Barbarian Days with Bill Finnegan

The heavy weight champion of surf writing speaks.

William Finnegan is the World Heavyweight Champion of surf writing. He’s held the title since 1992, when his story, “Playing Doc’s Games” arrived in two sequential issues of the mighty New Yorker, where he’s been a staff writer since ’84.

A considerable talent in the water, “Playing Doc’s Games” is Finnegan’s love letter to San Francisco, and to surfing’s bygone era of committed individualism, as seen through the eyes of world-class weirdo and big wave adventurer, Doc Renneker.

It’s also a sprawling, dense, lush 35,000-word triumph, resolved by one of the most gorgeous passages I’ve ever read—in The New Yorker, or elsewhere—exploring Finnegan’s feelings about a photo that hangs on his Manhattan office wall, of him “half crouched inside a slate-gray barrel off Noriega Street, Ocean Beach.”

Bill is clearly visible in the shot. Had the photographer waited to drop the hammer a fraction of a second longer, Bill would have been hidden from view, fully slotted.

“That’s the shot I covet,” Finnegan writes: “The wave alone, with the knowledge that I am in there, drawing a high line behind the thick, pouring, silver-beaded curtain. That invisible passage, not this moment of anticipation, was the heart of the ride. But pictures are not about what a ride felt like; they are about what it looked like to others. This picture shows a dark sea; my memory of that wave is drenched with silver light. That’s because I was looking south while I navigated its depths, and as I slipped through its brilliant almond eye back into the world.”

Last month Finnegan published his memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, built around the original New Yorker piece. The book chronicles Finnegan’s relationship to surfing from adolescence through adult- and fatherhood. And while it isn’t quite the epiphany that “Playing Doc’s Games” was, it’s the best chance we’ve got at a book about surfing finding a more general audience.

Yesterday, Finnegan sat down with NPR’s Morning Edition to discuss his life not as a New Yorker staffer, but as Surfer. Here are a few of the interview’s nuggets:

On chasing perfect waves: “I think I and a lot of my friends had our career goals seriously warped by [Endless Summer]. I didn’t really even think about it. It just sort of felt mandatory. I’d have to go looking for waves.”

On perfection: “Perfect is a terrible word, actually. Surfers have kind of a perfection fetish. “And it was perfect!”Waves are not stationary objects in nature. They’re not diamonds or roses or something that you just look at. They’re the end of a long process, it’s an explosion across a reef and wind, tide, everything affects every wave.”

On finding Tavarua after four years of searching: “I was on a yacht that had some surfers also looking for waves, some Australians. And I heard, or one of those guys overheard, broadcasts between two other boats — something about a perfect 300 yard left. And we searched and searched and got quite lucky. I mean the fishermen we got to take us across the channel to this little uninhabited island — they had never seen a surfboard before. They didn’t believe that we could stand up on them — they thought they were airplane wings. And so it was really a sort of the dawn of discovery of that place, which is now one of the most famous waves in the world.”

On getting old: “I mean it’s horrifying to lose your quickness and strength. But, I think I’ve gained an appreciation of, you know, a good day in the water. I mean, I think when I was younger, it was easier to take it for granted that it would go on forever. You know as you get older you know it’s not going to go on forever.”

You can listen to the entire interview here (and shit if his voice isn’t as handsome as his prose).

Derek Hynd finless
You want zing? Look at what the almost-sixty-year-old Derek Hynd learnt to do just by removing his rudders! Photo by Steve Sherman | Photo: Steve Sherman

Hynd: “No point looking. They’re everywhere.”

Finless pioneer Derek Hynd on why he paddled out to J-Bay an hour after the attack on Mick… 

The Newport, Sydney, surfer and former world number seven, Derek Hynd, is one of the most wonderful and interesting gypsies you’ll ever meet.

(Click here to read about DH)

On Monday, a little under an hour after Mick was wrestled by a Great White shark, DH paddled out for a handful of uncrowded gems on one of his giant finless craft.

What drives a fellow to sink himself into the lair of a frisky White? I had to ask!

BeachGrit: Did you have a very good look at the lineup for fins?

DH: No point looking for fins.They’re everywhere beneath. My erstwhile host here, Merv Herscovitz, got the shits about Point being empty (the bottom section). Merv’s in his mid 60’s and from Zimbabwe. Very unique brand of people regardless of colour, these Zimbabweans. Their humour seems to be the best anywhere. So from where his house is it’s a straight view all the way up the line from Albatross. In his particular way he said buggerit I’m out there. I guess I got suited up a fair bit earlier once he said that and started the long paddle to Supers.

