The Scuttlefish

Love the Ocean. Wish you were here.

Category: feature

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


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.


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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On the Road to Meet the Andaman Sea Gypsies. Part II: Boating Amongst the Slaveships in Myeik, Burma.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

A pale-gray haze lay over the port of Myeik, backed by a droning cacophony of outboard motors and dredges. Few were talking. Almost no one was smiling. The scene looked bleak, and the scarcity of the sun didn’t brighten the picture.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

But then almost all commercial fishing ports carry this tone. It was only later, in Thailand, that I came to realize how close to the edge of hell some of these people were living.


Photo: Owen James Burke.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

With no permission granted from the government to visit the Mergui Archipelago where the Moken–a small, disenfranchised group of sea-dwelling ethnic Austronesians known in Burma as the Selung–are said to live, I had left Yangon for Myeik, 535 miles to the south where my travel agent–though she’d advised against it–suggested I might find a captain willing to sneak me out to meet the elusive virtuosos of the sea.

My flight had landed earlier that day and I’d caught a motorcycle taxi straight down to the port of Myeik, which I was told would be the busiest and therefore likeliest harbor for me to hitch a ride out to the Mergui Archipelago where the Moken are said to weather monsoon season.

I had no intention of spending a single night in Myeik–I’d already lost enough time in Yangon. It was still early in the morning, and as far as I could tell, the weather looked fair enough to set sail for open water.

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This Is Life in an Andaman Sea Village During Monsoon Season. A Photo Essay.


One moment, the Burmese coast of the Andaman Sea looked like this, frenzied and white-horsed, with gale force winds and pelting–literally stinging–rain. The next, it would abate to the sobering serenity of still air and blue skies. All of this has no bearing on the people living in small stilted villages on the Andaman Sea, who make their homes and feed their children day-in, day-out, year-round, come wind, hail, rain or shine. Photo: Owen James Burke.


Watching these small narrow boats fade out on the horizon behind a line of squalls chilled my bones to the marrow. Photo: Owen James Burke.

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The sound of the rain meeting this tarpaulin-tin city was tremendous. It hushed all conversation and jarred your concentration. Photo: Owen James Burke.


But then, moments later, it would look like this, but regardless of the weather, tide or hour, these longboats seemed to be buzzing in and out port all day long. Photo: Owen James Burke.

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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.


“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.


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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Wish You Were Here: The Birthplace of Aotearoa and the Māori People – Hokianga Harbor, New Zealand

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After what is now New Zealand’s discovery, the islands were named ‘Aotearoa’ which means ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’; seen here in the entrance to the Hokianga Harbor from the Tasman Sea. Photo by Carolyn Sotka.

With the ancient Kauri forest shrinking in our rear mirror, my family set off for the west coast of New Zealand with a calm, revered silence from being in the presence of the giant 2000 year old trees. As we slowly lumbered through the woods, thick trees thinned and gave way to rolling hills. A final corner turned and we were met with one of the most magnificent vistas I have ever seen.

Ahead lay the Hokianga Harbor, with bright, golden sand dunes, contrasted against turquoise waters and cliffs peppered with bushes and flowers. Everything about our trip to New Zealand was unexpected, especially this moment. Reminiscent of Big Sur, California with a mix of Vermont and Ireland and pinch of the Swiss Alps in summer, this place was so unique, yet so familiar.

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The Kauri coast leading to the Hokianga Harbor. Photo by Carolyn Sotka.

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A Surfboard Made from John Steinbeck’s House? Ventana Surfboards and Supplies Brings Historic California Back to Life in Their Upcycled Products


Ventana’s stunning 6’0″ Cannery Row – made from wood that once adorned John Steinbeck’s cottage in Pacific Grove. Image courtesy Ventana Surfboards and Supplies.

I was first introduced to Ventana Surfboards and Supplies when they contacted me to be their November featured author for The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival. The company is located in Santa Cruz, California – near my old Monterey Bay stomping grounds; a place near and dear to my heart.

When I started poking around their Web site, I was floored by the stunning beauty of their surfboards. All wood, with intricate designs, alternating inlays and a spot of pearlescence, from abalone shell. But quickly I learned that Ventana, is far more than a simple surfboard and supplies manufacturer. They’re bringing new life to old wood, through upcycling – an ecofriendly use of materials that have already served another purpose and would otherwise be thrown away. As an example, check out their recent show-stopper board made of wood panels, from the cottage of famous Cannery Row author, John Steinbeck.

Ventana Surfboards is the brainchild of Martijn Stiphout and David Dennis, who built the company with sustainability at its heart and a message of eco-responsibility echoed throughout the local community. Stiphout is the master craftsman and board design visionary and David drives sales, marketing and surf supply innovation.

I had a chance to catch up with the busy duo, as they prepare for a full calendar of events leading up to the holidays. Their expanding on-line shop sells not only surfboards and supplies, but recycled and repurposed products ranging from t-shirts to the Save A Surf wax box.  


Handmade handplanes in action. Image courtesy Ventana Surfboards and Supplies.

