The family exudes an aura of true love. It's not something with which I am personally familiar…
The McGill house is like something out of a dream. Tucked into the back of a jaw dropping piece of property, perfectly manicured jungle that treads the fine line between over-landscaped and overgrown, it’s all natural woods and Polynesian decor. Embracing Hawaiiana within one’s home decor is a risky business. It can easily become corny. Cookie cutter Disney-esque tiki bar theme, rather than a natural expression of the environment. But with an eye, and enough effort, it can be done.
Situated well back into Pupukea, it’s a quite trek from nearly everywhere on Oahu. Up a steep set of switchbacks, down a narrow road that’s easy to miss. The definition of peaceful quietude.
I parked at the base of their driveway, walked up to find Mike, Finn’s father, a professional photographer, hard at work adding to his homestead. Dripping sweat, he offered me a hand covered in paint. Fully dried, thank goodness.
He did not invent the McTwist.
The house is a work in progress. Certain areas stripped of paint, sanded. Giving a vibe of never ending improvement. Once a project is done he’ll no doubt find another. Mike directed me upstairs, I was greeted by Lindsay, the matriarch. Sweating from a recent workout, in the process of packing for a trip to the mainland, Mrs McGill is a tall woman whose genetics most obviously was contributed to her children’s appearance.
She’d been my contact to wrangle Finn. It’s a role to which she’s well suited as the proprietor of a Santa Monica based production house. Also, because Finn is only sixteen, and I feel awkward cold calling minors.
Finn had been much in demand, finding a spare moment wasn’t easy. After some back and forth she found the time, pushed it back at the last minute because Finn wasn’t home. He was in Wahiawa, picking up a few new Glenn Pang shaped boards. An excusable delay if there ever was one.
If Finnegan McGill had a spirit animal it would be an adolescent yellow Labrador Retriever. Blonde haired, freckled, he’s put on a good three or four inches over the Summer. If his voice is any indication he’s still got some growing left to do. On the cusp of deepness, it still delivers the occasional high pitched crack when he’s excited.
He’s pleased with his new size.
“It just makes my surfing look bigger and more mature. It helps me out surfing against the big guys. And I’ve got longer arms, so I can paddle faster.”
Throughout our conversation Finn is amiable and open, seems genuinely happy to talk. The polar opposite of the stereotypical home schooled surf phenom. He stutters and stammers a bit, builds confidence as we go.
I ask him to explain the lineup at Pipe, tell me how to recognize a good wave. Finn did not luck his way into his first place finish in the Pipe trials. Did not three to the beach in slop. He repeatedly found the best waves, true Pipe barrels, and surfed them with aplomb. His demeanor shifts. He stops being an eager young man, becomes an expert. Clearly explains what to look for, how the wave bends and grinds.
He then reminds me that he is very young. Lacking a true grasp of consequences. “I’ve hit my head out there a few times. But it’s nothing crazy.”
His result was facilitated by a lack of expectations. Everyone wants to win, but he really only hoped to make his first heat. The entire event was a lineup of killers. A solid result at such a young age, while not without precedent, is hardly required. A solid showing and early round exit would have been praised. A first place finish blows minds.
Now ten thousand dollars richer, he plans to save the money. Possibly put it towards next year’s ‘QS campaign.
A campaign which is, if we’re honest, fraught with danger. That tour has ruined lives, and unattended teens often fair poorly. Do lasting damage to both their career, to their life. I ask Finn how he plans to manage.
“I’m gonna probably travel with some friends and stuff,” he says.
Hardly a reassuring sentiment, but it’s one his mother, who had just entered the room, quickly puts to rest.
“He won’t actually be alone. Usually the Billabong team sends someone, so he’ll be with a coach or one the team managers. Mom and Dad wont let him do it on his own. Either he’ll be with them, or he’ll be with us.”
Their respective careers give them the freedom to follow up on the promise. That and “we have a ton of frequent flier miles.”
The McGill clan as a whole comes across as so loving and supportive that it nearly seems nefarious. No family is this close, no one gets along this well. And while I’m sure that’s somewhat true, everything is always more complicated than it appears on the surface, they exude an aura of true love and togetherness. It’s not something with which I am personally familiar, but I recognize that it exists.
At one point his sister, Dax, enters the room. Dax is eighteen, very pretty, and a highly talented surfer and skateboarder in her own right.
In tow are four tiny boys bearing trophies they’d made for Finn. The Pipe Trials doesn’t provide one. I tell him these are probably better anyway.
They spend a few minutes fawning over him, wide eyed and beyond impressed. After they’ve left I ask him about the older kids he looked up to when he was their age. I then point out that’s he’s become one of the heroes he once aspired to emulate. I ask if he’s aware of the fact.
He is not. It had not crossed his mind. But, now that it has, he looks pleased.
But still humble. Always humble. On the North Shore it’s a quality that comes second only to talent on the list of what’s demanded of Pipeline surfers. At least ostensibly. Not everyone lives up to the ideal. Maybe not even most. But Finn manages to pull it off.
The last time Finn pooped his pants, or the last time he’ll to which he’ll admit, he was six years old. He was playing hide and seek, got excited, didn’t want to leave his hiding place.
Throughout our conversation Finn makes repeated references to when he “was a kid.” Slightly amusing, as Finn is still far from fully developed. Slightly frustrating, because this freckled grom has already earned his way into the Pipeline Masters, a feat which nearly every surfer on Earth can only dream.
The following day Finn faced Jordy Smith and Keanu Asing in round one of the main event. The swell was out of the northeast, the surf well below what anyone would call good.
He caught a few waves, found one very good barrel toward the end of the heat I was sure would push him into round three. But he was outpointed by turns, relegated to the repercharge.
Finn didn’t seem bothered.
Why would he be?
He entered the trials hoping to surf twice. Everything after that has been icing on the cake.