Roger Cox: If your favourite sport’s not often televised, you must rely on witnesses who can create romantic myths

The surfing crowd at Angourie, New South Wales in the late 1960s, as photographed by John Witzig. Picture: Contributed

The surfing crowd at Angourie, New South Wales in the late 1960s, as photographed by John Witzig. Picture: Contributed

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ONE of the best things I’ve read so far this year is Found At Sea, a new book of poems by Andrew Greig.

It’s based on a journey he made from Stromness on Orkney to the abandoned island of Cava in a little sailing boat called the Arctic Whaler, skippered by his pal Mark Shiner – an experience he describes as a “micro-Odyssey”, something he has “mythed” in his writing. Partly I like Greig’s poems because they are honest; when he’s afraid, he’s not afraid to say so. The main reason I love this book, though, is because the descriptions of the actual act of sailing are so brilliantly, vividly evocative. As I’ve said at least once before in this column, good action writers are few and far between but Greig is one of this vanishingly rare breed – a superb poet of action. Here he is describing the Arctic Whaler’s passage across Scapa Flow: “crew silent, ducking spray, sheets gripped in hand. / We leaned out wide then wider / jib and main as hard as board / numb hand on kicking tiller”. In just those few words, you get a richly detailed, three-dimensional insight into his experience: the cold, the wind, the spray, and also the sensation of everything being at full stretch – the sails taut, the boat heeling over, the crew leaning out as far as they think they can go and then further still in order to keep in trim. Real white-knuckle writing. Greig will give a reading from Found At Sea at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh on 20 May, and he will also read from his similarly excellent collection of climbing poems, Getting Higher. Four Seasons doesn’t usually do blatant plugs, but if you only go to one poetry reading this year (or even this decade) then make it this one.

One of the main differences between conventional sports and the activities commonly lumped together under faintly nonsensical headings such as “action sports” or “outdoor sports” is the way they are packaged for public consumption. Football, rugby, tennis... these can all be experienced live, either in a stadium or at home on TV. Any writing or photography in the next day’s newspaper is supplementary to the live event. By contrast, sports like Greig’s – sailing and climbing – don’t really lend themselves to the stadium experience, and they hardly ever make it onto the telly, so fans usually encounter them as words and pictures first. This, of course, gives them an added layer of mystique – myths and legends can flourish much more successfully where incomplete records are kept – but it also puts writers and photographers in these areas in a unique position as the only filters through which fans are able to get information. As a young surfer growing up in the pre-internet age, the only way I could find out what was happening at the cutting edge of my chosen sport was by reading magazines, and although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was completely at the mercy of the scribes and lensmen of such august publications as Surfer, Surfing, Wavelength and Carve for all my surfing lore. Looking back, the best surf writers of the 90s – Steve Hawk, Steve Barilotti, Dan Duane and Matt Warshaw – didn’t just report what had happened, they passed on a whole worldview; and the same can be said of Australian surf photographer John Witzig, who recorded the period in the late 60s and early 70s when a few brash Aussies dragged the sport into the modern era. A book of Witzig’s pictures, entitled A Golden Age, has just been published by Rizzoli, and while his images encapsulate the mischievous irreverence of such characters as 1966 world champ Nat Young, they also illustrate the free-thinking culture that made his revolutionary surfing possible. A series entitled Country Soul shows surfers in rural coastal locations around Australia experimenting with everything from surfboard design to bargain basement beach house construction. Did Witzig create the cliché of the free-thinking hippie surfer? Probably not, but he certainly played a key role in showing us what the cliché might look like.

• Found At Sea is published by Polygon, £8.99, see www.polygonbooks.co.uk; A Golden Age: Surfing’s Revolutionary 1960s and 70s, is published by Rizzoli, £29.95, see www.rizzoliusa.com

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