Brown, Woody

Unsinkable regularfooter from Kahului, Maui, Hawaii; pioneering big-wave rider in the early 1940s. Brown was born (1912) in New York City, the only son of a Wall Street brokerage firm owner. At 15, Brown worked for aviator Charles Lindbergh, just before Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight in 1927; Brown then dropped out of high school, ran away from home, and became obsessed with glider flying. He moved to Southern California in 1936, towing his glider, settled in La Jolla, built himself a surfboard, and a few months later became the first person to ride Windansea, which soon became the hub of La Jolla surfing. At a 1939 gliding competition in Texas, Brown set world records for altitude, distance, and time aloft, earning a congratulatory telegram from former President Herbert Hoover; one day after he returned home, his pregnant wife went into labor and died in childbirth. Grief-stricken, Brown abandoned his son at the hospital, left all his possessions in La Jolla, and sailed to Hawaii. "I couldn't live without her," Brown later said. "Nothing had any meaning in life to me anymore. I abandoned everything, including myself."

In the early '40s, befriended by Honolulu surfers Wally Froiseth, John Kelly, and Fran Heath—all using the new "hot curl" board design, which enabled them to ride bigger waves then ever before—Brown began surfing Makaha, as well as the North Shore. A pacifist (as well as a vegetarian and an atheist), he refused to fight in World War II. Brown meanwhile met and married a Hawaiian hula dancer, and fathered two more children.

On the afternoon of December 22, 1943, Brown drove from Honolulu to the North Shore with teenage surfer Dickie Cross, and the two paddled out at Sunset Beach, where the waves looked to be 10 feet. The swell came up quickly, and a half-hour later the two surfers found themselves paddling out, more than a half-mile from the beach, with 25-foot waves exploding in their wake. The North Shore was then lightly inhabited, and nobody had seen the two surfers enter the water. The sun was getting low and the surf was still building when Brown told Cross they'd have to paddle three miles down the coast to Waimea Bay, where they might be able to get in through a deep-water channel. But the channel was impassable. Cross made a break for the beach, was caught by a set of 40-foot waves, and never seen again. Brown lost his board, but was unharmed; a few minutes later he also made break for shore, got rolled by a dozen or more breaking waves, then washed up into shallow water, and was dragged to safety by a group of soldiers who happened to be on the beach. Brown never again surfed the North Shore, and for years the harrowing Brown-Cross tale kept surfers away from Waimea.

In the mid-'40s, working from designs used by ancient Polynesian sailors, Brown built a pair of twin-hull sailboats that were generally regarded as the fastest nonmotorized boats in the world. These were the first two modern catamarans, and for the next 40 years Brown earned a living as a boatbuilder. He continued to surf, usually at Makaha, and in 1953 he was photographed, alongside George Downing and Buzzy Trent, racing across a beautiful 15-foot Makaha wall. Associated Press bought the photo, and it was published in newspapers across the nation, giving the country its first real look at big-wave riding and triggering a small but influential migration of surfers from California to Hawaii.

Brown returned to gliding in 1971, and age 59 set a world altitude record by soaring more than 12,500 feet above Maui. Brown's second wife died in 1986, and less than two years later he married for the third time, to a 20-year-old Filipina; the following year, at age 76, he again became a father.

Brown was featured in Liquid Stage: The Lure of Surfing (1995) and Surfing for Life (1999). In the latter, the thin-shouldered octogenarian drops into a six-foot wave and angles smartly along the trough on his way to calm water. A portrait of Brown holding his surfboard was used on the cover of Growing Old Is Not for Sissies II: Portraits of Senior Athletes (1995), a photo book. Of Wind and Waves: The Life of Woody Brown, a documentary, was released in 2006, won a handful of film festival awards, and aired on PBS.

Brown died in 2008 at the age of 96; he had given up surfing only 5 years earlier.