By Lily Rothman
August 24, 2015

Monday marks what would have been the 125th birthday of the late Duke Kahanamoku, who during his lifetime was an Olympic swimmer and Hawaiian public official. Kahanamoku is best known today for boosting surfing’s popularity and introducing the sport to many regions around the world.

But Kahanamoku’s prowess with a surfboard is worth remembering for more reasons than mere athletic glory.

And, as TIME reported in 1925, Kahanamoku had a chance to prove that point one day in Laguna Beach, Calif.:

Out through the surf put a gasoline launch, the Thelma, with a fishing party aboard. The beach crowd watched her careen on the breakers, herded to the water’s edge when the boat capsized. Good swimmers ran splashing out, split the first wave with a dive, plowed off to the rescue.

In the lead swam a figure darker than the most deeply sunburned, an Hawaiian duke, Kahanamoku of Olympic fame. Before him, as he swam, he pushed his long surf board.

Five of the capsized fisherman had drowned before the swimmers reached them, but it was no trick at all for Kahanamoku and his followers to buoy up 13 survivors, drag them across their boards, catch a wave and rush their gasping passengers ashore in relays.

In his 1968 obituary, the rescue of the Thelma passengers was credited with helping Kahanamoku recapture the fame of his Olympic days, eventually leading him to his post as sheriff of Honolulu. But, even as he grew older and his role on the shore grew larger, he never stopped surfing. “To the last,” the obituary concluded, “he was a symbol of the islands, surfing, swimming, and appearing as the 50th state’s official greeter.”

Read the full 1925 story, here in the TIME Vault: Duke

Read next: Beyond The Waves: An Intimate Look at the Life of Surfer John John Florence

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com.

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