Surfer William Finnegan Explains the Powerful Allure of the Ocean in his New Book

The <em>New Yorker</em> writer (and L.A. native) talks <em>Barbarian Days</em>

William Finnegan, the award-winning journalist and staff writer for The New Yorker, has built his career on stories of human conflict and suffering: political strife in Africa and Central America, water wars in Bolivia, drug murders in Mexico, human trafficking in Moldova. Even when he’s stayed in this country, as for his 1994 piece, “Deep East Texas,” it was to follow the scorched trail of the cocaine trade.

For his fifth book, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, a memoir out this month, the reporter drops readers into his other world: that of a hard-core surfer whose obsession began as a ten-year-old in Los Angeles. It was the 1960s in the San Fernando Valley, a time of laissez-faire child-rearing. “My parents assumed that we could take care of ourselves to a degree that would probably be indictable today,” Finnegan, now 62, says from his Manhattan home, “and I was allowed to slip away from all adult supervision, chasing waves. With rare exceptions, getting into surfing in a serious way involves disappearing from the family fold, often at a young age. And there’s no other way to get into it but seriously. To become proficient, you have to be obsessive.” The sport, Finnegan quickly discovered, is governed by a rigid hierarchy that demands developing impeccable technique. The best riders merit the best takeoff spots on a wave—the unskilled are “kooks,” expected to exile themselves to the fringes.

When Finnegan was 13, the family lived for several months in Hawaii, where his father produced entertainer Don Ho’s first TV show. As a haole, Finnegan was schooled in island pugilism; as a surfer, he studied waves in a way unimaginable in L.A.—how they flipped and pitched, curled and crushed, in every combination of tides and wind. He pushed himself to ride bigger, gnarlier waves, his mistakes hurling him onto the reefs, bloodied and bruised. Finnegan returned to the mainland emboldened.

“When you exceed your limits, the ocean usually scares the daylights out of you and often punishes you unmercifully,” he says, “which makes surfing a very different type of sport to pursue as a youngster than, say, soccer. It has a fear line, even intimations of mortality, that seem to me specific to it. If you’re doing it with any intensity, you’re existentially alone, even as a child.”

Barbarian Days, which took ten years to write, is an engrossing read, part treatise on wave physics, part thrill ride, part cultural study, with a soupçon of near-death events. Even for those who’ve never paddled out, Finnegan’s imagery is as vividly rendered as a film, his explanation of wave mastery a triumph of language. For surfers, the book is The Endless Summer writ smarter and larger, touching down at every iconic break. One pivotal odyssey started in 1978, when he set off to surf the South Seas, a sojourn financed by a three-year stint as a railroad brakeman. His mother held his face as they exchanged good-byes. “Be a rolling stone,” she said.

For Finnegan, who has specialized in stories of human conflict, surfing is a form of therapy
For Finnegan, who has specialized in stories of human conflict, surfing is a form of therapy

Photograph courtesy The New Yorker

Finnegan rambled across several continents, using nautical charts to guess at the presence of surf breaks, becoming among the first non-Polynesians to ride the storied waves at Tavarua Island in Fiji. He dropped for a year into Oz, where he discovered that Australians had turned surfing into a mainstream pastime. Indonesia followed, then Africa. Low on money, Finnegan signed on as a teacher at a black school in Cape Town.

“It was the heyday of apartheid, and the liberation struggle, as it was called, got very intense at my school and in the community where I worked,” he says. “The students went on strike, the state responded violently, and a lot of people were killed or injured.” Early on, Finnegan had devoted himself to novel writing, but the South Africa trauma reordered his priorities. Freelance journalism, which had subsidized his fiction and surfing, became his living; the ocean became his therapy, as he found himself drawn to stories of the oppressed and increasingly immersed in humanity’s atrocities. Periodically his assignments took him to locations with waves. In L.A. to write on warring skinhead gangs in the Antelope Valley, he revived his sinking psyche by surfing off Malibu. Another time, in El Salvador during the civil war, “after probably the worst single day of my working life,” he says, “I filed my story and slunk down to La Libertad—a famous wave that was virtually empty because of the war—for a week of numbed-out R&R. In Tijuana a few years ago, reporting on organized crime and police torture, I took a day off from the grimness to go surf Blacks in La Jolla.

“Yes, a dollop of sanity, of restorative fun, to cut the horror. I don’t know why I’m drawn to such dark topics. But surfing can be a kind of self-administered antidote to all the sadness, the heaviness, that comes with studying, for a living, how horrible people can be—how cosmically unfair and unjust the world is. I write my share of lighter pieces, but I seem to have some sick affinity for stories about conflict, exploitation.”

Finnegan was set on the writer’s path while attending Cowell College at UC Santa Cruz in the early 1970s. Journalist Lawrence Weschler, also enrolled there at the time, remembers him as a tall, thin surfer striding across the campus. As it turned out, they were fellow Angelenos as well. At Cowell they met such literary lights as cultural critic Harry Berger and social philosopher Norman O. Brown. In little more than a decade, Finnegan and Weschler would also be colleagues at The New Yorker. Weschler sees the connection between the seemingly insouciant sport and reporting. “Bill is sensitive, smart, and was, especially in his early years, insanely brave,” he says. “All of that comes directly out of his surfing. In his description of what it’s like to be waiting on a wave, judging whether it’s safe to go, that’s like reporting in dangerous places.”

For someone so committed to surfing, Finnegan was oddly reticent on the subject in print. That changed in the early ’80s, when he was freelancing in San Francisco and fell in with a group of characters at the city’s surf hub, Ocean Beach. Eager to keep The New Yorker interested in his work, he pitched the story of a flamboyant doctor who lived to surf. He got the assignment only to be paralyzed by regret. “I had all kinds of reservations about coming out of the closet as a surfer,” he says. “By then I was a political journalist, writing about wars and apartheid and U.S. foreign policy, both opinion pieces and long-form reporting—and the topic seemed so trivial and self-indulgent. But that’s when I first thought maybe I should write about surfing, not as an expansion of that San Francisco piece but in a different key, with a longer arc, reaching deep into childhood, and about how it is that one lives with such an obsessive, disabling enchantment.”

In 1987, a staff position with The New Yorker took Finnegan east, where he regularly finds decent waves off Long Island and New Jersey. The surf cams and online forecasts blamed for packed beaches worldwide are indispensable now that he’s juggling a family (his daughter, Mollie, is 13) and job. A mention of the ubiquity of surfing today—camps and schools abound—elicits some of a veteran’s disdain for the kooks. At least the Atlantic is so cold that, on a recent day, he was surfing overhead barrels with only one other human. “It was insane,” he says.