As much as I love the idea of being one with the elements and riding down the surface of a wave moving majestically up and down carving beautiful shapes into the wall of water, before shooting up into the air (maybe doing a little flip for extra style points), alas, it never works out that way.
In all my excited forays into the ocean, all I ever manage to do is paddle excitedly to try and catch wave after wave and have them just blank me and pass me by until, eventually, just as I’m starting to despair “I got one!.. Oh wait… no… maybe it’s got me”. I nosedive immediately and the ocean proceeds to toss me about like a fruit salad until it finally decides to spit me out on shore. Then invigorated (or shall we call it happy to be alive?) and with sand EVERYWHERE I would go out and do it all over again. This can hardly be called surfing, and a more precise description would be ‘managing not to drown whilst attached to a surfboard’ and, probably quite sensibly, I’ve opted recently to leave it to people who know what they are doing.
However, this doesn’t mean that I can’t continue to dream and live vicariously by watching surf documentaries and reading books. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I wanted to talk to you about. A few years ago I read a beautiful book about surfing, and it was just SO well written that it takes you into a surfer’s world and the words give you a glimpse of what it must be like to dance with Poseidon and flirt with the unfathomable fury of the sea.
The book is called ‘Barbarian days’. It’s a memoir by a surfer called William Finnigan and it chronicles his life from when he grew up surfing in California and Hawaii, and then went chasing the ‘perfect wave’ in the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, Africa, and beyond. It really is beautifully written and I thought that I’d share with you my favourite little paragraphs that, as I leafed through it again, I saw that I had highlighted.
This first bit I marked out was early on when he first moved to Hawaii and he is nervously trying to find his place in the ‘line up’ and is scoping out the local talent:
“Day in, day out, Glenn Kaulukukui was my favourite surfer. From the moment he caught a wave, gliding catlike to his feet, I couldn’t take my eyes off the lines he drew, the speed he somehow found, the improvisations he came up with. He had a huge head, which seemed always to be slightly thrown back, and long hair, sun bleached red, also thrown lushly back. He had thick lips, African looking, black shoulders, and he moved with unusual elegance. But there was something else - call it wit, or irony - that accompanied his physical confidence and beauty, something bittersweet that allowed him, in all but the most demanding situations, to seem like he was both performing intently and, at the same time, laughing quietly at himself.”
Later on Finnigan writes about how surfing differs from other sports and even though you do it in groups, ultimately it’s just you, your board and the ocean. I really enjoyed this as I like contemplating the deep blues immense immortal power:
“But surfing always had this horizon, this fear line, that made it different from other things, certainly other sports I knew. You could do it with friends, but when the waves got big, or you got into trouble, there never seemed to be anybody around.
Everything else out there was disturbingly interlaced with everything else. Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration. At the same time, they were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy. The surf was your refuge, your happy hiding place, but it was also a hostile wilderness - a dynamic, indifferent world. At thirteen, I had mostly stopped believing in God, but that was a new development, and it had left a whole in my world, a feeling that I’d been abandoned. The ocean was like an uncaring God, endlessly dangerous, power beyond measure.”
And, finally, I’ll leave you with my favourite bit, that almost makes me want to go try tumbling around in the navy wavy wonders washing machine again. After all, how hard can it be?
“Style was everything in surfing - how graceful your moves, how quick your reactions, how clever your solutions to the puzzles presented, how deeply carved and how cleanly linked your turns, even what you did with your hands. Great surfers could make you gasp with the beauty of what they did. They could make the hardest moves look easy. Casual power, the proverbial grace under pressure, those were our beau ideals.”