Monday, 2 July 2012

Review: Riding the Magic Carpet, Tom Anderson

Riding the Magic Carpet: A Surfer's Odyssey to Find the Perfect Wave

Tom Anderson

Summerscale, 2006

"The right-hand point at Jeffrey's Bay is one of the surfing world's most exciting finds, and from the age of twelve it had been my life's purpose to surf there." 

J-Bay, South Africa, has the fantasy, the almost mythical waves every surfer dreams of riding once in their lifetime. But Tom wouldn't go until he was ready. He would seek out surf-spots from the virgin reef-breaks of the Outer Orkneys to the temple point-breaks of Indonesia, from the beautiful beaches of France to the wilds of Sri Lanka, on his quest to ride the waves of his dreams. Get on the road, get stoked, and get in the water.

In Riding The Magic Carpet, Anderson sketches a journey that starts in South Wales, ventures to the icy reaches of the Orkney Islands, and careens through Western Europe, Indonesia and Central America, before winding up at its destination: Jeffrey's Bay, South Africa. J-Bay, as Anderson calls it, is the pinnacle of the author's quest to find--and surf--the elusive perfect wave.

As a non-surfer, I was pleasantly surprised by the accessibility of the book - there is a brief glossary in the back, but for the most part it wasn't needed, as there were brief explanations of key concepts as the story moved along. The book takes the form of a travelogue, whereby Anderson and various surfing pals visit ever more impressive destinations in the build up to Anderson's voyage to Jeffrey's Bay.

The first section of the book sees a group of surfers tackling the relatively virgin waters of the Orkney Islands, as well as Thurso East, one of Scotland's fabled surfing spots. Crucial to an enjoyment of the book is an understanding not so much of surfing but of the commitment to surfing that Anderson and his ilk possess, and how this fuels his quest to surf the world in pursuit of those perfect waves. The trip to the Orkneys--a freezing, little-visited destination with little in the way of guaranteed, well-documented waves--shows not only the men's love of surfing, but the importance of finding new spots in which to surf, however unlikely these spots might be.

As the book progresses, Anderson travels to France, the Basque country, Sri Lanka and Indonesia to surf, before breaking his leg in a football match and travelling to Costa Rica and Panama to visit his girlfriend, another keen surfer, whilst being unable to surf himself. All this builds up to a recovery that sees Anderson, finally, making his way to Jeffrey's Bay via Durban. As he travels, we are introduced to popular surf spots and those that are hidden away and jealously guarded. Surf etiquette plays a part in negotiating these locations, as locals and outsiders battle for space. Anderson documents how the fluke of good waves can alter the fortunes of a town or region, as in turning flood-damaged Sri Lankan towns into relatively prosperous surf destinations.

As a sport that I was largely unfamiliar with when picking up this book, surfing emerges as more complex, more competitive, and more compelling that I had previously imagined. The tone is occasionally meandering and sometimes I found the writing a little bit flat, but I wonder if some of the problem stems from attempting to write to a non-surfing audience as well as, presumably, many readers who are as invested in, and as knowledgeable about, the sport as the author himself. As an introduction to surfing, Riding the Magic Carpet is an enjoyable read, and I'd be interested to see how Anderson's other book, Chasing Dean, matches up.

Overall rating: 6/10

Book source: Received as a gift.


  1. This sounds like a good read! I'm ashamed to say that even though I've lived right near the beach all my life, I've never learnt to surf but I do enjoy reading about it, so this could be fun!

  2. Sounds good, I just wish I had the patience to read non-fiction, but it has to be something spectacular for me to pick up. I feel that the narrative for non-fiction does meander, as you mentioned about this one. Still, I love when an author can bring to life a sport/activity that I've never tried.


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