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Surf Narrative Essay

ONEIn 1912, Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian waterman most credited with spreading the gospel of surfing, came to California and put on several surfing exhibitions for the inhabitants of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach. Surfing existed in the States prior to the Duke’s arrival, but the Duke spread the gospel of aloha culture throughout California. Huntington Beach has far from the best waves on the West Coast, but it quickly became the kitschy capital of SoCal surf culture, home to both the International Surfing Hall of Fame, the U.S. Open of Surfing, and a life-size statue of the Duke. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, returning G.I.’s and advances in board technology made surfing more accessible (prior to 1940, most surfers had to figure out ways to carve their own surfboards out of massive, heavy pieces of lumber or beat-up telephone posts) and the first salable iteration of surf culture was born. In 1957, a screenwriter and novelist named Frederick Kohner published Gidget, a book based on his daughter Kathy’s adventures in Malibu, and by 1959 the Gidget movie franchise had launched and the rest of the country learned that there was, indeed, some appeal in surfing at the beach all day long.

Since then, surfing culture in Southern California has gone through several revisions — the bronzed, silly countercultural movement of the early ’60s, spearheaded by Miki Dora; the Technicolor times of the Beach Boys and surf kitsch films like Beach Party; the dirty, somewhat scummy years captured best in the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys; the shredded, California punk era, when everything got a bit more “aggressive”; the hard-core bros at Windansea and the “surf weird” longboarders of La Jolla.

All these movements are variations on the same stacked metaphor: The beach represents the shirking of responsibilities, and the shirking of responsibilities represents eternal youth.

TWO

Everyone at the 2013 U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, Orange County, California, is 15 years old and in some manner of undress. Some of the boys, walking shirtless in board shorts, have written messages on their bared torsos. On the HB pier, I stand next to a Persian-looking prepubescent with “I DARE YOU TO TOUCH THEM” scrawled across his abs. We are both leaning over the railing, staring directly down at the four pro surfers who wait for the next set of waves. The kid mumbles something about Jordy Smith, the surfer in the red jersey, and then stares at a gaggle of teenage girls in bikinis who walk by, giggling and unsteady.

The kid follows the girls, and an old birder type carrying a 1D with a telephoto lens takes his spot on the railing. I try to think of something to say to acknowledge that we are surrounded by half-naked teenagers, something to ease the weirdness, but he seems trained on his task of documenting what Jordy Smith looks like as he waits impatiently for the surf to pick up. Eventually, I ask him if he heard about the two bodies found in a park in Huntington Beach. He ignores me.

The beach is cluttered with sponsored tents and stalls selling bracelets and sneakers and cell phone covers. The air is saturated with the smells of suntan lotion and car exhaust. There is something called the “Hi-Chew XBOX Lounge,” where you eat free Hi-Chews and play XBox. This sounds incredible, but, of course, there’s a line of shirtless 15-year-old boys already waiting to get in.

Last night, after the end of the U.S. Open of Surfing, a small riot broke out in Huntington Beach when crowds refused to leave the downtown shopping area near the pier. Video and eyewitness accounts taken from the scene showed a crowd mostly composed of young men throwing stop signs, fighting, and trying to overturn service vehicles. Police responded in riot gear. It was the first riot at the U.S. Open of Surfing since the 1986 disturbance that left 12 people injured.

At its glossiest, surf culture in Southern California still evokes that spirit of eternal youth. Miki Dora, King of Malibu, will always be laying out on the beach with six or seven Gidgets and everything will look like the Toaster filter on Instagram. Most days, you can still see the remnants of that soft dream out at Huntington Beach. The old salty dudes still drive their woodies to Bolsa Chica State Park, stack their 11-foot, hand-shaped Harbour boards on saw horses, and stand around in the parking lot, waiting for the bros to show up.

The old men are mostly just props in nostalgia theater — old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird. Surf culture in Southern California can be many things, but when it needs to get real, pull up the sponsors, and turn a profit, the sport turns itself over to the 15-year-old pheromone emporium. Play some Pennywise. Pour out Dixie cups of Monster Energy Drink. Give away some flat-brimmed hats. Show some skate videos. Riot sponsored by Vans.

