"I always wanted to challenge death,” declares Woody Brown at the start of Heavy Water, a documentary that premiered at this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival. The aged surfer’s face is weathered from exposure to the elements and creased with experience. He’s been surfing since before Pearl Harbor. “I loved to get just as close to death as I could possibly get, and yet dodge it. That was my thrill in life.”
Brown was one of the first “big-wave” surfers. He and a handful of fellow daredevils pioneered the sport in Hawaii in the ’40s. But South African director Michael Oblowitz’s new documentary isn’t about Brown—who died in 2008—but rather contemporary big-wave surfer Nathan Fletcher, grandson of Brown’s surfing buddy, Walter Hoffman. Fletcher was born into the business. His father, Herbie Fletcher, was a 1960s-era surf star. His older brother, Christian, brought the punk-rock theatrics of skate culture into the surfing world in the 1980s. Nathan’s contribution: He would become big-wave surfing’s first rock star.
Born in San Clemente, California, and raised between SoCal and Oahu’s North Shore, the third-gen surfer pushed the sport to its limit. He took his brother’s love of skateboarding, particularly the aerial feats, and applied it to surfing. There was also an element of luck. He caught his first big waves by chance during a 1998 competition in Tahiti. Then he went out searching. For years. He developed new board shapes and pioneered insertion methods. The first and most primitive: launching from rocks. It was fun, but wasn’t very effective: “[I] realized, ‘No, you can’t really just jump off something that’s high and land on a wave. You need to be going the same, you know, direction and have the same momentum as the wave.’”
Jet-ski towing could get surfers closer to the action, but was too conventional. Fletcher dreamed of a helicopter drop. More on that later.
First, Fletcher found his white whale again, on Aug. 28, 2011, when photographer Brian Bielmann captured an immortal image of the big-wave surfer riding a 37-foot monster. The shot made the cover of Surfer Magazine, with the headline, “The heaviest wave ever ridden.”
Fletcher was already surfing royalty; that wave made him legend. But he didn’t do it solely for the adrenaline rush. He had a reputation to cultivate—and a corporate sponsorship to maintain.
Indeed, without intending it, Oblowitz lets slip just how much of the pro surfing world revolves around brand-baiting hype. If a surfer hangs ten and no one’s there to see it, do the cash registers make a sound? The production itself is something of a publicity stunt. The first—more interesting—half of Heavy Water documents the history of big-wave surfing and Nathan Fletcher’s personal trajectory, through archival footage and original interviews. Then Oblowitz follows Fletcher in real time as he attempts his helicopter launch in Hawaii.
This so-called “Acid Drop” was teased in trailers as the climax, the money shot of Heavy Water. The reveal is more like The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults. Visually it’s not nearly as iconic as Fletcher’s 2011 exploit, nor is it as interesting as the reels of archival footage shown early in the film. It is more professionally staged and probably worth more from an advertising standpoint. That’s why the scenes are there. An early, pre-Acid Drop version of Heavy Water was screened at Newport Beach in 2016 and used to solicit sponsors for the event. In interviews, Oblowitz presents the arrangement as a quid pro quo. Fletcher gave him the access he needed to tell the story of big-wave surfing; in return, Oblowitz helped Fletcher get corporate backing for his helicopter stunt. In the pro surfing world, it takes a lot of hustling to land the big one.