What Surfing Teaches You About Life

An author shares his passion for the sport as well as his list of the top five waves.

Say the word “ surfer” and we tend to think of a muscle-bound hunk with sun-bleached, blonde hair and Schwarzenegger-style pecs. Bill Finnegan defies the stereotype. A bookish kid who went on to become a staff writer for the New Yorker, he fell in love with surfing at the age of 13 when his family moved from Southern California to Hawaii. His book, Barbarian Days: A Life In Surfing, recalls his lifelong odyssey to such far-flung places as Madagascar, Sumatra and Tahiti searching for the ultimate wave and his quest for a different, more simple way of life.

Speaking from his office in Manhattan, he describes his wild childhood on Hawaii and what he calls The Code of Boys; explains how terror and ecstasy live side by side for a surfer; and shares his Top Five waves.

Your book opens with you surfing in Hawaii at 13 years of age. Take us back to that time in your life.

I was a white kid from a suburb in Southern California. My father got a job in Hawaii. I’d been surfing for a couple of years, so I was incredibly excited to be in Hawaii. We rented a little cottage on the backside of Diamond Head near the coast, and my parents sent me off to the local middle school, which turned out to be quite a tough place.

It wasn’t at all like the California public schools I’d gone to. There were a lot of race-based gangs and “haolies”—the local word for white people—were pretty scarce. I got in a lot of fights and had trouble understanding people. A lot of the kids spoke a local patois called pidgin. But the surf out in front of our house was incredibly exciting.

It wasn’t at all what I expected from the magazines I was marinated in at that age. It was warm, uncrowded and challenging. I made friends in the water, too. A boy called Roddy Kaulukukui was my age, and we became fast friends after he and the other local kids started keeping their boards at my house.

You write, “Waves were the playing field…the object of your deepest desire. At the same time, they were your mortal enemy.” Expand on this.

It’s this paradox. Good waves are a source of incredible joy to a surfer, but they can turn dangerous quite easily, and suddenly they’re not so much joy as terror. I could later rationalize it, but as a kid of 13, I was sometimes desperate to be on shore. I had a real fear of drowning. Not many other sports kids play include a fear of death as part of the fun.

You write beautifully about boyhood. But a lot of what you did as a boy would probably get your parents locked up for neglect these days. Talk about ‘The Code Of Boys.’  

The Code Of Boys was a code of silence. Boys would do terrible things to each other, but you didn’t want to be a snitch, so you didn’t go to adults about it.

In the sixties and early seventies there was a pretty extreme laissez-faire style of parenting, at least in Southern California. Kids were left to take care of themselves without hovering parents. I was hitchhiking everywhere by the time I was 14, traveling the coast looking for waves.

I think of it as an old fashioned American boyhood from Tom Sawyer onward, but it reached a kind of extreme when I was an adolescent.  There was a lot of ambient violence. I liked to box. I’d invite boys home from school, put on the gloves, and we’d just beat each other senseless right in front of our house. Nobody thought anything of it. That’s what boys do: they box.

Corporal punishment at school and at home was also standard: whippings, spankings, beatings with paddles by school officials. But there wasn’t the kind of extreme video game violence there is now. It didn’t seem strange at all then, but now that I have a 13 year old myself it does seem strange to look back on.

You dropped out of college in Santa Cruz and headed for the South Pacific. It was not just surfing. You also “wanted to learn new ways of being.” What were you searching for?

It was actually after graduate school. I saved some money from a job at a railroad in California, and headed to the South Seas, Australia, Southeast Asia and Africa. I was gone nearly four years looking for waves, but it’s true I wasn’t only looking for waves.  I had vague ideas about living in pre-industrial societies, foreign worlds uncorrupted by modernity, where I would learn new ways of being: a kind of handiness and comfort in the natural world that I didn’t have as a young kid growing up in Southern California.

I’m not sure I ever got any of that. But that’s what I was looking for.

You travel the globe searching for the perfect wave. You find it on the island of Tavarua. Set the scene for us.

Tavarua was at that time a little uninhabited island in the Mamanuca group of islands off the west shore off the main Fijian island of Tuvalu. I was travelling with my friend, Bryan Di Salvatore  and we had been looking for waves in Samoa, Tonga and other parts of Fiji, when we heard about this place. We got some fishermen to take us out and climbed a mountain. With binoculars we could see the wave breaking about five miles across the channel.

