The power went out the other night. I was at my place in San Francisco and that once-in-a-decade storm was blowing rain sideways, turning power lines into oversized jump ropes. At first there was light…then a flicker…then black. I used my phone to find two candles and a headlamp. Lit the candles. Strapped the headlamp, and used its spotlight to find the book next on my bedside table — Barbarian Days — of which 70 pages remained unread. So I read. I finished. And I loved.
Not only did author William Finnegan describe the act of riding waves with stunning clarity, but he captured the essence of being a surfer better than I’ve ever witnessed. Specifically, a surfer’s fixation on finding new waves. The lure of uncrowded surf in an exotic locale, the collateral life experiences along the way and the rare, sweet reward when you actually discover something. Finnegan himself scoured coastlines on tips from missionaries, slept on Tavarua for weeks on end, and between war reporting in Sudan and Mozambique, he overturned every boulder on Madeira to find surf all over the island.
Finnegan’s memoir made me nostalgic for my sporadic attempts at aimless world wandering, and at the same time, inferior. Because while I was often early to destinations that would later become popular — Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, parts of West Africa — I never sacrificed the promise of surf to actually discover new waves.
But maybe there’s still hope? There must be quality, unknown waves still breaking all over this world. Sure, the low-hanging fruit was picked in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and most of what remained at the top of the tree was spotted with help from Google Earth. But there’s no way we found everything. And besides, the fluid nature of this planet means that new waves are always being formed — an earthquake raises a reef here, a jetty makes a wedge there, rivermouths break out everywhere. Access is another modern advantage. Roads are being built, new flight routes established. There’s no such thing as cold water, just bad rubber — modern wetsuits are our passports into frigid, foreign waters. All that, combined with accurate and improving surf forecasting, and how could there not be hundreds (thousands?) of good waves out there, breaking right now, all undiscovered and lonely.
With candles illuminating my living room like a séance, I grabbed a globe off the shelf and swiped at it. Where are you, right-hand Skeleton Bay? Is that you, cold-water Lakey Peak? I imagined the global storm tracks and where the resulting swells make landfall. I looked for where we know there are good waves, then looked next door. I spun and I spun, I pondered and noted, the pulse of the candle’s flames adding an ethereal tint to this fantasy. Did I discover anything new? No. But a journey of a thousand miles doesn’t begin with a single step, it begins with a map.
This map pointed me to the following places.
Greenland: While I don’t think the bathymetry of the coastline is as favorable as its neighbor Iceland (the North Shore of cold-water surfing), the amount of swell it catches means there must be a wedge refracting off an ice burg somewhere. You just have to get there before it melts.
Madagascar: This is a bit of a cheat, as I know of a couple of guys that went here recently and found a wave that was good enough for them to purchase a plot of land on the point. That said, “roughing it” doesn’t begin to describe their experience.
Alaska: This might be the Promised Land of undiscovered surf. From Adak to Sitka, there are enough islands, coves, nooks, crannies and rivermouths to keep motivated explorers busy for the remainder of their lives. On my first trip to “easy-access” Alaska, I scored Indo-quality surf at three different waves along a 30-mile stretch of coastline. Imagine what lies on the remaining 3,000 exposed miles.
Chilean Patagonia: The fractured coastline from Chiloe to Punta Arenas gets battered by swell in winter, spring, summer and fall. The weather is brutal and the winds howl, but if you could find a cove protected from the southerly winds (which most Chilean pointbreaks are), you’d enjoy waves to yourself in perhaps the most beautiful place on earth.An unscathed African gem. Photo Kevin Voegtlin
The Entire West Coast Of Africa: What a treasure trove of undertapped potential! From Cape Town to Casablanca there’s almost 10,000 miles of surfable coastline, and because of its relative position to the Atlantic, you’ve got north and south swells to choose from, with only a small shadow zone between Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone. Turns out The Dark Continent is a bright light in surf discovery.
Yes, one would need a boat, a 4×4, a chopper/plane, a bit of time and a lot of money to properly investigate any of these places, but there are perfect, empty waves out there. What better things do I have to do? What better things do you have to do?
My electricity comes back on. PG&E to the rescue. It’s bright. The romantic glow of the candles — and my exploration fantasies — are dashed by the unnatural light. But…what’s that? With the increased visibility I can now see a group of islands, right there off Papua New Guinea. Hello, Admiralty Islands. I see you, New Ireland. Bougainville, you might be just what I’ve been searching for. –Taylor Paul