THREE

If you walk into any of the tony department stores in Manhattan’s Soho district and head to the men’s section, you’ll see the silly, borderline-dishonest, but perhaps inevitable permutation of surf culture. You’ll see striped tank tops and dark, plastic sunglasses culled from some sunburned, hazy longboard video of Miki Dora surfing Malibu, 1963. You’ll see the weather-beaten, bleary red shorts, the unwaxed, out-of-context surfboards leaned up against a plastic palm tree, and wooden signage that tells you, in messy, painted letters, how many miles left until Malibu or Puerto Escondido or the North Shore of Oahu. Just down the street from the department store, in the trust-fund start-up section below Grand Street, you’ll find the origins of all this stupidity — absurd surf shop boutiques, complete with espresso bars and a random collection of overpriced, functionally stupid prefab boards. If New Yorkers can criticize (and they will) some of the uglier, abstracted excesses of Los Angeles–as–Cosmopolis, where hallowed things are never quite in the right place, Californians should leverage the same criticism against New York City’s stupid surf shops, where every detail — the length of the boards, the videos playing on the tastefully retro TVs, the buzzed affect of the bros working the stores — is stupid, false, and wrong.

I am sneering, of course. But every self-proclaimed surfer leers, at least a little, when confronted with such obvious and ugly “commercialization.” I use the scare quotes because I don’t really know what commercialization means to the already well-monetized and perpetually co-opted surf community or if I, as a bad-yet-dedicated surfer, have earned the cachet to criticize whoever the fuck shops at Saturdays Surf on Crosby Street and buys up their sensibly packaged tins of coffee or their “hard water” pomade or their insanely priced, handcrafted, ultimately useless collection of surfboards.

FOUR

The above footage comes from Morning of the Earth. If Endless Summer is the Godfather of surf movies, Morning of the Earth is Goodfellas — it may not have had the same cultural impact, but it shaved down some of the excesses and unnecessary indulgences of the original and presented a cleaner, and in some ways better, portrait of a glamorous, rebellious subculture. You won’t see any of the surfers in Morning of the Earth punting air. You won’t see any hacks, 10-second barrel rides, or floaters. Instead, you’ll see a bunch of bronzed, shirtless dudes shaping boards on farms. Then you’ll see them hauling those boards down to their home break, and then you’ll see them surf those boards in long, arcing, fashionable lines. Then you’ll see those same bros back at the farm playing the guitar and eating some homemade good shit and singing together before falling asleep under the stars. The next day, they wake up and do it all over again.

This footage comes from Shelter, a 2001 surf movie by acclaimed surf pornographer Taylor Steele. Shelter was shot nearly 30 years after Morning of the Earth, but the films are remarkably similar. Steele even chose to shoot Shelter on 16mm film, creating a retro style that evoked, among other things, Morning of the Earth. I have watched Shelter more than 20 times. Admittedly, I’m a bit ashamed over the visceral connection I feel to these silly, salt-of-the-earth scenes, which are always narrated absurdly and usually feature Rob Machado, who, as far as I can tell, is the second most self-righteous person on the planet, just behind Aaron Sorkin. These scenes in Morning of the Earth and Shelter inform the surf boutiques of Soho, which then inform the men’s section at Barneys.

Of course, it had to go this way. Most American rebellion these days is simply the salable evocation of past rebellions — a vague aesthetic that gets churned into a T-shirt or sunglass line. The tank tops migrate out East a few years later.

FIVE

With five minutes left in his heat at the U.S. Open of Surfing, Jordy Smith takes off on a right that looks like it’s going to close out. Smith, one of the most electric surfers in the world, swings around the whitewater, hits the lip hard, and dances down the line until the shitty wave peters out and dumps him about 50 yards down the line. I am dumbfounded. I have surfed overhead days at Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz and watched as the East Side groms punted airs that didn’t seem possible in a world with gravity. I’ve been out in Ocean Beach in San Francisco with the bros who made Mavericks famous. But I’ve never seen anything like this very typical Jordy Smith ride on a blown-out day at mushy-ass Huntington Beach with no real swell in the water.

This version of surfing — the Red Bull/Vans/Roxy/Nike/Quicksilver professional tour — will never be reconciled with the softer, almost agrarian dream of surfing. The aesthetics of the sport are split — anything sponsored by Vans and Red Bull will never be beautiful, at least not in a Steve Zissou way. But if you want to watch beautiful surfing, you’ll probably have to watch it with a bunch of shirtless bros in flat-brimmed hats who listen to 311.

SIX

The popularity of surfing fluctuates and will continue to fluctuate, but it seems to captivate the American imagination during times of deep social upheaval, particularly with children of privilege. Surfing offers up a prettier, lazier sort of rebellion, one built not on any hard, political idea, but rather on the utopian dream that life is better on a wave. In San Francisco I surfed nearly every day for two and a half years, and I can tell you there comes a time when the physical demands of surfing and “the stoke” crowd out all your previous, egocentric ambitions. You begin to calculate how much you would really have to make to live in a shit room in the Outer Sunset for the next 10 years. You start filling out applications at bars and calculating whether it will be cost-effective to outfit your 2003 Subaru Outback with a vegetable oil fuel system. I don’t think it’s any surprise that this most recent reincarnation of popularized surf culture came at a time of high unemployment and still-unsorted, yet undeniably escalating, youth angst. Who wouldn’t want to live on a farm with simply designed, utilitarian objects, all of them painted in simple, primary colors? Who wouldn’t want to believe that there is still some sliver of the California coast that hasn’t been crowded out by developers, that there’s still an empty lineup somewhere between Rincon and Imperial Beach?