Carolyn Sotka: How did this John Steinbeck project and product unfold?

David Dennis: John Steinbeck is one of the great American authors. He even won the Nobel Prize for literature. We’re really excited to have old growth redwood from his first house. I was on a panel talking to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Teen Conservation Leaders about sustainable business practices. I mentioned our Upcycle Partner Program and how we’re turning “trash” from local companies into surfboards and surf supplies. One of the adult volunteers at the aquarium, René Gaudette, came up to me afterwards and said he was working on the restoration of Steinbeck’s house with Houstons Home Improvement & Repair. He asked if he could donate the wood to us. I was speechless! We now have a few larger planks and some smaller pieces, even a board from Steinbeck’s bathroom! You can still see the cutout where his medicine cabinet used to be!


Martijn Stiphout at work in the Ventana shop. Image courtesy Ventana Surfboards and Supplies.

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“It was the Best Thing I’ve Ever Done.” Back in Salt: Living to Surf Again, Thanks to Big-Wave Surfer Darryl “Flea” Virostko and FleaHab.


Photo courtesy of Henry Skipp.

Henry Skipp was the brightest, most interesting and articulate mind I encountered during my collegiate years. He was also my best friend.

We were both pursuing higher education with some degree of reluctance. I had left my dream job where I was preparing to take over a successful charter fishing business out of Long Island Sound, and Henry had turned down an invitation to join a surf team based out of Miami, Florida. These were, perhaps, wise decisions in the long run, but at the time we shared the agony of being trapped in academia after rejecting more aquatic career paths.


Photo courtesy of Henry Skipp.

Instead, as our gills began to dry, we were forced to endure “society” parties, as they were called at our school, all awash with bad music, frat boys, and worse still, bad beer. We found solace in commiserating.

I was just finding my way in the world of surfing, and Henry was all too happy to show me the ropes. There weren’t too many other people interested in surfing at our tiny liberal arts school in East Los Angeles. We were obliviously optimistic in thinking we might tailor our schooling to 45-minute surf trips to Newport Beach, with no car. But no one shared our lust for the sea. Anyone who does, generally would have the common sense not to go to school in East LA.

We lived in the same dormitory, but Henry was crammed in with two obnoxious baseball players whose lives seemed to revolve around their shot glasses and Carmen Elektra posters. I took pity on my new companion and offered to have him move into my spacious single room.

When we weren’t in class, Henry would talk Thomas Campbell and Dave Rastovich, or peel through Surfer’s Journal magazines with big, glossy double page spreads of photographs by Tom Servais; I’d ramble on about fly fishing for striped bass and missing the bluefin tuna run each fall. We’d also talk literature–mostly Hemingway, about whom his grandfather had taught an entire course for something like two decades at Duke University.

Occasionally we’d scrounge a ride to the beach, where Henry would try, and mostly fail, to enlighten me with the finer points of surfing.

Time passed and we tore our way, fighting tooth and nail, through academia, dreaming of a life outside, and the surf trips we’d take to Nicaragua and Panama after graduation – trips which, I’m grateful to report, are still being considered.

Then I went off to Portugal, where less class and better public transportation meant I could make it to the beach almost every day after school.

Henry stayed behind in LA. He continued to struggle with some inner demons, and somewhere along the way, he went dark. I stopped hearing from him, mostly. When he did call, his voice was flat and dull. His responses to my suggestions of far-flung surf adventures were curt and bleak.

Our lines of communication shut down, and we all but lost contact.


Photo courtesy of Henry Skipp.

More recently, on my way to New Zealand, I gave him a ring, recalling that he’d mentioned having moved to Santa Cruz several months before. I asked him to meet me in San Francisco for the weekend. We could catch up, and I could break up my long flight from New York.

“Sure,” he said to my surprise. He didn’t have a car yet, but agreed to bus up on Friday night and meet me.

Meeting him on Lombard Street in my old neighborhood, I could have just as soon passed him by – not that he’d visibly aged, but because his head was high, his eyes were bright and he wore a genuine, bonafide smile I’d not seen in years.

“Where have you been?” I asked after the pleasantries.

“FleaHab,” he replied.

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“The Ocean is a Scary Beautiful Place.” Life in Salt: Karim Iliya on Travel, Photography and Flying Drones Over the Red Sea for His Upcoming Freediving Documentary

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“For me, it’s about seeing things, and the camera is just a machine. I just use that machine to show people how I view existence.” Photo: Krannichfeld Photography/Courtesy of Karim Iliya.

At just 24 years old, British-born Maui-based photographer and videographer Karim Iliya’s curiosity has led him around the globe by sea, sky and land, to which his vast range of subjects are testament. He’s trekked the Arctic, dived into a humpback whale brawl off Tonga, and filmed a volcanic eruption in Guatemala. You might not believe it from his age, but the list goes on.

Ten years ago, when Karim first started with a point-and-shoot camera, his dream was to travel the world taking photographs. Today, he’s a wizard behind the lens, and a masterful drone pilot. We caught up with him in China, on his way to North Korea, where he’s hoping he might be allowed to boot up his camera.

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