In 1992 “Playing Doc’s Games” appeared in The New Yorker. A two-part, 39,000-word story in which journalist William Finnegan plunges the reader into the San Francisco surf scene, it quickly became known as “the best piece of surf writing, ever,” a title that still holds. It does what most surf writing doesn’t—it describes what it feels like to be in the water. Not only when a lip is curling over your head, or a relentless set is knocking you senseless, but the quiet moments, the ponderous bobbing on a steel-gray sea. Against orthodoxy, it grapples with the surfing life, calls it into question.
Finnegan has been a New Yorker staff writer since 1987, during which time he has managed to dovetail rigorous, award-winning journalism with a frothing surf jones. Six-foot three, with a boyish face, and work clothes consisting of loafers, slacks, and sport coat, it is not hard to draw Clark Kent/Superman connections. Given surfing’s reputation as a hedonistic, almost anti-intellectual pursuit, he is one of the sport’s great anomalies, bouncing straight from White House dinners to road trips with no-name punk bands to head-high, A-framing Montauk.
Finnegan lives in Manhattan with his wife, Caroline, and their daughter, Mollie. He is the author of four books: Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid; Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters; A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique; and Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country. Our conversation took place over two sessions: one at a Washington Square restaurant, where we ate ahi tuna and drank Maker’s Mark; the other at his 25th-floor office on the Upper West Side, which has spectacular views of Central Park. “I rarely open the blinds,” he said sheepishly, adding that he tries to stay focused on work. There was, however, a framed photo of a screaming right-point break in Madeira perched atop his computer.
JB How do you manage your prolific work with The New Yorker and surfing? How does surfing fortify your writing and vice versa?
WF In the right circumstances, surfing and writing can make a sweet daily routine. Surfing usually leaves me nice and tired, physically calm, which helps me stay at my desk. (Tying myself to the chair also works, but the straps and buckles scare the kids.) When I was writing my first book, we lived in San Francisco and I could see Ocean Beach from my desk, so I didn’t have to guess too much about when to hit it. That was ideal. I’ve had good routines in other places. In Bali I used to write in the mornings in a college library in Denpasar, then head out to Uluwatu in the afternoons when the winds seemed to be better. In Sri Lanka I rented a house for 29 dollars a month, I think it was, near a pretty good wave. I was writing fiction in those days—three unpublished novels. In the ’90s, after we’d moved to New York, I spent a fair bit of time in Madeira in the winters. The rhythm there was different. There were long, flat spells when I’d get a bunch of work done, and then insane north swells that we’d chase from dawn till dark. Nowadays, it’s kind of a schlep from my place in Manhattan to the nearest waves—Long Island, north Jersey—but we’ve got a little crew that makes the dash on pretty much every swell. Good swells are hell on deadlines, but sometimes I find that whatever writing problem was befuddling me before I ran out the door is solved when I get back to my office. That’s what I tell my editors, anyway.
After I finish a long project, I usually try to take a surf trip. That can bring some cognitive dissonance because of the type of reporting I do. A project will follow me like a bad dog, partly because I can’t get it out of my head and partly because the piece still has to go through editing and fact checking. So I’ve found myself, for instance, in a hotel in Madeira surrounded by faxed galleys of a 20,000-word story about the civil war in Sudan. If the surf’s good, I’m spending my days in the water on this sublime island, then spending nights trying to nail the details, the politics, the stark terror of this African war. I start feeling a bit demented.
And sometimes it’s just not possible, logistically. In 2006, the magazine was about to publish a long piece of mine about organized crime and labor in the Port of New York. I took off on an Indo boat trip—a charter out of West Java—with an understanding that we’d somehow close the piece by sat-phone. It couldn’t be done. There was too much data for that little pipe. The story had to be delayed, which was fine with me. I did not want to spend my time in Panaitan on the boat, working.
