When it comes to Hawaiian culture, surf legend Duane DeSoto embodies some of the most beautiful tenets—and he's made it his mission to spread them to the next generation. Tammy Moniz sat down with the Waterman Hall of Famer, father of eight, and soon-to-be documentary star to talk surf and beyond.
The Land of Surf
Duane grew up on Makaha Beach with some of the biggest waves in the world—like Greg Noll’s famous 40- to 50-foot swell ride in 1969—and into a neighborhood of surf and culture that is like no other on the islands.
"Makaha has so many different meanings to different people here in Hawaii, being the west side ..." says Duane. "I was surrounded by so many incredible water people and people in general that came out of Makaha. Maybe we didn’t have a lot of money, but we were blessed with so much other than money—and that those blessings could be a part of re-looking at the world and appreciating things in a different way.”
Duane embodies a humility and respect for the land (and water) that stems from this heritage of traditions being passed down through the generations. And this is, like surfing itself, rippling well beyond his Makaha homeland.
"It's profound when you think about it: to have a sport that comes from our kupuna (ancestors), and all of a sudden that enjoyment and athleticism really rippled throughout the entire world, and I have the beautiful opportunity to share with my eight children and with my grandson. And that's amazing."
When asked about what kuleana, the Hawaiian concept loosely translated as "responsibility," means to him, Duane's passion for giving back shines through.
"For me, kuleana is the privilege to carry on responsibilities that have presented themselves and that have also been handed down to me,” he shares.
And that has translated to his love for the environment, too.
"Even as a surfer, my perspective of that kuleana toward the environment was also shaped in a certain way that I had more to learn and be open to it and understanding the vast amount of ways that we as human beings should be better,” says Duane. “Our kupuna all taught us that, our kupuna lived in that. So the sustainability and all of the word phrasing and the hashtagging now is only going back to traditions that were normal for most indigenous peoples.”
Children of the Sea
For Duane, the art of surf and the love of family go hand-in-hand.
"The most treasured family time that we have every year is when our family comes together at the Buffalo Big Board Contest in Makaha," he shares. "It's almost like a natural setting as a reunion for all of us … and it's kind of that representation of that community we live in, that family."
Duane has five daughters and three sons (and a grandson!), and his love for family extends to a mission to help all keiki (children). Alongside his wife, friends, and extended family, Duane founded Na Kama Kai in 2008. The nonprofit helps foster a commitment to the environment in the next generation via surf and continues to build on the spirit of community that Duane grew up with.
"[Nā Kama Kai] is a mini-cosm of Makaha and sharing it and providing access to everybody else to have that interaction with mentors, ocean, and then having kuleana to ocean, community, and self. Simply put: We teach kids ... not teach, even ... we empower youth but putting them in the ocean," Duane says.
He also has been one of the Polynesian Voyaging Society crew, who also strive to provide education to keiki and help cultivate love for their oceans and the beauty of Hawaii.
It's this love for the waters he calls home and a passion for the sport he’s grown up with—and competed in—that led to his new role: portraying the iconic Duke Kahanamoku in the new documentary "Waterman."
"It’s a big pair of shoes to fill—figuratively and realistically since he has huge feet," Duane laughs. "The documentary is being directed by a Polynesian, and it’s giving the world a chance to see who Duke was and what he did in the time of 1915 that is a testament that goes way beyond the ocean to—sometimes we use the word incorrectly or abuse it—aloha. Duke had such an amazing personality and style he was loved by every single person of every color that he met.
Duane stars in scenes reenacting surf in the time of Duke, including riding a replica of the all-wood, no-fin board that Duke himself rode (see a similar replica of that original board shaped by fellow Surfer in Residence Pohaku Stone on display at Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort!).
"To ride a board that was basically what Duke and all the beach boys would have been riding was an opportunity to step outside of everything else we know about surfing,” Duane says. “For me, in Makaha, I ride all types of boards, but this is like another level. When I get on that board, it’s so big and heavy you have to reprogram yourself to feel the board—and I let the board tell me what I need to do and where I need to put it in the wave.