“Basso Profundo.” A Big, Merciless Late Fall Day at William Finnegan’s Ocean Beach, San Francisco.

by Owen James Burke

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Screenshot from Chris Wilson’s video below.

San Francisco’s vast and featureless Ocean Beach produces frothing, pitching walls of water worthy of your worst nightmares. Big waves, cold, ominously gray water and shallow, hard-packed sandbars keep most surfers out of the water on larger days, but the few, ostensibly fearless who do manage the paddle out over relentless, insurmountable avalanches of whitewater are offered the wondrous sensation of weightlessness that accompanies dropping in on these foreboding faces.

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This was the sort of imagery that kept me out of the water during most of my time living in San Francisco. Screenshot from Chris Wilson’s video below.

Few surfers–and even fewer writers–are better acquainted with the terrors of winter surf at Ocean Beach than New Yorker staffer Bill Finnegan, who detailed some of his more daunting surfing experiences of his surfing career while living near the end of Noriega Street under the guise of local legend Mark “Doc” Renneker, whom he profiled in his two-part feature for the New Yorker, “Playing Doc’s Games I & II.” Below is a brief excerpt from “Playing Doc’s Games I” in which Finnegan recounts one of his more harrowing days at Ocean Beach:

I dived deep and swam hard. . . . The deeper I swam, the colder and darker the water got. The noise as the wave broke was preternaturally low, a basso profundo of utter violence, and the force pulling me backward and upward felt like some nightmare inversion of gravity.

Finnegan no longer lives in San Francisco–as a matter of fact he was relieved to leave Ocean Beach in one piece, much to the chagrin of Doc, his si-fu and confidante, but these are the same illustrious waves which he describes narrowly surviving in his recent memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.

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Read a recent series of Scuttlefish interviews with William Finnegan by editor Chris Dixon:

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

“He thought it was Wonderful. I Thought it was Absolutely Horrifying.” Talking Story with Barbarian Days Author William Finnegan, Part II.

We’ll Never Let Anybody Know. And We Stupidly Believed That Would Work. From Tavarua to Nias with Barbarian Days Author William Finnegan.

And don’t forget to pick up a copy of Barbarian Days, my favorite book this year.

–OJB

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