Libraries are not a surfer’s natural habitat, and good surfing books are on the endangered list.
Thanks to the dedicated work of a few intrepid surfers and eloquent wave enthusiasts, there are few rare surfing reads worth searching for.
Here’s my top ten surf book discoveries:
1. Breath by Tim WintonBreath is my favourite surf fiction book ever. It’s a coming of age story, in which Pikelet, a young boy on the West coast of Oz, discovers the thrill of surfing. As the title implies the book has a ‘breath’ theme throughout.
As a kid, Pikelet and his best mate ‘Loonie’ would scare onlookers by seeing who could hold their breath underwater the longest. As a teen, the thrill of big wave riding caused a few heavy hold downs. And asphyxiation, resuscitation and didgeridoos all played their part in Pikelet’s adult life.
With experience and emotion drawn from the West Oz ocean, Tim Winton has conjured mythical waves for all to enjoy in Breath. From the fun peelers at The Point to the mind-blowing gut-wrenching Nautilus, there’s something for every surfer to soak up.
2. Dogs of Winter by Kem NunnI’m currently reading this book for the third time. Kem Nunn’s Tijuana Straits and Tapping the Source, are also awesome surf books, far better than the usual surf fiction fodder. But Dogs of Winter is my personal favourite.
Kem Nunn writes surf fiction with a dark side, and Dogs of Winter is no exception. Terrible deaths, forbidden waves, local legends, crazed surfers and a washed up photographer, all stirred together in a remote Californian Indian reservation.
If you haven’t read a Kem Nunn book, do yourself a favour and order one. Now. Go on then.
3. The Dawn Patrol by Don WinslowThe Dawn Patrol is a little more light hearted, which comes as a welcome relief after the last two. But like most successful surf fiction, there is a sinister undercurrent.
Boone Daniels is a P.I. in boardshorts based in San Diego. He’s a talented sleuth by trade but a devoted surfer by nature. Just as a once-in-a-lifetime swell is predicted to hit, so does a complicated case that Boone is compelled to take.
Dead strippers, Hawaiian gangs and trafficked Mexican girls, cause the case to take a dark and unpredicted course. Boone gets sucked into an emotional whirlpool, from which only his Dawn Patrol buddies can rescue him.
Will Boone catch the baddies and ride the giant swell, or will the case and his life get sucked into an eternal darkness?
4. In Search of Captain Zero: A Surfer’s Road Trip Beyond the End of the Road by Allan WeisbeckerIt’s hard to believe but In Search of Captain Zero is actually a memoir not a work of fiction. As Allan Weisbecker nostalgically recalls his drug smuggling mishaps, Mexican misadventure and a melancholy mission to find his old best buddy ‘Captain Zero’.
From the safe haven of his seaside home in New York to the lawless limits of Central America. Weisbecker’s journey is packed full of deep thoughts, remote waves, colourful characters, and travelling challenges.
His mission is to find long lost friend and fellow surfer Christopher Conner AKA Captain Zero. He fears Chris has ‘gone off the rails’. Considering the extraordinary lifestyles they lead together during the ‘good times’ this could be bad, possibly fatal. Hope is all Weisbecker has to go on.
A true tale, of true surfers living exotic surfing lifestyles, but all good stories come to an end.
5. God Clobbers Us All by Poe BallantineThanks to a recent suggestion from @SeatownRockerz, the most recent addition to my bookshelf is God Clobbers Us All.
Edgar Donahoe is an 18 yr old surfing fanatic and an orderly in a decrepit San Diego rest home during the 70s. Like every teenager, Edgar struggles with romance, death, friendship, and an ill-advised affair with the wife of a maladjusted war veteran.
But things start to get really interesting when Edgar and his best friend Pat, a Blackfoot Indian, are held responsible for the disappearance of their fellow worker, Beverley Fey, after an LSD party gone awry.
Ballantine delivers intelligently crafted prose, but his words are easily consumed and very moreish.
6. Amazing Surf Stories: Tales of Incredible Waves and Remarkable Riders by Alex WadeA collection of short but genuinely amazing surf stories, from a fellow Cornwall dweller.
