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A Lifelong Surfer Explains Why There's No Such Thing As A 'Perfect' Wave

Jul 21, 2015
Originally published on July 21, 2015 2:24 pm

William Finnegan is a New Yorker journalist, but his new memoir doesn't focus on the wars or controversies he's covered. It's about surfing.

Finnegan traces his love of surfing back to his childhood, when he used to watch surfers in Ventura, Calif. He remembers being 10 years old, sitting with his family in a diner, watching waves break on the coast.

It seemed "like they were arriving from some celestial workshop ... carved by ocean angels," he writes. "I wanted to be out there, learning to dance on water."

Finnegan talks with NPR's Renee Montagne about different surfing styles, his quest to find the perfect wave and what it's like to keep surfing as you get older.


Interview Highlights

On living on the Hawaiian island of Oahu — a surfing Mecca — when he was in middle school

I'd been surfing a couple of years by the time we moved there and so I had all these preconceptions about Hawaii formed by surfing magazines and instead, here was the actual thing itself, and the seawater smelled strange and the coral was scary and who are these people? But, I really got into those spots and trying to read those waves.

On being exposed to different styles of surfing

I met some guys — including a kid my age named Roddy Kaulukukui and his brothers. The Kaulukukuis were a surfing family, Hawaiian. They surfed a kind of island style that I hadn't seen before. But they used to make fun of other families that surfed even more island style. And they kind of caricature these styles in some ways.

You know: hands up and back and legs quite wide and behind thrust out. And it — this is an exaggerated version. And this family they were making fun of were actually — they were great surfers. They were big wave surfers. And it really widened the horizons. And I had a very cold water, stiff, kind of white boy California style.

On being inspired by the 1966 surfing documentary Endless Summer, in which surfers travel the world looking for the perfect wave

I was heavily influenced by that movie. I think I and a lot of my friends had our career goals seriously warped by that movie. I didn't really even think about it. It just sort of felt mandatory. I'd have to go looking for waves. I'd set off in 1978 with my friend Bryan Di Salvatore, also a writer and a surfer, first to the South Seas then Australia, South East Asia. Ended up spending nearly four years traveling, looking for waves. In the South Seas in Fiji, we actually found an uninhabited island — a wave that was the best wave that either of us had ever seen.

On finally finding that perfect wave

I was on a yacht that had some surfers also looking for waves, some Australians. And I heard, or one of those guys overheard, broadcasts between two other boats — something about a perfect 300 yard left. And we searched and searched and got quite lucky. ... We made it there. I mean the fishermen we got to take us across the channel to this little uninhabited island — they had never seen a surfboard before. They didn't believe that we could stand up on them — they thought they were airplane wings. And so it was really a sort of the dawn of discovery of that place, which is now one of the most famous waves in the world.

On what made the wave "perfect"

Perfect is a terrible word, actually. Surfers have kind of a perfection fetish. "And it was perfect." Waves are not stationary objects in nature. They're not diamonds or roses or something that you just look at. They're — they're the end of a long process, it's an explosion across a reef and wind, tide, everything affects every wave.

On great surfing areas, such as Tavarua Island in Fiji, being turned into commodities

We tried to keep it secret. So some years later, we pick up a surf magazine and there it is splashed all over the cover. The secret had got out and not only that, but a couple of Americans had built a resort. And for the first time, these waves were essentially privatized with an agreement with the government that nobody else could surf there, so I was pretty horrified.

On how he became a paying guest of this surfing resort

Yeah, I swallowed my principles ultimately. I mean I really did think it was kind of politically indefensible but, I wanted to surf it so much that I eventually went back there as a paying guest and surfed there for a number of years — and as an embarrassed but happy paying guest.

On surfing at an older age

It's still pretty great. I mean it's horrifying to lose your quickness and strength. But, I think I've gained an appreciation of, you know, a good day in the water. I mean, I think when I was younger, it was easier to take it for granted that it would go on forever. You know as you get older you know it's not going to go on forever.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

No one knows better than writer William Finnegan that surfing is less a sport than a passion, a path. In the New Yorker, Finnegan has written about African wars, Mexican cartels and troubled American teenagers. But his new memoir tells of an entirely different world, his life as a surfer. When he sat down with us, we asked him to read about the moment when he was first hooked, sitting with his family in a diner on a California pier.

WILLIAM FINNEGAN: (Reading) From our booth by the window, I could see surfers out at a spot known as California Street. There were silhouettes, backlit by low sun, and they danced silently through the glare, their boards like big, dark blades, slashing and gliding, swift beneath their feet. California Street was along Cobblestone Point. And to me, at 10, the waves that broke along its shelf seemed like they were arriving from some celestial workshop, the glowing hooks and tapering shoulders carved by ocean angels. I wanted to be out there, learning to dance on water.

MONTAGNE: You know, the book actually begins on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. You were in middle school, coming to live at the most famous surfing scene in the world. Was it a kind of heaven when you woke up that first morning?

