Riding the waves of hostility

The Times, March 3, 2007

Stealing the wave - The Epic Struggle Between Ken Bradshaw and Mark Foo by Andy Martin

Bloomsbury, £12.99

WITH ONE OR TWO honourable exceptions, what surfing literature there is tends depend on photographs. It is as if words are inadequate in the face of a sport – or, to its devotees, a way of life – that is by turns sublime, unfathomable and terrifying.

A cynic might say that surfing’s literary void is a consequence of its practitioners’ sun-bleached brains, but writers of the calibre of Mark Twain, Herman Melville and Jack London have found inspiration in what London called “the sport of kings”.

The Cambridge don Andy Martin has long been fascinated by surfing. As a young man he was obsessed with the slogan “Surf Hawaii or Die”; the result was Walking on Water, a witty, passionate and photo-free evocation of his experiences at surfing’s Mecca, the North Shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

Sixteen years later, Martin has returned to surfing in Stealing the Wave, whose subject matter is again anchored in Oahu. This time he has moved on from the “innocent abroad” reportage of that book to study the intense rivalry between two gladiators of mid1980s surfing, Ken Bradshaw and Mark Foo.

Bradshaw was a Texan arriviste in Hawaii who became one of the world’s most formidable – and bad-tempered – big-wave surfers. He redefined the notion of tunnel vision, excluding everything and anyone who did not fit in with his quest to surf the biggest wave known to man.

He uncompromisingly enforced his own sense of order on the North Shore, a code that meant a place in the lineup had to be earned, respect shown and dues paid. Woe betide anyone who failed to play by Bradshaw’s rules, for this was, as Martin wryly notes, “the golden age of grievous bodily harm”.

If Bradshaw was unreconstructed old school, Foo was surfing’s Mr Media. The slim Chinese-American was stylish, fearless and, even better, a brilliant self-publicist. Bradshaw soon found himself eclipsed by his younger rival. Foo’s ability to hog the limelight, and his knack of appearing as if from nowhere to ride waves that Bradshaw felt were his, led to resentment and, finally, to Foo’s death.

Although Bradshaw and Foo had patched up their differences, Stealing the Wavesuggests that Foo’s demise at a Californian big-wave spot known as Maverick’s – which the pair were surfing together – may not have happened had their competitiveness not become so all-encompassing.

Martin’s impressionistic style deftly distills the similarities between the two although for much of the time he seems uncritically to accept that men like them are heroes simply because of what they do.

There is a subtle shift in tone towards the close, one heralded by scenes involving two of surfing’s lost souls, the native Hawaiian Eddie Aikau and Ted Deerhurst, the English aristocrat known as “the lord on a board”.

Like Foo, both met untimely ends. Like Foo, both serve as counterpoints to the implacable force that is Bradshaw.

As for Martin, the erstwhile North Shore ingénu admits that he has “probably had it with heroes”, saying that if he had to choose one, it would be King Canute. His own journey to this ambivalent epiphany might have been just as compelling as the story of his protagonists, but this fine and intelligent book’s abiding image is of Bradshaw alone, “who will never stop surfing . . . unless surfing finally stops him”.