Before I read this I thought Garrett McNamara surfing giant waves from crumbling glaciers was a hoax, and had no idea that ‘Kelly’ isn’t Slater’s real first name.
I was expecting more ‘story’ if I’m honest, as all of these little surf gems are told in Alex Wade’s concise columnist style. But what I first thought a fault later became a strength, as each tale is quickly read, easily remembered and joyfully recounted.
Amazing surf stories has given me more tales to tell with surfer friends than any other book.
7. The Wavewatchers’ Companion by Gavin Pretor-PinneyI discovered this one on a coffee table in Royal Cornwall Museum’s surfing exhibition (well worth a visit if you’re in Cornwall). Having read and enjoyed The Cloudspotter’s Guide, I walked over to Waterstones and bought a copy instantly.
Gavin Pretor-Pinney is like your favourite teacher, father and mad professor all rolled into one. The science of waves can be a tough read, especially when you talk about every type of wave, wet and otherwise.
However throw in hand picked quotes, heartfelt observations, simple diagrams and magical metaphors, and wave science becomes wave wonder.
This fascinating, funny book will not teach you how to ride waves, but it will show you how to tune into the shapes, colours and forms of life’s many undulations.
8. Fear Nothing by Dean KoontzChristopher Snow is a 28yr old surfer who lives in Moonlight Bay, California. His claim to fame is also his curse, he suffers from – xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) – a real but rare condition causing light-sensitivity so severe he cannot be exposed to daylight.
So Chris is a creature of the night – roaming freely through the town on his bike, surfing in the moonlight, exploring while most people sleep.
Already weird enough to capture most peoples attention but the next 24hrs get freaky with mutant monkeys, bodysnatchers, murders and his father’s dying words ‘fear nothing’.
Not so surf centered as the others, but enough to justify inclusion. If you like Dean Koontz thrillers and surfing, you can’t lose.
9. The Big Drop: Classic Big Wave Surfing Stories by John LongThis is no ordinary collection of tall tales told by egotistical surfers. The Big Drop contains 32 true stories of legendary big wave adventures, throughout the evolution of big wave surfing. From the early days of Greg Noll at Waimea to modern day Mavericks, there’s a story for every generation of wave rider.
The book’s focus on the early era of big wave riding during the 1950s and 1960s, demonstrate how times have changed, how far we’ve come in big wave surfing but also how brave and bold the first big wave surfers were.
The Big Drop is an intoxicating concoction of charismatic characters with great names and great legacies, including Jose Angel who shouted at sharks, Ken Bradshaw who rode legendary Log Cabins, and Mark Foo whose life and death will be remembered forever.
If you want to discover where big wave surfing began and what it’s all about, you can’t beat The Big Drop.
10. Surfers Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life by Shaun TomsonShaun Tomson should need no introduction, but in case you don’t know he’s a pioneering professional surfer from South Africa.
At his zenith Shaun Tomson had won a World Champion title, setup a multi-million dollar surf clothing brand (Insight) and was an inspirational speaker. But then his 15 year old son Mathew died in a tragic accident.
From his considerable experience of life’s ups and downs, Shaun has compiled ‘12 simple lessons for riding through life’ starting with ‘I will never turn my back on the ocean’. Shaun is not a modest man, and rarely misses an opportunity to recount his successes, but that makes his tales of loss more poignant.
His code and lessons will certainly ring true for surfers young and old and are well worth remembering. As he says in his introduction “if a young surfer or anyone for that matter can read Surfers Code, learn some useful information, and ultimately get more enjoyment in and out of the ocean… then it will be the best thing I have ever done”. He may well be right.
Other surfing books that have been highly recommended, but I’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading include:
• West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief by Steven Kotler
• Riding the Magic Carpet: A Surfer’s Odyssey to Find the Perfect Wave by Tom Anderson
• Saltwater Buddha: A Surfers Quest to Find Zen on the Sea by Jaimal Yogis
• Kook: What Surfing Taught Me about Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave by Peter Heller
And finally if you’re new to surfing or want to learn more about surf spots along the coast of California, Wave Riding by Neil Grunig is well worth a read.
I’m sure there are many more surfing novels to discover, so please send me your suggestions.