We’ll Never Let Anybody Know. And We Stupidly Believed That Would Work. From Tavarua to Nias with Barbarian Days Author William Finnegan. The Third of a Four-Part Interview.
by Chris Dixon
Kevin Naughton on the cover of the 1984 Surfer Magazine issue that revealed Tavarua to the World. Before this, William Finnegan surfed the island in blessed solitude.
Editor’s Note. Recently, I fired up Skype for a chat with author and longtime New Yorker reporter William Finnegan. 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 of living to write. Today, Finnegan talks about stumbling onto what are today among the most famous spots on earth – surfing them completely alone, and the tragedy of the commons that’s unfolded in the years since. All the interview entries are also linked at the end of this one. — CD
Barbarian Days. Well worth 1926 pennies.
Chris Dixon. Something that really struck me, and I’m sure you had this discussion with other surfers who read Barbarian Days, is the scale of your hits in your surf travel. I’m reading the book, and I’m thinking, I’ve been there, I’ve been there, I haven’t been there – but I know about that place. I’m reading the book, and just shaking my head and wondering aloud, was there a point – maybe Tavarua when it was exposed by Surfer – was there a point where you realized, holy shit, I had these experiences in places that would become seminal in surfing; Nias, Tavarua, Grajagan, Jardim do Mar. I’m sure some felt remarkable, like real discoveries, but did you feel some of these would become seminal places in surfing? Does that make sense?
William Finnegan: Yeah it does, and the answer is no, I didn’t always appreciate the importance, in the world of surfing, of some of the places I surfed when I was young, or even not so young. But most of those places were far from secret spots by the time I got there. Almost everywhere, I remember hearing the old You shoulda been here yesterday. I mean, I grew up surfing Malibu and Rincon in the 60’s, when they were already crowded. So, like everybody, I’d say, “F__, if only I’d grown up a generation earlier and surfed here.”
Greg MacGillivray’s early film The Performers was one of the first films to show Maui’s Honolua Bay in all her glory.
Honolua Bay, same thing. I lived there in ’71, and it was already crowded. It was still possible, because of the lack of forecasting, to get lucky—to be there at dawn when a swell hit and get it alone – but never for a whole day. Honolua felt more newly invaded than Southern California did—invaded by guys like me. 10 years earlier, it had been empty, unknown.
Bob McTavish Ripping Honolua – From Fantastic Plastic Machine. Just before Finnegan’s Arrival.
Tavarua (Fiji) was different. We kind of got in on the ground floor there. It was, in many ways, the best wave I’d ever surfed, and there was nobody there but my friend Bryan and me. Just the two of us, camping, and then a few other guys who came on yachts. So that was pretty insane. But it also felt private, like a discovery that we had no plans to share—the opposite of something destined to be famous, or important to anybody else. By the end of that season, we figured there were nine surfers who knew about it – five Australians, four Americans, including us. And of course we all swore never to tell anyone else about the place. Bryan and I stupidly believed that was going to work—a collective vow of silence. That was 1978, and for 5 or 6 years we lived and traveled in blissful ignorance, thinking Tavarua was just back there waiting for us, still empty. Then an article came out in Surfer—“Discovery in Fiji!” That was when the resort opened, and our balloon popped. Not only that, but they had discovered Cloudbreak, a bigger, more consistent wave, on an outer reef. (ed’s note: Finnegan had been surfing “Restaurants,” the barreling wave right in front of Tavarua Island. Cloudbreak thunders across a reef well offshore from the island). Cloudbreak made the resort viable because it’s ridable much more often than the island wave is.
Finnegan. Tavarua, 2002. Photo from Barbarian Days. by Ken Seino. Photo courtesy: William Finnegan.
CD: And when you surfed Tavarua, you didn’t even know Cloudbreak was there.
WF: Right. We didn’t even suspect it was out there. I eventually got over my ill feelings toward the resort, and became a regular paying guest. Then I really fell in love with Cloudbreak. It’s such a long, shifty, juicy, complicated wave. I even love watching the World Tour contest there. Cloudbreak can get really big, and really good, but it’s also funky. Lots of waves close out, or shoulder off and peter out, so I watch the pros charging around out there on the webcast and find myself yeling at the screen. “Oh, no, don’t go on that one, it’s gonna close out, it’s gonna shoulder.” Or, “Go, go, that’s gonna be the one.”
So Tavarua and Cloudbreak are famous waves—and now they’re crowded, too—but I still feel like they’re old friends, not celebrities.
