Probably the only book of length I’ve read from start-to-finish more than two times (but just less than three) is William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. In fact, it could be called my favorite book. Though there is much more to the memoir than just surfing—odd jobs across continents, reporting from apartheid South Africa, and, broadly, coming-of-age—its pages are tied together through accounts of the sport. Finnegan chronicles the peculiarities, trends, and profiles of waves around the world and painstakingly describes the art of reading a given beach’s surf. He is, of course, a skilled surfer with a lifetime of experience in the matter. And despite his depictions of more than one near-death experience, the book always made me want to paddle into open waters.
The opportunity to surf finally presented itself last week. I was in Bali with a friend, splitting time between Ubud, a now-yoga-centric enclave in the island’s center, and the beach town of Canggu. Surfing had certainly been on my radar for the trip, yet when I first strode onto the beach I was incredibly intimidated by the ocean’s crushing force and the hoards of what I assumed were semi-professional surfers, tanned and muscular, whom I had encountered crowding the Aussie-style coffee joints around town. There were also scores of first-timers hauling massive boards and dawning matching swim shirts around the beginner beaches, but this was also kind of off-putting. Surf lessons, however, were advertised everywhere, so I swallowed my pride and walked up to a stand on the beach and signed up for an 8am slot.
After dropping my pal off at a yoga studio, I drove back to the beach for my first surfing lesson. My teacher that morning, Cal, a wise-cracking Balinese guy with hair half blonde from the sun, first gave me some '“theory”. Paddle upward, not down; land hard and on the center of the board; if I shout then dive under the wave and you won’t get your head smacked. The biggest curiosity I had concerned other board sports—I’ve spent most of my life snowboarding and skating, and kind of naively thought this would give me a huge leg up. I waddled alongside him, my ankle already secured to the leash, for about 200 meters until we found a suitable strip of small waves. It was a windy morning, so we had to wait around for 40 minutes while things cooled down.
At long last, we were in the water beneath the unrelenting Indonesian sun. In the whitewater I hopped on the board, Cal flipped me around, and shouted, “okay now PADDLE”. So I did. Then he shouted, “get UP”. I did that, too. In a stroke of beginner’s luck, I actually managed to catch and ride a tiny wave on the first try. The next few goes weren’t quite as smooth, though. And surfing, it should be said, is a lot different than skating or snowboarding; weight is firmly on the back, and on-board adjustments once standing are less forgiving. It was addicting, depleting. For whatever reasons, be they Beach Boys songs or not, surfing used to seem like something more akin to a slow-and-smooth dance than a jolting, abrupt change of positions. The latter was true, that pivotal two-step onto the board being a high-pressure, exacting split second.
What I thought must have been the entire morning turned out to be just an hour and twenty minutes. After catching a couple whitewater waves in a row on my second outing, I almost felt I was getting a slight hang of things, but was swiftly humbled by a yard sail, tugged to shore by my oversized board. I came out winded, exhilarated and, under Cal’s watchful eye, unscathed.
Oh, and feeling, as I should, like a massive kook.