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Surfing as a Way of Life: Comparing and Contrasting Duke Kahanamoku and William Finnegan

Rhylee Suyom has hopped in three different worlds: the academe, the corporate, and the media. He enjoys being with nature and his family.

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan

Surfing as a Way of Life: Comparing and Contrasting Duke Kahanamoku and William Finnegan

Duke Kahanamoku and William Finnegan met halfway in a sport called surfing that has been their cup of tea first and then became their bread and butter later. Both men have a passion for the sport that it became a part of their lives. William Finnegan, his childhood is full of travelling around and wandering in places like California and Hawaii. Ironically, they lived far coast when he was young until he met a family who lives near the coast that helped him in discovering the sport. First, he started off with a short board then tried a long board for the first time in his forties. He also joined and won in competitions. In his book, Barbarian Days: a Surfing Life, he unfolds the life he had in the places he wandered, with surfing as his hobby or leisure, and then eventually became the game changer of his life. Also, in his book, one can notice how he intricately revealed his surfing life, without leaving any details behind, as if he is taking the readers with his surfing adventure. And for Finnegan, surfing is like living and breathing the waves. He is addicted to the sport and that only means Finnegan sees surfing not just a mere sport but as his life. Finnegan’s intentions were deeply relayed through this book of him; an existing proof of how surfing changed Finnegan’s life. Moreover, as he laid out these narrations of his life, it will help people who aspire to be a good surfer for they will be enriched with Finnegan’s knowledge of the sport. It will serve as a guidebook for those people and Finnegan’s love for surfing will inspire them.

On the other hand, Duke Kahanamoku is not called the ‘Surf Hero’ for nothing. Like Finnegan, Kahanamoku also lived and grew up in Hawaii before moving in California. These are the places where he lived up his surfing life and became famous for his good deeds with the help of the sport. He was known for his superb skills in swimming and later, in surfing, as he won various awards in competitions like Olympics. In total of 5 medals in swimming in Olympics, Kahanamoku did not just win in these competitions, but he won in life by using his skills in surfing to save lives. (Beschloss, 2014) It was year 1925, an incident happened where a yacht was overturned and Kahanamoku did not just stand by the bay. He then used his board and his skills in swimming and surfing to save the passengers of the yacht. With this happening, he gained popularity all over US, not just because of his awards as an athlete, but because of how he utilized his skills for a better purpose. (Rothman, 2015) Kahanamoku became famous for being a great athlete and for having a good soul. He wasn’t known to be a hero for nothing; he did not mastered swimming and surfing for nothing. Even without having to publish his own book documenting all these events, many sportswriters have written about the so called ‘Duke of Hawai-I’. Unlike Finnegan who wrote his own story, Kahanamoku’s legacy was written with the pen and paper of those who witnessed his journey as an athlete and a hero.

These two men have experienced life with their surf boards. They both have their similarities, even in dealing with their struggles in life. They have been an influence on people all over the world because of their love for surfing. Surfing for them is not just a mere sport, but more, it is a lifestyle that helped them get through life and a passion that serves a purpose. Their only difference is how they used the sport in their lives. Finnegan’s surfing is his way to escape his boredom until he saw it differently one day. While Kahanamoku is a natural born Hawaiian, hence, swimming and surfing has been part of his life ever since he was born. Nonetheless, they both left a huge impact on the sport surfing and they will forever be remembered as the pioneers of the sport. Their small differences will unfold in this paper, in the latter sections. Surfing can be just a simple sport or a hobby or a mere recreation for some people. Unlike Finnegan and Kahanamoku, surfing may not be for everyone because it is not as easy as it sounds in movies and books. It demands time for a person to master the sport; it takes up dedication, effort, and experiencing the waves. Finnegan and Kahanamoku have put their hearts out to surf the waves of California and Hawaii. Thus, the sport brought them into success.

Surfing is not just a mere recreational sport for Finnegan and Kahanamoku. As surfing became a part of their lives, surfing molded them as people that will help the future and aspiring surfers. They have become good people with the help of surfing, and this is evident on how they have put up on racial discrimination. That despite facing difficulties in life, they have chosen not to fight back, instead they chose to forgive and still became humans with a purpose. The popularization of surfing until present times is the proof that they have done the right thing. To sum up, their hearts are filled with good intentions with the intention of popularizing surfing so that people like them who experience such setbacks will also find surfing to face these problems and choose to be a better version of their selves. Therefore, surfing might be of help in building a better culture, safe spaces and world that does not discriminate races and skin colors.

