William Finnegan in conversation with Sean Doherty

22 Jul 2016 4 Share

Join the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life William Finnegan as he speaks with Sean Doherty on a lifetime of surf stories as part of the Byron Writers Festival.

When: Saturday, 6 August 2016 from 7:00 PM to 8:15 PM -  
Where: Lennox Head Cultural & Community Centre - Mackney Lane, Lennox Head NSW 2481
Price: $30.00
Buy tickets: here

BARBARIAN DAYS
By Sean Doherty
SW issue 366

I suffered a severe case of generation envy reading Bill Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days. Finnegan and his mate camped on Tavarua for eight weeks in 1978, surfing alone, eating out of tin cans, laughing at their dumb luck. Their experience is hard to fathom in today’s world. Eight weeks on Tavarua would skin me $30,000, and it feels like the surfing gold rush ended a decade ago, if not two. But Tavarua was just a drop in the ocean of Finnegan’s travels. He grew up between California and Hawaii at a time when surfboards halved and surfing became unrecognisable. He surfed Honolua Bay on acid, island hopped through the Pacific, lived at Kirra, camped at Cactus, and got into Uluwatu and Lagundri early before heading widely through Asia, Africa and Europe. With the travel out of his system (and a case of malaria in it), he embarked on a writing career, becoming a staff writer at The New Yorker, covering subjects far more harrowing than eight weeks on Tavarua. Surfing never left him though, and his Pulitzer Prize winning book is quite a ride, his travels serving as a background to explore the Big Question of why we surf.

When SW calls Bill is in his car, parked at Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz, the waves pumping, Bill asking himself why he isn’t surfing. 

SW: Reading your book it seems like you lived this Forrest Gump style surfing adventure where you’ve stumbled along at these seminal moments in the development of surfing.  

WF: I guess it’s true but I was completely unaware of it like that and was unaware of how it might look 20 or 30 years later, that any of this would be seminal. Our big thing was that we wanted everything kept secret, and to this day if I had my way nobody would know that we were even at Tavarua, but nonetheless surfing it was a peak experience and an ecstatic thing. And Nias, also looking back I probably peaked as a surfer in that month of surfing although of course you never realise that at the time, you only realise that later on when your powers decline. You know, at Kirra I understand that surfing with these guys like Rabbit and Michael Peterson and so on was exciting to me, but I’d grown up in Malibu and Rincon and then Hawaii as a kid, so I expected to see top guys at top spots. It all just felt like the present. There was no ‘good old days’ feeling about it at all, it was the jagged present. My journals from then are full of my various miseries over my writing, or girls, a lack of surf. I’ve never been a surf journalist although I’ve come to know some in my later years, and so I felt it’s people like you who make it their job to interview people at the right time and put together the story of surfing. Although I was reading the magazines and watching the movies I never felt I was part of it in anyway. I didn’t do the name check or name drop thing in the book because it seemed unimportant to the experience, although Michael Peterson seemed different because we had this weird thing going on at Kirra and it got me a couple of extra waves. And there was that one time at Rincon with McTavish, where I thought that in my surfing life I was there when something really happened. It was pure luck I was there. Pure luck. I didn’t know who McTavish was. He was just this Australian guy on this strange, short surfboard doing this surfing I couldn’t understand. 

When talking with Greenough a while back he mentioned that he’d stopped off in Tahiti while sailing from California to Australia in 1975, and just off-the-cuff he mentioned he’d surfed this wave we now know as Teahupoo. I went, “You surfed Teahupoo in the ‘70s?!” and he just went, “Sure,” then kept talking about the waves that day without any claim to being the first guys to surf it or any reference to discovering anything. George’s Teahupoo story and your story of Tavarua made me think. For every over-romanticised and over-told discovery story in surfing, there are a dozen more underground stories not being told by guys who’ve kept their mouths shut. 

People ask me who discovered Tavarua and I say, “Well, I know of two guys who surfed it before us for sure, but who knows how many guys were there and surfed it and kept their mouths shut?” I remember that year, ’78, and in our group they tallied up what they thought was nine guys to have surfed it – half Americans, half Aussies – and in that group there were some loose lips. But it’s funny you mention Greenough. I ran into him in Byron Bay in late ‘78 and he’d done his big sail years before, and we got talking and it turns out we’d surfed this same spot in Tonga. He’d surfed it a couple years before me, but he wasn’t interested in a proprietary conversation, he starts talking about how he’d calculated a five-foot wave at this spot was somehow 70-foot thick. He really had his protractor out for that one; you know Greenough. This was a really below sea level wave. I first heard about Nias when talking to an Australian woman in Western Samoa – she was a kneeboarder who spoke Indonesian – and she gave us a map to Indonesia and said, “This is where you need to go.” The wave still hadn’t been published at that stage so it was reasonably underground. 