It was so remarkable I couldn’t breathe. It was breaking so evenly, so perfectly, this long, long ‘left.’ You call it a ‘left’ because you go to your left as you catch the wave and start to run down the face. There was no water on the island so we had to take our own provisions and we camped there for weeks. The wave turned out to be the best either of us had ever seen: a real highpoint not just of that trip, but of my 50-year surfing life.

A surfer tells you: “A chick has to understand if she marries a surfer, she marries surfing.” What does your wife think of your surfing?

She’s actually quite tolerant. So she would understand that point. That guy was a young surfer I was knocking around with in Madeira. He had just gotten divorced because his wife couldn’t handle surfing. He said, “It’s as if you or I were married to a fanatical shopper, who spends their whole life waiting for the malls to open.” [Laughs]

How have you also managed to combine your passion for surfing with your job as a staff writer at the New Yorker?

It’s not a nine to five job. There’s a lot of travel. It’s flexible enough and my editors are tolerant enough that I can often get work done when the waves are bad, which they often are around New York, and be ready to jump when they get good.

I miss a lot of waves because I’ve got a deadline or I’m busy reporting. But a lot of my surfing now is on trips to Mexico or Fiji, Indonesia or Hawaii: some far-flung place that gets really good waves. Sometimes I report in places that allow me to go surfing. In the last couple of years I have done stories in Australia and Madagascar, which both get good waves.

You say that you peaked as a surfer off the coast of Sumatra at the age of 26. You are 62 now. How does aging change your ability to surf?

It slowly, but steadily, degrades it. Looking back, I probably never surfed that well again. I surfed okay for another 10 or 15 years. But then, on Madeira, surfing with some young pros, I could see the difference. These guys were paddling rings around me. What’s the matter with me?

What was the matter was that I was in my forties. For the first time in my life I started training on land, trying to forestall the inevitable. But you inevitably get slower, weaker, less nimble and have to ride heavier equipment.

I’m still fighting off owning what’s called a long board, which is a much easier type of board to ride. I still ride a short board, which is more difficult.

Your travels have taken you from New Jersey to Java. I am sure our surfing readers would love to hear your Top Five surf sites.

That’s such a trick question! With surfers that’s closely held information.  Crowds are a huge problem in surfing now. So if you know a spot that gets really good and isn’t crowded, you might never tell your best friend, let alone the readers of National Geographic! [Laughs]

My friend Bryan and I found this remarkable wave off Tavarua. By the end of that season we figured there were only nine people who knew about it and we all took a solemn vow of silence. Bryan and I took it so seriously that we never spoke the name of the island or wrote it down. We would use the Hawaiian term for Whatchamacallit, which is da kine.

We kept it up for years, always thinking we would get back there. But before we could, two American surfers made an agreement with the Fijian government to build a resort. So much for that.

What I can give you is the top five waves to watch, because the waves you would surf depend on your ability. The most exciting waves to watch are generally the most dangerous waves in the world.

There are very, very few people who should be out there. You can’t say to people in general, ‘oh you should go surf Pipeline.’ Pipeline is an absolutely deadly wave, but a great wave to watch. So, Pipeline on the north shore of Oahu; Chopu in Tahiti, which is perhaps the most dangerous wave in the world but incredibly exciting to watch; a place in South Africa called Jeffrey’s Bay, which was in the news recently because a pro surfer was attacked in the water by a shark; then Honolua Bay, on west Maui; and finally, Cloudbreak off the coast of Tavarua, in Fiji.

What lessons has surfing taught you that were useful in your life?

Surfing has got to be one of the most useless, unproductive things you can do. But it does have a certain act-and-consequence severity to it. You get swiftly punished for any mistake, at every level.

When you’re trying to learn, if you don’t pay close attention this sport will hit you in the head and really get your attention. As you get into more serious waves, a mistake can land you on the bottom hard or underwater for too long.

So there’s a kind of physical and mental discipline to serious surfing that is quite useful in life. You have to keep yourself fit. You also are intimately involved with the ocean. Reading the waves, getting to know a break, or getting wired as we say, involves a kind of semi-scientific oceanographic study of a very small patch of coast.

From a distance, it looks like playing in the water. But that’s not really what surfing is. There’s a lot of close attention you need to pay, not just for safety reasons, but to be able to surf at all.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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