The Scuttlefish

Love the Ocean. Wish you were here.

Category: Life in Salt

“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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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Life in Salt: Honolulu-Based Artist Kris Goto on How Cartoons and Comics Made Way for South Pacific Tattoos, Water and Surf

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Art: Kris Goto.

Japanese-born Honolulu-based artist Kris Goto might have one of the most unconventional and eclectic backgrounds of any brine-based artist. She’s been drawing since she can remember, but only recently began calling the sea her muse after settling in Honolulu.

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Art: Kris Goto.

From early childhood into her teens, she was primarily–perhaps solely–infatuated with the 19th century Japanese art of “Manga”, a term applied to a traditional form of comic or cartoon-making within Japan and an influence still identifiable in her work today.

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Art: Kris Goto.

While in school in New Zealand, Goto found herself mesmerized by the tattoos on her Māori (indigenous New Zealanders) classmates’ tattoos, specifically the swirling lines which illustrate ferns and waves. She began copying them in her sketchbook during class. The seed was planted.

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Art: Kris Goto.

Then in 2013, after moving to Hawaii and taking up surfing, Goto experienced the wonders of ‘the green room’, or the inside of a barrel for the first time at a surf break in Waikiki called Kaiser’s. She marveled at how the spray from the lip of the wave hit her face. She imagined popping open an umbrella in the barrel to shield the drops, and something clicked.

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Life in Salt: Tom Neale – A Look Back at his Sixteen Years on a Deserted Island in the South Pacific

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Tom Neale. Image from his book An Island to Oneself.

In 1952, a man left his life of wanderlust to settle down. At fifty years old, it was time to lay some roots. After all, Tom Neale had been traveling the South Pacific for close to thirty years. But his new, domesticated life would be far from typical. Rather than a house in the suburbs and a white picket fence, Neale intentionally ‘stranded’ himself on an uninhabited coral atoll in Suwarrow, Cook Islands. He lived there, on and off for sixteen years.

The idea of living on the deserted Anchorage Island was seeded by an American travel writer, Robert Frisbie whom Neal had met while bouncing around the South Pacific. Frisbie had written extensively about Polynesia and the South Pacific. After years of living in Tahiti and then losing his wife, he and his five children fulfilled his lifelong dream by calling the tiny Anchorage home.

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Anchorage Island in the Suwarrows today. Screen grab from the video compilation on the life of Tom Neale. Video by Hajnács Tamás

The family spent a year on the island and their story of surviving a typhoon by lashing themselves to tamanu trees that bend, rather than break, became serialized in The Atlantic Monthly as The Story of an Island: Marooned by Request in 1943 and later in the novel The Island of Desire.

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Map of the Cook Islands. Image from World Atlas.

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Last Man Off: Author and Shipwreck Survivor Matt Lewis Discusses Disaster, Survival and Regret in the Southern Ocean

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Above: Likely the last (recoverable) photo taken of the Sudur Havid. All of Mr. Lewis’ photos from the voyage lie beneath the South Atlantic, somewhere to the west-northwest of South Georgia Island.

In April of 1998, a 23-year-old marine biologist named Matt Lewis boarded the Sudur Havid, a commercial fishing vessel headed for the Southern Ocean in search of Patagonian toothfish (better known for its more common market name, “Chilean sea bass”). He was to be a scientific observer, documenting the vessel’s catch. It was his first job out of school.

The vessel was to spend several months at sea between the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties, great conveyor belts of wind and current, named in reference to the almost constant 40-60-knot winds and 40-60-foot seas that occur within those southern latitudes. It was an adventurous gig – the kind of thing a young, freshly lettered bachelor is supposed to get himself into.

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“With my mum and sister in Somerset before the trip, 1997. I know: bad hair, dreadful beard, but I was young.” Photo courtesy of Matt Lewis.

