Mar 11, 2017

An Ocean-less Barbarian

It seems an odd place to contemplate surfing, but oddly enough the last few weeks in Alice Springs I’ve spent yearning for the ocean. The dry heat makes one think wistfully of powerful waves crashing hard on rocky shores underneath grey skies heavy with the threat of rain. The monotony of endless sun and blue skies makes one think longingly of being curled up in front of a warm fire as the ocean sings its powerful and endless song. On another day with no cloud and temperatures soaring, I finished a book I won’t forget for some time – Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan.

Surfing a beach break at Cape Le Grand, Western Australia

For those more erudite than I, it would have been no surprise that Barbarian Days was such an incredible read. Finnegan has won an number of awards throughout his successful career as a journalist. For 30 years he has been writing for The New Yorker on topics such as apartheid South Africa, immigration and drug trafficking in Mexico, wars in Mozambique and the Sudan, economic affluence and poverty in modern USA, and, of course, surfing.

For Finnegan, writing about surfing seemed to be inconsequential compared to his more socially valid journalistic topics. Nevertheless, he produced an autobiography that managed to be at once entirely about surfing but also not. For although surfing is ever-present in Barbarian Days, it is but a canvas on which Finnegan paints his life story.

For me, the most poignant chapter of the book was when Finnegan wrote about his time in San Francisco. He wrote of his ambivalence about his desire to continue surfing. But ultimately he couldn’t resist the call of the waves despite the cold, murky water and the gnarly waves of Ocean Beach. As throughout the book, the spectacular descriptions of surfing served as but a metaphor for the phases of life. His time in San Francisco marked the end of his peripatetic days of his 20s when he searched for waves the world over. Instead, he studied the ocean and tried to understand his place in the world as he forged his career and stabilised his personal life.

A crowded lineup in Noosa, Queensland

The cold water of northern California was in stark contrast to Finnegan’s previous phase. With a friend, Bryan di Salvatore, Finnegan travelled the Earth searching for perfect waves. He wrote romantically of an unspoiled South Pacific. The warm waters of Hawaii, Tonga, Fiji, and Tahiti were devoid of surfers and resorts. He wrote of an egalitarian Australia and a laid-back Gold Coast, something we once were but are certainly no longer. They travelled to south-east Asia and found authentic experiences in Bali, Thailand and the Philippines. His search for waves spoke of his own rapture and euphoria of being young and unshackled.

My own experiences with surfing have been laced with frustration. Unlike Finnegan, my youth in Burramine South was far from the ocean. Nevertheless, it was easy to relate to his boyish joy at catching his first wave in southern California. I could inherently understand the way in which he used surfing to integrate himself into his high school community after his family moved to Hawaii. Finnegan speaks a universal language as he describes his life transitioning from childhood, to adolescence, through adulthood and beyond. His writing of surfing serves as a prism through which his life is laid bare.

Clean but small waves at Pirates Bay, Tasmania

Part of my being I’ve never understood is a desire to test myself against fear and my own limitations. As Barbarian Days progressed, it became clear that this was also true of Finnegan. He found bigger and heavier waves. He wrote of collisions with rocks and coral reefs, of being held under by breaking waves, of the fearful sound of water collapsing on itself with a thunderous crack. Even with the birth of his daughter, the desire to surf continued unabated. The psychological reconciliation of Finnegan’s risks and responsibilities was traversed without being entirely resolved.

The other psychological aspect to which I could relate was the mediative aspect of sport, particularly when physical danger is involved. The ability to live in the moment seems directly proportional to the gravity of your personal well-being. When trying to execute an intricate skill with the pressure of an enormous and angry wall of water or an equally enormous and angry opponent, clarity of thought is extraordinary. Suddenly the worries of the world beyond those immediate have disappeared. I can imagine that chasing stories through war-torn Sudan would require hours in the ocean to dissolve the recurring memories.

It was the beauty of the book that struck me throughout. It seems as though Finnegan has lived a magnificent life because of the richness that surfing gave it. The countless hours he spent conversing with other surfers about aspects of weather, swell, board shape, and all manner of intricate details of his chosen sport only added to the fullness of his autobiography. Frankly, it was inspirational and self-affirming to read of the minutiae of Finnegan’s surfing. It wasn’t the money he made, the awards he won or the clothes he wore that counted in his life story, it was the colours of the ocean, the shared experiences with friends, and the shape and motion of the waves that created beauty in his life.

Scratchy surf in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka

There was no over-arching plot line flowing through Barbarian Days. No inexorable march to a foregone conclusion. Merely a disparate search for another wave. A complex tumult of emotions and experiences throughout a common theme. Although not a surfer and over a thousand kilometres from any sea, Barbarian Days left me enthusiastic about where my personal search for the perfect wave will take me.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life – Amazon

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life – The Guardian review

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