One of the great aspects of the book is the anthropological studies of the various surfing populations you stumble across in your travels. You worked as a barman at The Patch nightclub in Coolangatta in the late-‘70s…  that must have been like Jane Goodall walking into the jungle.

Oh man, I was working as a barman and it was so hectic, just this sea of screaming faces and we had a cage designed to stop people getting over the bar. I remember just this sea of faces screaming for rum and coke and seven of us working full tilt, all night. I never paused, never stopped to piss, we’d just push everybody out the door at the end of the night and collapse. I never had time to study at The Patch.

What was your characterisation of Gold Coast surfers at that time?  

You know, they weren’t very friendly to us. We made friends with other outsiders and foreigners. We became friends with a Balinese guy and a British guy – both of whom had married local girls and were both good surfers – and various other odd bods, but there were these clubs and cliques in each town and it was very generational, it was all ingrown, and not that welcoming. I got to meet a few guys out in the water eventually who built up a begrudging respect over time, but I don’t remember making great friends with any other surfers on the Gold Coast.

Nothing’s changed today.

[Laughing] At the same time that isn’t to say some of my greatest surfing friends weren’t Australian surfers, but they just weren’t at their home breaks when we met them. Like, we camped at Cactus and we met guys there who we’d later surf with in Indonesia and caught up with in Fiji and sailed with them. But the Gold Coast was still a big town at that stage and it wasn’t surprising they weren’t too welcoming to outsiders at that stage.  You had to fight your way in to get waves, but it was possible.

There’s a passage in the book where you lament the “persistent nostalgia” that particularly had hold of Californian surfing at the time. I was wondering how you dealt with your own persistent nostalgia in writing a memoir about what must have been a pretty magical time? 

I kept quite luminous journals when I was young, and they kept me honest on the nostalgia front, and I was really lucky I got a lot of letters back from old friends who’d kept my old letters all these years. My friend back home in California, when I moved to Hawaii, I wrote to him constantly, and when I started writing the book he gave me a huge stack of 40 letters. I thought some of them must have been bullshit. It couldn’t have been that big and we didn’t get dragged out that far. I was thinking, was I telling the truth or not back then? But they were a huge reality check, because your memories have a glow to them. I was very into the record of the time, so mostly no, I didn’t suffer too much from nostalgia. I occasionally thought about some of the waves I’d surfed and I thought, man, I’m never going to surf anything like that ever again, but that thinking never took over. I was more engaged in the writing and getting it right. 

Your journalistic tendencies took over. 

In fact, reading my journals from the time I felt the opposite of nostalgia. I was glad I was older and not putting myself through the torments I was at 25. 

You’re a lifetime surfer, but a couple of times during your life you’ve simply walked away from it, something largely unfathomable to most committed surfers. Why? 

For a long time, it was what I grew up doing and it determined where I was, but it wasn’t very much how I saw myself. I wanted to be a writer, and if someone asked me who I was and what I wanted to talk about, it would be writing. I was a writer first, and so when a girlfriend would move to London I didn’t instinctively think, well, there’s no surf in London.  I’d think, well, there’s a lot of literary cache there, a reason to be in London, so I’d move there. Sure, I’d get a bit miserable when the cold weather set in and get a bit crazy when I finally saw surf again, but I never tended to worry about it too much. It was just something I’d do.