Tavarua Boat Driver Jensen Hassett at Giant Cloudbreak. I profile Hassett – and break down this ride, and his job as a “Boat Man” – in the current issue of Surfer’s Journal. Issue 24.5.
Kirra (Australia) was a strange story. I was lucky to live there when the sandbar was still good, in ‘79. But it was the most crowded place I’d ever surfed. Talk about getting to the party late. Also, the ability level of the crowd was extremely high, and the downcoast current was relentless. So it wasn’t an easy place to surf. But it was a truly great wave—a sand-bottomed, rocket-fueled pointbreak with a barrel that was sometimes wider than it was tall. But then, a few years later, the phenomenal wave disappeared, destroyed by a new dredging scheme that caused littoral sand to fill in at Kirra. So it became kind of a mythical spot, the Atlantis of Australian surfing. So we felt like, you know, we had her when she was good. It does come back intermittently now, but for years it apparently vanished completely.
So that was not a feeling like, oh, here I am at this seminal break. At Kirra, it was, wow, I got here too late, wow, it’s still unbelievable. And then, woops it’s gone.
Nias (Indonesia), we got to just before the mob did. We had a tip from somebody we met in the South Pacific – she gave us a treasure map, which we hung on to, steering us to Lagundri Bay. It was an immaculate right with no sections, and it never blew out. It wasn’t as hollow then as it is now – the reef lifted up after the 2005 earthquake and tsunami. But it was incredible. Just a dream wave. There were only a few surfers who had managed to find it, through the rumor mill, because it had not yet appeared in the mags. I actually made two trips to Nias that year, and the first pics of the wave hit the mags between my two visits. So, by the time I returned, the crowd had more than doubled. Then, I heard, it doubled again and doubled again. Hotels got built. The little fishing village there turned into a big tourist trap, with lots of hustlers and petty crime. I’ve only read and heard about this process. I haven’t been back. But it sounds like the usual story—the degradation of a community once it becomes a surf destination. A nightmare for all concerned.
Nias – Already taken over by the time this article ran. Finnegan surfed it empty.
Bali’s probably the premier, maxed-out example of that process. Again, when we first went there, we thought it was already overrun, overcrowded. We wished we had come in 1969, not 1979. But it was still pretty wonderful and strange. You could get a big, uncrowded day at Ulu. I surfed Sanur on a good day alone. There were no real hotels at Kuta yet, just little losmens—family-run guesthouses. Then I was back in Bali last month, and the whole Kuta region is now so overbuilt, it’s practically unapproachable. The traffic’s worse than Manhattan. The Bukit Peninsula, where most of the great waves break, is built up far beyond the carrying capacity of the land out there. The whole south end of Bali is a reeking, equatorial dystopia—Karachi by the sea. Of course, it’s mass tourism, mostly from Asia and Australia and Europe, not just surf tourism, driving all the development, but the surf is atrociously crowded. That said, I somehow managed, on my last day there, to score a great, uncrowded, overhead session at Padang Padang and Impossibles. Go figure.
Finnegan. Grajagan, aka G-Land. 1979. Photo by Mark Cordesius from Barbarian Days. Image courtesy: William Finnegan.
Grajagan (aka G-Land, Indonesia) was famous before we went there—everybody had seen footage of Gerry Lopez and Peter McCabe riding this great lefthander, and then an American named Mike Boyum had built a surf camp there—the first surf camp I ever heard of. But when we got out there, which was a bit of a mission, we found the camp abandoned. It was just a weird ghost place, way out in the Javanese bush, with a bunch of collapsed tree houses. No surfers had been there for a year at least, according to the villagers who took us there by boat from across the bay. So we slept in the one treehouse that hadn’t collapsed. Then, as I describe in the book, we got big, clean, pumping surf for a week straight, and I managed to surf the wrong spot the whole time. I just paddled all the way up the reef and surfed the top—a place they call Kong’s. There were some exciting drops, but then a lot of mushy shoulders and close-out sections. It never occurred to me that, way down inside, just a few hundred yards down the reef, at spots they call Speedies and Money Trees, there were much, much better waves to be had. So we completely blew it at Grajagan. Soon enough, it was back on the map, with a bunch of new surf camps, and now it’s crowded, and everybody knows which peaks to surf.
One more place: Jeffreys Bay (South Africa). “J Bay” was also famous-famous by the time I got to South Africa. It was just down the coast, of course, from the “perfect wave” in Endless Summer. So it was already seminal, in every sense. But that didn’t mean that many people surfed there. I lived in Cape Town, which is a long ways west, but I would head over to Jeffreys whenever I could on winter swells, and I had a couple of great runs over two winters there. I recently got my letters about those trips back from my friend Bryan. He was back in the U.S. by then. And I was kind of shocked to re-read those letters from ‘80, ‘81 from South Africa.
