Born in New York on April 5, 1912, the older of two children, Woodbridge (Woody) Parker Brown came from a very wealthy home, headed by a father with a seat on the Wall Street Stock Exchange. Woody was expected to step into that position.
But he had other ideas and, at the age of 16, walked away from school in favor of hanging out at Long Island airfields, because he was crazy about planes. He learned to fly, and acquired a glider. (Gillette)
He met aviator Charles Lindbergh at Curtis Field on Long Island. Inspired by Lindbergh, Woody learned to fly in a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny,” an obsolete single-engine trainer used by the US Army Air Service in World War I. (Kampion)
Woody virtually lived at New York’s Curtis Field where he became a protégé of Lindbergh, but Woody soon discovered that his true passion was for the unique world of gliders, soaring silently on invisible currents of air. His goal was to acquire the finely tuned sensitivity required to read the air and wind with nothing to hold him aloft but his own skill. (dlbfilms)
“Soaring appealed to me because it’s like surfing or sailing. It’s working with nature; not ‘Brute Force and Bloody Ignorance.’ You know, you give something enough horse power and no matter what it is it’ll fly.”
“Flying was brand new, then! Every time you took off it was an experiment. You didn’t know what was gonna happen. Every flight was a brand new flight. So, it was real exciting.” (Brown; Gault-Williams)
He soon met Elizabeth (Betty) an Englishwoman and they headed West to San Diego in 1935. The young couple lived at La Jolla, where Woody got into bodysurfing, then surfing.
He built his own board, a hollow plywood “box” that would float him so he could catch waves at Windansea, Bird Rock, and Pacific Beach. His second board – the “snowshoe” – was more refined.
He adapted some of the aerodynamic wisdom he’d acquired to the much denser medium of water. The outline was traced from the fuselage of his glider; it featured a vee bottom and a small skeg.
At nearby Torrey Pines, he was the first to launch a glider from the high bluffs into the vaulting updraft of the onshore breeze. He survived a couple of near-death experiences there and a couple of crashes riding the inland thermals. He became a soaring champion, winning meets around the state and country.
In the midst of “the happiest years of my life” (Kampion,) in 1939, at Wichita Falls, Brown flew his Thunderbird glider 263-miles to national and world records of altitude, distance, maximum time aloft and goal flight. President Herbert Hoover sent him a congratulatory telegram. (Marcus)
He made it home for the birth of his son; unfortunately, his wife, Betty, died in childbirth. Distraught, he left his infant son and all of his possessions in La Jolla and moved to Hawai‘i (he eventually reconciled with his abandoned son, some 60 years after the fact.) (Surfer)
“I left my car, the garage, my home, glider, everything. I don’t know what happened to them. I just walked out and left everything. When you’re off your rocker that way, you know, you don’t know what you’re doing.”
In the early 1940s, Brown joined surfing pioneer Wally Froiseth and began surfing pristine waves in remote places like Mākaha and the North Shore.
Flying was not available in Hawai‘i at the time, so he tried to surf the sadness out of his system. He’d go out in the morning and surf all day long. “I’d be able to sleep a little ‘cause I was so damn tired … I survived. Surfing saved my life.” (Brown; Marcus) In 1943, he married Rachel.
A conscientious objector, during WWII he worked as a surveyor for the Navy on Christmas Island. There, he noticed double-hull canoes.
When he returned to Hawai‘i, Woody and a Hawaiian friend, Alfred Kumalae, went to Bishop Museum and studied all the Polynesian canoes on display. (Gillette)
He teamed with Rudy Choy, Warren Seaman and Alfred Kumalae who started C/S/K Catamarans. They designed and built Manu Kai, a 38-foot double-hulled sailing catamaran (using wooden aircraft construction techniques.)
In 1943, Brown and 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. 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. (Coleman)
Brown was one of three surfers photographed charging down a giant Mākaha wave in 1953. The iconic photo, which appeared in newspapers around the world, is credited with triggering a migration of surfers to Hawai‘i.
George Downing, who along with Buzzy Trent, was also on the 20-foot wave. “(Brown) was the only one that made the wave. That was point break at Mākaha. Where Woody was he was on the perfect place on the wave.” (Downing; Star-Bulletin)
During the ’50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Woody continued his carefree life of surfing and sailing; in 1971, Woody, then 59, took a glider to a Hawaiian altitude record of 12,675-feet. Not long after, Woody lost his beloved wife Rachel. (dlbfilms) In 1986, Woody flew off to the Philippines, where he met and married his third wife, a young woman named Macrene.
Woody Brown dedicated the rest of his life, a life which he has always considered to be blessed, to giving as much as he can through service to others. His sense of spirituality mixes elements of the Christian tradition with his lifelong love of nature and his sense of gratitude for the gifts he feels he’s been given.
If you asked him if he’s a Christian, he’d say no. If you asked him who he considers his ultimate role model, he’d say Jesus Christ. Woody marched to his own drummer. (dlbfilms) In 1980, he wrote The Gospel of Love: A Revelation of the Second Coming.
A film of his life, ‘Of Wind and Waves: The Life of Woody Brown’ premiered to great acclaim at Mountainfilm in Telluride where it won The Inspiration Award. In 2004, the 35-minute version won the “Audience Award for Best Short” at the Maui Film Festival.
Woody Brown died April 16, 2008 on Maui, he was 96. “Woody Brown was one of the first and greatest icons in the history of surfing.”
“He was the essential surfer, an iconoclast: extremely independent, futuristic and, most especially, healthy, which explains why he lived for 96 very productive, wonderful years. And I only hope more of us who call ourselves surfers can live the way Woody lived. Sad as anyone passing is, what a joyous life.” (Fred Hemmings)