Thesis Statement: Surfing is not just a mere recreational sport for William Finnegan and Duke Kahanamoku; surfing is their passion that helped them in succeeding in life and in overcoming life problem such as racism.

Section I: Overcoming Racial Discrimination

First thing that is like William Finnegan and Duke Kahanamoku, they both witnessed racial discrimination. During their time, racial discrimination was widespread all-over United States. It was chronic; the white people looked down on the natives. A theory called Postcolonialism or Postcolonial theory studies these kinds of problem. It focuses on the country that went under colonialism and studies the after-effects of colonialism. Racism is one of the concepts studied in this theory. There are instances of “Othering” in the side of the colonized. They are treated as exotic, mysterious, and uncivilized before; these are part of Edward Said’s study which is Orientalism. (Castle, 2008) In Orientalism, there are two distinctions: The Occident and the Orient, the West and the East. The East or also called as the Orient are the countries that were colonized by the West or the Occident. Because of the power that brought by the colonization, the colonizers created the “Self Other-ing” mindset to the natives of the colonized country. They established their superiority, hence, making the Orient question their own identity and experience themselves as the “Other”.

The two men, who made a name with the help of surfing, experienced such racial discrimination. Kahanamoku was called a ‘negro’ in California and Finnegan was bullied in his grade school. Despite this racial discrimination, Kahanamoku became a sheriff in Honolulu. He overcame these racial problems and proved himself with the help of his sports; surfing and swimming. He was a child in Honolulu, during that time; Hawaii was under a political crisis wherein their queen was thrown out and the colonization under the US began. (Beschloss, 2014) Despite having experience this dilemma, it did not stop him from joining competitions, even in Olympics. He was known for his skills, thus getting different pseudonyms such as ‘a human fish’, ‘King of All Swimmers’. He became famous because of his success as a swimmer in Olympics, as it was a prestigious competition and later, he was honored because of his heroic act of saving the passengers of Thelma, the capsized yacht in Laguna Beach. Kahanamoku overcame racism through joining competitions and winning at it.

On the other hand, William Finnegan did not know how to distinguish ethnicity. He was often bullied during his grade school causing his loneliness at such a young age. A white young boy he is did not know how to deal with ethnicities and racial complexities and ironically, he was picked at for being white. (Stranger, 1999.) His family was travelling places and when they lived in Honolulu, Finnegan was exposed to the diversity of culture in Hawaii. Because of his loneliness, he finds surfing as his escape to his reality. With the help of surfing, he made friends outside school. He learned surfing from the locals and taught him all the knowledge about the waves. He had known a family that lives near the coast and they helped him fuel his passion for the sport. Hence, surfing became not just his hobby or recreation to kill his time, it became his career. Finnegan overcame his racial dilemmas through diverting his attention to surfing and overlooked the complexities of the culture he belongs to. Finnegan learned from his parents the class divisions in Hawaii. He learned how a distinct race could separate another race that leads to discrimination. It is apparent that there are hierarchies of race even before. Having said these, Finnegan looked at surfing differently as it helped him bring back the joy in his life.

Even having experienced this, they disregarded it and continued to live their lives to the fullest. They used surfing as their coping mechanism against this racial discrimination and ascended to success. They rose above this racism and became the bigger person by forgiving and not getting back to the people who looked down on them, instead, they became influencers and good examples. No matter how hard it was for them, no matter how hurt they were, they only surf their way out of their problems. Surfing for them has become their weapon in battling the racism they have faced in their lives and surfing brought them to triumph.

