Writing about surfing is much harder than actually surfing. It’s nearly impossible to avoid clichés, and it’s difficult to know how much to explain to the non-surfer without alienating the eye-rolling lifelong waveriders. Partly that’s because the actual act of surfing, while thrilling to do, and a sport unquely beautiful to watch, is almost impossible to capture in words with any kind of dignity or relevance. Sentences like: “I backdoored the peak, pumped twice through a hollow section, then buried the rail in a full roundhouse,” are uninteresting even to hardcore surfers who can picture that ride in their heads.
The lifestyle though—the the sacrifices of time, career, relationships, geography, all to build a world around surfing—that’s the juicy part. That’s what anybody, surfer or not, can relate to, find fascinating. It’s what propelled New Yorker staff writer, and globetrotting surfer, Bill Finnegan’s 2016 book, Barbarian Days to a Pulitzer Prize and a spot on President Obama’s reading list. Finnegan’s book, chronicling his development as a surfer, his pioneering of far-flung surf breaks, and his struggle to be a man of waves and letters, has climbed to the pinnacle of the surf writing canon, probably for good reason. It’s certainly the only surf book to win the Pulitzer.
But Daniel Duane’s own surf memoir, Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast (1996), is, to this surfer of more than (gulp) 25 years now, a more enjoyable book than Finnegan’s. More real, more visceral, a better peek into what most surfer’s lives actually look like. It’s less Finnegan’s bravado tales of man against himself while conquering the raging sea, and more Thoreau’s elegant observations about what life looks like when it’s devoted to nature, committed to something impractical and of no reward other than personal satisfaction.
At the beginning of Caught Inside, Duane, 27 years old and a dedicated rock climber, has grown listless, bored with his life in Berkeley, California, working a retail job at an outdoor gear store and sharing an apartment with a cacophony of roommates. He strikes out for Santa Cruz, pulled by the memory of learning to surf when he was younger: “…my need to be in the clear, alive water of my California’s Pacific, on a real, honest-to-god surfboard, on a daily basis, had been a source of nagging angst since the first time I’d ridden a wave.”
Once in Santa Cruz, he immerses himself in the strange, beautiful world of eccentric characters who are industrially, ironic as that term is, building lives around working less and surfing more. He mostly spends time with Skinny, a high school friend, who works summers on field crews in Oregon for a paltry year’s savings so he can surf in fall and winter. Or there’s Vince, a college math instructor, who organizes classes around tidal swings to maximize quality water time. Unnamed surfers fill largely stereotypical roles in the book: local hotheaded pros, drugged out beach bums, and pot-bellied buddhas dispensing middle-aged surf wisdom all make appearances. But, those stereotypes exist for a reason, and Duane’s keen observation of the personalities of each type of surfer, and the connection he weaves between them and himself, outsider though he may be, deftly captures—and here comes another cliché—the surfing tribe.
More than his depiction though of Santa Cruz’s colorful surf scene, Duane flawlessly captures the feeling of being a California surfer—well, one north of Santa Barbara, that is. The freezing mornings, up before dawn, drinking coffee and eating sugary muffins in battered Toyota pickups. The clammy wetsuits, pulled on for second, third sessions in a day, shoulders aching to the bone, but who cares when the reef is firing like that. The lack of direction when the surf is windy and poor. The endless, tiresome explanations to landlubbers about veering from a traditional life path in the pursuit of something as silly and incomprehensible as waveriding.
Simply put, Duane captures, better than Finnegan, I think, what it truly feels like and looks like to live as a surfer.
“To the right, the Point reached out to a natural arch; in the half cove protected by it, four small waves lifted through a kelp bed while in the breaking day stood three other guys, sweatshirt hoods low over their eyes, shaking out their wetsuits—just loitering in God’s country as if it was their old backyard. I decided right then, on the spot, that I too wanted to become vaguely bored by this place, to drink so much of its daily beauty I no longer felt that remorse you often get from visiting magnificence, about how you really ought to change your life to include such places and moments, but know perfectly well you won’t. Like finding the thing you didn’t quite know you were looking for: that cove brushed aside everything else about the sport and left me delighted by a few low, spread-out cypress trees—leaning forever in the wind the way those trees do—and a muddy trail leading down a blackberry-brambled gully to the water.”
Every September for the past 20 years since Caught Inside was published, as the fog of summer slips away here in Northern California, leading to the promise of warmer, sunnier fall days filled with wind-groomed surf, I’ve picked up Duane’s book for a re-read. For a reminder of the beauty of a life revolving around something as thrilling, but essentially, to society, anyway, meaningless as surfing. Duane’s book manages the difficult feat of assigning a profundity to that very meaninglessness. One that any lover of an outdoor pursuit will likely recognize.