William Finnegan Barbarian Days
Bill Finnegan at G-Land in the seventies. The waves "looked incredible – long, long, long, fast, empty lefts, six feet on the smaller days, eight-feet plus when the swell pulsed… "

Bill Finnegan on (more than) Barbarian Days

An interview with The New Yorker staffer on a life so beautifully squandered… 

It’s hard to step outside these days without tripping over a review of the William Finnegan book Barbarian Days.

The Wall Street Journal called it “gorgeously written and intensely felt… dare I say that we all need Mr Finnegan… as a role model for a life, thrillingly, lived.”

The LA Times said, “It’s also about a writer’s life and, even more generally, a quester’s life, more carefully observed and precisely rendered than any I’ve read in a long time.”

It threw me under the bus of a two-day obsessive read. I’d dived into Finnegan’s work in the New Yorker before, including an excerpt from the book about his time as a kid in Hawaii (read here) and figured the memoir would be gently entertaining but not especially adventurous. I imagined a writer with a loosely knotted bow-tie and a drooping moustache. A delicate New York gentleman, a flabby enthusiast.

I’d only penetrated three chapters into the book when we suddenly camping on Maui waiting for Honolua Bay to break and, shortly after, camping on the empty beach at Tavarua for a week and surfing a new discovery called Restaurants.

Soon, Grajagan in 1979, Africa and, later, among the big-wave surfers of Ocean Beach, San Francisco, and, then, spending long vacations on Madeira, waiting for Jardim Do Mar’s heavy deep-water right to break.

Photos scattered through the pages showed the author to have visible obliques, was long-haired and tanned. Finnegan was, is, a… stud?

As it turned out, the sixty two year old Finnegan is a pal of the former Surfer editor, pro surfer and Encyclopedia of Surfing curator Matt Warshaw. Matt said he’d cast an email introduction, which he did, and then added,

“You know he plays tennis with Martin Amis.”

(Amis, if you’re late to the reading game, is a very famous British novelist. Try London Fields for an intro to his work.)

Finnegan, Warshaw was implying, is significant.

Yeah, he is.

I’d clamour children underfoot for a chance to hear his eloquence in person. I wanted to be blinded by the glare of his intellect, his adventurous spirit, despite my usual rule of avoiding better men. Where I chase the assurance of perfect safety, Finnegan wasn’t afraid to flaunt his follies in the face of danger.

Maybe I could learn something?

Tell me, I wrote to Finnegan, what is the mind-set that consistently sends a man over the ledge?

“For me, it’s usually a much more conscious decision when I don’t go,” he wrote. “That’s when I actually do some thinking, and doubt creeps in, and discretion becomes the better part of valor. This goes for paddling out on a scary day as well as stroking into a scary wave.

“Once I’m scared, I usually stop surfing, or certainly stop surfing as well as I do when not scared. That tipping point has rational content, usually, based on your experience, which in my case is a lot of years now. But it also has irrational parts, which I try to control and tamp down with little pep talks to myself. Unfortunately, I’ve sometimes succeeded in calming myself down to the point that I’ve tried to surf waves I truly didn’t have the board for, or simply couldn’t handle, and had no business attempting, and have then come close to drowning.

“The decision to paddle out on a bigger day is, for me, sometimes a quite separate thing. Often, you can’t actually see from shore what it’s doing. If there seems to be a reliable channel, I’ll sometimes paddle out with the decision about whether to actually surf still reserved. I’m just going out to see what it looks like. I did that a couple of years ago at Tres Palmas, Puerto Rico, on a big swell. I’d never surfed the place before, and we could just catch glimpses of a couple of guys towing way outside, but we couldn’t really see what the waves were doing – we could only see the tops. But I had a gun, so I paddled out.

“It turned out to be incredibly good, and not that hairy – one guy was even ripping on a shortboard. Nobody could see any of our rides from shore. But for me that decision to paddle out usually turns on my own weird fear–a visceral, anticipatory fear of the feeling I get after I don’t paddle out. That sickening, I-didn’t-even-try feeling. It’s the worst. Actually worse, in my experience, than the traumatized, jesus-I-nearly-drowned feeling. Of course, there have been many times I didn’t paddle out and I was sure I made the right decision. Big Pipe, Maverick’s, Waimea, huge Ocean Beach, maxed-out Jardim, etc. Those decisions don’t haunt me. It’s the judgment calls where afterward I think I chickened out that kill me.”

If he could swing back decades, back into surfing prime, in those days when he was all over Tavarua and Grajagan, would he do anything different?

“I would paddle a few hundred yards down the reef at Grajagan and surf the right fucking spots instead of wasting a glorious, super-clean, week-long swell riding big mushburgers up at what later got named Kong’s. That was 1979, and there was nobody around, and my friends and I had never been there before. We were camping in a half-collapsed tree house, and there were only two of us surfing. The place was already famous, and we had heard about these long fast barreling lefts. But we somehow never figured out that the great waves – Money Trees, Speed Reef, I think they’re called – were way down inside someplace. That was the single stupidest thing I’ve done surfing. Otherwise – there are definitely waves I should have gone on, barrels I should have pulled into. But most of the times that I didn’t push hard enough were probably for the best. I got myself into enough trouble. I’m grateful that things didn’t turn out worse.”

