Remembering Bruce Brown, the Filmmaker Who Inspired a Generation of Surfers

American surfer and director Bruce Brown surfs a wave and holds a camera while filming footage for his international surfing documentary, 'The Endless Summer,' circa 1966. Another surfer rides in the background.
American surfer and director Bruce Brown surfs a wave and holds a camera while filming footage for his international surfing documentary, 'The Endless Summer,' circa 1966. Another surfer rides in the background.  Photo by Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

Back in 1979, I went to a sleepover at a sixth-grade school buddy’s house in suburban Atlanta. We had spent a typical Saturday together — roaring around on go-karts, shooting each other with BB guns and crashing our BMX bikes. Though I was an inlander, I’d spent my summers at my grandparents’ rickety old South Carolina beach cottage where I watched the weed-scented longhairs who plied Surfside Beach’s murky waves with disdain, fear and wonder. Surfing was something I could give two shits about, because surfing was something I would never do. 

A poster for The Endless Summer.
A poster for The Endless Summer. Photo by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

That night though, my buddy’s older brother popped a videocassette into a newfangled VCR. If you doubt my hodad credentials, consider that I’d never even heard of Bruce Brown’s 1966 classic film, The Endless Summer. Yet over the next hour and half, Brown’s corny, shoestring budget travelogue about two surfers who leave the winter chill of California to chase warm water waves from Hawaii to Tahiti to South Africa would leave me rapt and spellbound. It didn’t matter that some of the film seemed obviously staged. It didn’t matter that even by the standards of 1979, the film bore several racially cringe-worthy segments. It didn’t matter that the film’s surfing—mostly shot atop longboards in 1963—would quickly become dated to Californians who, like the film’s star Mike Hynson, would soon turn to psychedelic drugs and far shorter boards. What mattered was that through his earnest narration, dreamy photography and deft storytelling, Brown managed something rare and well nigh impossible—to not only capture the magic of surfing, but to completely immerse the non-surfer in it. Indeed, one of the great surprises of the film when it opened was not that it sold out along the coasts of the U.S., but that it sold out theaters in Kansas. If Gidget sent a first wave of surfers to the nation’s beaches in search of a contrived, Hollywood version of cool in 1959, The Endless Summer sent them out in search of something real and true

The film’s last segment, shot amidst achingly perfect waves at South Africa’s Cape St. Francis, was seared into my skull, but it was Brown’s narration that would serve as a clarion call for God knows how many millions of people just like me. “I couldn’t help but think of the hundreds of years these waves must have been breaking here,” said Brown, who died on Monday at the age of 80. “But until this day, no one had ever ridden one. Think of the thousands of waves that had gone to waste and the waves that are going to waste right now at Cape St. Francis.” 

Those waves, those dreams: they were there, somewhere on earth, for anyone to find. All you had to do was look. And even if you didn’t find Cape St. Francis, you were bound to have a hell of an adventure along the way. The following summer, thanks to Bruce Brown, I started bugging my beach-bound cousins to take me surfing. When I got my driver’s license, thanks to Bruce Brown, I didn’t spend my high school weekends partying behind the football bleachers, but searching for waves. Thanks to Bruce Brown, I’d find them, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. Thanks to Bruce Brown, I’d not only one day get to meet and do several interviews with, well, Bruce Brown but to enlist the help of his film-maker son Dana on a book about big wave surfing that came about thanks to a story in this very magazine. Thanks to Bruce Brown, I, like countless other people I know today, would eventually come to lead a life where surfing, career and family would become interwoven like the braids on a lei. 

How do you properly thank someone for a gift like that? 

Chris Dixon is the founding online editor of Surfer magazine, and his writing has appeared in the form of the books Ghost Wave and Taschen’s Surfing 1778-Today. His next book, The Ocean Handbook, is due in 2018 from Chronicle Books.