Some Thoughts on Reading by Jeff DiNunzio

What do you do in the off season when you can’t surf as much as you’d like and the waves seem so far away? How do you feed the hollow hunger that surfing leaves behind every time you step away from the beach? When Jeff DiNunzio hasn’t felt the sand between his toes for far too long, he reads about surfing, stories by writers who capture its essence so vividly that it’s impossible not to imagine himself there at that moment. Here he shares Some Thoughts on Reading from the “claustrophobic backdrop” of New York.  

“Great surf spots always arouse the fantasy.” – William Finnegan 

Last summer on this site, founder, Zach Weisberg, wrote about that feeling. “The one we paddle for,” he described. Plenty has been said of the elusive sensation that surfing arouses. The question, then, is when there are no waves to surf, how do you get your fix? 

I’m as hooked as anyone on Summer Teeth, and Young Wise Tails, and Hell, I’m writing for Korduroy. But for me, replicating the stoke I feel after kicking out of a wave comes not by finding an internet connection, or even a comparable movement on street or snow, but by reliving it in my mind with reading.

It was 2003 when a colleague who once lived in South Bay gave me Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast, the second of journalist Daniel Duane’s five books. Published in 1996, it was in Duane’s initial surf tome – his decision to leave San Francisco, to rent a room in two-story house and teach near Monterey, improve his surfing, and identify his version of early 1990s Santa Cruz – where I found a way to connect with that feeling of going surfing when I was nowhere near the ocean.

Duane excels at distilling a sense of place. “Duane feels the sport grounds him to the landscape,” Matt Warshaw observed of Caught Inside. Lugging his board under his arm, a black wetsuit draped over the nose, Duane takes the reader surfing with him – to Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point, and through Brussels sprout fields glazed in morning fog, to secret spots with one guy out. Leaving their parked truck to check a spot called Chums, Duane and his two pals consume the California rawness:

“A band of clouds stretched from horizon to horizon with ribs forming a vaporous spinal cord; pulverized shells mixed with black pebbles gave a shimmer to the beach’s crunching surface. Carnage, too: a big elephant seal with its bottom half bitten off and a bright red organ swelling out of the hole, flaps of muscle hanging pale and pink and white. Two flippers lay against its side like mortified hands, and a gull stood serenely nearby, looking away from the object of interestas those birds doin the middle distance. Patient and unafraid, the gull let us pass before plucking out the seal’s eyes. 

In western Long Island, New York, where the ocean is often flatter than not and the scenery on shore is comprised of deteriorating tenements from the Robert Moses era and Hurricane Sandy carnage, daydreaming of sandals swallowed by a muddy field on the walk back from an empty break is an easy antidote to my claustrophobic backdrop.

When it comes to capturing someone riding a wave, few compare to William Finnegan – a sentiment that stems from one story he spent six years writing. “Playing Doc’s Games” was a haul of a piece at over 35,000 words, and it ran in consecutive issues of the New Yorker in August 1992. The setting is late 1980s San Francisco, when a modest crew of locals was all that surfed the cold, foreboding sandbars stretching north and south along Ocean Beach. At Finnegan’s Ocean Beach, Peewee, a man of few words and no flash, captivates me each time. It’s at a scene towards the end, when Peewee’s skills in the water command attention, where I find myself looking out to sea:

Finally, somebody caught a wave. It was a gigantic right, four or five times overhead, with a wave in front of it that blocked all view of the rider after the drop. Several seconds passed. Then the rider reappeared, fifty yards down the line and climbing the face at a radical angle, eliciting screams of surprise from the gallery. It was impossible to tell who was surfing. He rode all the way to the top of the wave, pivoted against the sky, then plunged out of sight again. There were appreciative cries and groans. “****er’s ripping,” someone said. The rider was, in fact, surfing the wave as if it were a third the size it really was. And he kept it up, wheeling and carving huge cutbacks, riding from the trough to the crest in unnervingly sharp arcs as the wave in front of his died down, affording us an untrammelled view. It was still impossible to tell who it was, even after the yellow of his board became visible through the haze. I had never seen Mark or Peewee surf a wave that size with such abandon. The wave lost half its height, and all its power, when it hit the deep water between the bars, but the rider found a freak piece of steep swell that carried him cleanly across the flat spot and onto the inside bar. Somehow, as the wave jacked over the inside bar, he slipped down the face early enough to make a turn, and then drew a breathtaking line and ran for forty yards under a ledging lip, his arms outstretched against a backlighted wall, before he finally straightened off, escaping the lip’s explosion by sailing far out onto the flat water in front of the wave. He stayed on his feet when the white water, its energy exhausted, finally caught him, and he worked it back and forth all the way to the sand.

As he started up the beach, board tucked under his arm, it was still difficult to tell who it was. Finally, it became clear that it was Peewee. At the moment of recognition, Sloat Bill stepped forward, to the edge of the embankment, and solemnly began to clap his hands. Others, including me, joined in. Peewee looked up, startled. His face filled with alarm, and then sheepishness. He turned and angled south across the beach, shaking his head, and climbed the embankment where no one could see him.

What surfer can’t close his eyes and see the ****er ripping? I have read that excerpt countless times – often to friends and colleagues, other readers and writers, whose peripheral awareness of surfing, if any at all, derives from the videos of Kelly, Dane and Ando playing on the large screens hung above the Quiksilver store in Times Square. They crack grins and shake their heads, wordless admissions that we will never write anything so good.

Lots of surfers know these authors’ work, most are adults – perhaps an indication of the ways different generations affix themselves to surfing during flat spells. (Finnegan, a New Yorker staff writer, also appears on Surfer’s masthead.) In these parts, as steam erupts from the gray streets like geysers, there are few waves to ride. Watching videos aggravates the wound, an antagonizing reminder of dreamier places with waves and sun and trunks – anywhere but New York in the winter. Reading helps vacate that frustration, forces me to feel the memory of being in the water until next time. Because the reality is that, after all, most of our time as surfers is spent chasing that feeling Zach Weisberg depicts – an “object of passion,” Daniel Duane wrote, “not a goal to be attained but rather a fleeting state to inhabit.” 

Images: beach and desert taken by Cyrus Sutton,

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