Not that he isn’t adverse to a little dance with fate, even in his harvest years.

“At 62, I’m still looking for the same old kicks, I think. Of course, I don’t surf as well as I once did, which is horrible. And there are places, starting with Puerto Escondido, that I know I shouldn’t go back to. I can’t say I’m not tempted, though, especially when it’s flat around here in July. Two winters ago, I got two intense barrels back-to-back on the North Shore. That was just a few weeks after my 60th birthday. No fool like an old fool!”

When I asked if he thought surfing was elevating or just another pointless pursuit he wrote, “It’s supremely useless, I think, and not at all ennobling. Which is not to say that a great many people, starting with you and me, don’t get a great deal out of it – even a reason to live. It just does nothing, obviously, for anybody else. It’s the ultimate selfish pursuit. You could argue that it teaches its devotees a few things about self-reliance and the grandeur of Nature – maybe even a little humility – and I guess I wouldn’t argue with that. But in the end surfing, in my opinion, does little or nothing to build or improve character. As we all know, a lot of assholes surf, and some of them surf well.”

On the plus slide, “a lot of my best friends surf, and it can be a great deep thing to share with people you really like,” he wrote. “Non-surfers are certainly never going to understand it.”

Finnegan’s been a staff reporter at The New Yorker since 1987. No one reports better than the New Yorker. How, I asked, could surfing be reported better?

“I’m not a press critic,” he wrote. “But what I do read is way too advertiser-friendly. BeachGrit seems to be an exception. (Am I right?) Readers can smell where a mag’s loyalties lie, and if those are not largely with the readers, everybody knows it. Surfing is an unusual journalism niche because the interests of the surf industry, which very largely finances the surf media, are fundamentally at odds with the interests of most surfers, at least as I understand them. They want to ‘grow’ the sport. We’d like it to shrink, reducing crowds.

“So we look at mags that are obviously in bed with the corporations trying to sell us stuff – and always trying, naturally, to find more customers – and we know that those mags are in some basic way not on our side, and that they will never take an honest, independent look at those corporations – at their reliance on Chinese sweatshops, say, to produce boards, board shorts, etc, just to take the most obvious example.

“Not every surfer is concerned about sweatshops, of course, but the journalistic bad faith underneath the relationship between most glossy surf mags and their readers has a stench that, at some level, everybody over the age of 12 is aware of. It’s simply not a straightforward relationship. They’re not just trying to entertain and inform us. They’re trying to sell us shit, and not only through the ads but through editorial. Now let me see if I can find my way off this soapbox without turning an ankle.”

Buy Barbarian Days here.

Subscribe to The New Yorker here. 

Fact: Surfing is better than skating!

In every way but also two very important ones.

Our own Rory Parker wrote, passionately and eloquently, not one week ago that skateboarding is better than surfing. “Other than the whole slamming-face-first-onto-concrete side of the sport, skating is pretty much better than surfing in every way…” he says.

He included progression, lack of interest in contests, superior art in his reasoning and when I read, and saw the attached Big Brother magazine photos and older videos I thought, “Oh Rory…you are wonderful but also wonderfully wrong!”

I’ve met hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who point to skate’s superiority over surf and most of them also point to Big Brother. “So raw!” they crow. “So unafraid!” But do you want to know something? Big Brother stopped publishing magazines in 2004, over a decade ago or an eternity in popular culture terms. It is no longer relevant in any way, shape or form.

Today’s skateboarding is different. Totally fine but not better than surfing and I won’t give three reasons, I’ll give two. Li’l Wayne and Justin Bieber.

The pop stars have embraced skateboarding like no famous person has maybe ever embraced surfing. Li’l Wayne has started a skate label (Trukfit) and Bieber’s newest music video is a pure skate feat. Ryan Sheckler (who sparkles) but also himself doing nollies or something. They both go to skate contests. They both feel comfortable showing off their skillz. And they shouldn’t! I’ve seen Weezy skate and he is terrible. A total embarrassment. Yet when he shows up at skate films the crowd erupts. I would like to think that if he showed up at surf films, after bogging rail, the crowd would boo. Also Bieber is as awkward on a skateboard as he is dancing. I don’t know why they feel so comfortable embracing skate publicly. I don’t know why skate lets themselves be embraced so publicly but it ain’t a great look.


Certainly many famous people surf, or try to surf, but none of them start labels and none of them make surf videos. And Cody Simpson doesn’t count as famous.

Surfing is better because it self-regulates, ruthlessly. It is the most fascist subculture on earth save Neo-Nazism (I once edited a whole Stab issue under this theme! You can maybe buy it here!) In any case, surfing is the narrow path and that makes it gorgeous but also, and really, getting into the saltwater and gliding on God’s energy beats everything but sex. And it always will.

