Florida's Last Beach Bum Lived in a Van Until He Died Surfing
Dana Brown surfed every day except Saturday, based on his strict interpretation of the Bible.
Photos courtesy of Bob Brown
The surfboard bobbed in the rolling waves off Huntington Beach, its fins facing toward the darkening sky. At first, the other surfers — at least a dozen of them, all soaking up the last bit of sunlight that late Sunday afternoon — didn't notice. Then the yelling began.
"Hey!" came a voice, shouting over the surf. "Hey! Hey! In the water, something just happened to him!"
One of the surfers headed for the empty yellow board. Tethered to it was a man in a black wetsuit, facedown in the Pacific as the waves rolled over him. When the surfer pulled the man onto the surface, his body was limp. His head lolled.
Others paddled over to help. They flipped the man onto his back and saw the shock of a long, white beard. Together they loaded him onto his surfboard and pushed it through the waves to shore.
They grabbed him by the wrists and ankles and rushed him onto the beach. They laid him in the sand, where they were met by onlookers including retired police officer Victoria Shroyer. She had run over from the pier, where she'd been waiting to photograph the sunset.
Shroyer leaned over the bearded stranger and felt for a pulse. She couldn't find one. Someone started chest compressions. Shroyer looked into the man's bright blue and unmoving eyes and thought to herself, Things don't look good.
The lifeguards, who had gone off duty minutes before the man had been thrown from his surfboard, sped through the sand in a red pickup, lights flashing. They took over pumping his chest as a crowd gathered. Dusk was closing in. Shroyer asked if anyone knew the blue-eyed man. No one did. All they found in his wetsuit was a car key. By the time he was carried off to the hospital, it was dark.
Days would pass before anyone learned the identity of the stranger lying unconscious at a hospital in Southern California. But when his name — Dana Brown — was finally revealed, along with word that he wouldn't survive injuries from the November 6, 2016, accident, it sent a community 2,500 miles away in Florida into mourning.
For 15 years, Brown and his dad, George, had been fixtures on Florida's surf scene. With their distinctive look — clear blue eyes, deep tans, and white beards that reached their chiseled chests — they were hard to miss. Locals in Cocoa Beach affectionately called them the ZZ Top Guys. The pair lived in a white Ford Econoline van parked at the same beach access point every morning, spending their days trading small talk with beachgoers and, in Dana's case, surfing and skateboarding. They hewed closely to their own interpretation of the Bible, refusing to cut their hair or do anything on Saturdays, their Sabbath.
George Brown died eight months before his son, in March, at age 87 in Cocoa. Lonely and lost in his dad's absence, Dana had set out at age 60 to fulfill a long-held dream: surfing in California. But he had always planned to return home. His death meant the abrupt loss of a throwback to surf culture from Florida's younger and wilder days, when the beaches weren't filled with luxury condos and when surfing, to many, was a way of life.
It's a wonder their lifestyle lasted so long at all.
Dana, one of eight children born to George and Phyllis Brown, grew up roaming a still-wild Florida.
Photo courtesy of Bob Brown
More than a hundred years ago, a Daytona Beach bicycle shop owner named Eugene Johnson read an article in the national weekly Collier's that breathlessly described "the daring sport of the Pacific Islands." Riding a surfboard, Alexander Hume Ford reported from Hawaii in July 1909, was "a thrill like none other in the world."
Intrigued, Johnson built a board like the ones he saw in the magazine's pages. Just weeks after the article was published, as recounted in the book Surfing Florida, he and his wife headed to the beach to try riding the waves themselves. The sight was novel enough that the local newspaper, the Daytona Gazette-News, published a story about it.
"Eugene Johnson has recently constructed what is called a surf board, and he and his wife had fine sport at the beach last Thursday afternoon riding the waves," the paper reported. "It is a 'new wrinkle' that is taking well with surf bathers."
