It was in the turbulent Pacific waters off Corona del Mar 90 years ago when Duke Kahanamoku, the celebrated Hawaiian surfing and Olympic swimming titleholder, proved once again to be a genuine American champion. He is the subject of a Google Doodle today.
Dawn was breaking that Sunday, June 14, 1925, when Kahanamoku, then 34, in the company of several surfers, including Gerard “Jerry” Vultee, his best friend and pioneer aircraft designer, was preparing to enter the waves on his 12-foot mahogany surfboard.
The “Duke” (who was born 125 years ago today) could see that trouble was brewing when massive waves and swells propelled by fierce winds began to lash the coast.
All of a sudden, one of his companions cried out, “That boat is in trouble,” pointing to the 40-foot, 5-ton yacht Thelma attempting to enter Newport Harbor through the churning breakers.
Coastal storms had come up suddenly during previous months, and just recently they had brought havoc and death to the very waters Kahanamoku and his friends were planning to surf.
A year earlier, on June 8, 1924, the 30-foot fishing boat Adieu, carrying 16 passengers and its captain, overturned during a storm off Corona del Mar, drowning five fishermen from Santa Ana. On May 21, 1925 — just three weeks before the Thelma’s foundering — a rowboat carrying three teenagers capsized in heavy waves. Two of the youths made it to shore; a third drowned.
So the fears of Kahanamoku mounted as he observed the hapless Thelma struggle to stay afloat.
“Only a porpoise or a sea lion had the right to be out there …,” he later recalled, according to old news stories. “From the shore we saw the Thelma wallowing in the water just seaward of where the breakers were falling. You could see her rails crowded with fishermen. She appeared to be trying to fight her way toward safe water … but it obviously was a losing battle.
“A mountain of solid green water curled down upon the vessel … spume geysered up in all directions … then before the next mammoth breaker could blot out the view again, it was obvious the Thelma had capsized and thrown her passengers into the boiling sea.”
The following day, in a dramatic Page One story headlined, “Five Are Drowned When Waves Capsize Yacht … Twelve More Narrowly Escape As Swimmers Bring Victims to Shore on Surf Boards,” the Los Angeles Times described the frightening scene.
“The swell, as it gained momentum, merged into a mountainous wave and crashed over the bow, smashing the plate glass window of the engine-room, flooding the compartment and stopping the engine,” according to the article. “Practically all the members of the pleasure party were swept overboard with the first wave and were struggling in the midst of the torn wreckage and pounding waves.
“Before the fishermen could put on life preservers and assistance could reach them, the boat was caught broadside in the teeth of the tremendous breakers and rolled completely over twice.”
The sinking, said the newspaper, “resulted in the drowning of five passengers. Twelve others were pulled from the sea in a spectacular rescue staged by Duke Kahanamoku, famous Hawaiian swimmer, and others who braved the heavy seas on surfboards.”