Surf City Meditations

guest_dukekahanamokuThe Story of the Three Princes Comes Full Circle
One of the great conceits—and, really, deceits—of historical writing, and indeed of all journalism and literature, is that stories have nice, tidy endings that can be packaged and wrapped in a bow. In a certain sense, all story-telling requires such deception. Real life is never so easily confined to a constructed conclusion. Not even in death, of course, does a life-story end.

Last week, my friend Kim Stoner and I told the story in these pages of the three Hawaiian princes— David Kawananakoa, Edward Keliiahonui and Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole—and the rather remarkable, if unlikely, saga of how these three teenage boys with strong links to the local Swan family first introduced board surfing not only to Santa Cruz, but to the mainland of the Americas as well.

We ended the story by encapsulating the lives of each of the young men, and concluded with a lovely Hawaiian chant written to the youngest prince, Kalaniana’ole, a widely celebrated and beloved figure in Hawaiian history nicknamed “Cupid,” but who was known popularly throughout the islands as Ke Ali’i Maka’ainana (“The Prince of the People”). Thus, our 4,000-word historical package was neatly wrapped.

But the story of the three surfing princes did not—and does not—end with their death, or as the poet Jack Spicer reminds us, with a poem or chant. Life begets more life. Art and culture

triumph over mortality.

One hundred twenty five years since the first recorded “exhibitions of surf-board swimming” in the Americas, the gift that the three princes brought to the central California Coast in the 1880s remains eternal and immortal.

Every good yarn requires a story-teller. In the case of the three princes, two of the earliest to weave this tale were the legendary Santa Cruz newspaperman Ernest Otto (1871-1955), who encountered the three princes here in Santa Cruz during his youth; and the colorful Boardwalk promoter Warren “Skip” Littlefield  (1906-1985), who was a close friend of Otto’s.  A Pacific Coast swim champion in his own right, Littlefield later was to bring the immortal Hawaiian surfer and Olympic swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku to Santa Cruz for a final visit in the 1930s (pictured above.)

In Kahanamoku, the three princes’ legacy was not only brought full circle, it was extended into the 20th Century and beyond. Littlefield, who was both a friend and mentor to Kim and me (and whose spirit informed our tale), kept carefully documented notes on all aspects of Santa Cruz waterfront history in his files at the Santa Cruz Seaside Company.

One of the delightful details in Littlefield’s notes reveal that when Kahanamoku returned for surfing and swimming exhibitions in Santa Cruz that “he remembered these vintage boards of redwood” ridden by the three princes. Perhaps most significantly, Kahanamoku (who was given an outrigger canoe in Honolulu by Prince Jonah) arrived in Santa Cruz with a board fashioned out of redwood in Honolulu. The redwood planks grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains crossed the Pacific and then crossed back again.

Friday morning at Lighthouse Field, there shall be another re-crossing of sorts. A beautiful brass plaque honoring the three princes and also forged in Honolulu—conceived of by historian Kristin Zambucka and graciously donated to the City of Santa Cruz by descendants of Prince David Kawananakoa—will be unveiled in a ceremony beginning at 11:30 a.m. and sponsored by the City of Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department and the Santa Cruz Surfing Club Preservation Society.

The history of the three surfing princes in Santa Cruz will once again come back full circle. Only this time we needn’t pretend the story has a tidy conclusion. It is clearly a story without end.


Santa Cruz writer and filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn is the author of “Santa Cruz Is in the Heart” and is currently completing a book for Macmillan/St. Martin’s entitled “The Lies of Sarah Palin.” His most recent film “Calypso Dreams” (co-directed with Michael Horne), was recently named “one of the great films of the English-speaking Caribbean.”

To Top