Surfing had arrived in Florida. Though it had long been woven into Hawaiian culture, the sport slowly trickled into the Sunshine State, with adventure-seekers like the Johnsons hopping on boards one by one.
After emerging first as a curiosity and later as a counterculture, surfing would eventually explode in popularity in the mainland United States. Today it's a multibillion-dollar industry. Florida's place in surfing history and culture is in no way insignificant: The sport popped up in coastal communities around the state in the early 1900s, and by 2000, there were nearly 600,000 surfers, according to the Surfrider Foundation. But the Sunshine State has always had to fight for its place.
"Florida surfers have always just had kind of an image problem," says John Hughes, executive director of the Florida Surf Museum in Cocoa Beach. "They weren't taken seriously by the rest of the world even though they did really well."
Though its waves aren't as consistent as those in Hawaii or California, Florida has the third largest surfing population in the United States. It has turned out legends including Kelly Slater, who grew up in Cocoa Beach and is now the most successful pro surfer of all time. And a case brought by Palm Beach County surfers led to a precedent-setting Florida Supreme Court decision that prevents municipalities from banning surfing.
Surfing's popularity came about the same time as interest in beaches, which had been seen as worthless land, good for neither farming nor building. Beginning in the early 1900s, as South Florida developed as a vacation spot, sand at the water's edge was reimagined. It became a destination for wool-swimsuit-wearing visitors. Soon beaches were built out with hotels and condos.
Eugene Johnson's 1909 excursion with his wife was the first documented stand-up surfing in the Sunshine State, according to Surfing Florida. In the years that followed, other Floridians would discover the sport; newspaper clippings and advertisements from across the state recorded attempts at riding the waves. The sport's development nearly ground to a halt at the beginning of World War II but saw a revival in the '50s and '60s that was boosted by movies such as The Endless Summer and bands like the Beach Boys.
"In a few short years, every coastal community with waves had a crew of hard-core surfers, and the sport continued to grow," Surfing Florida notes. "With the bulk of its members being teenage boys, surfing remained a countercultural activity and was viewed with suspicion by an increasingly wary and conservative public."
At the time, surfing was dominated by "rowdy outsiders," says Paul Aho, the book's author. That they changed their clothes in public and pulled pranks like throwing food fights and mooning drivers didn't help.
"It wasn't a casual social undertaking," says Aho, who grew up surfing in Palm Beach County and is now dean of the Paducah School of Art & Design in Paducah, Kentucky. "It was a commitment of lifestyle to something that was outside the norm."
Further hurting the sport's image was the arrest and conviction of Jack "Murph the Surf" Murphy for what has been called the "greatest jewel heist of the 20th Century" and for a separate murder case. Born in Los Angeles, Murphy moved to Miami Beach as a teenager in 1955. He was a champion surfer, winning the Daytona Beach Surfing Championships in 1962, as well as the East Coast and National Hurricane Championships in 1963.
The following year, he and two buddies — swim instructor Allan Kuhn and house painter Roger Clark — ransacked New York City's Museum of Natural History and made off with more than 20 gems, including the Star of India, which at the size of a golf ball is the world's largest sapphire.
The trio was nabbed within two days. Murphy served two years in prison for the sensational caper, which made the threesome instant celebrities. (After his release, Murphy would be found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1967 bludgeoning deaths of two California women allegedly targeted for money they had stolen. He was sentenced to life but released in 1986 and later inducted into the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame.)
Some coastal communities even banned surfing. The town of Palm Beach did so in 1964. It was followed by Riviera Beach and North Palm Beach, the latter of which made it illegal to even own a surfboard.
Surfers from those days remember finding cops waiting for them on shore after a ride. Though they were mostly teenagers and 20-somethings, the surfers organized against the restrictive laws. They went door-to-door and sold bumper stickers that read "I Gave to Save Surfing" for a dollar apiece. Then they used the $1,500 raised to hire a young lawyer, Joel Daves, who would go on to become mayor of West Palm Beach.
