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Barbarian Days: rediscovering surfing’s primal thrill

William Finnegan

William Finnegan

Surfing only looks like a sport. To devotees, it is something else entirely: a beautiful addiction, a mental and physical study, a passionate way of life.

William Finnegan, first started surfing as a young boy in California and Hawaii. Barbarian Days is his immersive memoir of a life spent travelling the world chasing waves through the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, Africa and beyond. Finnegan describes the edgy yet enduring brotherhood forged among the swell of the surf; and recalling his own apprenticeship to the world’s most famous and challenging waves, he considers the intense relationship formed between man, board and water.

Barbarian Days is an old-school adventure story, a social history, an extraordinary exploration of one man’s gradual mastering of an exacting and little-understood art. It is a memoir of dangerous obsession and enchantment.

The Echo enlisted some local surf aficionados to interview William Finnegan and review his book in the lead-up to his appearance at Byron Writers Festival (and no doubt, in the local breaks).

Questions from Bob McTavish – surfing pioneer, board shaper, legend

You progressively lost your formal religious faith through your life. Do you think surfing can stimulate belief in a generous creator?

For some people, yes. The fecundity and energy of the ocean, which are for our purposes virtually infinite, can feel like a sort of endless generosity – life and creativity on an incomprehensible scale. For me, surfing is the main way that I try to stay close to that source of wonder. But I try not to anthropomorphise nature. I don’t believe that the ocean returns any of my feelings. In my case, surfing – which rewards, I think, humility, patience, prudence, and punishes wishful thinking – kind of replaced that old-time religion.

Does it sadden you to witness the dilution of hardcore surfing owing to the new global popularity of the sport/art? Does that make you feel a bit lonely, and misunderstood?

The super-popularity of surfing is distressing, definitely. I think most longtime surfers feel that. But does anybody like crowds? I feel like we’re all in the same boat.

What secret goals do you have ahead to keep you stoked through the rundown to kookdom?

Oh, the gruesome rundown to kookdom! The main thing is to seek out less crowded, juicier waves. You may not rip but you’ll still plug into the thrill. Winter surf around New York, where I live, is surprisingly good for this. It’s so cold it’s never crowded, and we get solid swells. The drawback is the 4/3 hooded wetsuit, gloves, and booties. Those don’t get easier to surf in with age.

Questions from Craig McGregor – Craig McGregor is co-author with Midget Farrelly of This Surfing Life (1965) and with Nat Young The History of Surfing (1983).

What is one of the most amazing experiences you’ve ever had (surfing or otherwise)?

Tavarua, Fiji, 1978. Camping and surfing with Bryan Di Salvatore. On bigger days, with only two of us out, I sometimes felt like I’d entered another dimension.

Do you think Australian surfers (including George Greenough) were responsible for the short board revolution?

I’m not a surf historian, but that was my impression. Bob McTavish was the first person I ever saw on a short board.  It was at Rincon, during the (northern) winter of 1967–68. He was on a gnarly-looking V-bottom, making double-overhead waves all the way from Second Point to the cove. None of us had ever seen anything like it – the acceleration off his turns, the pure speed in the pocket, the rail-to-rail quickness. Nothing was the same after that.

Have women surfers changed the culture of surfing?

In some places, I think they have. But in my little corner of the surfing world, not yet. The lineups I frequent are still predominantly male. A few times, in Hawaii, I’ve surfed spots with lots of women out, but on those occasions the crowds were so thick and the waves so forgettable that there was no perceptible difference in the vibe. I’m actually looking forward to surfing with a woman who’s really good. I’ve seen plenty of video of female pros who surf better than 98 per cent of guys. Those women would obviously dominate most line-ups. I’d like to see how that plays out in the water. I picture some awkward moments, some hilarious paddle battles.

• William Finnegan will be appearing at Byron Writers Festival and a special Feature Event in conversation with former Tracks editor Sean Doherty at Lennox Head Cultural & Community Centre (presented in partnership with Lennox Arts Board), Saturday August 6. Tickets $30 at www.byronwritersfestival.com.

• Read the review of Barbarian Days by Rusty Miller here:

BWF 2016 Articles & Reviews


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