Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

Reading Time: 3 minutes


Barbarian Days is a beautiful memoir. Through his tale a lifelong surfer, writer William Finnegan takes you on an exciting journey across the world. Above all else, he describes the joys, perils, and zen of the surfer’s path in elegant and profound ways.

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Key Takeaways

Yielding to something more powerful than yourself

“With music as with waves, he said, you are ‘yielding to something more powerful than yourself.’”

What it’s like to experience big surf

“Being out in big surf is dreamlike. Terror and ecstasy ebb and flow around the edges of things, each threatening to overwhelm the dreamer. An unearthly beauty saturates an enormous arena of moving water, latent violence, too-real explosions, and sky. Scenes feel mythic even as they unfold. I always feel a ferocious ambivalence: I want to be nowhere else; I want to be anywhere else.”

The paradox of surfing

“For me, and not only for me, surfing harbors this paradox: a desire to be alone with waves fused to an equal desire to be watched, to perform.”

How the power of a wave works

“The power of a breaking wave does not increase fractionally with height, but as the square of its height. Thus a ten-foot wave is not slightly more powerful than an eight-foot wave—because the leap is not from eight to ten but from sixty-four to a hundred, making it over 50 percent more powerful.”

Frustration in surfing

“Frustration is a big part of surfing. It’s the part we all tend to forget—stupid sessions, waves missed, waves blown, endless-seeming lulls.”

The postsurf zen

“What was consistent was a certain serenity that followed a rigorous session. It was physical, this postsurf mood, but it had a distinct emotionality too. Sometimes it was mild elation. Often it was a pleasant melancholy. After particularly intense tubes or wipeouts, I felt a charged and wild inclination to weep, which could last for hours. It was like the gamut of powerful feelings that can follow heartfelt sex.”

Why surfers love offshore winds and hate onshore winds

“Offshore winds, as I hope I’ve made clear, wreathe waves in glory. They groom them, hold them up and prevent them from breaking for a crucial extra beat, make them hollower when they do break, and create little or no chop.”

“Onshore winds make a mess of waves—tearing them apart, causing them to crumble, filling the lineup with chop.”

Frontside vs backside surfing

“He was a goofyfoot, meaning he surfed with his left foot back. It’s the surfing equivalent of being left-handed. Going right, a goofyfoot is on his backhand—he has his back to the wave. Going left, he is on his forehand, or frontside. For regularfoots like me, rights are frontside, lefts backside. Surfing is notably easier on one’s frontside.”

Chasing waves

“Chasing waves in a dedicated way was both profoundly egocentric and selfless, dynamic and ascetic, radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement.”

Surfing as a refuge

“In the meantime, surfing became an excellent refuge from the conflict—a consuming, physically exhausting, joy-drenched reason to live. It also, in its vaguely outlaw uselessness, its disengagement from productive labor, neatly expressed one’s disaffection.”

A surfer’s only desire

“As surfers, we’re just hoping that it has a catchable moment (a takeoff point), and a ridable face, and that it doesn’t break all at once (close out) but instead breaks gradually, successively (peels), in one direction or the other (left or right), allowing us to travel roughly parallel to the shore, riding the face, for a while, in that spot, in that moment, just before it breaks.”

When a wave breaks

“The rule of thumb is that it will break when the wave height reaches 80 percent of the water’s depth—an eight-foot wave will break in ten feet of water.”

What makes surfing special

“BUT SURFING ALWAYS HAD this horizon, this fear line, that made it different from other things, certainly from other sports I knew. You could do it with friends, but when the waves got big, or you got into trouble, there never seemed to be anyone around. Everything out there was disturbingly interlaced with everything else. Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration. At the same time, they were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy. The surf was your refuge, your happy hiding place, but it was also a hostile wilderness—a dynamic, indifferent world. At thirteen, I had mostly stopped believing in God, but that was a new development, and it had left a hole in my world, a feeling that I’d been abandoned. The ocean was like an uncaring God, endlessly dangerous, power beyond measure.”

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