A surfer named Bruce Carter volunteered to illegally catch a wave in Palm Beach, and when he was arrested, the case went to court. Daves filed motions arguing that the town's ordinance was unconstitutional, but they were denied and Carter was found guilty. On appeal, the circuit court reversed the conviction.
"There does not appear to be anything inherently obnoxious or illegal, per se, about surfing that requires or necessitates it being totally prohibited, any more than it would be reasonable to prohibit fishing entirely along the shore of the ocean within the town," the court wrote. Surfing was both challenging and wholesome.
Eventually, the case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which in 1970 ruled that the town could regulate surfing but not ban it. Municipalities do not have a right to prohibit an activity that is not "a nuisance per se," the court wrote.
From there, surfing spread unhindered. More people picked up surfboards, including one-half of a white-bearded father-son duo that already spent every day on the beach.
Surf culture caught on big in Florida in the 1960s.
Florida Surf Museum
Growing up in the '60s and '70s, George Brown's kids were always asking their parents for permission to row to one of the islands near their Cocoa Beach home — and to spend the night there. Their mother would laugh. Usually, the mosquitoes got so bad they were back in their beds by sunrise.
"Two weeks later, we'd be asking again," recalls Ralph Brown, Dana's younger brother.
There were eight children, almost all adventuresome and outdoorsy. They had a rollicking childhood, roaming a pre-Disney, still-wild Florida. They remember playing hide-and-seek, swimming in their backyard pool, and camping in the Keys, where they'd snag lobsters from other people's traps.
"They were stored right there for us," Ralph jokes. Multiple Brown children hitchhiked to California and back, with at least one ending up behind bars because of it.
Their father, George, was a Naval Academy graduate who became an officer in the U.S. Air Force; their mother, Phyllis, was a homemaker. They, too, were adventure-loving: Together they appeared on Treasure Isle, a couples game show shot in Palm Beach Shores in the late '60s. The two raised their children by the sea — briefly in Santa Monica, California, and then in Satellite Beach, Florida.
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For a time, the family also lived on Grand Turk Island in the Turks and Caicos. George was reassigned there after blowing the whistle on wrongdoing, his children say. It was supposed to be a plum assignment, but there was no running water or electricity on the island. After about a year, George took a payout and the family returned to Florida.
Of the eight children, Dana was third-oldest. He was born September 13, 1956, just two minutes after his twin sister, Dale. The kids split themselves up into the five oldest and three youngest. The older ones always claimed the younger ones got away with murder.
As a child, Dana was both clever and mischievous — a troublemaker, but a smooth one. His sister Teresa "T." Brown, the youngest sibling, recalls hitchhiking with him in an attempt to become actors. Once, they rigged a camera to a Christmas stocking in an effort to validate the existence of Santa. "Our mother caught us," T. recalls. She says of her brother: "He was very bright and a very sweet soul."
He was bullheaded, too: He once told his parents he would kill himself if he had to cut his long '70s-style hair. When his dad clipped it anyway, he swallowed rat poison.
"My dad made him cough it up and took him to the ER," Bob Brown says. "[Dana] was that stubborn."
Dana was a teenager when his parents divorced. George had been "a dad that most of the neighborhood kids were jealous of," Ralph says. He remembers George taking the children on camping trips in the Everglades and horsing around with them in the family pool. Highly intelligent, he once made $240,000 in the stock market in a single day. He borrowed and invested more money, dreaming of one day opening a hotel on Grand Turk. Instead, he somehow lost it. He turned mean, and the marriage fell apart. The kids, including Dana, stayed with their mother. They saw little of their dad.
Around 1976, after Dana graduated from Cocoa Beach High School, he enlisted in the Army and was sent to Hawaii. He worked in a trauma unit for about three years and was married for a short time before divorcing. In 1980, at 24 years old, he returned home from the service.
