The Scuttlefish

Love the Ocean. Wish you were here.

Category: books

Goodbye (for now)

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Coming in 2017. A big book from your ocean loving friends at The Scuttlefish and Chronicle Books. 

Hey all, after a few years, hundreds of weird and interesting stories, and a lot of fun it’s time to put The Scuttlefish on pause. Several months ago, Chris Dixon and I had an idea for an ocean related book. That idea turned into a proposal, and that proposal has become a contract with Chronicle Books, publisher of among other titles, Chris’s Ghost Wave, Matt Warshaw’s The History of Surfing, The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook and of course, Darth Vader and Son.

We are keeping the details under wraps for now, but it’s a project that we couldn’t pass up and there’s not enough time in the day to do both the book and this site. The Scuttlefish has gone into hibernation before, though and I’m sure it’ll come back in a different form, one day. Thanks to our faithful readers – and the ocean – for all the inspiration.

Thank you to Chris Dixon, Owen J. Burke, Mark Lukach, Carolyn Sotka and other contributors who put their love for the sea into so many fine words and photos on The Scuttlefish. I’m sure we’ll cross paths again.  – BL

A Thanks to Brian Lam, Matt Warshaw, Jeremy Spencer, Chronicle Books – and Everyone who’s Made this Ocean Life Possible

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My first ever rejection letter. Courtesy of Surfer Magazine and Matt Warshaw. 1989. 

It’s weird the stuff you decide to file in your folder book of memories. The above note is one such recently found object. It’s my very first, of very, very many professional rejection notes. If you’re a writer, you get used to rejection notes from editors. If you don’t, well, you’d better find other work. Aside from being a first, what makes this letter so very damn special is that it was written and signed by none other than Matt Warshaw. If you’re a surfer who’s worth even a grain of salt, you know him. If you’re not a surfer, suffice to say that the author of The History of Surfing and editor of The Encyclopedia of Surfing is to our sport as Ken Burns is to baseball – or James Michener is to Hawaii.

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Not too long ago, I stumbled upon Warshaw’s note in the back of my garage, amidst a stack of yellowing articles and letters. I’d completely forgotten this little nugget, but I vividly remember when it arrived. It was late 1989. I was a hopeful young journalism graduate, freshly minted from the University of Georgia, freshly cast off by my UGA girlfriend and freshly rendered unemployed and homeless by hurricane Hugo’s godawful smashing of the South Carolina coast. Forlorn and filled with a twenty-something’s boundless capacity for angst, I’d found temporary refuge in the basement of my dad’s Atlanta condo, and a temporary job shuffling fonts around on a Macintosh computer at his advertising agency. I reckoned the only way out of depression and self-pity was to write, and get the hell back to the beach.

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

Ed’s note: This is the final entry in a four-part interview with Barbarian Days author William Finnegan. You’ll find links to all the interviews at the end of this one.

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“But everything felt different without Caryn: harsher, more jagged.”
William Finnegan, with Caryn Davidson, 1971. Photo courtesy: William Finnegan. 

CD: There’s something that struck me in reading Barbarian Days, and in my own life as a 48-year-old who’s now married with kids. First. I’m glad I had kids late, and second, I still feel really, really bad, sometimes terrible, about the way I’ve treated some of the women in my life. And that’s in part because of surfing. I wonder if you feel the same way. Just judging by the relationships you describe in the book. I mean, you were almost a father at 18. I’m wondering if you ever consider that alternate reality. What if you had become a parent young, and was surfing so much of a relationship killer? Were you a selfish sonofabitch? I was. I just wonder how you look back at the relationships you describe in the book, and what surfing did to those relationships.

BF: The short answer is I feel the same way you do. Both about when to have kids – also late, in my case – and what kind of boyfriend or partner I was when I was younger. I include in the book a conversation I had with a guy named André, a big-wave surfer. We met in Madeira. He was from Oregon, and he was really young, so I was surprised to hear that he was divorced. He started telling me about it, and it was a stark little story. Surfing broke up his marriage. You know, “These women gotta know what they’re getting into,” that sort of thing. He was actually hilarious. He said, “It’s like if you or I hooked up with a fanatical shopper. You’d have to accept that your entire life would be traveling around to malls. Or, really, more like waiting for malls to open.” He wasn’t trying to be funny. He was just thinking it through, from the other side, and I thought, Wow, great analogy. While we were talking, we were driving around looking for waves, and it wasn’t good, the tide was too high, so we ended up sleeping in the car by a surf spot — just a couple of shoppers waiting for the mall to open.

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Madeira, 1998. Relationship killer. Photo courtesy: William Finnegan. 

