This is the Best Book Ever Written About Surfing

Australian novelist Tim Winton's 'Breath' is a masterful exploration of big wave surfing and nature’s destructive and beautiful power that still tops the pantheon of all-time great surfing books.

Updated 29th February 2024 | Words by Tim Hawken

"It's funny, but you never really think much about breathing. Until it's all you ever think about.”

Ostensibly, Breath is a classic coming-of-age novel that follows two teenagers as they engage in macho pursuits. But it also happens to be the best book ever written about big wave surfing. Why? Because it is strikingly romantic. I mean romantic in the literary sense of the word – with a big ‘R’. It is steeped in sublime nature, bringing allure to the tragic dichotomy of natural beauty and destructive power. If you’ve ever struggled to find a worthy piece of fiction set on the coast and in the waves, then it’s well worth a trip into Winton town.

Surfer on Amazing Wave

Before we get further into Breath itself, it’s worth getting a little bit of context about the author, Tim Winton. He is an inducted Australian living national treasure, having won just about every literary award the country can bestow (including the prestigious Miles-Franklin award a record four times), and to this day is a mad keen surfer. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Why hasn’t there been a good novel about surfing before?” it’s probably because most are written by either good writers who don’t actually surf, or poor writers who do. Winton is the perfect storm of an acclaimed storyteller at the height of his powers, who happens to be obsessed with sliding along waves on boards made of fibreglass and foam. The result is a book that is both unique and authentic at the same time.

Coming of age, Tim Winton's Breath

The story of Breath is set in the fictional Australian coastal town of Sawyer. Told as a flashback recollection by the narrator Bruce ‘Pikelet’ Pike, it traces the exploits of Bruce and his best friend Loony as they grow into manhood, pushing the limits of what they’re willing to do in the water. The young boys both fall under the mentorship of an enigmatic guru called Sando, who takes them to new heights in their dances with death.

“It’s how I fill the time when nothing’s happening. Thinking too much, flirting with melancholy.”

The relationship between the three turns sour when Sando starts to prefer the company of Loony over Pikelet. The two disappear to Indonesia, leaving Pikelet alone to the devices of Sando’s enigmatic American wife Eva. I won’t go further into spoiler territory here, but there are some brilliant sequences about brushes with sharks, charging mythic outer reefs and moist sex with a pregnant woman. All of it is written in a hauntingly natural way, which could easily be mistaken for a nostalgic, yet true-to-life biography. It finishes back in the present day, with Bruce going about his job as a paramedic. We get the sense that he has never fully recovered from his experiences and probably never will. His past has defined him in a way that he is painfully aware.

Joy of surfing is the act

At its heart, Breath is a story about finding meaning in your life by facing death head on. It’s about taking risks, pushing the limits and trying to live right on the edge – reaping both the rewards and bearing the scars. It’s about finding ecstasy by getting close to destruction. It’s also about the emotional toll that living like this can take long term, and the fact that if you take this path, you can never, ever go back. The toothpaste called ‘extreme’ will not squeeze back in the tube.

“Surviving is the strongest memory I have; the sense of having walked on water.”

Breath is also about surfing and how it’s a pursuit that is fleeting and transient; unconcerned with leaving a lasting legacy. Surfing is definitively not like work, where you spend a career building towards something that culminates in a concrete achievement-of-sorts. The joy of surfing is in the act itself, which is a pretty wild metaphor for life if you think about it. There’s something either very depressing, or very uplifting about that thought. I’m still not sure which, and I think it changes depending what kind of mood I’m in.

If you’re looking for an adventure thriller driven by plot and big action sequences then you’ll probably be sorely disappointed with Breath. It’s not a Point Break-esque tale of adrenaline-fuelled derring-do. But if you want a story that packs an emotional punch, feels eerily like real life and doesn’t offer any neat tie offs at the end, then you’ll love it. It doesn’t really matter if you surf or not. Breath will help you understand the importance of embracing the fleeting nature of life. It is by no means a perfect book, but that is part of its charm. It’s what makes it real and elegant and devastating.

Australian actor Simon Brown (The Mentalist) also adapted Breathfor the big screen, a film that was released back in 2017. Based on a screenplay that Baker and Winton co-wrote with fellow Australian writer and filmmaker Gerard Lee, it went on to win 2 AACTA Awards. Baker himself, who played Sando, won Best Supporting Actor, while the movie also scooped Best Sound. The music for the film was scored by British composer Harry Gregson-Williams. It was shot in the West Australian coastal town of Denmark, which was fitting since a few of the waves in the book were based on secret spots in that area.

Cinematically and stylistically, the adaptation proved a real departure from your typical surfer movie – appropriately so, since Breath is hardly your average surfing book. The bleached colours and stark natural light effects also presented a highly original take on Australia’s coastal landscapes, visually reiterating the script’s rejection of nostalgia. Guardian critic Luke Buckmaster wrote that: “Moments on and around the water unfold with a sense of naturalism; they feel almost like poetic documentary. The ocean is presented as a kind of cleansing palette, where the minutiae of day-to-day existence is temporarily washed away, but the large questions – signified by the vastness of the water, perhaps – remain”. Like Winton’s novel, Buckmaster called the film “unpretentiously profound…  allowing natural beauty to speak for itself”. He summed it up as “a surfer film with soul and gravitas”. Surfer walking over rocks at sunset

If you do enjoy Breath, in either its cinematic or its literary form, you’ll probably also like the surf road-trip classic The Search For Captain Zero. It’s a bit more of a Hunter S. Thompson gonzo-style novel, but there are similar themes and it’s written very well. Similarly, if Tim Winton captures your imagination, then his short story collections The Turningand Minimum of Two have a similar feel to Breath. And if his longer works of fiction appeal, then try Cloudstreet, which is widely seen as his masterpiece. Though totally different to Breath, it’s another captivating book that tops the list of favourite Australian novels year after year.

Tim Hawken is an Australian writer who enjoys surfing, Indian food, and romantic midnight strolls to the beer fridge.

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Images: 1: richardlyons/Adobe; 2: trubavink/Adobe; 3, 4: Robert Wilson/Adobe; 5: Phase4Photography/Adobe

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