I had actually forgotten how good Jeffreys was, and how empty. I wrote to him about a big day when I couldn’t make it out, and only one guy made it out, and he caught only one wave, and reading about that started to bring back all these memories. I wrote about a bunch of days when it was really solid, maybe eight feet, and only a few guys made it out, and we’d surf all day with 5-10 people out, and even those few people would be scattered so far up and down the point you couldn’t see most of them. On the weekends, it got “crowded” because guys drove up from Port Elizabeth and then there were maybe 25 people out. Can you imagine? Surfing Jeffreys Bay with just a few other people in big, perfect conditions—hard offshores—some of the longest, cleanest waves I’ve ever ridden—and I’d nearly forgotten I did it? It’s unbelievable. It was so fucking good. And I kind of took it for granted, apparently. I mean, I was stoked out of my mind—you can certainly see that in my letters—but it seemingly never occurred to me that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and that all this would change. Politically, at the time, South Africa was locked in an existential battle between the apartheid state and what was then called the liberation movement, and I was completely immersed in that back in Cape Town, where I was teaching at a black high school. So maybe that gave me a kind of tunnel vision. But really, I had no vision. It was like I couldn’t see forward.
There was not one structure on the whole point at Supertubes. I thought it was like a park, or reserved land or something. Now it’s solid houses. There were a few rootsy surfers around, who would turn up out in the water, but almost nothing to the town. I remember a girl, Cheron Habib, who lived by herself in a little house down the coast. She and I got to be friends. She was sewing boardshorts on a sewing machine, scratching out a living. Flash forward 20 years, and I’m going back to Jeffreys on a reporting trip (looking for some retired death-squad guys who were supposedly hiding there—these were ex-cops from the bad old days of apartheid), out of season, no board, and I’m expecting to find the old scrubby, lonely coast, and instead I find a whole big beach town just materialized on the dunes, seemingly out of nowhere, shops and restaurants and condos everywhere, and Cheron – with a new last name – owns, among other things, a huge Roxy outlet in a shopping mall. She’s the biggest employer in town—the chief executive of Billabong South Africa, in fact—and the town is just booming, completely packed-out with Brazilians, Euros, every kind of surfer, even in the off-season. How did I not foresee this? That the little fishing village, which barely had a post office and a grocery, would one day become a big bustling town full of surf crap? The lineup was chock-a-block, of course, even on a crummy day, with surfers. Still nearly all of them white.
CD. Well, isn’t that what we bring with us? I went to Bocas Del Toro in Panama awhile back, before it had really been discovered. And I got it really good and I don’t really wanna go back now. But at the same time, when I was in college, my best friend and I stumbled onto this wave in Jamaica – I recently did an interview for Surfer’s Journal with the guy who grew up surfing it. It was called The Zoo and it was one of the best lefts in the Caribbean if not the Western Hemisphere. And Hurricane Ivan swept the rocks away and so it’s gone now. But in Kingston, now there’s this growing scene – which is amazing in a way because it’s opportunity for Jamaican kids. But you look back and maybe these opportunities to surf empty waves like that, before they’re discovered. Do you think opportunities that you or I had to score some of these places so good with so few people are totally gone.
BF: I suppose it’s still out there. But your experience sounds exactly like mine. It seems to be the way of things. And it’s one of the many reasons I’m disheartened by the growth and popularity of surfing. I think the idea of putting surfing in the Olympics is horrible. I generally wish they’d just leave us alone.
CD: But that’s the rub isn’t it. Writers of our genre. Warshaw. We’ve made a living at least in part through writing about this experience. You’ve written a book about it and it’s a New York Times bestseller. And I think of a guy like Jeff Clark who makes a living off Mavericks for better or worse. I guess it’s true in so many other disciplines. Try to find a secret fishing spot in Alaska and put that out there and forget about it.
BF: You’re quite right. If you’re gonna write about surfing, the way you do and I have, you’re not really in a position to bitch about its popularity.
CD: But you can still bitch about the turns that popularity takes, right?
BF: I suppose. You certainly have to mourn the transformation of a great empty wave into a gross circus.
Read part I of this series: Joaquin and the Indefensible Lust for Hurricane Surf.
If you’re not convinced to check out Barbarian Days, read to Finnegan’s seminal piece of surf journalism, Playing Doc’s Games. The New Yorker, August 24, 1992.