But I never really experienced that kind of stark conflict with girlfriends over surfing. “What do you mean you’re going surfing?!” For one thing, my life was rarely that settled or domestic when I was young. More often, with a girlfriend, we’d be traveling. So I might be dragging her to Maui or Sri Lanka or wherever. The girlfriends I’m thinking of, as I say this were people with more smarts and education than I had, people who really wanted to do something in the world, but who just weren’t sure what that was yet. Which left them open to my agenda, which almost always involved looking for waves. I usually had a portable project—I was usually working on a novel—so I was okay with living in a hut in the jungle near the coast in Sri Lanka. And maybe my girlfriend had a project to work on, which would be good, but maybe she didn’t. The whole enterprise was driven by my surf mania.

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Stay Tuned for a New Film Series of Never Told Stories About California’s Channel Islands and the Oldest Site of Human Habitation in North America

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Screen shot from the new film series about the history of California’s Channel Islands.

A recent Kickstarter campaign to bring short films about the West of the West: Tales from California’s Channel Islands to PBS and into California schools was successfully funded last week. The ‘West of the West tells the human history of California’s eight Channel Islands, which lie west of what is traditionally regarded as America’s frontier. In fact, those islands are our western frontier. But, their history, including that of the oldest discovered site of human habitation in all of North America, is virtually unknown.

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William Finnegan: Surf for Love, Not for Gold

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THE New England missionaries who began arriving in Hawaii in 1820 were horrified to find, as they sailed in, people surfing. “Some of our number, with gushing tears, turned away from the spectacle,” wrote Hiram Bingham, the missionaries’ leader. This devastating display of half-nude “barbarism” — really, it was the ancient practice of he’e nalu, which was rich in traditional religious meaning — clearly had to be stamped out. Twenty-seven years later, with Hawaiian culture being destroyed by changes that the missionaries helped set in motion, Bingham wrote with satisfaction of the “decline and discontinuance of the surfboard.”

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

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William Finnegan. Surfing Ocean Beach. Photo from Barbarian Playing Doc’s Games, The New Yorker, 1992. 

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 of living to write. Earlier this week, we talked about the immorality of surfing hurricane waves. Today, Finnegan discusses how hard it was to write Barbarian Days, his seminal New Yorker article “Playing Doc’s Games,” the drop-knee cutback, and the terror of big Ocean Beach. — CD 

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Barbarian Days. Well worth 1926 pennies.

Chris Dixon: Ok, let’s talk about Barbarian Days. I’m wondering from your verbal perspective, why did you feel it was time to write a book about your own personal life experience as a surfer when you, aside from “Playing Doc’s Games,” which got somewhat into that – you haven’t written much about your own personal life.

William Finnegan: My other books have all been more journalistic, it’s true – although my first one, Crossing the Line, about teaching at a black high school in South Africa was pretty first-person. Still, I was strongly trying to report on South Africa and what I saw there.

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I didn’t recently decide it was time to write this book (Barbarian Days). It was twenty-something years in the making. It just finally got done now. It started with that piece in The New Yorker in ‘92 – “Playing Doc’s Games” – which in itself took 7 years to write. So really this is a long, old project.

The genesis. I was living in San Francisco, freelancing. I sent a short political piece over the transom to The New Yorker and someone in the editor’s office said, “If you want to write longer pieces, this would be a good time to submit something to the editor – you’ve got his attention.”

So I felt like I needed to come up with something in five minutes – right now. And I didn’t have any ideas. So I just sort of looked around and proposed a profile of Mark Renneker. I was surfing with him at Ocean Beach at the time – and he was this big colorful character that struck me as a John McPhee type hero. Not that I’m John McPhee, but I could see Mark in The New Yorker. Perhaps under someone else’s byline!

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

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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.

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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.

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The Long Rain. Joaquin’s Filthy Barrels, Epic Devastation and Rising Tide. A Photo Diary from Charleston.

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Griffin Jackson. Folly Beach. Photo: Justin Morris/Follyhood.

THE rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped. — Ray Bradbury.


Here in South Carolina, the past two weeks have been best of times for surfers, and the worst of times for everyone else. I’m not really sure how to otherwise describe the last two weeks of life here. As everyone knows, Hurricane Joaquin and the Almighty conspired just over a week ago, to unleash an apocalyptic fire hose of precipitation and surf on the Palmetto State. Rainfall in some places near my home in Charleston was along the lines of 25 inches over the course of three days. That’s half of the average annual rainfall for many parts of the state – over the course of 72 hours. If you’ve ever seen a “Pineapple Express” hit southern California – it was sort of like that, only much, much worse.

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A couple of days before Joaquin. Photo: Chris Dixon

In the days and hours leading up to the first drops of rain, while hapless Bahamians and the crew of the container ship El Faro were being mercilessly hammered, our coast was blessed with a stretch of heavenly weather and perfect waves. That’s always been the Faustian, nerve-wracking, and immoral bargain Gulf and East Coast surfers make with hurricanes. Someone is being slammed. Someone else is feasting on tropically sourced waves – and that someone may soon be under the gun too. And we would indeed be under the gun.

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The first line of storms just offshore from Folly Beach. Photo: Chris Dixon

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