“Woody Brown represented this kind of imaginative grandeur,” says surfer Laird Hamilton in the new documentary Of Wind and Waves: The Life of Woody Brown, “of men going out and challenging the sea and no one being around, and surviving, and coming back.”
Combining stunning archival footage with recent interviews, and directed by David L. Brown, Of Wind and Waves explores the adventurous path Woody—now 94 but still surfing—took in what he sees as a simple quest to “cooperate, not compete” with nature.
Born Woodridge Parker Brown to a wealthy family in New York, his father ran a brokerage firm on Wall Street that Woody could’ve stepped into, had he so desired. But the mores—“and all that sort of baloney”—of upper crust society didn’t please him.
“I used to have to come down in my own house to eat dinner with a tuxedo on!” says Woody.
He didn’t like urban life. New York was nothing but buildings to Woody. Eventually, he became interested in planes, and flying.
“I’d watch the birds,” he says. “‘Oh boy, if I could just get up there and fly…’ I love flying—and especially gliding. You’re feeling it out and you’re working with the currents and you’re just fitting right in—you’re part of nature. Well, what I learned then, it was beautiful. I mean, I was free!”
After he met and married an English girl named Betty, who had a four-year-old daughter, Woody moved with his new family to California. They bought a nice house in La Jolla and had just enough money for Woody to build his planes. And a surfboard.
“I got an old plank,” says Woody, “and I whittled it down and made a solid plank board so I could stand in the water and give it a shove and ride the whitewater in. Then I built the first hollow board that would hold me up. Of course, everyone wanted to use it and build one—so I helped to build ‘em. And that was the beginning of my surfing.”
But then Woody’s world turned upside down. Tragically, his wife died in childbirth, and Woody let relatives adopt his two children.
“It wasn’t just them I abandoned,” says Woody, tearfully. “I abandoned everything, including myself. Well, I just took off for Hawai’i, left everything—house, cars, everything—and I don’t know what happened to any of it. Started life all over again.”
For the next couple years, Woody bummed around “with nothing but a pair of shorts and a bicycle,” as he fished and gathered fruit with the Hawaiian families who took him in.
“I went back to surfing,” he says, “and it saved my life in a way because I couldn’t sleep all night. Soon as it got light, I’d get my board and go out and I’d just sit there on the waves.”
Gradually, Woody reclaimed his vigor, as he befriended a unique group of “four or five guys” in Waikiki, who were doing what no other surfers were doing at the time—riding the big waves.
His journey continues—you’ve gotta check out the film to see how—and yet, Woody’s philosophy remains the same throughout.
“The answer is this—” says Woody. “If you work with nature, instead of against nature, you can do things that no other man can do.” MTW