Bill Delaney, director of "Free Ride," dies aged 72

February 15, 2019 | Surfing
Free Ride: the 1977 surf movie by Bill Delaney

Bill Delaney, the man who sculpted "Free Ride" and inspired future generations of surfers, passed away.

William Delaney was born in Santa Barbara, California, in 1946. He started surfing in 1962 and witnessed the sport's evolution in Southern California before it spread to the rest of the world.

Three years after riding his first waves, Delaney was already taking surf photos. In 1969, his passion for visual arts led him to the Brooks Institute of Photography, where he perfected his natural skills.

After serving in the army, Bill Delaney embraced his first project as a filmmaker.

"Free Ride" showcased world champions Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew, Mark Richards, and Shaun Tomson enjoying the epic swells of the 1977/1976 winter season on the North Shore of Oahu.

The film was released in 1977 and cost $70,000. It is widely considered one of the most important movies of all time, not only because of the quality of the surfers involved, but also because it represents and depicts the essence of surfing.

"In a way, the need to prove something in Hawaii maybe isn't as strong now as it was then," Bill Delaney said in 1990.

"In 1975/1976, those guys came here on this incredible mission because they were pretty much unknown. They weren't in the magazines hardly at all, and they form their own informal surf team."

A "Free Ride" Into Eternity

Always a low-profile individual, Delaney had the sense and sensibility to capture and edit surfing's glorious moments, but also the camaraderie, and surf culture's best and most touching values.

"Free Ride" was also a fundamental work when it comes to slow-motion water photography, and set standards for future box-office hits. Plus, it had outstanding scenes featuring Mark Richards inside the tube at Off the Wall.

But in reality, the film's famous immersion shots were captured by Dan Merkel, a professional who deeply influenced Delaney's vision for his first movie.

"Though it took three six-month runs up and down from California to Australia to 'Free Ride' to break even, it eventually grossed half a million dollars," reveals John Engle, in his book "Surfing in the Movies."

"In some of the most interesting non-surfing sequences in Delaney's film, founders of ASP, Randy Rarick and Fred Hemmings, appear on-camera like slightly uncomfortable sales directors touting what they see as their prime product, Shaun Tomson."

Delaney released updated versions of his debut surf movie in 1978 and 1983.

But because he always kept a foot in automotive photography, Bill only returned to his longtime passion for shooting "Surfers: The Movie," the 1988 film which includes the famous Miki Dora interview.

"Surfers: Take Two," a revised edition of "Surfers: The Movie," came out in 1991 and was his last work as a surf filmmaker.