Even short pieces can screw up a surf trip. I once had a political column bumped back a week while I was en route to Tavarua. That meant I had to close a news-heavy piece from Tavarua, which turned out to be a nightmare. The surf was on fire, and I was on shore arguing with an editor about the history of the Republican Party. I had to keep my back turned to the ocean. But lots of guys have the same problem, I think. They’ve got businesses, or demanding jobs, and they surf, so they try to get away to ride good waves, but their work lives refuse to stay on hold.
I sometimes get lucky and find myself working near good waves: Hawaii, Indonesia, South Africa. I let editors know I’m always up for assignments in those places, but usually I need to segregate chasing waves from chasing a story. So it’s, first, get the story, then slip off the radar—or, if it’s a short piece, just write and file it from there, then go surf. There have been times when surfing was therapeutic, an emotional necessity. During the civil war in El Salvador, I covered an election there for The New Yorker. It was during a really bad period—not that there were any good periods. Four journalists were killed on Election Day in separate incidents. I was with one of them, a young Dutch cameraman, who took a bullet in the chest. I wrote my story in a hotel, filed it from there, and then went down to Libertad for a week. There were only a few surfers around. The waves were great. I was a mess.
My work takes me into some dark stuff. Surfing can be, on a good day, kind of an antidote to all the sadness, the heaviness, that comes with studying, for a living, how horrible people can be—how cosmically unfair and unjust the world is. I write my share of lighter pieces, but I seem to have some sick affinity for stories about conflict, oppression, exploitation.
JB How did you get into surfing?
WF Southern California, beach-going family. My parents were in the film business. We lived in the Valley, but spent time in the summer in Newport, where we had good friends. They had an old school bus. We used to camp on the beach at San Onofre in their bus. That’s where I first stood up on a board. Then my family got a weekend place in Ventura, so California Street became my home break. I was 11 or 12, totally into it. I soon started surfing Malibu. The big guys at the time were Lance Carson, Miki Dora, Johnny Fain, Buzz Sutphin. I was a little noserider—a quick, skinny kid with a drop-knee cutback. Then, when I was 13, we moved to Honolulu. That was a revelation. The surf was more serious, of course, but the atmosphere was so much more relaxed. We lived on Kulamanu, down behind Diamond Head, and I surfed Cliffs, Patterson’s, and Kaiko’s. Later, I got into Threes, Kaiser’s, Ala Moana, and Rice Bowl. This was just before shortboards, but some of my little buddies then were hot, progressive surfers—into lip bashes and hard, flowing turns, not noseriding. We moved back to the mainland, but I felt like Hawaii had marked me for life. The first time I dropped out of college I moved straight to Maui. I still love Hawaii. Last winter I snapped one of my all-time favorite boards at Hanalei.
JB You started traveling at a young age. How did that come about?
WF What really got me off my ass, I think, was literature—Kerouac, Hemingway, the usual suspects. Also, a kind of phobia about L.A. that wasn’t unconnected to literature. It might be a stretch to compare suburban L.A. to Ireland 100 years ago, but I was a James Joyce junkie in high school, and Joyce famously wrote, “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow”—meaning, the place devoured its children, spiritually. I felt that way about L.A., and so did most of my friends. It was partly a ’60s thing—I finished high school in 1970. We all thought Southern California was a metastasizing disaster zone—culturally, environmentally—that we had to flee to survive.
I made a first bolt when I was 16, bumming around the U.S., Mexico, and Canada with my best friend from high school; and then a second, definitive bolt with a girlfriend to Europe when I was 17. We were young romantics. We just believed that real life—all life worth living—was elsewhere. Of course, we were wrong. But it was a point of pride to get away and stay away. And, in my case, to keep moving.
JB That sounds a lot like the Endless Summer ethos, but with a literary spin.
WF Or maybe the other way around. I did always seem to be bending my travels, my studies, my jobs, toward the surf. I went to UC Santa Cruz, surfed my way through that. During grad school, I had a seasonal job as a railroad brakeman, working the coast route between San Francisco and L.A. The main line went through the Ranch, right along the cliffs. I even held a regular braking job for a while on the Moss Landing Local. So I got to surf a lot then. The railroad paid great, so I also saved money. But you’re right about the inexorable influence of Endless Summer. At some point—and it felt like bowing to destiny—I decided, along with my friend Bryan Di Salvatore, another writer/surfer, to take off on an open-ended, round-the-world surf trip. I was 25 when we left in 1978. I was gone almost four years—South Pacific, Australia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, South Africa. I worked a lot of odd jobs—bartending, schoolteaching, dishwashing. Surfed a lot of great waves.
