Two new books capture the eternal joy of catching a wave
or veteran journalist William Finnegan, surfing is a catalyst. It has sowed the seeds of friendships, pulled him around the world in search of undiscovered breaks and imparted no shortage of hard-won wisdom. “The things that later get called adventures are often, at the time, nightmares,” says Finnegan, a New Yorker staff writer who has won numerous awards for his reporting on war, politics, drug abuse, economics and organized crime. “That goes for both surfing and reporting. You can’t control all the variables, whether you’re chasing a story or chasing waves, and you sometimes have to tiptoe past the dragon’s cave.”
Journalist William Finnegan has lived life in pursuit of good waves and a good story
The best one can hope for, as you learn from reading Finnegan’s new memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, is to escape unscathed with a few lessons learned. Like the time he was tripping too hard on acid to successfully surf a freak swell at Oahu’s Honolua Bay. Or when he surfed a muddy Fijian river mouth dubbed a “shark pit” by locals, a salient fact he picked up only after the fact. “But I’m normally looking for something short of that,” he adds. “Good waves, a good story, without a foolhardy degree of trusting to luck.”
Bryan Di Salvatore, Viti Savaiinaea and William Finnegan in Sala’ilua, Savai’i, Western Samoa, in 1978
With Barbarian Days, Finnegan masterfully weaves his personal experiences into a narrative that is alternately harrowing and anthropological. He recalls “surprisingly cosmopolitan” conversations with locals in the Samoan village of Sala’ilua, and makes a case for how 1968’s shortboard revolution mirrored the zeitgeist of the draft-dodging, psychedelic times. And because any surfer worth his wax comb knows that boasting of one’s exploits is an affront to the sport’s ethos, Finnegan takes a gripping warts-and-all approach to his story.
Finnegan on the path to the water at Kulamanu house in 1966
“Writing this book was quite different from my usual work,” Finnegan says. “I’m a reporter, and I normally make sure people know I’m a journalist and then try to find out what’s going on and tell a fair, accurate story.” With his memoir, Finnegan has turned his copious skills as a reporter on himself, and the results are a must-read memoir—no matter whether your summer plans include surfing barrels or simply kicking back on the beach with a great book.
“You can’t control all the variables, whether you’re chasing a story or chasing waves, and you sometimes have to tiptoe
past the dragon’s cave.”
Sternbach uses a wet plate collodion process to create stunning tintype photos
hotographer Joni Sternbach doesn’t surf, but she’s a longtime student of the sport. Her new collection, Surf Site Tin Type, positions the sport against our primordial past—reaffirmation of our long-removed evolutionary roots as creatures of the sea.
And while Finnegan is a born-and-raised member of the surf scene, Sternbach brings the perspective of an outsider, albeit one with a great vantage point. She lives in Montauk and is a fixture among the local surf scene. “My observations are made from what you might call ‘fieldwork,’” she says.
Horses take to the beach on a sunny January day at Arroyo Burro Park, in Santa Barbara
These days, surfers in search of the perfect wave are often closely followed by photographers in search of surfers who’ve found one. What sets Sternbach apart is her chosen medium: tintype photos. Her Matthew Brady–style setup looks more like an antique piece of crackpot medical equipment than anything associated with modern photography. But the results are oddly modern. The wet plate collodion process Sternbach uses to make her images captures the elemental aspect of her subjects and their chosen sport. “I hope my pictures convey a sense of mystery about time and place,” Sternbach says. “That they might see, if only even for a moment, a trace of something primal or forgotten about our species and that the pictures make that connection, that now they can imagine how we got here.”
A little California dreaming for young surfer Josiah Amico (up top) and crew
Sternbach sees a common thread among modern surf devotees like the creative Californian trio known as the Malloy brothers and pro surfer turned filmmaker Johnny Abegg, who posed for her camera. “The contemporary surfer has a strong love of the ocean and quietly rides their own wave—isn’t caught up in the latest little fad or style,” she says. “He or she takes what does work and makes it his or her own.”
Australian brothers Rasmus and Kyuss King
- Surf Site Tin Type photographs courtesy of Joni Sternbach
- Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life photographs courtesy of William Finnegan