Stealing The Wave has sat upon my bookshelf for many years but, as a surfing book, it kept being bumped to the lower ranks of my ‘To Read’ pile, by books about other, more mainstream sports. I’m a City Dweller, waves scare me and I have never gone near a surfboard, but when I started reading Stealing The Wave, I was struck by a sense of clarity and that sense of refreshment one feels when you’ve spent a hot day on a beach, interspersed with those rip roaring dips in a dazzling bright sea.
Andy Martin has one book and various newspaper articles on surfing under his wetsuit already, so his credentials are more than seaworthy. A surfer himself, Martin transports the readers to Waimea Bay in Hawaii in the thick of the ’80s and a surf culture gloopy with testosterone. Two principle surfers compete for status amongst their fellow brethren by chasing waves that are bigger, better, and more foreboding than the last. A true story, Martin focuses on the infamous rivalry between the solid warhorse of Texan origin, Keith Bradshaw, and the Young Pretender to Bradshaw’s crown, Mark Foo – a Chinese American upstart with a love for the surf but also a hot desire for the commercial gains to be made by the shrewd sportsman.
Both men adjust their training programmes, their lifestyles, their regimes and their ethics, to constantly better their surfing selves, and Martin takes us through the feuding years that ensue. For fear of plot spoiling, we’ll hold fire on more details, and instead will turn our attention to key criterion in reviewing this book.
Is this a book of greatness? If you’re a surfing fan already, I imagine that Stealing The Wave may well tick some boxes. You’ve got a great writer dealing with two giants in surfing history. Martin keeps the writing close to Foo and Bradshaw, giving the non-surfing reader just enough background to elucidate a picture of this slice of sports culture at a certain time. If you’re a surfing purist, Stealing The Wave may not do it for you as such, but even if you’ve not, it may well have the ability to take you to the beach on a literary level, which is not a bad way to spend a sports book afternoon in truth.
Is this an important book? Martin’s writing is impassioned but his prose sparing. We are shown rather than told much about ’80s surf culture, and it works to a large extent. The Foo-Bradshaw tussle is one of the New vs Old, of Money vs Integrity, of Bright and Shiny vs Ancient and Classic, but Martin shies away from claiming this rivalry is the key to understanding modern surfing or even modern sport. It just comes over as a levelling, measured account of ‘what happened’. I like the author’s impartiality but fear that his neutrality prevents this being an important book per se.
Stealing The Wave is an entertaining read by all accounts. The beaches, the sun, the waves, all provide a backdrop for surfing competitions, tousled hair and biceps, but be warned, Stealing The Wave does lack a certain amount of description that would genuinely take the reader not just to Waimea Bay, but right into the ocean itself. The pace is great and it’s a page turner without a doubt. Although I was disappointed by the lack of surfing heart, I kept reading as I wanted to know, eventually, ‘Who Won’ this battle. Furthermore, the book did have me trawling YouTube for Waimea shots and more information about the two lead surfers – which to me, is testimony to a decent book and well written story.
Whilst Stealing The Wave is – to me – a little too weak to be able to claim it has set Foo and Bradshaw in stone in surfing history, it is a book that should sit on any sports shelf. It captures a turning point in a sports history and therefore has a rightful place. Some have hinted that the author may have embellished the story in places, but that’s just good writing, and at no point does it feel fake or silicon to an unbearable degree.
Readers, be warned, there is a bizarre and chunky account of the sex lives of these surfers, and it appears rather unannounced in amongst the pages. I found this aspect sat rather awkwardly within the rest of the book, but that was Stealing The Wave’s only glaring error.
In conclusion, whilst Stealing The Wave may not win a literary prize in its lifetime, it’s a noble nudge to a specific moment in Surf History, and makes for an utterly pleasing – and different – read. 6.75 out of 10.