Most of the family had scattered. Dana found his dad living in a Cape Canaveral office building. George "had become one of the skinniest people I had ever seen," Dana wrote later on a personal website. The father believed that shadowy government figures had prevented him from gaining employment and had taken away the family's house. Father and son decided to research the claim.
The Brown clan was predisposed to unusual lives, perhaps because of their far-from-standard childhood. Ralph, a boat builder, and Bob, a handyman, set two Guinness world records for daring ocean voyages in a boat designed by Ralph's company, Dream Boats Inc. The first, in 2007, was for the longest unescorted oceanic crossing in a flats boat, a vessel designed to operate in less than a foot of water. The second, in 2009, was for the smallest powerboat to cross the Atlantic, an 8,000-mile-plus journey from Tampa to Germany that sent them cruising past icebergs in a 21-foot vessel without a cabin. Other family members are mountain climbers, boat captains, and American Ninja Warrior devotees.
But only Dana ended up following his dad. It came as a shock to the rest of the family. As a kid, he'd been an atheist and wasn't especially close with George. Then, suddenly, he was deeply religious and believed everything George said. Bob thinks maybe it came down to this: Dana was lonely, and so was George.
"My dad just scooped him up," Bob says, "and molded him."
Before reconnecting with his dad, Dana had begun reading the Bible. His siblings believe he turned to it after seeing so much suffering in the trauma unit. George had found faith after becoming disillusioned with the corruption in the world. Together they began studying the Old Testament.
Dana ventured across the country to meet with his siblings one by one and apologize for things he thought he'd done growing up. "None of us could remember anything he did," Bob says. "He's a brother. I mean, we didn't see what was so wrong."
After linking up in 1980, George and Dana developed an extensive set of Bible-based doctrines for life, publishing them online and in a series of books. They would never again cut their hair or live in a house. "They became their own little crusaders," T. says.
They traveled the world, venturing to Guatemala and the Middle East and hiking in the Appalachian Mountains. They searched for the Ark of the Covenant and believed they knew where it could be found.
"They were a twosome, you know?" Bob says. "They were always together."
George (right) and Dana Brown often ran along the beach and had the physique of men decades younger.
Photo courtesy of Bob Brown
Years ago, Coleman McCaskey III struck up a conversation with one of two white-bearded men who were always on the sand in Cocoa Beach, about 200 miles north of Miami. The man recounted his life story, mentioning he'd gone to Cocoa Beach High — the same school McCaskey had attended. "I said, 'What's your name?'?" he recalls. "?'Move the whiskers.'?"
Then McCaskey found out he was looking at Dana Brown, an old classmate whom he hadn't known well. He began visiting with Dana each time he went to the beach. The two would chat, and they sometimes ran together. One day, McCaskey brought an old surfboard.
"I said, 'Dana, you're here with your dad all the time. Why don't you go out and surf??'" McCaskey says.
No one can say for sure whether that was when it began. But soon Dana was surfing every day — except, of course, Saturday.
He and his dad moved into the white van in the '90s after years of living in a camper and staying on campgrounds in national forests. Beginning in the late '90s or early '00s, they pulled the van each morning onto the beach at 16th Street South, where there were bathrooms and free parking. They would stay all day before moving the van to another parking lot when the park closed at night.
There was once a time when it was common for surfers and beach bums to camp out on beaches in California, Hawaii, and Florida. But by the time George and Dana Brown rolled down 16th Street South in their Econoline, those days were mostly a distant memory. The shorelines, many virtually empty a century earlier, were stacked with high-rises. Beaches were more tightly regulated, and parking was tougher. Surfing, too, had changed. Gone were the days when it was mostly known as a bad-boy's club. It had gone mainstream.
But there George and Dana Brown were each day. Beachgoers said the two were almost like stewards of the beach, jumping up to help whenever someone locked their keys in the car, giving their lunches to lifeguards who had forgotten theirs, and once successfully petitioning to stop officials from hacking down seagrapes at the beach entrance.