Section II: Difference in Relationships

Before they were athletes, they are men. Finnegan and Kahanamoku are not just famous in the surfing world, but also in women. Perhaps, because of their bodies, healthy lifestyle or because they are passionate, just like any other men, women are normally attracted to them. Finnegan and Kahanamoku, being an athlete automatically draw women around them. Finnegan, with the women around him, he has been in several relationships. Though, he still found it difficult to pleasure them hence his relationships faced shortcomings and on-off phases. Of course, he eventually found a woman to marry. But before that he explored quite a few hearts of women around him. One instance is that when he is still a teenager, he developed a crush on his best friend’s girlfriend named Lisa. One sided, he chose to wait for her to notice him, but then on, his crush faded and at age 15, he had a girlfriend named Charlene. After Charlene, he had his next in which he claimed to be his first serious girlfriend, named Caryn. Caryn has been with him in his adventure until they decided to split up. (Finnegan, 2016) After her, he has been with other women until he got married to Caroline at middle age and they had their daughter Mollie. Just like a normal man, Finnegan went around places and hearts of women till he found his match and settled down. His marriage life did not hinder his surfing career instead; he was supported by Caroline and their daughter Mollie. Finnegan was one lucky man because Caroline was very supportive with his surfing. Perhaps because he has a stable job that time and that is Journalism. Or maybe he decided to stop playing around when he had Mollie and focused more on his career.

Kahanamoku, on the other hand, also had a complicated love life. Unlike Finnegan, he did not wander around women’s hearts. Because of his fame, there were rumors around him. Rumors that he had a baby with the tobacco heiress named Doris Duke, but the baby died then after having born. And then after 3 weeks of that incident, he surprisingly married a dance teacher named Nadine Alexander and Doris Duke reportedly gave the couple money which they used to purchase their house. (Beschloss, 2014) After these two women, there were no accounts about women in his life. There were no more reports or rumors of him playing around women. Perhaps, Kahanamoku focused more on his career in surfing, swimming and in politics. He ran again as a sheriff in Honolulu when he came back from California. And he focused on spreading surfing as a sport in the US and worldwide. Kahanamoku’s said first love was, well, surfing and swimming. This is how he differs from Finnegan, how they handled their relationship with women is different. Though both treated surfing as their lives, Finnegan rode the waves with his girlfriend watching him in the shore; meanwhile Kahanamoku rode the waves with the world watching him.

With these stories of their love lives, it is an evidence of them conquering the world despite the racial discrimination they have experienced and the class divisions they have witnessed before. They distinctively made a name for themselves in the surfing industry especially Kahanamoku. It shows on the accounts and articles that were written about them. Also, Kahanamoku’s success is very apparent in Hawaii for there they have built landmarks for him in such places as lagoon, beach and even festivals. Nevertheless, the beginnings of their lives are always hard and tiring just like those beginners learning how to surf. Surfing for these two men have been there for them since day one as they fought their own life battles and struggle to survive each day. Their love for surfing and the women they married are related in a way for they pour their hearts out in both and through their loyalty for those two parts of their lives. Though Kahanamoku did not experience having relationship with several women in his teenage years, his loyalty to his marriage says it all. Same goes with Finnegan. Finnegan probably had the most colorful love life while Kahanamoku had the successful career.

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Section III: Letting the World Know About Surfing

On popularization of surfing, these two men played a huge part on it. They are the two big names in the industry of surfing, Kahanamoku also in swimming. Regardless of their race or class division, they have paved their way onto success through surfing and found their purpose through it. Kahanamoku, until the day he died, he had done so much in popularizing surfing all over the world. He established foundation for surfing, restaurants, landmarks, etc. He is also known as the “Father of Surfing” as he used his fame to spread and uphold surfing in Hawaii, in California, then Australia and now all over the world. Also, with the help of various movies about surfing and beaches in the emerging film industry, lots of people will most likely follow his footsteps. People were amazed and mesmerized by this trend or culture as it was new to them. According to an article in a website entitled The Inertia, Kahanamoku was Hawaii’s favorite son when he was still alive. (Westwick, 2013) Because of his records, he was treated with utmost respect in Hawaii. He also instituted the first surfing club and helped in the formulation of the surfing etiquette today. Also, because of his fame, there were brands before that used his name. (Westwick, 2013) In another article, it says that he brought fame to the Hawaiian race before it died. This is a sign that he embraces his ethnicity as his career soars high. Disregarding racism, he broke his limits and succeeded. He is the embodiment of a true Hawaiian who made his race famous and respected.

