Two years ago, I contacted William Finnegan out of the blue. I’d just finished reading his epic New Yorker surf feature “Playing Doc’s Games,” which I thought was the best-written piece (all 39,000 words of it) ever penned about surf culture. I had hoped I might be able to bribe him with some exotic surf travel in exchange for a byline in SURFER. No luck. Finnegan hit me right back, thanked me for the offer, but informed me that he was slammed with deadlines and focusing hard on serious stories. For years, he’s been one of The New Yorker’s most prolific contributors in the arenas of war, drugs, disease, and the tolls they take on humanity. I relented, but told him the door was open any time he wanted to cherry pick a surf-specific assignment for us. A year later, at the New York Surf Film Festival, Finnegan joined me at a screening of Dane Reynold’s Thrills Spills and Whatnot, and after the film he pitched an idea: to return to his beloved Tavarua and report on the real reason the Tavarua Resort lost its exclusive rights to control the lineups of Cloud Break and Restaurants. By the time we left the theater, we’d agreed on the terms of the assignment, and within weeks, he was in Fiji as a SURFER reporter. Our March issue features the results of his investigations. Finnegan and I did a quick e-mail Q&A to give you a bit of background…
I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Fiji. What’s your history with the island of Tavarua?
I first surfed there in 1978. My friend Bryan and I were bumming around the South Pacific that year, looking for waves. We actually overheard something on marine radio about this great left in that part of Fiji, but we didn’t know where it was. We camped for a while at Sigatoka, a river mouth beachbreak on Viti Levu, not too far from Tavarua. Then, in Lautoka town, we got lucky and met an American surfer, John Ritter, who had been on the yacht that made the call about the great left. He told us where it was. He and his mate were, as far as I know, the first people to surf it—this is the island wave that later got named Restaurants. We got some local fishermen to take us out to the island. It was uninhabited, very snaky, with no fresh water. The only structure on the island was a little fish-drying rack. I slept on that. Bryan slept in a pup tent, zipped tight. The fishermen came back once a week. We’d go in to Nadi for supplies. There were some long flat spells. There were some amazing days. It was the best wave I’d ever surfed.
By the end of that season, two more surf yachts had stopped there. We were all going to keep it a secret. That, obviously, didn’t work out. But I remember seeing, in the early ’80s, a list in a mag—probably SURFER—of the “10 Best Waves in the World,” and, going down the list, realizing that I had surfed nine of them. And the best wave I’d surfed wasn’t on the list. That was Tavarua. I was still hopeful that nobody knew about it. But the word was actually out already, and soon enough it blew up. Dave Clark and Scott Funk started the resort, and you guys published an article about it, by Kevin Naughton, with Craig Peterson photos. Later, with mixed feelings, I became a customer—a regular guest. That’s when I first surfed Cloudbreak—we never suspected it was out there. I’ve probably been back eight or nine times in recent years, mostly with the same core group of old chargers, including Naughton (Of course, his son, Kyle, surfs rings around us now). When I first went back, some of the older Fijians recognized me and laughed at me—I was the guy who failed to start a hotel.
Sounds like you find a lot of time to surf despite your work at The New Yorker. How do you make room to include surfing in your life, especially considering you live in an East Coast megalopolis that’s frozen half the year?
Writing is pretty flexible work, don’t you think? If you want to surf, you just have to get a lot done when the waves are lousy. That’s what I’m always telling myself, anyway—write while the surf’s down! There are good waves not that far from Manhattan—on Long Island, in north Jersey. It’s true that the best surf around here tends to happen in winter, so you need a good wetsuit, and the time window of good waves is often pretty short, so you have to stay on top of the forecasts. Once it’s good on the cams, you’re probably going to miss it. We also get hurricane swells in the fall. But I travel a lot for work, doing overseas stories, and some of my pieces take me to surf zones—South Africa, Central America. So I can sometimes combine reporting and surfing. More often, I’ll just take a surf trip after finishing a big project. I used to go hole up at remote surf spots to write. I spent a lot of time in Madeira in the ’90s doing that. Those stints ended after I became a parent. Really, though, it would be impossible to get in the water a lot, considering where I live and what I do, without an indulgent wife and an indulgent employer.
“Playing Doc’s Games” is generally considered the best piece of magazine journalism to date about surfing, but since penning that, you’ve written little about surfing. Why is that?
Other subjects have seemed more urgent, I guess. I don’t really have a beat, but I’ve written mostly about politics, war, poverty, organized crime, U.S. foreign policy, globalization—more hard-edged topics. I have been working on a book, a memoir, that’s mainly about surfing, but it’s not really journalism. It’s about the places I’ve surfed, the guys I’ve surfed with—the autobiography of a surfer, not a reporter. For better or worse, I’ve rarely put the two together.
You told me that you went to Fiji expecting to learn that it was government corruption or corporate scheming or some combination thereof, but in the end it really came down to relationships and one small group’s desire to return Restaurants and Cloudbreak to public-access status. Do you think that shift was inevitable? Also, as a longtime Tavarua visitor, are you sad about the result?
I am sad, of course, about losing the chance to surf—occasionally, and at considerable expense—great waves with sparse crowds. I don’t think the shift was inevitable. If Tavarua Resort had treated Fijian surfers better—given them more access to Cloudbreak and Restaurants—the 2010 Surfing Decree that opened them up would never have been issued. The group that’s happy about the decree is actually not small. There are more than 1,000 surfers in Fiji, by one count, and a hell of a lot of Aussies, and plenty of surfers from other places as well, who are all stoked about the new arrangement. But they were never effectively organized, so they had no leverage. It was really just a couple of Fijian surfers who managed to channel the general frustration and get the government to act. If those two guys hadn’t been really annoyed, it wouldn’t have happened. I don’t think, by the way, that the old arrangement was defensible, politically. I just enjoyed its fruits. And I don’t think the new arrangement is any good, either. It’s going to be rife with profiteering, bad crowds, and people getting hurt, the whole usual nightmare at great surf spots.
Would you rather surf perfect Restaurants or perfect Cloudbreak?
In my experience, both places get better as they get bigger. The biggest Restaurants I’ve surfed, which was back in the day when there was no restaurant, was probably double-overhead, and it was the best wave I’ve ever surfed. Cloudbreak is a less machinelike, brawnier wave. I’ve surfed it a bit bigger than that and absolutely unreal, but it gets even better, as you can see from the pics and video of that September 2010 swell, at a size that I’m not interested in trying to ride. Perfect Cloudbreak means 20 feet and breaking on what they call the Third Reef. That’s out of most people’s league. Certainly, it’s out of mine.