Barbarian Days

William Finnegan

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Highly Recommend

What a book! The best biography I’ve read so far, Finnegan is such an incredible writer. I was on a month-long surf trip when I read it which made everything even better. Finnegan’s biography talks about his surfing life weaved in with his incredible personal stories and stories of writing. This book represents a life many people dream about: traveling the world, personal struggles with rebellion and freedom, falling in love, and understanding cultures, and he did it through the lens of surfing that is accessible to anyone.


  • Grew up in Hawaii and California. Much of his childhood was spent surfing.
  • Enrolled at UC Santa Cruz but dropped out to travel the world. First, with his girlfriend at the time around Europe. Later, on a surfing trip with a friend across the South Pacific, Australia and Africa.
  • He always was a big reader and writer. Lots of fiction but also non-fiction. He wrote novels on the road, and also wrote articles about surfing and the cultures he found himself in.
  • In the South Pacific and Australia, if he and Bryan ran out of money, they would stop and take interesting odd jobs for money.
  • Backpacked through Africa with his brother
  • Became a war reporter in incredibly dangerous places
  • Currently lives in New York with his wife and daughter
  • Surfed at every stage of his life


  • Finnegan’s travels through Europe were quite adventurous. He talked about sleeping on the ground in Paris and traveling on a dime
  • Talking about Bryan before the surf trip:”‘We should brush up on our Spanish,’ he said. I couldn’t see why. There wasn’t a Spanish speaking country in the South Pacific. ‘That was good,’ he said. We were going to need a language that nobody else understood, for classified communications in dicey situations. I told him he was out of his mind. But he wasn’t. We ended up using Spanish regularly, it was our secret code. No Tongan could crack it.”

About Tavarua:

  • “Breaking waves peeled so evenly that they looked like still photographs. There seemed to be no sections. This was it.”
  • “First, the snakes. Banded sea snakes, highly poisonous would come ashore by the hundreds each night in search of fresh water. Play with the snake, you will have to suffer.”
  • “Bob showed us three big piles of dry wood at the edge of the jungle on the eastern shore. “These,” he said “were for signal fires.” “One fire meant you were fine, just staying the night to avoid rough water. Two fires meant you were not fine and would need help. Maybe the engine not working. Three fires meant an emergency. If one of us got badly hurt, we should light three fires at nightfall. A boat would come even if bad weather.”
  • “Our campsite… included what the Nambila men said was the only man-made structure on Tavarua: a fish drying rack. The rack, which consisted of six short wooden polls driven into the sand, and a thatched netting, was about two feet off the ground. It was the size and shape of a single bed.”
  • “On August 24, according to my journal, it was double overhead. The wave had a thousand moods, but in general it got better as it got bigger. At 6 feet it was easily the best wave either of us had ever seen.”
  • “By the time we left Tavarua that year, we figured 9 surfers knew about the wave. That number included a couple of Aussie crew guys and it assumed that Ritter and Gary were the first to surf there. In the small world of surfing, the wave was a major discovery. In the scarcity logic of that world, it was essential to keep it a secret. We all swore a vow of silence. Bryan and I got into the habit of saying “da kine,” Hawaiian pidgin for what-you-ma-call-it, when we meant Tavarua, even with each other.”
  • On the cover of Surfer magazine, one issue showed a new discovery of a place: Tavarua. This was the place that William and his friend Bryan found when bouncing around the South Pacific, and they camped there when it was uninhabited. Now a resort was being built. Quoting Bryan’s reaction: “Everything untrammeled in this world gets exploited. And sullied and spoiled.” They both hated it.
  • Not so in the US, where the average sports fan knew essentially nothing about surfing, and even surfers paid little attention to contest results and rankings. The best surfers were admired, even revered, for their style and ability. But the important thing we shared with them was esoteric, obsessive. Not mainstream, but sub-cultural. Certainly not commercial. But some of this, not much, has changed in recent years. The main thing we shared, at every level of talent, was a profound absorption in waves.
  • “Moreover, Madeira was becoming famous in surf world, it was getting more crowded each year. It would soon be ruined, overrun. Like Bali, and dozens of other surf meccas around the globe. There was already talk of a big wave contest to be held at Jardim with corporate sponsors and big prize money. I watched these signs, heard these rumors with rising dread. We had to surf it now, before it went to hell.”
  • Peter was what surfers used to call, some still do, a gnarly dude. There had always been guys (usually big waves surfers) who quietly, casually did things that beggared belief. I remember hearing on the Hawaiian rumor mill that Mike Doyle and Joey Cabell, two surf stars from my youth, had set off swimming down the Napali coast on Kauai. The Napali coast is 17 miles of inaccessible wilderness facing northwest into the biggest storm-producing expanse of the Pacific. The swim took three days. They wore nothing but trunks and goggles. All they took was a pocket knife for prying shellfish off the rocks. They did it for fun, to see what they saw. Those two were gnarly dudes.

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