On the other part, Finnegan’s part in popularizing surfing is also huge. Just like Kahanamoku, Finnegan also joined competitions but just the local ones. Even though those contests are just local competitions, he always wins it. Because surfing is not just a part of his life; it is his life. From just drawing the waves into riding it, it eventually became the love of his life. It was hard for him at first, as he faced difficulties in his life such as having a hard time to deal with his own identity, racism and witnessing different culture because of their travelling to places. He then used surfing whenever he experiences these difficulties or whenever he is having a hard time, until he learned that surfing is not just a pastime or recreation to him. It has helped him grow as a person and made him overcome his life struggles. Although he left everything behind for surfing during his youth, he still found a stable job later after adolescence and had a life beyond surfing as he married Caroline and had their daughter Mollie. Finnegan, though, did not stop surfing until he can’t anymore. Making surfing a popular sport was not Finnegan’s goal before publishing his book. As for Kahanamoku, it was always his goal; to make it famous so people will love the sport as well. It was mentioned in Finnegan’s book; he sees surfing as art. There must be something agreeable to that. Surfing has its own factors that people are drawn to the sport. Aside from Kahanamoku’s fame and influence, people are hooked to surfing because it is a different kind of lifestyle; it’s a different kind of lifestyle that only the brave hearts can face. Also, there is something aesthetically pleasing in surfing. (Stranger, 1999) The sea, the waves, the surf shops that sells surf boards and surfing as it is, is aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps these are some reasons why people’s attention was diverted to surfing during Kahanamoku’s time. Aside from this, the movies or films that were produced back then favors the sport for it only shows these beautiful things about surfing. Perhaps it’s the landscape, the beauty of nature and how astonishing it was for people. Also, the concept of freedom the surfer displays that catch people to the sport. The look of spontaneous, adventure and just being one with nature is the look they created. Therefore, this kind of display will tend to sugarcoat other things about surfing that could lead to difficulties to other aspiring surfers.

Conclusion: The Pros and Cons of Surfing

They do not show how hard it is. Surfing requires training, training requires time. It is not a simple sport or hobby that anyone can try. It is also dangerous when a person does not have any knowledge about the waves and how to ride it. Hence, it also requires studying. Surfing consists of taking risks and one of those is risking your own life. There are dangers in surfing such as drowning, interaction with marine life, broken bones because of the strong waves and other hazardous things that a surfer can experience. (SurfingWaves, 2015) These things can be a hindrance in surfing. Nevertheless, one can overcome these hindrances through proper training and enough experience in surfing. Beauty and aesthetics are not just the pros of surfing. More than that, surfing is also good for physical, mental and emotional aspects of a person. It is good for meditation as you think of nothing else but to balance while riding the wave. It also helps in becoming more self-aware for surfers needs to focus on their bodies. Surfing helps in communicating with one’s own body and its limitations. It also helps in improving a person’s mood. (Smith, 2018). When a surfer succeeded in riding the waves without tumbling and falling from his board, a feeling of fulfillment will improve the surfer’s mood. More than these emotional benefits, since surfing is a sport, it helps in developing muscles. Surfing requires power and strength of surfer to paddle up, stand up and ride the wave. It builds muscles through time and training. Surfing is also good for cardio exercise. (BetterHealth, 2014). These are some of the health benefits of surfing and perhaps there are more undiscovered benefits of surfing yet. Certainly, there is only one thing that needs to be considered on becoming a good surfer and that is training. Training and practice will help in mastering the sport and succeeding in surfing. Beginners and aspiring surfers should take note and follow the great example of surfing, Duke Kahanamoku and William Finnegan.

Looking at the surfing culture now, Duke Kahanamoku and William Finnegan would be surely proud as their beloved sport is now loved by millions of people around the world. They have succeeded not just in riding the waves and in their lives, but also in sharing their love for the sport. William Finnegan’s book won an award and there’s more to that, he must have been feeling the fulfillment until now because of the good reviews and the wide range of audience he got. Meanwhile, Duke Kahanamoku is well-remembered in Hawaii, not just remembered but well-respected. His legacy lives in the hearts of the locals and natives of Hawaii, for he brought honor to them and their country. Surfing is hard, as well as life. Duke Kahanamoku and William Finnegan proved themselves in the world by sharing their passion and love for surfing.


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Finnegan, William. (2016). Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. Thorndike Press, Print.

Rothman, Lily. (2015). “Duke Kahanamoku: How He Saved Lives with His Surfboard.” Time, Time.,

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Barbarian Days William Finnegan

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