Barbarian Days

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Recently finished reading Barbarian Days, which was touted as essential summer reading by  Obama, is a NY Times bestseller, and Pulitzer prize winner.  Really impressive accolades and definitely a first for a book largely about a life chasing unspoiled waves.  The story follows the life of William Finnegan from growing up as a young surfer in Hawaii and Southern California to later teaching his way through South Africa during apartheid to a contributor and then staff writer for the New Yorker.

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Photo Courtesy of William Finnegan

He brings the reader along as he travels the world in search of himself, and of course, uncrowded surf…G-land, Tavarua, Madeira, the South Pacific, and yes, even our beloved Ocean Beach. He shares his perspectives on life, politics, and the people, places, and cultures he encounters.

Timing is everything in surfing and this element plays a key role in his life as he gets to experience all of these magical places at really special moments in their evolution as surf destinations.  Discovering Tavarua from nautical maps and word of mouth back when it was an island for fisherman to hide out on between storms and before it became known as the luxury surf destination it is today.  G-Land when there was still the threat of Sumatran tigers dragging you off into the jungle and even Madeira before it became well known as a big wave paradise.

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From left: Messrs Di Salvatore and Finnegan with unknown, Grajagan, Java, 1979 William Finnegan image courtesy of MrPorter.com

There were a couple times in the book that I thought his descriptions were a little off the mark, specifically when talking about Ocean Beach and it’s many subtleties.  That said, the vast majority of the time he was spot on as far as I could tell and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything on the subject of surfing that was as articulate and thoughtful.  It was cool to hear about the way it was 15 years or so before I started surfing here.  The cast of characters.  The quiet eeriness of the neighborhood, which you can still get a glimpse of from time to time.  The tunnels through the dunes that no longer exist.  The many moods.

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In his two part article written for the New Yorker back in 92′, Playing Doc’s Games, which took him years to complete and follows his adventures and relationship with local big wave pioneer Doc Renneker and Ocean Beach, he offers up this description.

“Ocean Beach is four miles long, ruler straight, and, except on the rare warm days, mostly deserted. Winos sprawl in the few small sun traps along the embankment; the homeless sometimes camp there briefly, before the wind and cold drive them away. At high tide, Korean fishermen in rubber boots wrestle with surf-casting rigs. Looking south from the Cliff House, at the north end of the beach, the first mile of shorefront abuts on the west end of the Richmond District—a less seedy version of the Sunset—and the west end of Golden Gate Park, which presents itself as a dense cypress windbreak. The Sunset starts below the park and extends southward for roughly three miles, to Sloat Boulevard, beyond which sandy bluffs begin to rise and the urban oceanfront—Ocean Beach—ends.”

An exceptionally talented writer and wordsmith, Finnegan does a really nice job of explaining the intricacies/nuances of this accumulated knowledge we gain as surfers as it relates to line-ups and etiquette, sensations, and the circular nature of our pursuit.

As someone who is a bit behind him in terms of life stages, it was interesting to see him talk about the evolution of his skills, building confidence in bigger and bigger surf, and then begin to fight against it’s inevitable and eventual natural decline.  He explains  briefly the cycle of how we all start off as kooks and then eventually revert to misjudging situations, getting in peoples’ way, blowing waves, and just generally making mistakes in the water.  Something for us all to look forward to…

You can get the book on Amazon by clicking the image below.

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