of the names she pulled out of a bowl.
With only the final heat to be decided on my name still hadn’t been drawn.
Nadine then called out the name of three-time Duke winner Jeff Hackman. The second name was “Mr. Pipeline” Gerry Lopez. The third name was Pipeline Masters winner Rory Russell, followed by South Africa Champion Gavin Rudolph and Aussie Champion Terry Fitzgerald.
“And the final surfer,” Nadine said, “is Mike Purpus.”
The room exploded in laughter. When Nadine asked what was so funny someone explained they were laughing at me because I got stuck in a heat with the five top surfers in the contest.
“Which one is Mike Purpus?” she asked. The priest pointed to me standing by the bar in the back of the room.
Then, as the Duke’s wife pointed to me, a ring flew off her finger, sailed across the room and landed at my feet. When I handed it back to her, she winked and said, “That was the Duke’s wedding ring.”
There was a moment of dead silence and no one talked to me the rest of the evening.
I couldn’t sleep all night because of the sound of a fresh 20-foot swell pounding on the reef outside my bedroom window.
The following morning Sunset was 15- to 20-feet and stormy. But by the time my heat started the trade winds had picked up, straightening out the beautiful 15-foot-plus peaks that tubed through the inside bowl at record speeds. It was the biggest Sunset could get without closing out. I borrowed a 9-foot-2 Skip Frye big wave spear from my friend Tim Lynch, who surfed for Gordon and Smith. It was Tim’s Waimea Bay rocket and the perfect board for the huge gnarly tubes.
My heart was racing as we paddled out to the lineup. The peak was shifting all over the place so we didn’t know where to sit to avoid getting caught outside. We could barely see the crowd on the beach when we finally sat up on our boards. I caught two big shoulders and zigzagged through the inside, but still needed a big score from the outside to advance. The waves were so big and consistent that nobody had to out hustle anyone for waves.
I stroked toward the Devil’s Triangle, dead center between the point and the peak as a monster set loomed on the horizon. I knew right away, the Duke had sent me a magic wave. The rest of my heat was franticly paddling about 10 yards behind, hoping to get the first wave of the five wave set.
I made it over the first and second wave and was suddenly all alone pondering an 18-foot wall, so big and dark that it blocked out the sun. If I missed the wave the next one would suck me back over the falls.
I could feel the Duke’s spirit say, “Go for it.” I turned and stroked down the face of the biggest wave of my life. My arms were moving faster than the wings on a hummingbird until I was half way down the wall. I was stroking in at an angle with the nose pointing toward the inside bowl. I was so far out that I doubt the judges or the crowd on the beach could see me take off.
The epic wall was already tubing over when I sprang to my feet, leaving me standing in the shadow, going faster than a downhill skier. My board raced down the face into the wave’s pit as the screams from the beach turned into a deafening roar.
The Duke was telling me not to do anything stupid. “Just ride it out as fast as you can.” I got so deep into the giant tunnel that I couldn’t see the opening. I was still dry. Then I came up with the idea of coming out of the tube, standing at attention saluting the crowd, like Gerry Lopez at Pipeline.
When I saw the opening start to get larger I started to stand straight up, military style. Then it happened. The gnarly lip cut me off at the neck, ripping me off my board and sending me skipping down the face like a water ski wipeout at 50 miles per hour. When I finally stopped at the bottom and was trying to grasp a breath, the wave sucked me back over the falls, twice. Everything went black. I lost my lunch my lunch when I surfaced. It took all my strength and the rest of the heat to fight the rip back to the beach.
Billy Hamilton, Laird Hamilton’s father, dragged me out of the water and followed me to the back of the judge’s stand where everyone gathered to hear the results of the heat. Only the top two advanced and I had finished third.
Everyone just stared quietly at me until Billy said, “Shit. The ring didn’t mean a damn thing. Did it?”
I was honored to surf in five Duke Kahanamoku Surfing Championship, from 1972 to ‘76. The last Duke was held in 1984, but the Duke’s spirit continues to guide surfing. B


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Written by: Mike Purpus

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