We got some fishermen to take us out and climbed a mountain. Good waves are a source of incredible joy to a surfer, but they can turn dangerous quite easily, and suddenly they’re not so much joy as terror. Your travels have taken you from New Jersey to Java. Tavarua was at that time a little uninhabited island in the Mamanuca group of islands off the west shore off the main Fijian island of Tuvalu. But there wasn’t the kind of extreme video game violence there is now. We kept it up for years, always thinking we would get back there. There are very, very few people who should be out there. The Pipeline, in Hawaii on O'ahu's North Shore, notorious for huge waves which break in shallows above a jagged coral reef, is not for the faint of heart. By the end of that season we figured there were only nine people who knew about it and we all took a solemn vow of silence. It was breaking so evenly, so perfectly, this long, long ‘left.’ You call it a ‘left’ because you go to your left as you catch the wave and start to run down the face. I still ride a short board, which is more difficult. It’s this paradox. With surfers that’s closely held information. Reading the waves, getting to know a break, or getting wired as we say, involves a kind of semi-scientific oceanographic study of a very small patch of coast. Surfing has got to be one of the most useless, unproductive things you can do. Take us back to that time in your life. So if you know a spot that gets really good and isn’t crowded, you might never tell your best friend, let alone the readers of National Geographic! I was hitchhiking everywhere by the time I was 14, traveling the coast looking for waves. Photograph by Paul Nicklen, Nat Geo Image Collection, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/08/150802-hawaii-surfing-south-pacific-ocean-surfboard-pipeline-ngbooktalk.html. When you’re trying to learn, if you don’t pay close attention this sport will hit you in the head and really get your attention. It wasn’t at all what I expected from the magazines I was marinated in at that age. Wall to wall surfers ride the waves off Bondi Beach near Sydney, Australia. But a lot of my surfing now is on trips to Mexico or Fiji, Indonesia or Hawaii: some far-flung place that gets really good waves. [Laughs]. What lessons has surfing taught you that were useful in your life? I am sure our surfing readers would love to hear your Top Five surf sites. There’s a lot of close attention you need to pay, not just for safety reasons, but to be able to surf at all. I think of it as an old fashioned American boyhood from Tom Sawyer onward, but it reached a kind of extreme when I was an adolescent. With binoculars we could see the wave breaking about five miles across the channel. You write beautifully about boyhood. The most exciting waves to watch are generally the most dangerous waves in the world. But that’s not really what surfing is. In the sixties and early seventies there was a pretty extreme laissez-faire style of parenting, at least in Southern California. Your book opens with you surfing in Hawaii at 13 years of age. But you inevitably get slower, weaker, less nimble and have to ride heavier equipment. He today lives in New York City with his wife Caroline Rule and daughter Mollie. It didn’t seem strange at all then, but now that I have a 13 year old myself it does seem strange to look back on. The sport is equal parts joy and terror, William Finnegan, says. © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society, © 2015- William Finnegan is a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of works of international journalism. From a distance, it looks like playing in the water. That guy was a young surfer I was knocking around with in Madeira. Not many other sports kids play include a fear of death as part of the fun. What’s the matter with me? A bookish kid who went on to become a staff writer for the New Yorker, he fell in love with surfing at the age of 13 when his family moved from Southern California to Hawaii. I liked to box. How does aging change your ability to surf? I surfed okay for another 10 or 15 years. In a photograph taken in 1966, William Finnegan, author of a memoir on surfing, carries his board to the beach near his home in Hawaii. It’s flexible enough and my editors are tolerant enough that I can often get work done when the waves are bad, which they often are around New York, and be ready to jump when they get good. You travel the globe searching for the perfect wave. Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. William Finnegan continues writing and commentating on world and local events. He had just gotten divorced because his wife couldn’t handle surfing. You can’t say to people in general, ‘oh you should go surf Pipeline.’ Pipeline is an absolutely deadly wave, but a great wave to watch. As you get into more serious waves, a mistake can land you on the bottom hard or underwater for too long. I’m still fighting off owning what’s called a long board, which is a much easier type of board to ride. It slowly, but steadily, degrades it. A boy called Roddy Kaulukukui was my age, and we became fast friends after he and the other local kids started keeping their boards at my house. I was a white kid from a suburb in Southern California. At the same time, they were your mortal enemy.” Expand on this. I had vague ideas about living in pre-industrial societies, foreign worlds uncorrupted by modernity, where I would learn new ways of being: a kind of handiness and comfort in the natural world that I didn’t have as a young kid growing up in Southern California. There was no water on the island so we had to take our own provisions and we camped there for