Rarely, there comes a time when I fall in love with a storyâ€”when I discover a story that is about more than surfing, more than news, more than money and more than just plain inspiration.Â Instead, itâ€™s a story about irrevocable passion and spirit of life. Itâ€™s about people making connections and overcoming life-threatening obstacles to put things into perspective and make life worth fighting for. Itâ€™s about fire and water.
Rockaway resident Thomas Brookins, partnered with producer James Baker, set out on a journey to explore and expose the rich history between New York firemen and surfers in their new documentary â€œFire & Water.â€ What they found was more than just FDNY firefighters that occasionally hit the waves. They discovered the true nature of firemen. Firemen are, in fact, water lords.
â€œThere are literally hundreds of firefighters in the area and many of them surf, as well as come from a legacy of surfers or firefighters here,â€ Brookins said. â€œOne day I saw a few friends and they were killing it out in the water. I thought, â€˜Man, firefighters are great surfers!â€™ Of course, by then, my bug for writing and shooting came flashing before me. I just thought this would be a really fun thing to doâ€”showcase these firefighters doing something so dear to them and also to us as surfers.â€
The documentary chronicles the surfing past of Don â€œGumsâ€ Eichin, a pioneer Long Beach surfer and firefighter who lived on the North Shore during the early 1960s. It features old thought-to-be-lost footage from the 60s recovered from Eichin’s basement and new interviews with pro surfers Rob Machado, Rochelle Ballard and Kassia Meador and local surf celebrities Brian Walsh, Mikey DeTemple and Casey Skudin.
Eichin lived in an apartment on Pipeline, which is now basically the location of the Volcom house, and charged huge waves at Pipe and Waimea. He had a plethora of legendary friends including Eddie Aikau, Greg Noll and Butch Van Artsdalen.
If youâ€™re familiar with Hawaiiâ€™s North Shore, youâ€™ll know that Gums is also a popular surf break at Ehukai Beach. The break was named after one of Eichinâ€™s radical wipeouts.
Though Eichin had his share of adventure shredding up the North Shore, he returned to New York to become a fire fighter during one of the cityâ€™s most difficult times.
â€œNo one ever thinks about a firefighter until they need one,â€ Brookins explained. â€œThey are above and beyond what most of us believe we are. They say they just have a job to do, nothing moreâ€”completely humble. In fact, they are heroes, brothers, family men and women, community members and surfers. The connection between their lives is just too incredible to let it disappear through the ages without showing this to the world.â€
After doing more research, Brookins found that Eichinâ€™s reputation as a firefighter grew just as much as his reputation as a surfer.
â€œWhat is estimated up to 50 plus people are now firefighters because of Don,â€ Brookins said. â€œMost of them are surfers in NYC and Long Island NY. This is a history most might have forgotten, but itâ€™s kind of what I love about surfingâ€”finding the unsung tales of the sport and showing how proud a culture we all share.â€
But this story is about more than just the documentary. Itâ€™s also about the filmmaker. Firemen are heroes because they save lives.
Brookins, however, is his own fireman.Â Earlier this year, Brookins discovered a small lump in his throat before leaving for Hawaii to film for the documentary. Upon his return, Brookins decided to get tested. The results yielded unfavorable news. Cancer. Stage 4. It had infected his thyroid, lymph nodes and circulatory system. He needed surgery.
In the two months before the surgery, Brookins was a different person. â€œI went from being a hyper healthy surfer to struggling to breathe and I was looking pretty bad. I got the surgery and man was that hefty,â€ Brookins said.
From the hospital bed, Brookins still relentlessly worked on â€œFire and Water.â€ He was organizing shoots and trying to find more subjects to interview. Then he went in for treatment
â€œIt was the hardest thing I had ever done,â€ Brookins said. â€œI was lethargic, sickly, depressed, but still kept going. After treatments, I was so weak my hands wouldnâ€™t work correctly. I looked different and could barely get off the couch. But with help from my wife, the thought of her and my baby boy Takoda, and this film kept me going.â€
Today, Brookins is a cancer survivor and still pushing to complete this film. Itâ€™s not everyday you see someone fight for their life, but still think of others. â€œFire and Waterâ€ was always on the forefront of Brookinsâ€™ mind, even during his darkest of days.
â€œI want them to watch this and feel like they know someone new,â€ Brookins said. â€œI want them to feel like a better person for having watched it. I like to show people something new and from a completely new perspective. I hope to show people that thereâ€™s a lot more to life. I hope they go home, grab a board and look in the line up with new eyes. Whoâ€™s that guy sitting next to you? Could he be a hero on dry land? Maybe. You’ll never know unless you carry out the age-old teachings of respect and never stop learning about new things. Then get tubed out of your brains.â€
Keep a look out for â€œFire and Water,â€ predicted to be released within the next year.
Please help fund this project, so they can finish it sooner. Go to the Kickstarter project page and add a donation! Brookins and Baker still need funds to complete the film. They need an LLC and an editor. They only have 5 days left and are only halfway there!
Help support a documentary that is more than just a surf story. Itâ€™s what people live for, fight for and survive for.