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William Finnegan talks about his lifelong passion for surfing and his prizewinning surf book ‘Barbarian Days’

William Finnegan is an author – and a surfer. In this interview, Finnegan talks about his enduring childhood passion for surfing, gives us his thoughts on alpha surfers riding the waves, and tells us all about his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, ‘Barbarian Days’, a summer classic.

When you learned to surf back in the sixties, surfers were seen as rebels and layabouts. What was your experience of that?
The police officers in the coastal areas of California were really hostile towards us as surfers. Just carrying a surfboard was like asking for trouble. You had to be careful where you parked and put your swim shorts on. As a surfer, people seemed to think you’d never read a book before. That was all very different to Hawaii, where I had lived for a couple of years and learned to surf as a young boy. Even some dads surfed there. In California, surfing was a time-wasting exercise for deadbeats who skipped school.

What was the Californian surf scene really like?
It was going through a lot of changes at that time. Surfers were relatively straight-laced in the early sixties, but by the latter part of the decade they were notorious for being conscientious objectors. The Vietnam War was dividing the country. In California, where I grew up, surfers were very much associated with the counter-culture. But the most dramatic change came in 1968, in the form of a new surfboard design. There was a shift from these big, heavy three-metre boards, to much shorter ones that were less than half the weight of their predecessors. The new surfboards completely changed the style and overall concept of surfing. It might sound far-fetched, but the whole thing was also tied in with political changes and altered states of consciousness. Hallucinogenics had an impact on the way the boards were decorated. Suddenly surfboards became psychedelic canvases for wannabe artists.

Did you think of surfing as a form of protest?
I spent most of my childhood in the sea, so surfing came completely naturally to me. When I learned to surf, it became a way to free myself. I cut the cord from my parents at a very early age, as I kept going further and further away from home, hunting for good waves. These days if a fourteen-year-old boy disappeared for days or weeks on end, his parents would be accused of neglect. Back then there was more of a ‘laissez fair’ mentality.

Alpha surfers on the water


What kind of atmosphere is there when you’re out on the waves?
The competition can be intense on a good day, when there are lots of surfers out there. There’s a pecking order when you’re in the water – the strongest surfers get to ride the better waves. It’s a primitive dance of dominance and submission.

Is there a cult of masculinity in surfing?
Yes. Sometimes you see guys trying to work their way to the top through intimidation. But that never works. If you’re not a good surfer, you’re just not a good surfer.


The world’s best waves for surfing

You spent the seventies travelling across the South Seas with your surfboard. What inspired you to do that?
There was this film called ‘The Endless Summer’. It was about two young guys who travelled the world looking for waves that nobody had ever surfed before. This idea took hold of a whole generation. Ironically, the film isn’t a documentary; the director Bruce Brown just cast California’s top surfers as actors, so the ideal we were seeking was actually based on a misunderstanding. Anyway, I was in my early twenties and I had finished college. It was the late seventies, the era of disco – not a particularly exciting time in the US. Running away to go surfing and postpone growing up seemed like a perfectly good idea.

Were you looking for freedom?
I wouldn’t say that. I mean, I already had an unusual amount of freedom in California. My parents never stood in the way of any of my ideas. And I had a lot of ideas! They gave me their blessing when I told them I was going to be disappearing to the South Pacific for the next few years. I had these romantic ideas about societies where people were more self-sufficient and lived closer to nature. I thought the whole world was going to end up looking like Los Angeles eventually, so I wanted to make sure I saw it first. We actually discovered surfing spots that almost nobody had heard of before. My friend Brian and I found some of the best surfing waves in the world when we were staying on this uninhabited island in Fiji. Hardly anyone had seen a surfboard there when we arrived. But sometimes I just felt like some idiot who was living in the jungle wasting his time while others made careers for themselves. They were successful Hollywood producers at the age of 30.



‘Surfers still have this problematic image’

Has Hollywood ever made a good film about surfing?
Well, I’ve never seen one. But it’s surprising how many attempts there have been. They’re probably bad because a lot of the people in the film industry are based in Malibu. There are a few famous examples of surf films, like ‘Point Break’, ‘Big Wednesday’, and ‘North Shore’. They’re all cheesy though. Really bad. If you want to ruin a film, all you have to do it put a surfboard in it – that’s my theory, anyway. You know kryptonite, the element that deprives Superman of his powers? Well, surfboards are like the kryptonite of the film world.

You’ve been working for the New Yorker since 1978, but you never told anyone there that you surf.
Surfers still have this problematic image. And I mostly write about politics, lots of opinion pieces. When I thought about writing an article about an old surfer friend from San Francisco, it made me feel nervous. I didn’t want to ‘out’ myself as a surfer; I thought nobody would ever take me seriously again. Of course, nobody cared.

Surfing is mainstream these days. Does that bother you?
I find the marketing side of it pretty awful. But isn’t exactly one of the big tragedies of our times. There are still some genuinely undiscovered spots out there if that’s where you want to surf. You just have to go that bit further afield.

How often do you surf?
As often as I can. Apparently there will be some good waves here in New Jersey tomorrow. Really good ones – don’t tell anyone!


©GETTY IMAGES (1), ©William Finnegan (3)