Life In Salt. Talking Story with Barbarian Days Author William Finnegan, Part I. Joaquin and the Indefensible Lust for Hurricane Surf.

by Chris Dixon

William Finnegan. Portrait of the author as a young man. Photo from Barbarian Days, courtesy: William Finnegan.

Editor’s Note. Last week, I fired up Skype for a chat with author and longtime New Yorker reporter William Finnegan. Finnegan, 62, is a personal hero. He’s a Manhattan-based, hard-nosed, badass, no-bullshit, journalist’s journalist, and surfing’s most accomplished wordsmith. In his recently released New York Times bestselling memoir Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life, Finnegan has written a sweeping, engrossing narrative that literally took six decades to write.

Barbarian Days. Well worth 1926 pennies.

Finnegan and I planned to spend fifteen, maybe twenty minutes talking about the book. But by the time we wrapped it up, we’d had a two hour long discussion on the the state of the world, climate armageddon, fatherhood, surfing, relationships, youthful selfishness, growing older and hopefully wiser, and, oh yeah, the book.

Over the next several days, I’ll run excerpts from our talk in installments. First, the glory, frustration and indefensible immorality of lusting after, and chasing hurricane waves.

Chris Dixon: So what was your experience with Hurricane Joaquin? 

William Finnegan: Joaquin was a strange swell. We had a terrible summer here on Long Island with no hurricanes even into early fall. Then we started getting this solid easterly wind swell – almost a groundswell – like, ten days before Joaquin, that was coming from far away from a very unusual weather pattern. Along the south shore of Long Island there were some nooks and crannies that were working and when the wind clocks a little more out of the northeast, a lot of places really light up. I paddled out at Long Beach on the Wednesday afternoon before Joaquin and it went from messy to just, immaculate. The waves got so round and hollow that at one point, I had this wonderful last section where the wave really scooped out. I wasn’t gonna make the section though, and kicked out my board and went to sort of flop off into the water on my back. But I might as well have flopped on the floor. I didn’t even feel any water underneath me, it was so shallow. I got whacked right on my back and then three or four more waves broke on top of me. Everything hurt.

Then when Joaquin’s swell arrived, it came with big north winds and so it was hard to find a spot. The whole east end was just too blown out. But then after Joaquin passed, that Monday morning, I just had a fantastic session. I guess I can say where. It was at Lido Beach. A place we don’t actually want to get any more crowded. There were these long lefts and then these occasional against the grain rights that really dredged off the inside bar. Those were the best waves I got. They were relatively short, but really intense.

And I had this funny moment. A big set was coming and I started kind of paddling and racing this guy for a big left. He was ahead of me and was paddling stronger than me, and I just wasn’t gonna catch him. So I backed off and he swerved and got in the spot then as he’s paddling for the wave, he glanced at me, did a double take and then said in an Aussie accent, “If you are who I think you are, I liked your book!” I said, ‘Oh, I am! Thanks!’ Then he disappeared behind this seething wall. I was like, wow, that’s my best review ever.”

And then began, well, you know how with great swells can also come great frustrations? So after that, I went and looked at another spot that was really, really working. I won’t say exactly where, but there were only a few guys out. All of ’em seemed to be pros. They had a drone and a bunch of cameras.

But it was midday and I was so surfed out. I said, nah, I’ve got some work to do. Which was stupid. You DO NOT drive away from waves like that on the East Coast. And indeed, almost all the footage I’ve seen of the Joaquin swell around here was shot then, that day at that spot. You could tell. There was a great left. I saw a published caption comparing it to Padang (Indonesia), and the drone was over the right. It was just so good. Then, at that same time, it turns out this mysto spot that I can’t name further east was working. A guy had been trying to meet me out there – he’s a local. It’s a long walk to get there, and he’d said, “This afternoon I think it’s gonna happen.”

I said, ‘No I’m going back to work.’

And of course, that night, he sent me a photo that said Skeleton Bay comes to LI. “It was glassy, maybe the best day in 20 years,” he said. And I was just, absolutely frantic that I missed it.

Then the next day, Tuesday morning, it was still, really solid. Much more than I’d expected. And the guy I’d surfed with the day before at Lido headed for this same mysto spot. But I didn’t. I had a couple of obligations, including teaching a class at Columbia. I bail on a lot of things to surf, but I just couldn’t bail on this. But when I got out of class, I was frantic again. I broke a lunch date with a professor. I said, ‘I just gotta go.’ Raced out to this parking lot on Long Island and ran the two miles to get to the spot. But the wind was wrong. It was over. It was just crap. You could see the setup and why it had been so amazing. So I went out and had a long, terrible session until dark, in a current that was way stronger than I was.

And I got a text from the guy who went that morning. It said I’ve been on the East Coast for 25 years. Best waves I’ve ever seen on the East Coast. 

That was a pretty heavy thing to hear. So that was my Joaquin.

CD: I had a conversation, with a photographer, I think it was Daniel Pullen, for a story I did awhile back for Surfer on the drowning Outer Banks. We talked about this perverse relationship East Coasters have with storms like this. He said, basically, that he – and a lot of other OBX guys would be happy if all they ever had any more were cold front swells at the Outer Banks because the hurricanes and big storms have just been so damn destructive out there in the last decade. What’s your philosophical take on surfing while ships are sinking and islands are getting raked? 

Well, obviously it’s indefensible to be focused on how you might get good waves when people’s houses are being swept away and people are drowning and this incredible damage is being done. But I can’t pretend to be focused on hurricane damage. I’m not. Even locally. I surfed Sandy, and Irene, and I was really intent on both. There was reporting to be done on those storms too. There was the horror and humanitarian disasters. But I was pretty well focused on the surf. I haven’t written much of anything about natural disasters. It’s been more about war and human generated conflicts. I just don’t feel the sort of visceral journalist’s connection to natural disasters. That’s just my line of work.

And you know, even though we’ve taken some hits around here, the stories have ultimately been less about human tragedies than about shoreline development in New Jersey and Long Island. Those have really been heightened by these storms. Those sorts of political battles interest me more as stories and ongoing discussions – rather than the pure, Oh my God. Can you believe this happened? 

Read Part II of this Interview. “He thought it was wonderful. I thought it was absolutely horrifying.”

Read Part III. “We’ll Never Let Anybody Know. And we Stupidly Believed that Would Work.”

Read Part IV. “I was Just a General Prick.” Barbarian Days Author William Finnegan on Surfing, Relationships and the Decisions We Make.

If you’re not convinced to check out Barbarian Daysread to Finnegan’s seminal piece of surf journalism, Playing Doc’s Games. The New Yorker, August 24, 1992.


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