FINNEGAN: It was, although it wasn't at all what I expected. I'd been surfing a couple years by the time I moved there, and so I had all these preconceptions about Hawaii formed by surfing magazines. And instead, here was the actual thing itself, and the sea water smelled strange and the coral was scary, and who are these people? But I really got into those spots and trying to learn to read those waves.

MONTAGNE: And there were styles of surfing, even at this local level.

FINNEGAN: Yeah, certainly a huge difference between California and Hawaii and then all the individual styles. And I met some guys, including a kid my age named Roddy Kaulukukui. And his brothers, the Kaulukukuis, were a surfing family, Hawaiian. They surfed a kind of island style that I hadn't seen before. But they used to make fun of other families that surfed even more island style. And they kind of caricatured these styles on some waves, and you know, this sort of samurai-looking styles and hands up and back and legs quite wide and behind thrust out. And it - I mean, this is an exaggerated version. And this family they were making fun of was actually - they were great surfers. They were big wave surfers. And it really widened their horizons. I've now had a very cold water, stiff, kind of white boy California style.

MONTAGNE: Well, there is a famous surfing documentary from the '60s called "Endless Summer," a couple of surfers traveled the world looking for the perfect wave. Now, in the late 1970s, you really did that.

FINNEGAN: Yeah. I was heavily influenced by that movie. I and a lot of my friends had our career goals seriously warped by that movie. I didn't really even think about it. It just sort of felt mandatory. I have to go working looking for waves. I set off in 1978 with my friend, Bryan Di Salvatore, also a writer and a surfer, first to the South seas, then Australia, Southeast Asia, ended up spending nearly four years traveling looking for waves. In the South seas in Fiji, we actually found, on an uninhabited island, a wave that was the best wave that either of us had ever seen.

MONTAGNE: It was like a treasure hunt a little bit.

FINNEGAN: (Laughter). Yeah, I was on a yacht that had surfers also looking for waves, and I heard one of those guys overheard something about a perfect 300-yard left. And we searched and searched and got quite lucky. I did find this little map. And a guy gave us a clue, and we made it there. I mean, the fishermen - we got the tickets to this little inhabited island - they'd never seen a surfboard before. They didn't believe that we could stand up on them. They thought they were airplane wings. And so it was really sort of the dawn of discovery in that place, which is now one of the most famous waves in the world.

MONTAGNE: So there you were, I mean, in your 20s, and you hit, I think, every surfer's dream - right? - a wave that nobody else had. Why was it perfect though?

FINNEGAN: Well, yeah, perfect is a terrible word actually. Surfers have kind of a perfection fetish, and it was perfect. But waves are not stationary objects in nature. You know, they're not diamonds or roses or something you could just look at. They're the end of a long process. It's an explosion across a reef. And you know, wind, tide, everything affects every wave.

MONTAGNE: You do describe surfing Tavarua in a very detailed way. Why don't you read one of those moments for us?

FINNEGAN: Sure. (Reading) I rode a wave one evening, long after the sun had set with the first stars already out. There was a dark, bottle-green light in the bottom of the wall and a feathering whiteness overhead. The laws of physics appeared to have been relaxed. A hollow wave was roaring off into deeper water - not possible. It felt like a runaway train, an eruption of magical realism with that ocean bottom light and the lacy white canopy. I ran with it.

MONTAGNE: Well, Tavarua in some sense became the embodiment of where surfing crossed over into a commodity, to your horror.

FINNEGAN: Yeah, that's a good description. I mean, we tried to keep it secret. So some years later, we pick up a surf magazine, and there it is, splashed all over the cover. The secret had got out, and not only that, but a couple of Americans had built a resort. And for the first time, these waves, they were essentially privatized. It was an agreement with the government that nobody else could surf there. So I was pretty horrified.

MONTAGNE: So awful as this was to have happened, you still managed to surf the wave because you went on to be able to come as a paying guest.

FINNEGAN: Yes, I...

MONTAGNE: Was that sort of your guilty pleasure?

FINNEGAN: Yeah, I swallowed my principles ultimately. I mean, I really did think it was kind of politically indefensible. But I wanted to surf it so much that I eventually went back there as a paying guest and surfed there for a number of years, as an embarrassed but happy, paying guest.

MONTAGNE: You end the book on a poignant note, and that is you describe the limitations of your own body as you age. How is surfing at an older age like this, you know, in your 60s, in your 50s? How is it different, and how is it in some ways maybe even just the same?

FINNEGAN: It's still pretty great. I mean, it's horrifying to lose your quickness and strength, but I think I've gained an appreciation of, you know, a good day in the water. I mean, I think when I was younger, it was easier to take it for granted. It could go on forever, you know. As you get older, you know it's not going to go on forever.

MONTAGNE: William Finnegan is the author of the memoir "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life." Thank you for joining us.

FINNEGAN: Oh, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.