During the 1990s, the mainstream media at last came to view surfing as a permanent cultural fixture. No formal announcement, or single event, marked this shift. But more or less all at once, newspapers and magazines, novelists and documentary filmmakers, Hollywood studios and New York publishing houses – everybody seemed to decide that surfing was no longer a novelty or curiosity. The audience for surfing stories now potentially included everyone. What this meant, for the most part, was a lot more of the same old stuff. Violence and danger had always been the mainstream media’s favorite surf-tropes, and that was still true. What were the three biggest surf stories of the 1990s and early 2000s? Mark Foo’s death at Maverick’s, “surf rage” localism, and thirteen-year-old Hawaiian surfer Bethany Hamilton’s return to the water just a few weeks after a tiger shark bit off her left arm.
Yet the sport began appearing in places where it had long been conspicuously absent. Art galleries staged surfing exhibitions. Newspaper travel sections ran articles on exotic locations where good surf was the main draw. Famous surfers made the obituaries; when Mickey Dora died of pancreatic cancer in 2002, both the Los Angeles Times and the London Times published full-length notices, and smaller Dora obits ran everywhere from the Detroit Free Press to the Hartford Courant.
The best works on surfing in the 1990s and 2000s took it as a given that everybody, nonsurfers included, understood the sport to be fun and attractive. Bruce Brown and The Endless Summer, decades earlier, had said just about everything that needed to be said on this point. Writers now sought to fit surfing into more complex settings, roughing up that pretty blue panorama with the messy human element. There had been precursors. Early examples included David Rensin’s long and compelling 1983 profile on Mickey Dora for Los Angeles magazine and the unmoored big-wave riders in James Houston’s 1966 novel A Native Son of the Golden West – there had always been a gem or two to be plucked from the landfill of mainstream surf media.
Surf lit’s new era got off to a powerful start in 1992, with the publication of “Playing Doc’s Games,” a two-part New Yorker feature in which author William Finnegan – better known for his articles on apartheid-era South Africa and urban drug violence – looked back on his forsworn life as a hardcore San Francisco surfer. In the article, Finnegan is clearly still enthralled by the sport. In long, beautifully rendered passages, he describes the giddy fear of big waves, the banter-filled morning surf check, and the jackpot sense of good fortune that comes from stumbling into a day of perfect waves and no crowds. But he’s just as eloquent when detailing the sport’s less-attractive features, including the losing battle against commercialism and the surfer’s bottomless capacity for arrogance and selfishness. Most of all, Finnegan is convinced that a life overly dedicated to surfing will turn out to be, almost by definition, small and limited.
The article’s title refers to Mark “Doc” Renneker, a San Francisco surfer-physician who serves as both mentor and foil to the author, and “Playing Doc’s Games” is set at a time in Finnegan’s early-middle-age when he is “trying to figure out how to live with the disabling enchantment of surfing.” After twenty years, the sport had become “some great, battered remnant of childhood that kept drifting incongruously into the foreground.” To matriculate into adulthood, Finnegan must give up his San Francisco beachfront apartment, move to New York, and focus his attention on career and family. “On summer weekends, I surf Fire Island,” he says at the end of “Doc’s Games,” wistfully but with no regret, “where conditions are most often ridiculous, never very good, certainly never scary.”
In his 1996 memoir Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast, San Francisco writer Dan Duane is just breaking in as a full-time wave-rider, learning the ropes on the raw, undeveloped beaches and reefs just north of Santa Cruz. Duane is at the opposite side of the surfing experience as Finnegan, but he often finds himself in a comparable state of ambivalence. At times the sport appears to him as the height of indulgence. Talking about surfing, he notes, “becomes much like saying, ‘I masturbated today, and it felt great.’” But unlike Finnegan, Duane chooses to make surfing a vital if nonconsuming part of his adulthood, and he develops “an unshakable sense that this unlikely use of time mattered.” The sport’s physicality appeals to him, and among the many waterlogged semi-losers he meets, he also picks up at least two bright, funny, similarly dedicated surfing friends. More than anything, Duane feels the sport grounds him to the landscape; much of Caught Inside is taken up with the author watching the sky, the ocean, and the fields between the highway and the beach. Surfing often seems like nothing more than a justification for Duane to take his place among the still-wild flora and fauna of north Santa Cruz County. “I’m more part of this life,” he concludes, with a note of quiet achievement, “than most Americans are of any life anywhere.”
Finnegan and Duane together launched surf lit as a tiny but viable genre, and this excluded the hundreds of new nonfiction titles that appeared on the shelves – plush coffee-table photo books, how-to manuals, travel guides, essay collections, histories, biographies, kids’ books, and more.
A host of surf-themed novels also appeared. Many, but not all, were earnest misfires. However, Kem Nunn picked up good reviews and a cult following for Dogs of Winter (1997) and Tijuana Straights (2004); both were as dark as his 1984 surf-noir debut, Tapping the Source. In 2008, Australia’s Tim Winton produced a small, bittersweet, veracious work of fiction with Breathe, a coming-of-age story set in Western Australia. Like Duane, Winton’s narrator, Bruce Pike, is attracted to surfing because it’s “pointless and beautiful.” Like Finnegan, Pike can only become a fuller, more responsible version of himself by giving up the life of a hardcore surfer. Most of the book takes place in the 1970s, but at the end Winton lovingly brings his damaged lead character into the present. “I have an old ten-footer, a real clunker from the sixties, like something Gidget would ride,” Pike says. He’s now divorced and has two daughters he doesn’t live with.
I shove it into the [car], drive down to the Point and paddle it out through the knots of scab-nosed bodyboarders. I’m not there to prove anything – I’m nearly 50 years old. I’ve got arthritis and a dud shoulder. But I can still maintain a bit of style. I slide down the long green walls into the bay to feel what I started out with, what I lost so quickly and for so long: the sweet momentum . . . and those brief, rare moments of grace.
My girls stay with me now and then. My favorite time is when we’re all at the Point, because when they see me out on the water I don’t have to be cautious and I’m never ashamed. Out there I’m free. I don’t require management. They probably don’t understand this, but it’s important for me to show them that their father is a man who dances.
This is what surfing looks like after the obsession. In the hands of someone like Winton, it’s out here – not on the pro tour, not in fifty-foot surf, but sitting in the lineup with creaky joints and a lot of collateral damage left on the beach – where things really begin to get interesting.
[A] Surf Lit: The New Yorker and Beyond is an excerpt from Matt Warshaw’s recently released The History of Surfing. Click here to order a copy of The History of Surfing.