JB You mentioned something about a stack of New Yorkers at Kirra.
WF Yeah. It was Christmas. We were living at Kirra, and I saw this huge stack of old New Yorkers in a junk shop in Coolangatta, selling for a penny apiece. I gave the whole stack to Bryan for Christmas. It cost me about three dollars Australian. We were both big fans of the mag. So he stacked them all on one side of his reading chair in this funky little bungalow we rented near the point, and he started methodically reading his way through them, piling up the finished ones on the other side. It became this funny hourglass of our time there. A hundred mags down, 200 to go. But then the cyclone season started winding down, and we decided to pull up stakes, and he still had a good-sized stack, so we took all the unread magazines and stuffed them under the front seat of this old ’64 Falcon station wagon we had. We surfed our way down the coast, around to Victoria and South Australia, and then drove up across the center through Alice Springs to Darwin—that’s a long haul. And for entertainment—we didn’t have a radio—we would pull these old New Yorkers out from under the seat at random and read them aloud. It became like a test. How would the work of various writers, most of whom we’d read in other contexts—poets, short-story writers, reporters, essayists—hold up in the outback, in that harsh, no-bullshit-mate Australian light? Some of them did fine—the writing was still strong, the stories still funny. But others suddenly seemed like such hothouse poseurs. They failed the outback test. They became unintentionally hilarious. It was a tough exam. Sometimes the judges were drunk.
That was in 1979, and we both actually harbored ambitions, never discussed, to write for The New Yorker. I shouldn’t speak for Bryan, but I think we both always had a “Letter from Queensland” or a “Letter from Indonesia” percolating in our respective journals. As it turned out, we both became New Yorker staff writers within ten years. We just took the great-circle route to get there.
JB Did your surfing and literary interests feel separate, as in potentially conflicting?
WF No, then yes, then no. When I was young and writing fiction, I could pursue both things just by living in a place where I could surf. That was still true after I became a freelance journalist, living in San Francisco, and wrote my first book, Crossing the Line, which is about a year I spent teaching in a black high school in Cape Town. But then I got an assignment to write a piece for The New Yorker about surfing in San Francisco. That bastard took me seven years to write, partly because I was worried about the reaction of the main character to how the piece was evolving—I thought he might not like it, and indeed he didn’t—but also because I got nervous about coming out of the closet, as it were, as a surfer. During those seven years, I had moved to New York, gotten hired at The New Yorker, published a couple more books, and written many articles for the magazine. I wrote a lot for the “Talk of the Town” section, which was a terrific way to get to know the city, but I was mainly writing political stuff—both editorials and long reported pieces. So I was publicly engaged in various debates—over U.S. policy in Central America and Southern Africa, democracy and economic development, national anti-poverty policy, criminal justice, the so-called war on drugs, and so on. And somewhere along the line I started thinking that, if I revealed that I was a lifelong surfer, I might find myself no longer being taken seriously by other policy geeks. Oh, you’re just a dumb surfer, what do you know? Public intellectuals can be like kids in junior high. Those misgivings turned out to be unfounded. I finally finished the piece, published it, and nobody seemed to decide I was secretly Jeff Spicoli. In fact, I wrote quite a bit in that piece about the tension between wanting to surf and wanting to move to New York, where I felt my future was, and where I thought there would be no waves. (Wrong, thank God.)
JB Tell me about your workday.
WF I used to have better habits. I’d get to work early and start writing first thing. I could get a lot of pages done by afternoon. There seems to be more non-writing business crap to take care of these days. Having all the distractions and diversions of the Internet right behind one’s work screen doesn’t help. Really, though, my writing engines just take longer to rev up than they used to. I might not hit a good cruising speed, where the words and ideas are pouring through fast and sweet, till nighttime now. So my workday can run long past midnight, which is not ideal.
