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40 Frames: The Duke Festival of Surfing

There are very few surfing events that really buck the trend and blow their participants and spectators away. Even fewer deserve the “festival” monicker, but The Duke Festival takes the challenge by the short and curlies and knocks it right out of the park.

Many years ago local Christchurch surf photographer Warren Hawke decided that the visit by Duke Kahanamoku to the area in 1915 was worth celebrating. Others agreed and so began a procession of annual surfing events that anchored the incredible Hawaiian swimmer with the beach culture of New Brighton.

In 2015 Ross Tyson made a replica of the Duke’s surfboard as part of the centenary celebrations of Duke Kahanamoku’s surfing and swimming displays in the area. Ross designed the support framework, the pattern for the board was kindly drawn out in full size by Mark Calcutt and Dave Poyner finished the board surface with a beautiful high-spec coating.

These celebrations spurned the inaugural “Duke Festival” the following year and the festival is now one of New Zealand’s largest surfing events. It uses the sport and culture of surfing to raise pride in, and the perception of, the wider New Brighton area.

And New Brighton has been transforming with each new tide – evolving into a place where surfing is celebrated, reflected on the walls of cafés and restaurants and sandy feet and wet hair are just an everyday occurrence.

I follow some wet footprints into the opening event: a surf-themed art exhibition that features some incredibly talented artists. Out the back, a band is playing and a cardboard cutout of Duke himself is being passed around for photos. Hawaiian shirts are handed out. The event embodies the aloha spirit. There are grommets rubbing shoulders with legends like Denis Quane.

The 2021 Duke Festival of Surfing site, New Brighton. Photo: Derek Morrison

As if by chance the first day of competition has very good surf. A rampaging easterly soon joins the party and turns the ocean into soup, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The best surfers still get through. The smiles are still wide. The parents are still frazzled. The kids are still skating and New Brighton is shining.

The Duke is more than just a surf contest. It’s something else entirely. It’s a community of people that love the feeling of sand between their toes and salt on their skin.

Gallery: 40 Frames From The Duke Festival

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