BeachGrit: How did you rationalise paddling out?

DH: I didn’t. Not trying to knock on Fate’s door here but I’ve seen encounters and attacks here going back to the mid 80’s. I’d like to think I know the bay, currents, traditional feeding patterns. Inquisition by shark on man was over.

BeachGrit: Were you thrilled by Mick and Julian’s reactions?

DH: I’d like to just say “Australian” but there’s a South African precedent. Sterling efforts for a few reasons. Julian appeared to be onto the situation of his friend a fair few seconds before the skis. No disrespect to the ski guys. You can’t be looking everywhere at once but perhaps with Julian his focus was always going to be Mick on the paddle back out. Kelly seemed to put a lot of it into perspective in an interview – about who Mick was and why the outcome was mild. Mick seemed to measure the situation really well until the thwack to the side of the head second time around. Julian’s reaction remains more of a worry for me than Mick’s because he had that slowed down time aspect of paddling towards a probable worst case situation of a friend not just rival. I hope he gets over that bit sooner rather than later. At East London, Nahoon, it was Andrew Carter’s friend Bruce Corby being attacked and unfortunately killed – and he was also badly attacked in the process of charging to the rescue. Julian has every right to remain tender about it for a few years. Close witnesses to attacks can suffer worse through adrenaline overload than victims in close call situations like these.

BeachGrit: Would you call Mick’s response courage or self-preservation and is there a difference?

DH: Big difference for a bloke like Mick. Mick’s a champion in every sense of the vernacular. Super fast reaction times. Courage to be controlled under pressure, second to second. That’s his way. Self fucken preservation though once the State of Origin turned unmanageable about six seconds in.

BeachGrit: Have you had any visits from sharks at J-Bay?

DH: Sure.

BeachGrit: You live in Byron or J-Bay. Both White haunts. Do you love them like so many people or are they just a big fish to you?

DH: Hardly big fish. Don’t love them. I revere their ancient power, capacities, instincts. I went to Byron with my family and my older brother Rod’s Avalon friends as a boy when the abattoir was state of the art blood and guts effluent. I like surfing the Main Beach stretch far less than J-Bay because of it, though it was yolks ago. The genes of these great beasts… innate habits clustered around the chum fest.

BeachGrit: How do you think you would react if hit by a shark, and you think about it?

DH: I’d like to think I’d be as initially calm as Mick. I prefer not to think about it, rather be conscious of smooth movement.

BeachGrit: Are sharks in your night thoughts, when you lay in bed?

DH: Land sharks, not sea sharks.

BeachGrit: Was the Mick hit the best thing you’ve seen in the pro surfing biz?

DH: Nope, Simon’s first wave at Big Bells ’81. No question. To see it live was like watching the invention of the wheel.

This is DH in all his J-Bay finery and, below this clip, DH surfing an hour after Mick was hit.


J-Bay local says: “The best crowd repellant ever!”

Last year's J-Bay wildcard Dylan Lightfoot on the effectiveness of the Great White deterrent… 

I’ve never, ever, wanted to wet a rail at J-Bay, in a country where Great Whites have been protected since 1991.

Sharks? Who needs ’em?

I’ve also struck the south-west corner of Australia and anywhere from Ballina to Byron Bay off my list of places to surf. Visit, sure. I like to surf but I also like to breathe air and walk on two lil legs.

But, on that final day of the J-Bay Open, with fast runners hitting the reef just so, backing off enough to strike a lip or get theatrical with an open-face cutdown, I started thinking, maybe the shark thing ain’t so bad there. I could always crawl onto the rocks if I saw a fin too close.

And, then, Mick.

And it reminded me of the fatal attack there in 2013 when 74-year-old swimmer Burgert Van De Westhuizen, who’d swum the same lineup, same route for the previous 20 years, was hit by a White so big it looked it was two of ’em and dragged out into deep water. A local surfer was in a sea kayak and belted the shark over and over with his paddle but it wouldn’t release the body.

And it reminded me of the time the local surfer, Warren Dean, who used to beat Andy Irons at J-Bay every year, was bumped by a Great White in the same way as Mick (but no cameras).

And when Taj Burrow was terrorised by a metre-high fin during the event there in 2003.

And I wondered, how does it affect a surfer, a very good surfer, someone who’s made surfing their job, who actually lives in Jeffreys Bay? Do they just hang up the spurs?

