Any book by scholar Douglas Booth begs a surfing historian’s attention, especially when it promises to be an “Ultimate Guide” to an “Extreme Sport.” But in reading the foreword, it is clear that the book’s intent is as a reference book for young adult readers. (It is inadvisable to have a “Foreword to Adults” in a young adult book.) The two series editors, Booth and Holly Thorpe write how “extreme sports” are fringe activities, pursued mainly by individuals, not teams, and are “fascinating in their own right; they also offer a window on popular culture and contemporary social issues. Students using these books learn about sports that interest them and discover more about cultures, history, social issues, and trends.”
This is a hugely ambitious undertaking for such a slender book. Part-way in, it becomes clear that “big wave surfing” is its raison d’etre. This is the realm of surfers who ride mountains of water and track weather systems to chase gigantic waves around the planet. They use specially designed boards, chartered boats to take them far from land, and personal tow-in watercraft—hardly an “individual sport.”
Booth, who has studied accident rates, writes that “surfing is a fairly safe activity, (no worse) than that for fishing.” He blames the “hysterical media” for fueling “the popular imagination of a wildly dangerous pastime.” Yet the back cover blurb promotes hysteria, “extreme surfers risk severe injury or even death from riptides, shark attacks, and collisions.”
Young people will wipe out on text that is stilted, for example, “surfing rides a growth trajectory, fueled in part by a new philosophy of physicality which, ironically, celebrates corporeal pleasure and rejects those 19th-century values initially responsible for prohibitions on the activity and then the codification of the sports” (p. 119). Young readers want to get in, and get out. They want to “see” the wipeouts, imagine the agony, and feel the victories from a successful smooth ride, like the surfing magazines, which heavily rely on the descriptions from big wave surfers themselves. The text is hard to read when it is interrupted by a citation/date of publication.
Since extreme sports involve “extreme Nature,” seventeen black-and-white photographs is inadequate. One large colored photograph with a well-written cutline is more easily “read” and more meaningful as a learning tool, than pages of text.
The book’s major strength is as a library reference book. The chronology, the glossary, and the bibliography are useful. However, the chronology contains numerous errors (Kenny Winter founded Hui Nalu). Often women are overlooked in surfing literature, and care has been taken to avoid this. Condescension unfortunately creeps in. For example, “Sarah Gerhardt successfully surfs Maverick’s helping to debunk the myth of extreme surfing as a purely male pursuit” (italics added for emphasis) rather than “Sarah Gerhardt was the first woman to surf Maverick’s.” Since young adults will typically research extreme sports topics on the internet, the bibliography cries out for some YouTube sites and DVD documentaries. [End Page 165]
The book is well-organized into seven chapters. Chapter one is an overview into surfing’s culture and history (much of it unnecessary) segueing smoothly into big wave surfing’s past and present, including the controversy of whether you are a true big wave surfer if you are towed into a wave by a personal watercraft, because the wave is simply too high to paddle into?
Maps showing where the major Breaks are would assist in understanding the science and oceanography chapters, which are comprehensive. Chapter five, “Heroes” lists thirty-five big-wave pioneers. The legendary Laird Hamilton discusses his innovative boards, diet, and grueling exercise regimen. And who rescues the heroes when they wipeout—Brian Keaulana and his ilk—ride to the rescue on motorized watercraft, as daring as the surfer they are plucking from harm’s way.
But how do you learn to ride the big waves? At what age and skill level can...