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Chucking It All for a Life in the Surf


I very much enjoyed Daniel Duane’s Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast, his 1996 book about how he moved from Berkeley to Santa Cruz to surf. But despite his evocative language and transcendental outlook, I’m not sure he ever got around to the central point of explaining why someone would give it all up to roll in the waves.

Oh, he talks about how surfing grabbed him in his youth, and how he’s stayed with it since. But he never quite explains just what it is that keeps him jumping into cold water and waiting for a swell to give him a ride toward shore that might last a minute if he’s lucky. There are lots of passages like this one, on page 31:

If a surf break can be a Walden Pond, a material synecdoche of all one finds mysterious and delightful about the world, then I found mine through a guy who hated it there.

A material synecdoche? I know what it means—synecdoche is verbal shorthand in which a part is understood to represent the whole, like saying “boots on the ground” when you mean having an army in place—but Duane’s sentence takes us around the block to get next-door. I think he means to say that a surf break can contain all that is mysterious and delightful about the world.

Despite Duane’s overwrought words, his tale of getting away for an extended period to be at one with the ocean is an inviting one. Through the course of his stay, his life comes to revolve around how well it’s breaking. And his answer—as the answer for so many of the rest of us in different pursuits—is some days are better than others.

On the days when it wasn’t breaking so well, Duane provides a quick history of surfing, some notable “celebrity” surfers (like the writers Jack London and Mark Twain) and some interesting reviews of classic surf movies, like Gidget, which did a lot to introduce the rest of the world to West Coast surf culture (such as it was).

It appears from online bibliographies that Caught Inside was Duane’s second book. His first, Lighting Out, was published in 1994 and details a year he spent getting in shape and climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan. Today, he seems to content himself with writing magazine articles and making videos about, of all things, cooking.

As much as I enjoyed Duane’s musings on the coast, I can’t help but feel a little shortchanged. The cover promised that he’d chronicle a year, and I count groupings for only Fall, Winter, and Spring. Where’s that other season hiding?

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