But writing is only part of my job. I spend at least as much time reporting. On some projects, the reporting is sedentary: reading, doing phone interviews, e-mail. But I like to get outside, see new places, meet new people, so I’m more often on the road. I just finished a long piece about an ultra-violent, messianic drug cartel in southwest Mexico. And my workdays in Michoacan consisted mainly of trying to get terrorized people to talk to me about living under the lash of this crime group, La Familia Michoacana, whose specialties are crystal meth production and multiple beheadings.
Then, once I think I have my story, I come home, where my days start with walking my daughter to school and taking the subway to my office. Good morning, America, where was I?
JB What about the process of writing a 12,000-word story on organized crime in Mexico?
WF It starts with a lot of brooding. I have a stack of filled notebooks from Mexico, plus all the books, clippings, interview tapes, and aides-mémoire I’ve collected, along with a head full of fresh impressions. Now I have to try to see the story and what it means and start to construct a narrative. I normally look in my reporting for a protagonist, some compelling character that can carry the story. That search can take months—it has sometimes taken me months—but it’s almost always worth the trouble. On this Michoacan piece, I knew, though, within a couple of weeks down there, that I would never find a hero. The situation is just too scary. I wasn’t going to find a cop, a teacher, a priest, a local journalist, or anyone else crazy enough to stick their head above the parapet and let me write about them or their work and how they’re being affected by La Familia in any detail. It would be way too dangerous. Which tells you something about how bad things are in some parts of Mexico today. I mean, I found a protagonist—a newspaper editor—to write about in Somalia, for Christ’s sake, where there was no government at all, and where the warlords who ran things were certainly not nice guys, and that editor wasn’t too scared to sit for his portrait and show me around Mogadishu. He had no problems, as far as I know, as a result of what I wrote.
A couple of years ago, to give you another example, I did a big piece about human trafficking in the former Soviet states, and I ended up focusing my story on a young woman in Moldova, a country where the trafficking problem is atrocious and where the government is deeply involved. This young woman, who was really spunky, worked in counter-trafficking, as a repatriation specialist, right in the face of some of the world’s biggest transnational crime networks—worked directly against their interests, under a corrupt government—and even she wasn’t afraid to have me write about her and her work, or have her picture published in the mag. In fact, my piece turned out to be a good career move for her. But writing about anyone comparable in Michoacan? Well, there is no one comparable. They wouldn’t last a week.
So I structured the piece not around a single character but around a contrast between two Michoacan cities—one where La Familia enjoys popular support—and where the government and the military are seen as hated occupiers—and another where La Familia is the hated occupier. I thought the contrast conveyed some of the complexity of a “captured state.” But it took me a lot of brooding to come up with that.
Maui 1971: An excerpt from Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Town was flat. The whole island had been flat for a week. I had the day off work; Becket had some acid. We dropped (that was the strange, sinking, truncated phrase people used for ingesting LSD) before daybreak, then stood around a fire in Kobatake’s backyard and waited for dawn. Old Kobatake never seemed to sleep. He jabbed the fire with a crowbar, his face a golden oval against the velvety blackness of his yard. He cackled when Becket joked about the roosters waking up his wife. Maybe our scheming, bewhiskered landlord wasn’t such a bad guy. We took my beflowered car, the former Rhino Chaser, and headed west.
Our plan was to trip in the country, away from the madding town, until our madness subsided. Out past Kaanapali we saw the sun’s first rays strike, extra-softly, the crenellated battlements of Molokai’s highlands across the channel. There was a faint reddish haze in the air—from cane fires, probably, or maybe it was volcanic smoke drifting up from the Big Island. Maui people called it vog, which seemed such a bad coinage that we laughed till we wept. Then Becket noticed, out on the ocean’s surface beyond Napili, a weird corduroy pattern. It was weird partly of its own accord, like everything else that morning, but mainly because it was so unexpected. It was, in fact, a huge north swell, steaming past the west end of Maui. Not a trace of it was showing in Lahaina. I found I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t tell whether I was thrilled or frightened. I put the car on automatic surf pilot. It carried us swiftly down red-dirt roads through pineapple fields to the cliffs above Honolua.
