An Expert Surfer Praises Our Waves

Writer and surfer William Finnegan talks about the best time to catch a wave along the shore. Hint: you may want to invest in a tough wetsuit.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, veteran surfer and journalist William Finnegan, riding a wave in Fiji, sings the praises of Jersey Shore swells.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, veteran surfer and journalist William Finnegan, riding a wave in Fiji, sings the praises of Jersey Shore swells.
Photo by Ken Seino

Journalist and surfer William Finnegan spent much of his youth chasing uncharted waves and battling demonic swells from Asia to Africa to coastal Spain and France, writing about international conflict along the way. Now a staff writer for the New Yorker, Finnegan chronicled his surfing exploits in the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (Penguin Press, 2015), in which he reveals a surprising soft spot for the waves of the Jersey Shore.

After his globe-trotting period, Finnegan, now 64, settled in Manhattan for the sake of his career. “I thought I had doomed myself,” he recalls. “Then I discovered that Jersey surfing gets really, really good.” LBI has a great reputation for surfing, but Finnegan prefers lesser-known spots reaching from Sandy Hook south to Manasquan Inlet.

Locals know how to find the best waves, says Finnegan, but “there are still a few places that never get crowded and are ridiculously good—just hollow, clean, long right-handers as we call them—and I find myself thinking, This same wave, if a wave was breaking like this in California, 100 people would be on it.”

When our waves do draw a crowd, Finnegan enjoys the company. Jerseyans are, in Finnegan’s estimation, “about the friendliest surfers I’ve met.”

Finnegan and others in the know say the best Jersey surf coincides with some of the roughest weather—like a nor’easter in the dead of winter—requiring a high-grade wetsuit, hood, booties and gloves. “My favorite swells at the Shore are the winter south swells, which start in late fall and can run through early spring. The surfing gets seriously good, and I say that as someone who grew up in California and Hawaii.”

Location is key. “There are hundreds of these jetties, and a lot of them get really good. It changes every year because the sand moves, and things build up differently.”

Some of his best moments at the Shore are in late winter when beaches are deserted, with “just a few hardy joggers on the boardwalk or fishermen out on the jetties.” He skips the summer, when crowds rise and waves falter. “Suddenly there are all these rules and regulations, beach passes that I don’t know about.”

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