The Scuttlefish

Love the Ocean. Wish you were here.

Tag: William Finnegan

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

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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.

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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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“Barbarian Days”: Writer and Surfer William Finnegan’s Self Portrait of His Life in Salt

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“To be thirteen, with a surfboard, in Hawaii.” Photograph: New Yorker/William R. Finnegan.

Lifelong surfer, writer and wartime reporter William Finnegan was 13 years old when his family packed up their Ventura, California digs in the mid-1960s for the surf mecca of Honolulu, Hawaii.

“The budget for moving our family to Honolulu was tight,” recalls the New Yorker staff writer in his upcoming memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, “judging from the tiny cottage we rented and the rusted-out Ford Fairlane we bought to get around.”

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“At Waikiki, 1967: Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration.” Photograph: New Yorker/William R. Finnegan.

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