Essay Surfing

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Thrilled with the ride. You can’t wipe the smile off my face.
Photos by Oriana Fowler/Surf Simply

{Blog Note: March 26, 2012}

I’m linking up this post as part of Alison’s and Ado’s 1st Blogoversary Blog Bash! Both are incredible women and bloggers. They asked us to link up our favorite blog post of all time. I choose this post, describing my first experience catching and riding a wave on a surfboard, for two reasons.

First, surfing is the reason that I started this blog. I learned to surf in April 2011 and completely and utterly fell in love with it. Some might even say I am obsessed. In either case, I experienced a sense of exhilaration and happiness that I haven’t felt in a really long time. I started this blog because I wanted to stay connected to that feeling as well as chronicle my quest to learn to surf and what I learned along the way. There aren’t many resources out there for newbie surfers.

Second, today – March 26, 2012 – I am having my ACL reconstructed in my right knee. I’m having surgery because I want to continue to lead an active life, one that includes running, yoga, swimming, hiking, playing with my kids, skiing and surfing. What better way to remember this day than by celebrating one of the main reasons why I want to get better.

I hope you like it. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Happy Blogoversary Alison and Ado!

{Original Post: November 21, 2011}

The first time time that I paddled out the back – out past where the waves were breaking so that you’re in position to catch unbroken waves – was amazing. It was a little nerve-wracking to paddle up and over waves that looked like they were about to crash on my head at any minute. I felt like I was bracing myself for battle, taking on each oncoming wave one at a time – at least in theory until my fear and anxiety began to rise. Then I started to sprint and quickly get out of breath.

But once I’m out, it is so peaceful. You get to sit on your surfboard, enjoying the view while noticing how lumps start to appear on the horizon and watching how they roll in and change shape to get a sense of where the wave will break, if it’s surfable or not and where you would have to be to catch the wave. You watch as your fellow surfers start to paddle for a wave, start to stand up and then disappear down the other side of the wave.

As I sat there watching everyone take their turn in the line up, I looked out to the horizon and noticed a larger lump moving in. Uh-oh, thinking to myself that this one looked like it’s going to break sooner and way before it gets to me. Crap. That meant that I would have to paddle out to meet the wave. That meant that I would probably have to turtle roll in order to get through the wave without getting crushed. And so I did. And I survived, again waiting in the calm beyond the wave with my heart pounding in my head.

The next time we paddled out, I catch my first unbroken wave. And then my second. The first was OK. After I caught the wave, I was a little off balance. The front edge of my board dug in and I fell off. The second wave was AWESOME. It wasn’t a big wave but I got up, managed to turn my board so that I trimmed across the face (a little bit at least) and rode the wave all the way into the beach. It was an exhilarating experience. You feel all that power of the wave, surging forward and backing off slightly before surging forward again. And it just made me happy. 

As I get back out to the line-up, Ed asks me, “So, was it worth it? Was it worth all the paddling?” All I can answer is “YES!!” 

“And it’s worth the turtle rolls?”

“Totally worth the turtle rolls.”


Filed Under: Me, Surfing

Aside from the kook bait, there were self-serious surf travel diaries in publications like The Surfer’s Journal and a handful of hagiographies of surf legends. I concluded that writing about surfing was impossible because surfing elicited happiness, and it is impossible to write about happiness.

But then, while researching my novel, some of which took place on Ocean Beach, I came across “Playing Doc’s Games,” a two-partarticle on surfing in San Francisco that was published in the New Yorker in 1992. The author, William Finnegan, had written about some of the legends of the San Francisco surf scene with an odd mix of exhaustion and excitement that seemed to perfectly capture the daily grind of surfing. Finnegan’s talents as a surfer were obvious to anyone who had tried to paddle out in overhead surf at Noriega Street at Ocean Beach; he had the skill to paddle out on days when the waves were so big you could hear them from a half-mile away. But unlike most middle-aged rippers, Finnegan did not borrow from the lengthy litany of surf clichés. He did not talk about the gifts the ocean gives to all of us. His descriptions of San Francisco’s “giant gray,” “ominous” waves were pragmatic, even grim. He was the first person I had come across who could write about surfing without schmaltz or weighty metaphors.

