December 1943: Woody Brown and Dickie Cross paddled out on a rising swell at Sunset Beach, at a time when the North Shore had but a handful of very occasional surfers.
While the ancient Hawaiians surfed all over the Hawaiian Islands and almost certainly on the North Shore, modern surfing didn’t rediscover waveriding on the North Shore until Whitey Harrison and Tarzan Smith in 1938.
Brown, a WW2 conscientious objector and lifelong vegetarian (after apparently having looked into the eyes of a dying chipmunk he’d shot) would go on to build the first modern catamaran Manu Kai , at the time the world’s fastest sailboat and a design that would inspire the Hobie Cat.
But it wasn’t just in the water that Brown’s thrill-seeking gained him notoriety, an avid pilot who had helped wave off Charles Lindberg for his historic flight to Paris in 1927, Brown held numerous distance and altitude records as a glider pilot, receiving a telegram from President Hoover for his efforts.
He had only surfed the North Shore only a handful of times previously.
Brown and Cross, both part of the ‘Hot Curl’ movement – a group of surfers who rode finless semi hollow balsa/redwood boards with extreme vee in the tail to stop help them spinning out in the pocket – were “bored because there were no waves in Waikiki”, thus decided to tackle a 20ft swell at Sunset, which at the time was known as Paumalu.
As the swell continued to build rapidly, the pair were caught outside at Sunset, unable to make it back to beach against the raging rip. They decided to try and paddle down to Waimea, where they’d driven past that afternoon, thinking they could make their way in there.
By the time they’d made the 3 mile paddle, dodging outer reef bombies to arrive shortly before dusk, the swell has further built and Waimea was washing through with 40-50ft closeouts.
17-year-old Cross lost his board getting cleaned up en route, and while Brown eventually made it to the beach at The Bay naked and unconscious, Cross was never seen again.
From talking to army servicemen gathered on the beach Brown reckoned, from their description, Cross had tried to bodysurf a giant wave in, rather than dive underneath it.
While remnants of his shattered board were later recovered, Cross’s body was never found, and nobody surfed the North Shore for several years after the incident, while Waimea wasn’t ridden until 1957.
Brown was later featured surfing a 15ft Makaha wave in an iconic 1953 Associated Press photo by Thomas Tsuzuki, alongside Buzzy Trent and George Downing, an image that is widely regarded as launching Hawaiian big wave surfing into mainstream culture around the world.
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