I called last year’s J-Bay Open wildcard and WSQ surfer, Dylan Lightfoot, for his angle.

BeachGrit: Where were you when the shark hit Mick? 

Dylan: I’d got on a flight the day before the final and I saw it for the first time the next day. It was wild. But, to be honest, the shark didn’t show any intent to bite him. It just came to check him out, got caught in his leash, and took off. If it was going to bite him, it would’ve just taken him.

BeachGrit: How does it affect you, as a local there? 

Dylan: There’s sharks there all the time. I couldn’t be bothered.

BeachGrit: What are your experiences with sharks there? 

Dylan: I’ve seen a shark cruise the Supers lineup, not even five metres away from me, just cruising, taking it easy. What was scary was when the swimmer was taken and properly eaten two years ago and the shark wouldn’t let go of the corpse. Ya. That was scary. They’re out there and you have to be on the lookout, for sure.

BeachGrit: Y’still going to hit the lineup for earlies?

Dylan: I don’t think it will. Both shark incidents we’ve had in Jefreys Bay have both been around lunch time or towards the evening. I feel those late evening surfs are the most sketchy for sharks.

BeachGrit: And, therefore, no more lates?

Dylan: Definitely. Especially if something does happen and it’s getting dark and no one will be able to help you out.

BeachGrit: What’s the mood like among your pals and the rest of the locals? 

Dylan: A lot of people were very shaken up. My Dad is neurotic about sharks so for him to see that he was pretty disturbed. I still don’t think it’ll stop us from surfing at Supers. My mates and I joke that it was the best way to deter crowds from coming to J-Bay.

BeachGrit: When I interviewed you last year, you spoke about the White cruising the lineup a couple of months before the event and how everyone at Supers climbed up onto the rocks. And you got circled in Durban, too. What happened in that instance?

Dylan: Ha ha ha! Yeah! That was the last time I saw a shark out there. I’ve been circled up the west coast, about two hours past Cape Town. I was surfing a beachie with my mate and my brother, water was not deeper than head height, it was murky and it was a dark cloudy day. This was also in the evening. My mate had just caught a wave and my brother was hanging on the inside so I was out the back alone. And this shark, not big, about two metres, came from the right, shooting past me and it turned around and came from the opposite side and started to circle me in a fast and aggressive way. Luckily, a wave popped up and I caught it in.

BeachGrit: How do you deal with the real possibility of getting hit one day?

Dylan: I don’t think about it. You have to be vigilant and hope that nothing happens. But, I suppose, if you had to be bitten, at least you were doing something that you loved. So it’s worth the risk in the end.

#tournotes: The one you want!

Peter King talks about "the day."

The entire world is trying to get the story we’ve known Peter King’s had the whole time! This edition of #tournotes is going to be the series’ most viewed, and fuck, if it ain’t a little gem.

“I said shit online,” says Pottz. “Because it was legit. It was, like, a five-foot fin, dude. That thing was huge.”

But more than Pottz and others’ words, Mick’s silence – that’s the whole fucking story right there.



Shark seen in water hours before attack!

"I got an email from a friend tonight who said he clearly saw a shark figure during quarter-finals..." says Kelly Slater.

The days after an extraordinary event are the most wonderful, no? The adrenalized buzz has worn off, a touch, and conspiracists and the delusional and normal folk too are allowed to sift through the pieces, filling out a larger narrative.

Many have already suggested the shark was a WSL plant. CEO Paul Speaker had promised surfing would be bigger than the National Football League and for one glorious day it was! But just think of the work involved having a man in a shark suit down there for some hours and popping up and grabbing Mick and everyone playing along….It is why I never believe conspiracy theories. Too many moving parts! Too much work!

The Sydney Morning Herald has something a little less crazy and a lot more insidious though.

Kelly Slater says his friend “clearly” saw a shark in the water four hours before Mick Fanning was attacked, as footage emerges of what appears to be a shark metres from where the Australian was surfing earlier in the championship event in South Africa overnight. 

During Fanning’s heat at the J-Bay Open, television cameras were able to pick up a dark shadow and what could be the dorsal fin of a shark a little further out from where Fanning was paddling four hours before he punched a three-metre shark.

Oooo-ee! Danger danger! CEO Paul Speaker himself said, according to the paper, that sharks had been seen in the area days earlier. Should the WSL have called the heat off or, at least, postponed? I think no because then we would not have had the extraordinary day in the first place but what do you think?

Read the whole story here!