Writer William Finnegan’s Life in the Waves

Mj 618_348_writer william finnegans life in the waves
Photograph by Robert Wright

At the arrival of a small swell in May, author and journalist William Finnegan drives his Lexus SUV along the southern coast of Long Island, searching for a wave. A master of nonfiction, just as likely to report on the cartels of Mexico as on the chaos in Somalia, he's also spent much of his life in the lineup at some of the most challenging surf breaks on the planet. He's wearing a brown and gold flannel shirt and a tan ball cap, and some collateral damage of endless summers is apparent: His black Vuarnet shades shield a sun-seared case of pterygium, or "surfer's eye"; carcinoma excisions patch his face; and he leans into my questions to compensate for an eardrum perforated falling off waves the size of McMansions.

"Trying to surf certain spots, and surf them well, has got its analogies to reporting and writing," he says. "But there are some occasions at some waves when the conditions are good, and the crowds aren't bad, and you can't do anything wrong. It's the very rare writing project that feels like that."


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In his new memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, Finnegan describes, with shimmering detail, his adventures riding waves on five continents. Surfing has taken him places he'd never otherwise have thought to go, but it also buoyed him through a career reporting on the politics of intense scarcity, limitless cruelty, and unimaginable suffering. It's a book about travel and growing up, and the power of a pastime when it becomes an obsession.

Finnegan, now 62, was raised the oldest son of TV producers in Los Angeles and Hawaii. After college in Santa Cruz, he worked as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific Railroad and studied creative writing in Montana; he aimed to write a great American novel about trains. Then he spent the rest of his twenties circumnavigating the globe, eking out a life at the top surf spots in the South Pacific, Australia, Indonesia, and South Africa. "I wanted to learn new ways to be," he writes. "I wanted to change, to feel less existentially alienated, to feel more at home in my skin, as they say, and in the world."

While exploring the 330 islands that constitute Fiji, Finnegan and his surf buddy seized upon a harborside rumor about a wave that peeled the length of three football fields. After a series of sweltering bus trips, and many negotiations with local fishermen, they reached a snake-infested tract of palm and sand — the only sign of human life was a rickety fish-drying rack — and waited. When a swell finally arrived nine days later, the wave's near perfection seemed to Finnegan "like some kind of recurring miracle." Today that island, Tavarua, is considered one of the best wave spots in the world; it's home to a well-­appointed resort that hosts an annual stop on the pro-surf tour. By Finnegan's account, he was the third person ever to surf it.

About two years into the voyage, having exhausted his savings from working on the railroad long ago, he landed a job teaching high school in Cape Town during the anti-apartheid protests. "I was probably the only American in the whole scene," he says, "certainly the only American teaching in the schools that were on strike." He had published a few articles during his travels (he was still mainly laboring on that train novel), and editors in the States clamored for coverage of the violence. "It was so intense, the real situation, that I couldn't even think of American journalism," he says. "I mean, who cares what an American magazine fucking thinks? This is life and death here."

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But a young student-protest leader encouraged him to go home and write. In 1982, after nearly four years abroad, he returned to his family's home in Los Angeles. "I was completely broke," he says. "I turned 30 staying with my parents. I just felt like such a loser." He and his future wife, whom he'd met in Cape Town, moved to San Francisco, where he set to writing his first book, Crossing the Line, an account of his time in South Africa. He also began contributing pieces to the New Yorker — his literary home ever since — and surfed 10-foot faces at Ocean Beach.

Around that time, a surf magazine published a list of the 10 best waves in the world. "I was startled to see that I had surfed nine of them," he writes. "I didn't particularly like seeing those names there. They were famous spots, but they felt like private matters." Incredibly, Tavarua, easily the best wave of his life, wasn't on the list — the world didn't know about it yet.

Finnegan's success as a writer only strengthened his drive to surf. During a decade when he reported on major conflicts from Sudan to the former Yugoslavia, he routinely retreated to the Portuguese island of Madeira to surf waves so big that, ducking beneath incoming sets, he could hear "rocks the size of filing cabinets being lifted off the bottom." After a violent election in war-torn El Salvador, during which three journalists were killed (Finnegan witnessed one of them pronounced dead), he decamped to a world-class wave an hour south of the capital: "Surfing was an antidote, however mild, for the horror." A few years later, while reporting a piece on skinheads in the suburban sprawl north of Los Angeles, one of his subjects stabbed a rival to death at a party. Finnegan headed to Malibu for a dawn session. "I felt spiritually poisoned — some acrid cocktail of anger, sadness, hopelessness — by the story," he writes. "Surfing had never made more sense."

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Out on Long Island, only knee-high springtime mush laps at the dunes. Finnegan reminisces about recent winter sessions outside Manhattan, where he's lived since 1986, in water barely above freezing. He could not sound more stoked. "Too bad there's not more swell!" he cries. "Because there are so many good waves out here."

We get into the water anyway, wearing thick hooded wetsuits, and Finnegan quickly catches a waist-high set wave on his Rusty short board. "It's almost like I didn't have any choice about it," he says on the ride back to the city. "That's how I've always felt about surfing. There's nothing to say about it. It's just what I do."

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