Walking On Water


Published by John Murray (hardback) and Minerva (paperback) in 1991/92

A book about life, death, and surfing. Set largely in Hawaii in the winter of 1989-90. It has become known as a ‘cult classic’ (I think this means it’s hard to get hold of a copy). Some people seem to think I was seduced by surfing, perhaps even submerged by it. And they are right. This is essentially a love story. It is true that I found surfing magical and mystifying and miraculous – and I still do. But, at the same time, the thing that drew me to Hawaii was not just bigger and better waves (and ok, I admit, warmer ones), but its sense of history and culture. I loved the powerful sense of the collision between land and sea and the language and mythology and aesthetics and philosophy of surfing. Also, to be honest, someone was paying. I am grateful to The Times newspaper (especially Tom Clark and Simon O’Hagan) for sending me out there to cover Martin Potter’s coronation as surfing world champion, the first – and to date the only –British surfer to become numero uno in the ASP charts. Someone called this my Tristes Tropiques. It is true that I think of this as a work of anthropology, a study of the barefoot tribe, an exercise in participatory observation. I have respect and admiration and affection for every one of the great surfers
mentioned here (even, in a funny kind of way, Johnny Boy Gomes). I have so many great memories of living the stories recounted in this book. Under FAQ, the thing people always ask me is: Is it true? And the answer is: Yes, it really is all true. After all, I was writing for The Times, I couldn’t go round making stuff up. And anyway, if I had wanted to write fiction I would definitely have made myself out to be a much better surfer than, in reality, I am.

In all honesty, I only left things out that I was too scared to put in. I wanted to be able to go back one day.

This is what is says on the flap:
‘What do Captain Cook, Elvis Presley, and the author of this book have in common? They all went to Hawaii to live a dream or die there.
Surfing is less a sport than a state of mind, an adventure in mythology, a religion with its own high priests and ritual sacrifices.

Walking on Water is about waves in the same way that Moby Dick is about whales: the story of an obsession, a journey through heaven and hell, the clumsy initiation of an outsider into a cult and a culture. It is also an oblique history of the world, a Human Comedy on waves, that will find an echo even in those who have not already fallen prey to the spell of the ocean.

The North Shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu is only twelve miles long but it has the magic and mythic proportions of Troy or Never Never Land. In summer it is a sleepy, sun-soaked, palm-fringed strip of beaches. But in winter, with the advent of the biggest waves in the world, it is transformed into a mecca for surfing pilgrims from the four corners of the earth. Sunset Beach, Banzai Pipeline, and Waimea Bay are the legendary arenas for a series of surfing showdowns where, for the first time, an Englishman, Martin Potter, is in contention for the world professional title. Andy Martin, ostensibly in Hawaii to report on the Triple Crown contests for The Times, nurtures a secret plan: to launch his own personal assault on the foamtipped mountains of the sea. Variously helped and hindered by shapers, gurus, and evangelical Christians, distracted from his self-imposed task by assorted temptations, this born-again beachbum struggles to find the board, the knowledge, and the guts that will enable him to conquer the man-eating waves of the Pacific.’ One of the writer’s fantasies that this book enabled me to live out (other than hanging out in the vicinity of a lot of palm trees) was that I once came across someone reading a copy while I was riding on the tube (ie subway) in London. He seemed deeply absorbed in the book. Which is worth a thousand reviews. I was thinking of asking him what he thought of it, but luckily he got out at Oxford Circus.

Some Reviews

‘This book has all the excitement inevitably associated with truly original work… [Andy Martin’s] narrative is in the great tradition of English travel writers, exploratory and deeply inquisitive, self-mocking, interwoven with anecdote, often very funny, lucid as the giant waves of Waimea Bay.’

Ruth Rendell
‘A compelling traveller’s tale, romantic, contemplative, funny.’

New Statesman
‘Brilliantly funny and moving, Walking on Water has lifted the sport of surfing out of pictures books and into literature.’

Melbourne Herald-Sun
The paperback publishers chose to put a line from The Times review on the cover: ‘Surfers will… adore it.’ But my recollection is that was intended as a put-down by a very snooty guy who normally reported on the royal family. So I’m not going to count that.

I know someone at The Observer wrote that it was ‘One of the most intriguing and interesting books of the year’ because the publishers put that line on the front cover.

Walking on Water was a runner-up for the Sports Book of the Year prize, awarded by William Hill. The sad thing about this – apart from not actually winning – was that I was given some reasonable sum of money to put on a horse. I was planning to put it all on ‘Birthday Boy’, who happened to be running at Newmarket in the 3.00. It was my wife’s birthday so it seemed like a natural. Then one of my expert friends rubbished that idea and told me to plonk it on a horse called ‘Dead Cert’ instead. Which I duly did, revering the wisdom of the old hand. I don’t think Dead Cert even finished. Birthday Boy naturally romped home. And so it was that William Hill got their award straight back again.

A couple of pictures taken around that time. By John Callahan, the brilliant Hawaiian photographer I worked with on this project. This is the legendary Norman Lomax, also a photog (where is he now?)


A board and me. Funny remarks by Callahan (it was a pretty flat day and we were down on the south side of the island, far from monster waves).


I am not going to bother putting in all the foreign editions of my books (in truth not many), but here is one: a translation into Dutch. And I include it for a particular reason to do with the translation.


As so often in a writer’s life, I had no control whatsoever over this book. So naturally I was kind of interested to have a quick check of the translation. It was all a fait accompli but I thought I’d have a look anyway. (I should have remembered some wise words from an old editor on The Guardian, who could be pretty brutal with the editing: ‘Never look at your published work. You’ll save yourself a lot of heartache that way.’) I decided to look up the page where I talk about drowning and how it felt like ‘sinking into a bowl of porridge’ or something like that. Not that it was that great a metaphor, but I was interested to see how the translator had done the porridge part of it. My Dutch is practically zero, but I thought I would be able to find something to do with porridge. Couldn’t find it. So I tracked down a Dutch specialist at the university and she couldn’t find it either. ‘It’s not there,’ she said. The guy had actually skipped from the previous sentence straight on to the next one. He had decided he couldn’t be bothered with any tricky metaphors to do with porridge. Or maybe he just didn’t know what porridge was. Translation is not a well-paid profession. Could be he just wasn’t being paid enough. In an article that argued that translation is basically impossible, I once gave a practical example of a really impossible-totranslate sentence. Groucho Marx: ‘You’re only as old as the woman you feel’. Strangely, the article was then translated into French (again, I only discovered this much later). The translator, in the politically correct 90s, had translated the sentence so that it came out something like this: ‘A man is only as old as the woman he can feel himself to be inside.’ Thus proving my point but at the same time missing the point completely.