Two months into the excursion, the Sudur Havid was off South Georgia Island in a heavy storm, possibly overloaded, but continuing to fish, per usual, when the ship’s factory (where the fish are processed and frozen) began to take on water. The inboard pumps, which were used to drain the factory, became clogged, and stopped working. Slowly, the ship began to list, and the reality that she would have no chance of making port set in amongst the crew. South Georgia Island was 170 miles away–too far for helivac–and South Africa and South America were both well over 1,000 miles away.

Now it was a nightmare.

The ship, which Lewis, junior amongst the crew, had assumed was prepared for such an emergency, was carrying unserviced life rafts and no survival suits. The water over the rail was as good as freezing, about 32.5° fahrenheit (~0.25° celsius)–a temperature at which even a healthy human body can last no more than 45 minutes.

“When you’re in trouble, you pull together, fight together, try to laugh and keep your spirits up. But there’s only so much you can do when the water is so cold.”

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Back in Salt: I Went to Help a Freediving Amputee Get His Gills Back. He Dove Deeper Than I Did.

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Ever wonder what it feels like to lose your favorite thing on the face of the earth at the drop of a dime only to find that a year later, you’ve still got it? Me neither. I couldn’t even envision it, but it might look something like this. Screenshot: Michael McEntee’s YouTube video.

A few weeks ago, a friend, fellow expatriate and US Marine called “Mac” rang me up to see if I wanted to join him on a freediving/spearfishing trip to the Queen Charlotte Sound. It’s one of several embayments that make up the Marlborough Sounds, an emerald maze of deep flooded valleys lying just below the fiercely tormented waters of New Zealand’s Cook Strait.

Mac’s Kiwi friend Brent Bythell was spending the weekend out on “the Sounds” and had planned a freedive for scallops, which were just coming into season.

“Sure,” I said without reservation. I’d never caught a scallop before.

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Still days like these on the Marlborough Sounds are hard to beat–unless you’re sailing, that is. Photo: Owen James Burke.

It turns out that Brent is in recovery after an infection crept up his foot, leg, and eventually into his spine. He showed up at the hospital complaining of a curiously numb right foot, but was shocked to learn that he had developed gangrene. Brent had to undergo an emergency amputation of the lower part of his leg and he’s now nearly paralyzed from the waist down. The simple fact that he’s alive today is nothing short of a miracle. With the help of a crutch and prosthetic limb, Brent actually gets around pretty damn well–on land anyway.

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Meet Raw Paua, My New Home, and My Inaugural Foray into #VanLife, Inspired by Cyrus Sutton

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This regal red-striped rover of a land yacht is Raw Paua, my new cabin on wheels. For the next few months, along with a surfboard, a speargun and a wok, I’ll be calling her home. Photo: Owen James Burke.

I’ve more or less been a city kid throughout most of my “adult” life. I’ve never really owned a car, except for a month or two here and there. I’ve never even stayed in any one place long enough to buy a car, either. But in New Zealand, at least for the itinerant salt-junkie such as me, it is categorically imperative. -OJB

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 Raw Paua’s first trip to the beach. The gratuities of #VanLife didn’t hesitate to make themselves known on our maiden voyage. . . . 10 minutes down the road. Photo: Owen James Burke.

A while back, my sagacious editor and advisor Chris Dixon, suggested a lifestyle change which I took with a grain of salt at first. His proposition? Move out of your house and into a van. But I’m a boat guy, I thought to myself, and wasn’t there a Saturday Night Live skit about this, with Chris Farley and David Spade? Could this have been his eloquent way of handing me my pink slip?

Some weeks later, Dixon put me in touch with professional surfer, filmmaker, and #VanLife guru Cyrus Sutton. In 2005, Cyrus bought a Ford Econoline, heavily customized it and hit the road. 10 years blew by, and this summer he was still occupying it full time when he moved into his dream van, a Mercedes Sprinter. Chatting with him about his van life over Skype from his Econoline, VanHalen, the idea took deeper root, and my wheels started churning. Maybe I could ditch the boat for a while and take to the road. Still, I was scratching my head at the idea of myself living in a van. Is this me?

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