The swell might have bypassed the bay if its angle had been more easterly. But it was swinging massively around the point, with sets breaking in places I had never seen waves break before, filling the whole north side of the bay, the entire arena we normally surfed, with whitewater. There was nobody around. I don’t remember much discussion. We had our boards on the roof. We were both hard-wired to surf when there were waves. We waxed up and tried to study the lineup. It was hopeless. It was chaos, unmappable, closing out, and we were now tripping heavily. Peaking, as it was said. At some point we gave up and clambered down the trail. I picture us both giggling nervously. The roaring down on the narrow beach was constant, operatically ominous. I was sure I had never heard anything like it before. The bad news, some remaining rational part of me knew, was the good news. We would never make it out. We would be driven back onto the beach, quickly defeated by the multiple walls of soup rumbling toward the beach.
We launched from the upper end of the beach, in the lee of some big rocks. It wasn’t a wise place to enter the water, normally, but we wanted to stay as far as possible from the bluff at the other end, which had a cave on its up-coast flank that ate boards and bodies on nice days, and was now being battered nonstop. We started paddling, scrambling in an eddy alongside the rocks, and then got swept counterclockwise like ants in a sucking drain, out into the broad field of big walls of soup. Struggling to hang onto my board, I lost track of Becket. My thoughts turned toward survival. I would spin and try to catch the next wall of soup, then try to hit the beach above the bluff. The imperatives were suddenly simple: stay out of the cave, don’t drown. But no soup presented itself. I was being swept sideways across the bay, past the bluff, paddling over the shoulders of big foamy waves. This was apparently a lull between sets. I kept paddling toward open-ocean. The bad news had turned good, which was bad. I was going to make it out. Becket, for his sins, also made it. We paddled far outside, into sunlight, stroking over vast swells still gathering themselves for the apocalyptic festivities inside the bay.
Our colloquy, sitting out in the ocean on our boards, would have seemed incoherent to an onlooker, had there been one. To us it made perfect, fractured sense. I remember lifting double handfuls of seawater toward the sky and letting them cascade through the morning light, saying: “Water? Water?” Becket: “I know what you mean.” I had dropped acid probably six or eight times before, and had usually had an awful time. The drug tended to reduce me, after a while, to molecular fascinations. These were okay as long as they stood at a certain angle to everyday perception, revealing its hilarious pomposity, its arbitrariness—this was the great promise of psychedelics, after all—but they were less funny when they locked into personal psychodramas, actual feelings, much distorted. Domenic had once had to carry me to a nurse we knew to get me pumped full of Thorazine, an anti-psychotic, after I fell down a rabbit hole of guilt about deceiving my parents about my high school pot smoking. Caryn liked to say, quoting Walpole, that life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel. That pretty well nailed my problem with LSD. The cerebral part was terrific; the emotional part, not so much.
With this huge swell, the Maui surf grapevine worked faster than it did the first time I rode Honolua, when we caught that modest new swell by camping there, and nobody turned up all morning. This time cars started appearing on the cliff not long after Becket and I got out. Nobody joined us, though. We must have looked like what we were—two fools, having made a major mistake, bobbing way beyond the waves, too scared to move in. The surf was much too disorganized to ride. Maybe it would clean up later. My fear, however, was not the usual, frantically calculating kind. It came and went, while my thoughts bounced between the troposphere and the ionosphere, with occasional swooping Coriolis detours down to the sea surface heaving beneath us. I knew I wanted to be back on shore, but couldn’t seem to hold that thought long. I began to edge in toward the point, having a vague idea that I could catch a green train there, bound for dry land. Becket watched me recede with an expression of puzzled concern.
JB Do you have a basic template you can fall back on?
