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Finnegan, aboard Alias, an Australian “surf yacht,” in Fiji, 1978. Finnegan, aboard Alias, an Australian “surf yacht,” in Fiji, 1978. Photo Courtesy of William Finnegan.
"The speed runs were dreamlike. I had never seen a wave peel so mechanically." - William Finnegan

William Finnegan is the author of Barbarian Days, a memoir of an epic surfing life that won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2016. The Pulitzer Prize Board described Barbarian Days as “an old-school adventure story, and intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road movie, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting little-understood art.” A lot happens in the book: he drops LSD and surfs big Honolua Bay, he bushwhacks through Polynesia, he dissects the sexual politics of Tongan interactions with Americans and Japanese, he navigates the Indonesian black market while nearly succumbing to malaria, and he discovers a perfect lefthander breaking off an uninhabited island in Fiji—a wave that would later become known as Restaurants. Here is an excerpt from one of his sessions there, in 1978—

Tavarua Island, Fiji, 1978. Photo: Courtesy of William Finnegan Tavarua Island, Fiji, 1978. Photo Courtesy of William Finnegan.

On the fifth day, or maybe it was the sixth, we surfed. It was still too small, really, but we were so surf-starved by then that we scrambled out at the first hint of a swell. Thigh-high waves zipped down the reef, most of them too fast to make. The few we made, though, were astounding. They had a slingshot aspect. If you could get in early, top-turn, gather just enough speed that the hook didn’t pass you by, and then set the right line, the wave seemed to lift the tail of the board and hurl it down the line, on and on and on, with the lip throwing just over your back continually—a critical moment that is normally no more than a moment but that seemed to last, impossibly, for half a minute or more. The water got shallower and shallower and even the best rides didn’t end well. But the speed runs were dreamlike. I had never seen a wave peel so mechanically.

As the tide peaked, something very odd happened. The wind quit and the water, already extremely clear, became more so. It was midday, and the straight-overhead sun rendered the water invisible. It was as if we were suspended above the reef, floating on a cushion of nothing, unable even to judge the depth unless we happened to kick a coral head. Approaching waves were like optical illusions. You could look straight through them, at the sky and sea and sea bottom behind them. And when I caught one and stood up, it disappeared. I was flying down the line but all I could see was brilliant reef streaming under my feet. It was like surfing on air. The wave was so small and clear that I couldn’t distinguish the wave face from the flats in front of the wave from the flats behind the wave. It was all just clear water. I had to surf by feel. This was truly dreamlike. When I felt the wave accelerate, I crouched for speed, and suddenly I could see it again— because the waist-high crest, seen from down there, was higher than the horizon.

The trades puffed, the surface riffled, and the hyperclarity was gone.

The tide dropped and we were back on the beach.

From Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © William Finnegan, 2015.


Jamie Brisick is a writer, photographer, and director. He surfed on the ASP world tour from 1986 to 1991. He has since documented surf culture extensively. His books include Becoming Westerly: Surf Champion Peter Drouyn’s Transformation into Westerly Windina, Roman & Williams: Things We Made, We Approach Our Martinis With Such High Expectations, Have Board, Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow, and The Eighties at Echo Beach. His writings and photographs have appeared in The Surfer’s Journal, The New York Times, and The Guardian. He was the editor of Surfing magazine from 1998-2000, and is presently the global editor of Huck. In 2008 he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship. He lives in Los Angeles. For more of his work check out & @jamiebrisick