Finnegan’s focus, instead, was on two major characters in the San Francisco surf scene: Mark Renneker, a chest-thumping, alpha-male physician and his foil, a local carpenter named Peewee. Where Renneker proselytized a surf gospel and hung photos of his biggest waves on his walls, Peewee was a taciturn charger who could out-surf Renneker but didn’t feel the need to build an obnoxious life philosophy around it. Surfing, for Peewee, was nothing more than surfing. “Playing Doc’s Games” explored the philosophical divide between these two men; through them, it seemed to me that Finnegan was having an argument with himself, trying to figure out which philosophy he believed in.

I thought of the story often in San Francisco. On clean, January days, surfing, even badly, was enough to give me a purpose in life. But on choppy, stupid days in September, as I paddled futilely straight into the first line of white water at Ocean Beach, I would think about Peewee’s vision of silent, simple doing over Doc’s vision of daily, ritualistic heroism. I did not really believe surfing was nothing more than surfing, but I hoped I might one day get good enough at it to drop all its sentimental trappings.

“Barbarian Days,” Finnegan’s much-anticipated memoir, is, without a doubt, the finest surf book I’ve ever read. The self-conscious snarl of “Playing Doc’s Games” has softened; he can now tell you about the rhapsodic joy of a perfect day out at his home break with his boys as well as the spiritual fulfillment he felt from chasing waves around the planet as a surf bohemian inspired by Jack Kerouac. We learn that Finnegan and a friend were among the first Americans to surf Tavarua, a small island off the coast of Fiji whose peeling waves are among the most coveted in the world; we learn he charged Ocean Beach in San Francisco before it got overrun by kooks like me, that he surfed Jeffreys Bay in South Africa while teaching at an all-black school during apartheid.

Following the young Finnegan from Hawaii to Ventura to Santa Cruz to the South Pacific to Australia to South Africa to San Francisco to New York to Portugal, you never question his authority. Unlike London, Finnegan can tell you what it’s like inside a barrel on the Gold Coast of Australia, what it’s like to surf at Sunset Beach on the North Shore of Oahu. He knows what to look for, and he uses the sport’s utilitarian jargon — takeoff points, power, sections, makeability, swell direction, wind speed — to good effect. Consider his description of Kirra, one of the dozens of famous waves Finnegan has surfed:

“I had surfed my share of frontside tubes, from that reliable inside section at Lahaina Harbor Mouth to a slabby mutant wave in Santa Cruz called Stockton Avenue, where I snapped boards in half on three-foot days and was lucky not to get hurt on the shallow rock reef. But Stockton was a short, freaky wave — a one-trick pony. Kirra was just as hollow, and it was a pointbreak. It was as long as Rincon or Honolua, and hollower than either one.”

Even if you have no idea what Finnegan is talking about, the enthusiasm and charm of his writing carries its own rhythmic energy. Just as you don’t really need to know much about baseball to listen to Vin Scully call a Dodgers game, you don’t need to know about the dangers of a thudding, short wave over a reef to read “Barbarian Days.”

All this technical mastery and precise description goes hand in hand with an unabashed, infectious earnestness. Finnegan has certainly written a surfing book for surfers, but on a more fundamental level, “Barbarian Days” offers a cleareyed vision of American boyhood. Like Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” it is a sympathetic examination of what happens when literary ideas of freedom and purity take hold of a young mind and fling his body out into the far reaches of the world. Finnegan’s own travels were fueled by a hardheaded belief in a sort of surf religiosity that rejected the tanned fun of “Gidget,” “Beach Blanket Bingo” and the countless surf-ploitation books and films churned out in the ’50s and ’60s. Instead, he writes, “the newly emerging ideal was solitude, purity, perfect waves far from civilization. ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ ‘Endless Summer.’ This was a track that led away from citizenship, in the ancient sense of the word, toward a scratched-out frontier where we would live as latter-day barbarians. This was not the daydream of the happy idler. It went deeper than that. Chasing waves in a dedicated way was both profoundly egocentric and selfless, dynamic and ascetic, radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement.”