Even if that surf agrarian dream feels all silly and burned out now, it’s still so damn pretty, isn’t it?

Filed Under: College Sports, Events, The U, U.S. Open

Aside from the kook bait, there were self-serious surf travel diaries in publications like The Surfer’s Journal and a handful of hagiographies of surf legends. I concluded that writing about surfing was impossible because surfing elicited happiness, and it is impossible to write about happiness.

But then, while researching my novel, some of which took place on Ocean Beach, I came across “Playing Doc’s Games,” a two-partarticle on surfing in San Francisco that was published in the New Yorker in 1992. The author, William Finnegan, had written about some of the legends of the San Francisco surf scene with an odd mix of exhaustion and excitement that seemed to perfectly capture the daily grind of surfing. Finnegan’s talents as a surfer were obvious to anyone who had tried to paddle out in overhead surf at Noriega Street at Ocean Beach; he had the skill to paddle out on days when the waves were so big you could hear them from a half-mile away. But unlike most middle-aged rippers, Finnegan did not borrow from the lengthy litany of surf clichés. He did not talk about the gifts the ocean gives to all of us. His descriptions of San Francisco’s “giant gray,” “ominous” waves were pragmatic, even grim. He was the first person I had come across who could write about surfing without schmaltz or weighty metaphors.

Finnegan’s focus, instead, was on two major characters in the San Francisco surf scene: Mark Renneker, a chest-thumping, alpha-male physician and his foil, a local carpenter named Peewee. Where Renneker proselytized a surf gospel and hung photos of his biggest waves on his walls, Peewee was a taciturn charger who could out-surf Renneker but didn’t feel the need to build an obnoxious life philosophy around it. Surfing, for Peewee, was nothing more than surfing. “Playing Doc’s Games” explored the philosophical divide between these two men; through them, it seemed to me that Finnegan was having an argument with himself, trying to figure out which philosophy he believed in.

I thought of the story often in San Francisco. On clean, January days, surfing, even badly, was enough to give me a purpose in life. But on choppy, stupid days in September, as I paddled futilely straight into the first line of white water at Ocean Beach, I would think about Peewee’s vision of silent, simple doing over Doc’s vision of daily, ritualistic heroism. I did not really believe surfing was nothing more than surfing, but I hoped I might one day get good enough at it to drop all its sentimental trappings.

“Barbarian Days,” Finnegan’s much-anticipated memoir, is, without a doubt, the finest surf book I’ve ever read. The self-conscious snarl of “Playing Doc’s Games” has softened; he can now tell you about the rhapsodic joy of a perfect day out at his home break with his boys as well as the spiritual fulfillment he felt from chasing waves around the planet as a surf bohemian inspired by Jack Kerouac. We learn that Finnegan and a friend were among the first Americans to surf Tavarua, a small island off the coast of Fiji whose peeling waves are among the most coveted in the world; we learn he charged Ocean Beach in San Francisco before it got overrun by kooks like me, that he surfed Jeffreys Bay in South Africa while teaching at an all-black school during apartheid.

Following the young Finnegan from Hawaii to Ventura to Santa Cruz to the South Pacific to Australia to South Africa to San Francisco to New York to Portugal, you never question his authority. Unlike London, Finnegan can tell you what it’s like inside a barrel on the Gold Coast of Australia, what it’s like to surf at Sunset Beach on the North Shore of Oahu. He knows what to look for, and he uses the sport’s utilitarian jargon — takeoff points, power, sections, makeability, swell direction, wind speed — to good effect. Consider his description of Kirra, one of the dozens of famous waves Finnegan has surfed:

“I had surfed my share of frontside tubes, from that reliable inside section at Lahaina Harbor Mouth to a slabby mutant wave in Santa Cruz called Stockton Avenue, where I snapped boards in half on three-foot days and was lucky not to get hurt on the shallow rock reef. But Stockton was a short, freaky wave — a one-trick pony. Kirra was just as hollow, and it was a pointbreak. It was as long as Rincon or Honolua, and hollower than either one.”

Even if you have no idea what Finnegan is talking about, the enthusiasm and charm of his writing carries its own rhythmic energy. Just as you don’t really need to know much about baseball to listen to Vin Scully call a Dodgers game, you don’t need to know about the dangers of a thudding, short wave over a reef to read “Barbarian Days.”

