The Riders of the Waves

Josh Humbert/National Geographic Creative
Professional surfer Anthony Walsh, Teahupoo, Tahiti, April 2009

There’s a passage near the beginning of Middlemarch in which the narrator describes the view out of a carriage window that depicts, better than anything I’ve ever read, the pleasure of knowing a place intimately. “Little details gave each field a particular physiognomy, dear to the eyes that have looked on them from childhood,” George Eliot writes. She goes on to cite a list of beloved natural features: trees that lean in a certain way, abrupt slopes, a bald spot in a pasture.

These are the things that make the gamut of joy in landscape to [the area’s] souls—the things they toddled among, or perhaps learned by heart standing between their father’s knees while he drove leisurely.

This capacity for geographical familiarity—knowing exactly where the neighbor’s fence warps slightly—is a visceral kind of knowledge, gained organically, and it atrophies as we age. Learning a place by heart is a luxury rarely afforded to adults, and unless absolutely forced to, one seldom even notices that the ability has been lost.

In his new book, the New Yorker staff writer and veteran war reporter William Finnegan demonstrates the advantages of keeping meticulous mental maps. For him, memorizing a place is a matter of nostalgia, of metaphysical well-being, but also of life and death. Finnegan’s memoir is not about his professional life reporting on blood-soaked Sudan or Bosnia or Nicaragua; it’s about the “disabling enchantment” that is his lifelong hobby.

“The close, painstaking study of a tiny patch of coast, every eddy and angle, even down to individual rocks, and in every combination of tide and wind and swell…is the basic occupation of surfers at their local break,” he writes in Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. Surfers, like children, naturally develop sensory affinity for their surroundings: they can detect minor changes in the smell of the sea, track daily the rise and fall of sandbars, are grateful for particularly sturdy roots onto which they can grab when scurrying down bluffs. The environment becomes an almost anatomical extension of them, mostly because it has to.

Unlike football or baseball or even boxing, surfing is a literarily impoverished sport. The reasons for this are practical. It’s not a spectator sport: it is hard to see surfers from the shore. That the best waves are seldom anywhere near civilization makes it an activity especially resistant to journalism, and first-rate writing by surfers is also rare: the impulse to surf—a “special brand of monomania,” Finnegan calls it—is at direct odds with the indoor obligations of writing.

In many ways this is true for any athletic activity—that its very best practitioners will very seldom be the same people who document it—but it’s particularly true of surfing, which demands more traveling, logistical planning, and waiting around than any other athletic endeavor. Even when surfers…

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