You haven’t got yet to the San Francisco chapter in the book, and it’s adapted from a 40,000 word, two-part piece I did for the New Yorker back in the early ‘90s about a guy I was surfing with at Ocean Beach, a guy named Mark Renneker. He was a doctor and a cancer education specialist and a big-wave surfer and this surfing evangelist. He’d be pushing the line that surfing was a religious practice, this great thing to do, all that kind of crap, and I’d say to him, “It’s just surfing.” I had one board and he had 20, for every condition and all these museum piece boards, every board under the sun. He was very stationery and I was very itinerant. We were very different. But that piece ended up being a lot about how surfing fitted into our respective lives and what it did for us. I considered it this nuisance, this addiction, and he thought it was the greatest thing mankind should be celebrating at the centre of his life. At the end of the story I more or less said, “No, it’s not for me,” partly I think because he was trying to kill me by taking me out at giant Ocean Beach. I’d almost drown twice each winter on giant days surfing with him. I was glad to get out of there and moved to New York, and that was a big move. I walked away from surfing for a while. I thought my surfing life would just tail off, but then I met this guy in New York who turned me onto good waves in Montauk, and then he and I started travelling to Madeira [an island in the mid-Atlantic]. I spent a number of winters through the ‘90s on Madeira, which is an incredibly intense place to surf. It’s really big, there are no beaches, it’s all rocks and cliffs and at that time it was unmapped. We were pioneering it at the time, and I bought myself a proper gun, a Brewer, and I surfed it all the time and this whole middle aged renaissance happened for me, and that was a result of these long dialogues with Mark Renneker. It grew out of that. I started seeing surfing differently. Madeira was so heavy, so life and death, and I had some close calls and some great days and it was hard to square off with the fact that by this stage I was a well known writer, I’d published a few books, I was a person who argued politically in public, and I had to think, what the hell am I doing here?! I’m in my forties and I’m paddling out into this serious surf and risking my neck on a rock in the middle of nowhere. In later life I started thinking about it, acknowledging that surfing was a part of who I am, but I should probably stop being stupid and also pay more attention to my boards, rather than just going dumpster diving. I started wearing good wetsuits and surfing New York in the winter. I kinda changed and now I take surfing more seriously. 

After camping and surfing alone on Tavarua for eight weeks – alongside all the other waves you surfed in their prime – is it hard not to have a jaundiced view on what surfing has become with the crowds and the commercialism? 

Ah, I mean surfing certainly has blown up, and every time you hear a figure it’s like, five million people surf, now 20 million! It’s ridiculous. But right now I’m looking at the Lane and it’s a little inconsistent and the tide is a little high, but it’s really, really good and absolutely no more crowded than it was when I went to college here 40 years ago. But where is more crowded is inside toward the pier, a break called Cowells, a beginner spot in the bay. When I was at college there might be some old longboarders and a few learners, but today it was jammed! There must’ve been 40 or 50 people there, and it wasn’t even breaking. It was a huge number of rank beginners looking at each other, and I found myself thinking, geez, I hope they all don’t learn how to surf! But that beginner thing out at Montauk, which is a pretty trendy place out the end of Long Island where you have Ralph Lauren and all these guys living out there and all these people who say they surf, and it’s the weirdest, most unpleasant crowd. It’s these crummy waves and there are 50 or 60 people on these longboards, and half of them are turned side-on to the wave as it’s heading their way. It’s carnage! The art scene from Manhattan have floated out there into the lineup and it’s kinda ugly and scary, but fortunately for me I’m not going to surf that wave anyway. In general, I look at the Lane, same as it ever was – shortboarders are ripping on the point, longboarders sitting wide, sets cleaning everyone up. Same as it ever was. 

I dunno… have the crowds changed much in Australia?

Places like Snapper exist in a dimension beyond crowded, but I figure that with 15,000 miles of coastline in Australia, if you can’t find a quiet wave you’re not trying hard enough. 

I was in WA a couple of years ago on a story on Gina Reinhardt of all things, and went surfing south of Margaret River and there were a few surfers around but there were waves forever. Just forever. Here in California, like, I surfed First Point Malibu as a kid and it was bad back then, but now I see Kelly Slater show up last summer on a swell and he’s out there ripping a nice six-foot wave and in the course of that wave I reckon 15 or 20 people drop in on him. And he rides right by them like they’re not there, but what are they thinking dropping in on Kelly Slater one after the other? I wouldn’t have dared do that to Miki Dora. [Distracted suddenly] There’s a really good set coming through right now. I think I’m out there.

Okay then, one quick last one. What advice would you give to a 20-year-old surfer today? It’s pretty hard to fall off a Google map.

Well, I’m wary of surfing. Beyond the debate between me and Mark there was a more interesting further debate between Mark and another guy who was the top surfer at Ocean Beach at the time, a guy called Peewee, a big-wave surfer. He was really quiet and Mark was loud, and Peewee was wary of surfing. He’d say surfing is such a great thing, but he said, “the biggest locals are also the biggest derelicts,” and I titled that chapter Against Dereliction. Unless you’re a pro surfer, it’s super important to have something else big in your life, like an education or a trade or a passion of some kind. But beyond that, if you’re squandering your youth chasing waves like I did and you’re looking for something new, it’s either in the high latitudes in cold water, or a boat in the Pacific. 

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