Woody Brown (surfer)

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Woodbridge "Woody" Parker Brown (1912–2008) was an American surfer and watercraft designer best known for inventing the modern catamaran. He was also instrumental in promoting the growth of surfing in the mainland United States; among his accomplishment in surfboard shaping was an early fin design.

Sad as anyone passing is, what a joyous life.[1]

Early life[edit]

Woodbridge Brown was born into a wealthy family of Wall Street brokers on January 5, 1912 in New York City. By the time of the Wall Street crash of 1929 he had rejected the trappings of this life, though still benefited from its connections. At this time, he had moved out of the family home and was sleeping on hangar floors, helping with chores with early aviators such as Charles Lindbergh, whom he waved off on his historic 1927 flight to Paris.

Yeah, I met him out there at the field. I helped him with his airplane before he took off for Paris. He was my hero.[2]


Inspired by Lindbergh, he bought a glider for $25 and towed it to California with his new four-year-old stepdaughter Jenny and wife Betty Sellon, a widowed daughter of a retired army officer with a distaste for the glitz of the "gilded age", whom he'd met at a society party he'd been persuaded to attend. For the next 5 years he was an active member of a small group of pioneering gliders. He survived some spectacular crashes.

"I died two or three times already, you know," Woody mentioned to me. "I had a mid-air crack-up in my glider and I lived through that; so did the other guy. Miracle as it was, it took his wing right off and smashed my whole nose. I thought, 'Well, we're just going down' and then, suddenly, 'Hey, man, you're still flying!' And I cleared the rubbish away and I'm still flying! So, there was a big, steep place on the mountain ahead. I just flew right up and just glided in. I took a tremendous chance cuz my tail surfaces were gone and I knew that any minute I'd lose control, eh? But, 'Get down quick as you can, anyway you can.' So, I lay right down on the fucking mountain like that. That was one time."

"Then," continued Woody, "in the desert, a kid brought over a very bad ship and we wouldn't help him put it together. We told him, 'No, no, no! This ship is not made to fly in these violent heat waves.' 'Thermals,' we called 'em. There's an airforce base there now. So, he put it together and he towed and flew a little bit and we wouldn't have anything to do with it. My ship was strong and so was my friend's, Johnny Robinson's. And so, we were flying there and no trouble. We got the thermals and everything."

"But, he'd bought this new instrument called a variometer. In those days, we didn't have any instruments hardly, see. But, they'd just made a new one and he bought it; cost hundreds of dollars. He was a rich guy, see. So, he said, 'Won't you come up with me just once to show me how to work this variometer?' Cuz he was a greenhorn, see ... So, like a damn fool, I said, 'Alright, I'll go up with you just once to help show you how to catch a thermal.'"

"We got up there on the tow line and hit this thermal and I said, 'OK, now! See, it's lifting up your right wing, so you turn to the right! Now, turn to the right! Come on, turn right!' And he said, 'I'm sorry, Woody. I cannot. The wing's come off.' That's all I can remember. We came down with no wings at all and we lived through it. It broke his legs in two or three places. His arms were all broke up and I had a brain concussion; broke my windpipe. There was some tubing I went up against and hit my head and I was out for eight hours."

"The only thing that saved us," Woody said, "was that this glider was a terrible thing. It had a huge wing and it had wires going up top -- called 'cabane.' Wires up on top to hold her on the ground and then flying wires, underneath, when it lifted, see, instead of struts. So, it had all that stuff. So, when the wings came off, this tremendous area of these wings were going around like helicopter blades, see? They kept flying around on the end of these wires and that kind of broke our fall, so we didn't come down quite so hard, with no wings at all. That's the only reason why we lived through it. So, that's the second time." [2]

Brown was the first to launch a glider off the cliffs at La Jolla and in 1939 set a new world record for altitude, distance, and time aloft by flying his glider, Thunderbird, 263 miles from Texas to Kansas. He received a telegram of congratulations from President Herbert Hoover.

"They all laughed at me at the airport," Woody said. "Yeah, when they asked, 'Well, where ya going? Where's your destination?' I said, 'Oh, Wichita, Kansas.' Three states away! You see, nobody had even gone across one state. All the airplane guys laughed. 'Ho, ho, ho! It takes us all day to go over there. You're going in that?!' But, boy, when I came back, there wasn't a sound. Nobody said anything."[2]


Brown began body-surfing in California on a carved wooden plank, using it in a style now known as Boogie-boarding. Realising that if he could stand up he could catch waves before they broke, he used glider construction techniques to build his first hollow plywood surfboard in 1936, a forerunner of modern boards.

I started surfing right away. I first made these solid redwood planks, you know. You'd stand in the shallow water and shove off just like a Boogie board. But, then I began to go, 'Gee, man, if you could just have a board that would hold you up; instead of, like, solid planks ... then I could catch 'em before they're breaking. This way, I'm just catching white water.' I thought, 'Gee, then you could catch 'em way out there and ride 'em all the way in.' So, that's when I made the hollow little plywood box. About 9 feet long and about 4 inches thick [and 22 inches wide]. It was great. I could paddle out there and catch the waves and ride.