How much: For pro surfing?

The WSL is not (currently) on the block but if it was......

The markets are emotionally unstable 13 year-old girls aren’t they just though? One day it is blue skies and soaring stocks. The next day plummeting depression and Chinese corrections.

And speaking Chinese, did you read today that Dalian Wanda Group, headed by China’s richest man Wang Jianlin ($37.5 b) bought the Ironman Triathlon today for $650,000,000.00? The Ironman Triathlon! Swim/bike/run! Six/hundred/and/fifty/million/United/States/Dollars!

The original Ironman is, of course, Hawaiian, being first run on the Big Island. There are lots now, maybe 200 or so but the season ends each year back where it all began. Kailua-Kona!

In any case, DWG wanted the event to diversify their portfolio (because Chinese stocks are all shit right now. Buy low! Sell high!) and are actively looking to purchase more sports’ properties. Sports are hot across the board right now because they are generally enjoyed in real time and have multiple revenue sources. Which brings me to the real nut. Will the Chinese try to buy the World Surf League?

Let’s pretend they do want it. How much do you think it is worth, really? Oh, don’t be a hater. Whether you love or very dislike, it must be admitted that professional surfing is a going concern with growth potential. And Ironman actually had massive debt. So how much? How much do you think it is actually worth and how much do you think CEO Speaker and co. would take for it?

Also, do you think if we all got together we could crowd fund that amount?

Florida surfing
Dirty Florida surfing is the… real shit!

Opinion: Gulf Coast Surfing is the Real Shit!

Terrorizing gutless Florida peaks. Ain't a thing funner!

Three months (or has it been four? Maybe five…) of gloom and doom, fog and wind have come to an end here in San Francisco.

Save a few short hours of rare light, breathless afternoons, small southerly pulses, it’s been a summer of lowered expectations or jaded proclamations.

I haven’t surfed in months, some say! But I have.

Growing up on the Gulf Coast of Florida, with even the slightest hint of swell we’d be out there, trading logs in trunks, boiling in the balmy brine. For twenty years I lived like that.

A too-many-year-long stint in New York City, a brief foray back home, and now three years of San Francisco. I’m still a goddamned child as far as groveling goes.

For three years I’ve surfed more and better than I have in my life, even these last three months. The right boards, the right drugs, the right amount of desire, and piddly windswell feels fresh and fun and easy fucking breezy.

At night, like all of you bastards, I get lost down rabbit holes of surf clips. I’ve watched Nathan Florence’s gorgeous Chopes grinder 100 times.

I’ve fallen asleep (not out of disinterest, though!) to Sampler and Brother and Cluster – ripe with boosts and barrels and boring fucking lifestyle filler  – regularly, waking alone on my couch or in my office, my dog snoring like freight train.

But more than anything I’ve watched clips of Cory and Shea, Eric and Evan, Gorkin and Hopper, absolutely terrorizing gutless Florida peaks and Dirty Jerz beachies.

Because that’s the real shit right there.

Brighter and bigger days lie ahead for us here in the land of ripping tidal currents, schizophrenic wind and weather. Surely this fall will be a dream.

But never forget summer, you bunch of babies.

Jill Hansen surfer model attempted murder
Jill Hansen is the Hawaiian surfer and "model" who was charged last year with second-degree attempted murder after a 73-year-old Hawaii woman was seriously injured after being struck by a hit-and-run driver in the garage of her own apartment building. In 2010, Ms Hansen spoke at TEDx on supernaturalism, divinity, omnipresence, telekinesis and spirituality. Like, yike!

Jill Hansen Not Guilty of Attempted Murder!

The “professional” surfer Jill Hansen has been found not guilty of attempted murder by reason of insanity…

A quick recap: Hansen, a self-styled “professional” surfer in her early thirties, was charged with second-degree attempted murder for an attack in which she stole a 73-year-old woman’s car, ran her over with it, and attempted to flee.

Somewhat notorious in the surf world for her delusional self aggrandizement, Hansen is also known for performing what may be the best TEDX talk ever.

(Click here)

The trial, delayed due to her ongoing mental health issues, was a brief affair, involving only testimony from three mental health experts, “who all agreed that she suffered from multiple symptoms including voices, paranoia, and grandiose delusions and was not capable of understanding what she was doing was wrong.”

(Read it here)

Dr Tom Cunningham, a psychologist who’d examined Hansen both before, and after, the attack asserted on Wednesday, “She has had this very serious illness for a long time. I know that the prosecution pointed out just because you have this disorder doesn’t mean you are not responsible for what you do, but she has been seriously impaired for a long time.”

(Click here)

Lest the ruling confuse any of the more bloody minded among us, this does not mean Hansen gets off scot-free. Far from it.

Rather than a clearly defined sentence, Hansen now faces an indeterminate time in Hawaii’s only state run mental institution. (Click here to read about that.)

It is NOT a happy place.