Some viewed George and Dana with suspicion, and according to the Brown family, a petition was floated to get them to leave. But most viewed the pair as a gentle, friendly presence on the beach. And to some members of the wide network of local surfers, the two embodied a simpler, purer way of life.
"They had it right; we have it wrong," surfer Nick Morelle says. "They look at us, they see us chasing the dollar, they see us overworking, they see us stressed, they see us arguing."
The pair mostly lived off of George's social security checks, though Dana occasionally worked as a painter. They showered at park facilities and cooked on a Coleman stove. They stuck to a diet of mostly fruits and vegetables and often ran or did pushups. Both had the physique of men decades younger. They were constantly working on one project or another — a book about the lifeguards of 16th Street, a website that laid out their religious doctrine.
Dana and George's beliefs were based on their own strict interpretation of the Old Testament. They believed that it was a sin to cut one's hair and that only vegetarians are clean. Humanity is now living in the "End Times," they said. Recent disasters, including floods, fires, and storms, have not been accidental. And everyone has four opportunities to gain acceptance into the eternal kingdom, though the fourth group would enter as servants.
Those admitted to the eternal kingdom would find health, peace, happiness, prosperity, and eternal life — all right here on Earth. Dana and George felt sure they had been chosen for eternal life.
By last year, though, George's health was deteriorating. He had always been strong and healthy; in his early 80s, he had even helped his son Bob rebuild his house. But at age 87, he was faltering.
Dana cared for his dad every day, carrying him when he couldn't walk. Even after George was diagnosed with advanced heart failure, Dana remained convinced his father would not die. But he slipped away early one March morning in 2016, with Dana beside his hospital bed. Shocked, Dana traded watches with him. He believed he'd see his father again in the afterlife, and they would trade back.
Soon after, dozens of local surfers headed to 16th Street for a "paddle out" — a surfing ritual in which surfers form a circle in the water to remember one of their own.
The Browns held a small, informal funeral beneath a pavilion, where Dana stood and spoke, at times tearfully, about George's last months. "They were all telling me that he was going to die, but I didn't believe them," he said. "I didn't believe them until the very end."
In a wooded cemetery, the Brown sons dug a hole in the ground and buried their dad themselves. Dana planted a garden on top of the grave and visited every day. Sometimes he'd ask the cemetery owner if he could spend the night. On his Facebook page, he wrote that he missed his dad "something awful."
"Dana without his father — it was hard to imagine how this was going to work out," surfer Tom Goffinet says.
He tried to get a job as a lifeguard. He started a campaign to run for president and took to YouTube to lay out his platform: protecting the rights of the unborn, rooting out corruption in the Federal Reserve, cleaning up Wall Street, and bringing the Bible into the classroom. He added more plants to the garden blossoming on his dad's grave. He found work as an adventure guide in Cocoa Beach. Finally, in September, he packed up and headed west. His destination: Huntington Beach.
"Everybody has a dream beach," Morelle says, "and that was his."
Dana (left) and George Brown, who became famous in Florida surf circles, were affectionately called the ZZ Top Guys.
Photos courtesy of Bob Brown
Victoria Shroyer drove up and down the streets near the Huntington Beach Pier, scanning the parked cars. Then she saw it: a Ford van with a travel rack. She peered into the front seat. There, in the driver's seat, lay a folded surfboard cover that just about broke her heart.
For two days, Shroyer, who retired about a year ago after three decades of patrolling Huntington Beach, had been trying to learn the identity of the blue-eyed surfer she'd seen paramedics hurry to the hospital November 6. She'd gone to the patient's room that night to check if his family had shown up and then, after she couldn't stop thinking about those big blue eyes, returned to the pier the next morning. There, she spoke to some surfers, one of whom was able to describe the man's car.