All this technical mastery and precise description goes hand in hand with an unabashed, infectious earnestness. Finnegan has certainly written a surfing book for surfers, but on a more fundamental level, “Barbarian Days” offers a cleareyed vision of American boyhood. Like Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” it is a sympathetic examination of what happens when literary ideas of freedom and purity take hold of a young mind and fling his body out into the far reaches of the world. Finnegan’s own travels were fueled by a hardheaded belief in a sort of surf religiosity that rejected the tanned fun of “Gidget,” “Beach Blanket Bingo” and the countless surf-ploitation books and films churned out in the ’50s and ’60s. Instead, he writes, “the newly emerging ideal was solitude, purity, perfect waves far from civilization. ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ ‘Endless Summer.’ This was a track that led away from citizenship, in the ancient sense of the word, toward a scratched-out frontier where we would live as latter-day barbarians. This was not the daydream of the happy idler. It went deeper than that. Chasing waves in a dedicated way was both profoundly egocentric and selfless, dynamic and ascetic, radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement.”

A surfer feels an even mix of nostalgia and envy reading that passage. The boundlessness of Finnegan’s wave chasing now feels at once out of reach and dated, in the manner of Kerouac’s Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. A 16-year old Finnegan and his friend Domenic fall under “the spell of Kerouac,” getting jobs at a gas station, buying a Ford Econoline van and taking off on a lengthy cross-country trip. “We got as far south as Mazatlán, as far east as Cape Cod,” Finnegan explains. “We dropped acid in New York City. We subsisted on Cream of Wheat, cooked on a Coleman camping stove. It was 1969, the summer of Woodstock, but the flyers for the festival plastered around Greenwich Village mentioned an admission charge. That sounded lame to us — some kind of artsy-craftsy weekend for old people — so we skipped it.”

Much of “Barbarian Days” rushes by at this pace — cities, states, even entire countries dissolve into one another as Finnegan and his various travel buddies speed around the world in search of waves. In each country, at each break, he is joined by a rotating cast of beloved surf partners from the Hawaiian rippers of his childhood to the starry-eyed literary men who accompanied him on a yearslong trip throughout the South Pacific and Australia. But while his eye for telling detail is as incisive as ever, his gaze has softened and grown more fond of its subjects. And in the tradition of the best sportswriting, Finnegan writes unshyly and frankly about the physical grace of other men. At one point in his 20s, Finnegan returns to his childhood break in Hawaii and finds Glenn Kaulukukui, a local legend whom he admired in his youth. The two old friends watch each other surf. “The speed, power and purity of his turns were on a level I had rarely seen except in films,” Finnegan writes of Kaulukukui. “And he didn’t seem to be pushing himself at all. He seemed to be playing — intently, respectfully, joyfully. For me, seeing Glenn surf like that was an epiphany. It was about him, my boyhood idol grown into a man, but it was also about surfing — its depth, or potential depth, as a lifelong practice. I told him I was off to the South Seas. He looked at me hard and wonderingly, and wished me luck. We clasped hands again. It was the last time I ever saw him.”

Surf spots are notoriously hostile, testosterone-fueled places that follow the laws of home and merit — if you grew up in the area or if you can outrip the locals, you’ll be fine. American men grow up believing in the primacy of those two ideas, and surfing, like high-school football in Texas or playground basketball in New York City, offers a seemingly pure distillation of both. “Barbarian Days” should be discussed for being the first book to really master surf writing, but it also offers a convincing portrait of male companionship; the ways in which competition, budding sexuality and wanderlust cohere into friendships that feel both innate and timeless. On Huntington Beach, I would see sunburned old men watching the waves from the beds of their meticulously maintained, classic trucks. I remember hating them: their big, shiny Harbour boards, which they reverently laid out on carpenter’s sawhorses, the way they would whoop for one another and elbow intruders like me off incoming waves.

During my early surf-crazed years, I mostly surfed alone. I was doing my own version of whatever Chris McCandless was doing in the wilds of Alaska. The rituals of surfing in cold water — the drive to the beach, the solemn scouting of the waves from the dunes off the Great Highway, hands shoved deep in the pockets of my hoodie, the waxing of the board, the suiting up in four millimeters of neoprene, the patient paddling course through the walls of white water, the bobbing around in the cold ocean, the intent study of the undulating masses of water — felt to me like an expression of moral clarity. “Playing Doc’s Games” helped temper my budding asceticism, the spiritual arrogance I felt after a thumping dawn-patrol session, driving through the Sunset District by fog-shrouded houses filled with people still waking up. Reading “Barbarian Days,” those silly, megalomaniacal concerns melt away completely. It’s a book written for the old bros at Huntington Beach who paddle out in the ragged hope that friendships and the road can both go on indefinitely — and that nobody has to paddle back in to head to work.

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