Of Wind and Waves: The Life of Woody Brown
Woody rides: Woody Brown doing what he does best.

A new documentary tells the life story of surfer Woody Brown

Of Wind and Waves: The Life of Woody Brown / Epic stories usually involve some dramatic encounter with death. But for surfing pioneer Woody Brown, the Grim Reaper was like a shark always hovering just beneath the surface, threatening to strike again and again. In the new documentary Of Wind and Waves: The Life of Woody Brown, the old daredevil laughs away the pain, saying, ‘I always wanted to challenge death. I loved to get just as close to death as I could possibly get and yet dodge it. That was my thrill in life.’

And what a thrilling life he has had, full of adventure and tragedy. Born into a wealthy family in New York, Brown was expected to inherit his father’s business. But the free-spirited boy decided to run away at 16 and become a glider pilot. After training with his hero Charles Lindbergh, the young man left New York with his young wife and stepdaughter and moved to Southern California. On the shores of La Jolla, he designed his own planes and later set the world record for gliding. He also built one of the first hollow wooden surfboards and took the fledgling sport to new levels.

Brown found happiness gliding and surfing his days away while tending to his family. But then his wife suddenly died in childbirth, and his whole life came crashing to the ground. Unable to cope with the tragic loss of his wife, he left his newly born son and stepdaughter with relatives and moved to Hawai’i.

Wandering around O’ahu in a dazed depression for two years, Brown surfed and lived with local families who took him in and shared their culture with the muscular yet kind-hearted haole. Then, Brown met his second wife, a Hawaiian hula dancer who became known as Mama Brown. They moved to Waikiki, had two kids and basically raised their children on the beach.

In the early 1940s, Brown joined surfing pioneer Wally Froiseth and began surfing pristine waves in remote places like Makaha and the North Shore. Sharks were often their only companions. In 1943, he and his pal Dickie Cross got caught in rising surf at Sunset beach and paddled down the coast looking for a lull in the massive waves. They ended up at Waimea, where the bay was closing out with sets as big as 20-30 feet. Cross went over the falls of one wave and was never seen again. Naked and barely alive, Woody crawled up in the beach in the darkness. Spooked by the disappearance of Cross, big-wave riders would wait a decade before trying to tackle Waimea Bay again.

Once again, Brown took his suffering to the sea to recover from the loss of his friend. Along with surfing, he began sailing. After experiencing the thrill of riding on a double-hulled Polynesian sailing canoe, he decided to design his own modern version. He created the first catamaran called the Mauna Kai, and for years, it was considered the fastest sailboat in the world. His friend Hobie Alter copied the design and later became a millionaire, selling Hobie Catamarans.

It would be hard to imagine a more epic life, and it’s a good thing that award-winning filmmaker David Brown was there to put the pieces together in a new one-hour documentary. Although they share the same last name, there is no relation between the 90-something surfer and the 50-something filmmaker. Yet in the process of making the film, David has become like a member of Woody’s family and has been able to witness and even help engineer some of the great events and reunions in his life.

Working with his daughter Mary Sue, David helped arrange a reunion with Woody’s long-lost children from his first marriage, whom he hadn’t seen since their mother died almost seven decades before. It’s a bizarre yet moving scene, watching this 92-year-old father reunited with his 67-year-old son Jeffrey and 75-year-old stepdaughter Jenny. It’s like filming an episode of This Is Your Life at your grandfather’s retirement home, with hugs and tears between intimate strangers.

In one humorous scene, Woody is climbing a tree and recalling how his doctor told him to stay out of the waves because he was getting too old. But Woody continued surfing and insists he has always taken care of his health. ‘I don’t smoke, I don’t drink,’ he says with an endearing Mickey Mouse voice and toothless grin. ‘I don’t want to wreck this beautiful body.’

This scene was also featured in David Brown’s previous film Surfing For Life, which won Best Documentary and the Audience Award at the Hawaii International Film Festival in 1999. After Woody became one of the most popular figures in that film, David decided to expand his profile into a full-length documentary. Some of the highlights of the film include watching Woody pilot a glider once again and then skipper a catamaran at the age of 92. It’s amazing to see this nonagenarian relive his glory years as he sails through the sky and flies across the ocean, completing a perfect circle.

Toward the end of the film, the 96-year-old Woody sums up his long, remarkable life with just a few, poignant words. ‘My whole life has been involved in waves more or less,’ he says, reflecting on his roles as a pilot, surfer and sailor. ‘I was soaring waves [of wind] in the sky. Then, I went down to surfing waves in the ocean. And now I’m on a spiritual wave, a bigger and more tremendous waveÖtelling me of a life greater than this life.’ As a surfer, Woody knows that sharks always dwell just below the surface, but he is going to ride that last wave as far and as fast as possible. Ride on, Woody, ride on.

David Brown’s documentary Of Wind and Waves: The Life of Woody Brown will be showing on Sun. 8/6 at 3pm at UH’s Spalding Auditorium, $5 general, $3 students. The film will also be shown on Mon., 8/7, at 7:30pm at the Waimea Valley Center on the North Shore, $7