Born in Oakland, California, and nicknamed after the character “Tarzan” portrayed in the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and in champion swimmer- turned-actor Johnny Weissmuller’s movies, Gene “Tarzan” Smith (1911-1986) was the first person to solo paddle between Oahu and Kauai, Molokai and Oahu, and Hawaii and Maui while lying on surfboard.
He completed the very first Oahu to Kauai surfboard trip in history on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 1940, at 9:55 p.m., when he arrived at Nawiliwili Bay after paddling for nearly 30 hours in choppy seas over the 82-mile stretch of sea between Kaena Point, Oahu, and Kauai.
His surfboard was equipped with a compass, he carried a knife for protection against sharks, and he was escorted across the Kaieiewaho Channel by Bob Topping’s sampan type cruiser “Wanderer,” which provided him with food and water.
Only Chris Owens of Oahu — who paddled from Oahu to Kauai in 2005 on his fiberglass paddle board — has since been able to replicate the prodigious feat of strength and endurance Smith accomplished in 1940.
Two years earlier, in November 1938, Smith made the first-ever trip paddling a surfboard between Molokai and Oahu.
“I’m either brave or crazy,” Smith said prior to leaving, “whichever way you want to look at it. Yes, I know the channel has a few sharks. In fact, I’ve seen them lots of times.”
Accompanied by the cabin cruiser “Charlu,” he paddled his 13-foot hollow redwood surfboard from Ilio Point, Molokai, at 10:40 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 6, 1938, and arrived at Makapuu, Oahu, on Sunday, Nov. 7, in 8 hours, 47 minutes.
In 1945, Gene Smith made history once again by paddling from Upolu Point, Hawaii, to Kaupo, Maui, a distance of approximately 40 miles, without an escort vessel — thus satisfying his ambition to link the Hawaiian Islands on a surfboard.
Gene “Tarzan” Smith — ocean paddler, surfer, lifeguard, beach boy, Honolulu street fighter and Honolulu cop, married and divorced twice — moved to the Mainland in the late 1960s and died at Brawley, California.