A surfer feels an even mix of nostalgia and envy reading that passage. The boundlessness of Finnegan’s wave chasing now feels at once out of reach and dated, in the manner of Kerouac’s Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. A 16-year old Finnegan and his friend Domenic fall under “the spell of Kerouac,” getting jobs at a gas station, buying a Ford Econoline van and taking off on a lengthy cross-country trip. “We got as far south as Mazatlán, as far east as Cape Cod,” Finnegan explains. “We dropped acid in New York City. We subsisted on Cream of Wheat, cooked on a Coleman camping stove. It was 1969, the summer of Woodstock, but the flyers for the festival plastered around Greenwich Village mentioned an admission charge. That sounded lame to us — some kind of artsy-craftsy weekend for old people — so we skipped it.”

Much of “Barbarian Days” rushes by at this pace — cities, states, even entire countries dissolve into one another as Finnegan and his various travel buddies speed around the world in search of waves. In each country, at each break, he is joined by a rotating cast of beloved surf partners from the Hawaiian rippers of his childhood to the starry-eyed literary men who accompanied him on a yearslong trip throughout the South Pacific and Australia. But while his eye for telling detail is as incisive as ever, his gaze has softened and grown more fond of its subjects. And in the tradition of the best sportswriting, Finnegan writes unshyly and frankly about the physical grace of other men. At one point in his 20s, Finnegan returns to his childhood break in Hawaii and finds Glenn Kaulukukui, a local legend whom he admired in his youth. The two old friends watch each other surf. “The speed, power and purity of his turns were on a level I had rarely seen except in films,” Finnegan writes of Kaulukukui. “And he didn’t seem to be pushing himself at all. He seemed to be playing — intently, respectfully, joyfully. For me, seeing Glenn surf like that was an epiphany. It was about him, my boyhood idol grown into a man, but it was also about surfing — its depth, or potential depth, as a lifelong practice. I told him I was off to the South Seas. He looked at me hard and wonderingly, and wished me luck. We clasped hands again. It was the last time I ever saw him.”

Surf spots are notoriously hostile, testosterone-fueled places that follow the laws of home and merit — if you grew up in the area or if you can outrip the locals, you’ll be fine. American men grow up believing in the primacy of those two ideas, and surfing, like high-school football in Texas or playground basketball in New York City, offers a seemingly pure distillation of both. “Barbarian Days” should be discussed for being the first book to really master surf writing, but it also offers a convincing portrait of male companionship; the ways in which competition, budding sexuality and wanderlust cohere into friendships that feel both innate and timeless. On Huntington Beach, I would see sunburned old men watching the waves from the beds of their meticulously maintained, classic trucks. I remember hating them: their big, shiny Harbour boards, which they reverently laid out on carpenter’s sawhorses, the way they would whoop for one another and elbow intruders like me off incoming waves.

During my early surf-crazed years, I mostly surfed alone. I was doing my own version of whatever Chris McCandless was doing in the wilds of Alaska. The rituals of surfing in cold water — the drive to the beach, the solemn scouting of the waves from the dunes off the Great Highway, hands shoved deep in the pockets of my hoodie, the waxing of the board, the suiting up in four millimeters of neoprene, the patient paddling course through the walls of white water, the bobbing around in the cold ocean, the intent study of the undulating masses of water — felt to me like an expression of moral clarity. “Playing Doc’s Games” helped temper my budding asceticism, the spiritual arrogance I felt after a thumping dawn-patrol session, driving through the Sunset District by fog-shrouded houses filled with people still waking up. Reading “Barbarian Days,” those silly, megalomaniacal concerns melt away completely. It’s a book written for the old bros at Huntington Beach who paddle out in the ragged hope that friendships and the road can both go on indefinitely — and that nobody has to paddle back in to head to work.

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