Thinking back on how [his] second "plywood box" responded in the surf, Woody exclaimed, "It was just like these modern kids' boards, now! I'm amazed, you know. Don Okey wrote to me from California and said, 'You know, Woody, that old board you had, it was a wonderful board. It was so good, I feel we should make a duplicate because I think it was a forerunner of the boards, today.' He said, 'I'm gonna make another one.' He asked me for the drawings. I sent him what I could remember and he built one. When I went over there [in 1993], he had one built! Exactly the same. And I rode it! And, you know, it was just like these boards, today. You don't have to use your foot ["In the old days, you had to put your foot in the water in order to turn."], you just lean and turn it like that! And, boards in those days, aw, you couldn't do that. It rode really good! And, yet, that was way back in '36! Amazing, just amazing."[2]

For more maneuverability, he added a skeg, or small keel, a breakthrough independently developed by another legendary American surfer, Tom Blake, a year or two earlier.[3] Brown was happy to give Blake credit:

(I made my first surfboard keel) about '36 or '37, somewhere in there; about the same time. But, I didn't know anything about [Blake] and his experiments with adding fins to surfboards. See, we were all separated out. I was in San Diego and he was in L.A., way up there."[2]

Death, WWII, and more surfing[edit]

His wife Betty died giving birth to a son, Jeffrey, in 1940. Brown suffered a breakdown: "She was all I lived for. I cracked up." Depressed and near-suicidal, he left the baby Jeffrey and stepdaughter Jenny with Betty's family and moved to Hawaii, not making contact again until they were grown up due to his remorse and guilt.

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.[2]

He had intended to move to Tahiti, but World War II's intervention prevented him getting a visa so he was forced to stay in Hawaii. Brown was a conscientious objector during the war (and had been a vegetarian since his youth after looking into the eyes of a chipmunk he had wounded with a shotgun).

He joined half a dozen other surfers who collectively became known as the Hot Curl surfers, named after a new type of board they carved, semi-hollow, with a V-tail to avoid what they called "slide-ass" and help them stick to the "hot curl", the breaking curve of a wave.

Brown was one of Hawaii's first big wave surfers and board designers. He was nicknamed "Spider" because, as he put it, "I surf with my arms all out, half squatting down, and with my long legs I look like a big spider riding a board." He was captured in a 1953 photograph by Thomas Tsuzuki which helped turn Hawaii into a mecca for surfers worldwide.[4] It showed three men riding a 20-foot wave, the kind rarely if ever photographed close-up in those days. Brown was the only one who "made" the wave.

George Downing, who along with Buzzy Trent, was also on the 20-foot wave, recalled the ride yesterday. "(Brown) was the only one that made the wave. That was point break at Makaha," said Downing. "Where Woody was he was on the perfect place on the wave."[4]

A surfing spot in Lahaina is nicknamed after him. As recalled by Drew Kampion, surf historian of Washington state and former "Surfing" magazine editor:[5]

[I] surfed with him in 2000 out in Lahaina at a place nicknamed after him, Woody's. He was 88 at the time, and he surfed better than I did.

Modern ocean-going catamaran[edit]

After the war, Brown served as a United States government surveyor on Christmas Island. There he was fascinated by the speed of the Polynesian natives' twin-hulled outrigger canoes. Upon his return to Hawaii he adapted the idea, using lightweight hulls and adding huge sails. In 1947 he designed the Manu Kai ("Sea Bird"), which was built by the Hawaiian Alfred Kumalai,and Rudy Choy.[6] It was probably the fastest sailing boat in the world at the time and now seen as[citation needed] the first modern, ocean-going catamaran.

Later life[edit]

Brown, having benefited from the Hawaiians' aloha spirit of generosity when he first arrived, became the epitome of that spirit in later life and was renowned for sharing "life's positive energy" with whomever he met.

He met and married his second wife, Rachel, a hula dancer, in the mid-1940s, and had two children with her: William and Mary-Sue. Rachel died in 1986 and the following year, "feeling lonesome", he married Macrene Canaveral, whom he met in the Philippines on a trip specifically "to get me a new wife". Their son, Woody Jr., was born when Brown was 76.

Brown never sought fame or recognition. Nevertheless, he featured in two U.S. documentaries, Surfing for Life (1999) and Of Wind and Waves: the Life of Woody Brown (2006), both made by the mainland American David L. Brown (no relation). It was during the filming of the latter that he was reunited with Jeffrey and Jenny.

He said of the surf in Hawaii: "I loved to get just as close to death as I possibly could and then dodge it. That was my thrill in life."

Brown died on April 16, 2008 at Hale Makua, Kahului.


  • Davison, Phil (2008.05.03) Record-breaking aviator who became a legendary surfer The Financial Times (obituary)
  1. ^ Global Surf News (2008.04.21) Woody Brown renowned big wave surfer dies at age 96
  2. ^ a b c d e f Gault-Williams, Malcolm (2003) Woody 'Spider' Brown, Legendary Surfers: A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes, Volume 1, Chapter 24 (Originally: Woody Brown: Pilot, Surfer, Sailor, originally published in The Surfer's Journal, Volume 5, Number 3, Fall 1996.)
  3. ^ Lynch, Gary (2001) Tom Blake : The Uncommon Journey Of A Pioneer Waterman. Croul Family Foundation, Corona del Mar, Cal.
  4. ^ a b Shikina, Robert (2008.04.20) Waterman blazed trail to waves of North Shore Star Bulletin, Vol. 13, Issue 111, Sunday April 20, 2008
  5. ^ 'Woody' Brown was the 'essential surfer', 96 (2008.04.20) Honolulu Advertiser
  6. ^ "American Catamarans" (PDF).

External links[edit]

  • Gault-Williams, Malcolm (2003) Woody 'Spider' Brown, Legendary Surfers: A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes, Volume 1, Chapter 24 (Originally: Woody Brown: Pilot, Surfer, Sailor, originally published in The Surfer's Journal, Volume 5, Number 3, Fall 1996.)
  • Woody Brown Article about 90-year-old surfer. Maui No Ka 'Oi Magazine Vol.6 No.2 (July 2002).