WF I wish. I have a bad habit of trying to reinvent the wheel, always thinking that, for this story, whatever it may be, I have to come up with some entirely new language, some tone, some structure, some texture that I’ve never used before. Why? Because this subject is unlike anything else I’ve written about. Well, sure it is. But it’s a disastrously inefficient approach. I never went to journalism school or worked on a newspaper. So I never learned some basic efficiencies. I know how a news story is constructed, and how not to bury the lede, but I don’t write news, so I usually try to start a piece not with a conventional lede but in some gripping and unlikely spot to surprise readers. And I usually try, as I said, to find a good main character. But every piece I do seems to turn into a new misadventure.
One constant, though, is the conventional wisdom, the rip current of reader expectations that you have to work against, the clichés that come with every territory. They’re never accurate, in my experience. They always need to be shaded, or tweaked, at least. So, usually right from the top, I find myself trying to subvert prevailing stereotypes, whatever those are. And the best way to do that is usually not straight-on, saying, “Hey, dear reader, those clichés you’ve heard are wrong or, at best, misleading,” but to skirt them, almost ignore them, and instead write about a place as if you’re arriving there fresh, without expectations. You may think you’ve been there before, but you haven’t. For instance, “Mexican drug cartel” is, in the news, basically a cartoon, a mysterious, opaque source of violence and contraband. It’s a bunch of bad guys. It doesn’t have a social base, a political context, an economic or cultural significance, or a local history and specificity that might make it more understandable to American readers. So, start with a road trip through Michoacan with a local businesswoman who actually prefers La Familia to the Mexican government and who can be eloquent about why. Make the reader say, “Huh?”
I mentioned working in Somalia. It was in the mid 90s, at the end of the U.N. intervention. For years, you couldn’t read a 100-word wire story about Somalia that didn’t use the word “anarchy.” But “anarchy” was the wrong word for what I saw happening there, because, in the absence of a government and with the withdrawal of the international force, there were all these new structures emerging—judicial, educational, commercial. They were Islamic, Somali-traditional, post-national. None of them bore any resemblance to classical, or even metaphorical, anarchism. But they were clearly reorganizing the society and economy to function in some new way, without a recognized state. And there was actually something to be said for statelessness, I thought, in a region where states have tended to be predatory dictatorships—the possibilities for press freedom, for a start. So I set myself a strange test: to write a 12,000-word “Letter from Somalia” without once using the word “anarchy.” I think I pulled it off; I don’t recall. But the point was to try to say something new. Unfortunately, with me that usually involves reinventing the goddamn wheel.
JB Do the solutions to writing problems come to you during working hours, or are you sometimes haunted by the stories?
WF When I’m stuck, I often can’t sleep, or I’ll wake up early and I’ll lie there in bed, forbidding myself to get up until I’ve got a new idea about how to make something work. Bladder pressure as inspiration device. But unsolved writing problems always seem to be roiling in my head, including out in the water.
JB Do you surf much in New York?
WF Yes. It gets good a lot more than I expected. There’s not much in the summer, but we get hurricane swells in the fall, nor’easters in winter and spring. On south swells with west winds, Jersey can be amazing. When the wind’s north, Long Island. It’s all beachbreaks near the city, but Montauk has some nice rock reefs. Crowds are mellower than on the West Coast. In the winter, I’ve surfed alone in conditions that would have had 100 guys in the water in L.A. Of course, you need a good wetsuit.
JB Other hobbies?
WF Reading. Tennis, which I took up after moving here. Hanging out with my daughter, who’s 8. She and I have adventures around the city. There are so many different New Yorks, and having a kid introduces you to a whole set of new ones. It also cuts down on the nightlifing, which is fine.
JB What do you read?
WF I read a lot for work—books and articles on subjects I write about, and a long roll call of magazines and websites that I either enjoy or feel obliged to stay abreast of. I wish I had more time to reread the Western canon for pleasure. Maybe next life. I read new fiction for fun. But you know how it is—if you’re a writer, reading good stuff is always both a kick and an education. You get new ideas about what’s possible on the page. I still have to be careful what I read while I’m writing. A powerful stylist can turn my head. I find myself saying, “I want to write like her,” and the next day I produce imitative crap.
