Ride of His Life
'Of Wind and Waves': A filmmaker pays tribute to surfing legend Woody Brown, who still hangs ten
Woody Brown is 94 years old and he still surfs. Seven or so decades ago, he learned to fly and hung out with Charles Lindbergh.
Between then and now, he was on the vanguard of big wave surfing and he is revered as the Babe Ruth of that sport by today's practitioners, including Laird Hamilton. He has also written two inspirational books, is the patriarch of a mega-large family and is the subject of David L. Brown's film that makes its Bay Area premiere tonight.
"Woody is an extraordinary character who has led an extraordinary life," said Brown, who is not related to his subject. "He was one of the characters in my film 'Surfing for Life' (1999), and audiences really responded to him. I grew to love Woody and thought he deserved his own film."
Brown's film is a frank look at a man who led two lives. After the death of his first wife, Betty, during childbirth, Woody Brown abandoned his two children in San Diego, handing them off to relatives, and left for Hawaii. The filming of Brown's life story was the catalyst for a family reunion in which Brown is reunited with his children for the first time.
"It wasn't just my kids I abandoned," he says. "I abandoned everything, including myself."
When he found himself again, it was as a cutting-edge pioneer, and he created his own island paradise of surfing, sailing, flying and raising a second family with his Hawaiian wife, Rachel, to whom he was married for 47 years until her death in the 1970s.
Brown's first brush with abandonment came when his father, a Wall Street financier, died when he was very young. He was raised in straitjacketed privilege ("I had to wear a tuxedo just to come down to dinner!" he says laughing) and loosened those bonds as soon as he was able. He and his first wife, who was British, moved to California.
The filmmaker incorporates old footage shot by Bud Brown (again, no relation), the noted surfing documentarian from the 1940s and '50s, family photographs and newly filmed video footage.
"The reunions were so powerfully moving," said David L. Brown, who will open the film in Southern California and on the East Coast after the Bay Area run and hopes for a deal with public television for airing later next year. "They were the emotional high points during the production of this film."
Woody Brown is still a man with a hunger to learn and improve, even as he approaches, as he calls it, his "last wave."
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