Shroyer tried the doors of the van, but they were locked. She taped a sign with her phone number to the window, thinking maybe someone who knew him would drop by and see it. On a second visit, she noticed a bright green parking decal that listed the name of a mobile home park. Shroyer headed there, and soon enough, the Brown family found out Dana's longtime dream had ended in tragedy.
"It was like someone hit me in the belly with a baseball bat," Ralph Brown says. "When there's no more speeches, that's when you have a moment to realize your brother is no longer here. Until you do that, you kind of think it's not real. They got the wrong guy. You think that stuff. You're hoping against hope. You know they're right."
On November 10, Dana was taken off life support. His kidneys and liver were donated. The lifeguards were never sure what exactly led to his death, but witnesses at the beach said that as he navigated the four-to-six-foot waves close to sunset, he slammed into one of the pier's pillars.
Two months had passed since a hopeful Dana departed Cocoa Beach, posting photos of the landscapes he saw along what he called his adventure. "The Pacific sure does have waves," he wrote after making it to California. Now his 24-year-old nephew was making the same trek — but in reverse. Jonathan Brown, who often spent summer days surfing with Dana and always felt close to him, flew to California. He picked up his uncle's ashes, surfboard, and the van that had been his home.
The death was slowly sinking in for the family.
"It's when you're driving along and you think, Dana is never going to see this again or have a conversation about this again," his brother Bob says. "It didn't really hit me the first day. It's hitting me every day a little more."
The same was true for the rest of Cocoa Beach, where word quickly spread. Locals who had been accustomed to Dana and George's constant presence at 16th Street were shocked. They struggled with the realization that just eight months after George's death, Dana was gone too. It was a sudden end to the father-son pair that had taken on a kind of legendary status.
That Dana lost his life at the beach, the place he felt most at home, wasn't lost on anyone. Some thought it made the death all the more tragic. "The fact that he died the way he died, it was just sad," surfer Tom Goffinet says. "I couldn't believe it." Others found comfort in knowing he was surfing. "If there was ever a way to go out, it's that," Jonathan says.
On a bright Saturday morning last month, a couple hundred surfers made their way to 16th Street. On the way to the beach, they passed Dana and George's van, parked in the same spot it had occupied every day for so many years. Taped to the walkway to the beach were two posters collecting signatures and well wishes: "Life is like a wave," "Stay paddling, humble warrior," and "Surf in peace."
"Sixteenth won't be the same without him, but we'll never come here without thinking of him," says surfer T.J. Crist, a 20-something wearing a wetsuit and toting a board. "You'd come out here and, unless it was a Saturday, you'd be surfing with Dana."
The surfboard Dana was riding the day of the accident stood propped in the sand. In front of it was a heavy, three-foot-long wooden surfboard. Bob had carved the board and drilled holes, which he filled with Dana's remains. Later, the board would be buried in a plot next to George's about five miles from the beach, the two graves sharing opposite sides of the same headstone.
Surfers and family members, many wearing wetsuits, stood in a wide circle. Surfboards of every color fanned out in front of them. A woman used the fabric of her dress to swipe away tears. Family members held sunflowers, a favorite of Dana's. The others held carnations. One by one, people strode to the center to talk about Dana, their voices competing with the waves, which were bigger than usual that day.
"I'm really going to miss seeing him out here," said Coleman McCaskey III, who wore his long hair in a ponytail.
Added Nick Morelle, tattooed and clad in green-and-gray swim trunks: "Now he's surfing the streets of gold."
Then came a woman in a blue-and-green wetsuit: "I feel like they're not going to have to look anymore. If they were looking for that ark, they found it."
Finally, the surfers, dozens of them, paddled about 100 yards out into the water with the sunflowers and carnations clasped in their teeth. They formed another circle and tossed the flowers into the center, where Dana's old surfboard was bobbing in the waves. They slapped the water and chanted Dana's name. Then they each caught a wave back to shore.
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