- Pacific Passages: An Anthology of Surf Writing
For as long as surfers have been riding waves they, and others, have attempted to describe the sensation, a symphony of grace, power, exhilaration, speed, and sometimes, danger. Ancient Polynesians, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century explorers, missionaries, and travelers, those who recorded surfing’s revival in the early part of the last century, and thousands since then have all tried, as Patrick Moser demonstrates in his selections, to “capture its alluring essence.” Yet he admits they have failed: “words alone can never contain such a simple act and the complex universe of feelings and emotions that surfing has engendered in wave riders for perhaps thousands of years” (pp. 282–283). However what Moser’s selected writers have unconsciously managed is to open windows onto surfing and surfers in different times and places, thereby allowing him to present many different images of surfing.
What he has also done for a sport still regarded by many as unquestionably hedonistic, is to present an astonishing breadth of writings, many in obscure publications; his sharp-eyed perceptiveness in unearthing descriptions of surfers is remarkable, especially those included in the largest section devoted to those observers who roamed the Pacific in the post-Enlightenment era of discovery. Arranged in six chronologically defined sections, the more than sixty selected writings range from a page or so to short story length, presenting different evolutionary dimensions of surfing: the beginner’s experience, the casual carefree wave-riding session, big-wave riding, exploring semi-known beaches in exotic locations, popular surf culture, commercialism, professionalism, and rituals.
The range of the selections is stunning: William Bligh, Mark Twain, Jack London, Tom Wolfe find a place alongside other writers focusing on surfers such as Mickey Dora, Fred Van Dyke, and the “Maui Surfer Girls.” The anthology’s concluding section, “What is Surfing?” includes two notably attention grabbing pieces, “Playing Doc’s Game—I” and “In Search of Captain Zero.” One conveys the sheer rapturous pleasure of a solitary surfing session—one surfer’s “ownership” of a well-known Californian break for several hours. The other is saturated with the sense of wonderment, exuberance, and reflective curiosity when a surfer rides the perfect wave to its limit. “How did this happen?” Allan Weisbecker asks himself (pp. 301–302).
Yet the anthology does have several omissions. Few would deny that it is from the Pacific that the most significant trends in modern day surfing have emerged and initially flourished; however, Pacific Passages dwells almost exclusively on the eastern Pacific (Hawai‘i, California), when the title implies a wider span. Consequently, with one exception there [End Page 194] are no selections of writing on surfing west of the international dateline, most notably Australia’s eastern coast. This surfing culture has at different times produced Nat Young, Mark Richards, and Mark Occhilupo, although it must be said that Moser generally looks beyond personalities.
Also, during its evolution surfing was, and remains, essentially masculine and misogynistic. Despite this, today women’s surfing thrives, building on the balletic grace of its determined pioneers. They are in most line-ups—but only fleetingly in Moser’s—now content to be judged as surfers and not by gender. Perhaps their absence simply reflects the lack of writing about women surfers. Finally the critical reader will find few mentions of surfing’s dark side, for example the drug taking, the occasional ugly, tribal-like localism, and the personal tragedies recently exemplified by the recent death of Andy Irons.
The quality and historical sweep of the selections make this a unique and valuable scholarly addition to the academic study of surfing’s transition from Polynesian pastime to global phenomenon, on and off the water. Almost as important though, is the repeated and always compelling exploration of surfing’s essence, the individualism that is its core. In a different way this was captured by Australian novelist Tim Winton, describing in Breath (2008), how on a winter’s day two grommets watched a far-out mysterious figure...