weeks. But that’s what I was looking for. So there’s a kind of physical and mental discipline to serious surfing that is quite useful in life. So much for that. A surfer tells you: “A chick has to understand if she marries a surfer, she marries surfing.” What does your wife think of your surfing? But the surf out in front of our house was incredibly exciting. You get swiftly punished for any mistake, at every level. William Finnegan is an award-winning journalist and the author of five books. Best friends Ha’a Keaulana, right, and Maili Makana dive under a wave near their Hawaiian hometown of Makaha, a tightly cloistered community where surfing is a link to cultural identity. A surfer launches off the waves of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was so remarkable I couldn’t breathe. Speaking from his office in Manhattan, he describes his wild childhood on Hawaii and what he calls The Code of Boys; explains how terror and ecstasy live side by side for a surfer; and shares his Top Five waves. My friend Bryan and I found this remarkable wave off Tavarua. Sometimes I report in places that allow me to go surfing. Looking back, I probably never surfed that well again. I’d been surfing for a couple of years, so I was incredibly excited to be in Hawaii. You also “wanted to learn new ways of being.” What were you searching for? You also are intimately involved with the ocean. Finnegan discusses his experience coaching Mollie’s rock climbing and eventually being coached on climbing by Mollie herself in his audio-book biography Climbing with Mollie (2020). It was not just surfing. The wave turned out to be the best either of us had ever seen: a real highpoint not just of that trip, but of my 50-year surfing life. She’s actually quite tolerant. So she would understand that point. Kids were left to take care of themselves without hovering parents. Corporal punishment at school and at home was also standard: whippings, spankings, beatings with paddles by school officials. Boys would do terrible things to each other, but you didn’t want to be a snitch, so you didn’t go to adults about it. I got in a lot of fights and had trouble understanding people. I’d invite boys home from school, put on the gloves, and we’d just beat each other senseless right in front of our house. You write, “Waves were the playing field…the object of your deepest desire. I was gone nearly four years looking for waves, but it’s true I wasn’t only looking for waves. A lot of the kids spoke a local patois called pidgin. I’m not sure I ever got any of that. How have you also managed to combine your passion for surfing with your job as a staff writer at the New Yorker? An author shares his passion for the sport as well as his list of the top five waves. There were a lot of race-based gangs and “haolies”—the local word for white people—were pretty scarce. It was warm, uncrowded and challenging. In the last couple of years I have done stories in Australia and Madagascar, which both get good waves. We would use the Hawaiian term for Whatchamacallit, which is da kine. But a lot of what you did as a boy would probably get your parents locked up for neglect these days. You are 62 now. You dropped out of college in Santa Cruz and headed for the South Pacific. Nobody thought anything of it. I had a real fear of drowning. Crowds are a huge problem in surfing now. You have to keep yourself fit. You find it on the island of Tavarua. You say that you peaked as a surfer off the coast of Sumatra at the age of 26. That’s what boys do: they box. I saved some money from a job at a railroad in California, and headed to the South Seas, Australia, Southeast Asia and Africa. A New Yorker staff writer since 1987, Finnegan has reported extensively on conflict and culture in many different parts of the world, including Africa, Mexico, Central America, South America, Eastern Europe, the Persian Gulf, and the United States. That’s such a trick question! But then, on Madeira, surfing with some young pros, I could see the difference. But it does have a certain act-and-consequence severity to it. He has specially addressed issues of racism and conflict in Southern Africa and politics in Mexico and South America, as well as poverty among youth in the United States, and is well known for his writing on surfing. We rented a little cottage on the backside of Diamond Head near the coast, and my parents sent me off to the local middle school, which turned out to be quite a tough place. Set the scene for us. “To make a career, you have to prove yourself [here],” says rising surf star Zeke Lau. All rights reserved. For the first time in my life I started training on land, trying to forestall the inevitable. In a photograph taken in 1966, William Finnegan, author of a memoir on surfing, carries his board to the beach near his home in Hawaii. I was travelling with my friend, Bryan Di Salvatore  and we had been looking for waves in Samoa, Tonga and other parts of Fiji, when we heard about this place. Talk about ‘The Code Of Boys.’. Bryan and I took it so seriously that we never spoke the name of the island or wrote it down. There was a lot of ambient violence. My father got a job in Hawaii. I miss a lot of waves because I’ve got a deadline or I’m busy reporting. 2020 National Geographic Partners, LLC. It was actually after graduate school. So, Pipeline on the north shore of Oahu; Chopu in Tahiti, which is perhaps the most dangerous wave in the world but incredibly exciting to watch; a place in South Africa called Jeffrey’s Bay, which was in the news recently because a pro surfer was attacked in the water by a shark; then Honolua Bay, on west Maui; and finally, Cloudbreak off the coast of Tavarua, in Fiji.