WF I have a few faves, including yours—you should post more. But blogs are a big part of my computer distraction problem. I keep thinking I should get a second computer that doesn’t have an Internet connection. I write an occasional post for The New Yorker’s website, but print journalism, which is far from infallible, is still a lot more reliable than the blogosphere for solid reporting. That said, I often use blogs for deep dives into arcane subjects I’m working on. There’s even, believe it or not, a blog devoted to La Familia Michoacana. The person who keeps it up is necessarily anonymous and maintains an ambiguous attitude toward his subject, but I found stuff posted there that I couldn’t find anywhere else.
I’m old school at heart, though. I love books, magazines, newspapers. I already spend too much of my life in front of a glowing screen. I like the heft of a book, a mag. I’m resisting Twitter, the Kindle, even Facebook. You guys have a physically beautiful magazine and a clean, low-key website pointing toward the real thing. Not that I’m above having my own books sold as e-books, or being stoked when I see something I wrote getting a lot of hits online.
JB What’s your next book?
WF A memoir. But nothing about war reporting, or life at The New Yorker, or political battles, or the work side of my life at all, really. It’s about surfing—what it’s been like, some of the places it’s taken me, the guys I’ve surfed with.
WF I wondered if you’d ask. Bryan and I stumbled on it in 1978. The island was uninhabited. The fishermen who took us out there the first time from Viti Levu had never seen surfboards, not even in photos. They didn’t believe we could stand up and ride waves on them until they saw us do it. We’d been camping and surfing at Sigatoka, which is near Tavarua, on Viti Levu, but we had no clue the great wave was out there. We first heard about it by chance on a marine radio, but nothing about its location. Then we met an American surfer named John Ritter in Lautoka. He told us where it was. He’d been surfing it off a yacht with another American, and apparently he’d surfed it the year before, too.
So we went out there and camped. There was only one structure on the island, a little fish drying rack about two feet high. I slept on that, because the snakes couldn’t climb the poles. Bryan slept in a pup tent, zipped tight. There was no fresh water on the island, some wild fruit—not much—and the fish weren’t easy to catch. But the wave—well, everybody knows about the wave, I think. It later got the name Restaurants, which was uninspired. We reckoned it was the best wave either of us had ever surfed. It has that unearthly symmetry, that rifling speed. It has a lot of moods but, unless the wind’s bad, virtually no flaws. And it can be really, really long. My legs would be shaking by the end of a good ride. There were plenty of flat days, including one nine-day flat spell. But the bigger it got the better it got, and there were sessions that were so intense, so emotional, that when I finally paddled in I found myself sobbing on the beach.
The fishermen came back once a week. They took us in to Nadi for supplies. Clean water was the most important thing. The fishermen also came in to the island sometimes to shelter from bad weather. Otherwise, we had it to ourselves. Two more surf yachts came eventually. By the end of that season, we figured nine of us had surfed it, including Ritter and his mate. I thought we’d all sworn an oath never to tell anybody else about the spot. Bryan and I were so serious about it that we never even said “Tavarua” to each other. We used a code word. But then, one day in 1984, when I was living in San Francisco, there it was on the cover of Surfer. It seemed that Tavarua was being developed as a surf resort.
It took me a while to get over the shock and disappointment. But middle-aged wave lust ultimately got the better of me. Now I go there nearly every year, usually around Labor Day. A couple of the older Fijians still laugh at me—I’m the guy who failed to start a hotel. Cloudbreak, which we never even noticed back in the day, has become one of my favorite waves. Of course, as a surf spot, it has this weird, artificial ecology—it never gets crowded, no matter how good it is. It’s famous, but it’s privatized. Also, you get ordinary, aging kooks like me surfing out there with top pros. I’ve had memorable sessions with Shane Dorian, Mark Healey—guys who absolutely rip and, no matter how big it gets, don’t think it’s big. It’s interesting to surf with them, just to try to understand how they think about waves. I think I might like to be Shane Dorian when I grow up.
[Feature image by Jamie Brisick]
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