The Coast News Group
Giles Finlayson aboard the boat he’s traveled the world in, the Petrel. Photo by Chris Ahrens

The continuing adventures of Giles Finlayson

“Life is a great adventure, or nothing at all.

—Helen Keller

I first met Giles Finlayson at Hookipa Park in Maui in 1969. There wasn’t much surf that day, but we paddled out anyway before retiring to the shade of the pavilion to talk about the places we had surfed and the mutual friends we met along the way. 

Giles was a gifted goofy-foot surfer who seemed to enjoy every little section of whatever wave he rode. After a few months in Maui, we lost touch, and it wasn’t until 1973 that his name came up again through California-to-Australia transplant Jim Machado who smiled when I said I knew him. 

Upon returning to Encinitas in the mid-1970s I again caught up with Giles. I realized by then that our encounters would be brief since we were covering a lot of territory in those days. Like that, he vanished like a vapor and over the years I heard rumblings of his whereabouts: Mexico, Fiji, Indonesia and beyond.

He probably won’t like me saying this, but he had become something of an underground surf legend, sailing around the world mostly alone on his 40-foot sloop, always several steps ahead of the maddening crowd.

 A few years ago, I checked Facebook to find a photo he had taken of his boat anchored in a beautiful tranquil bay that was empty of people. True to his pledge to never exploit secret spots, the caption simply, “Seek and you will find.” 

Giles is often far from home, but anyone who knows him will tell you that he is at home anytime he is in or near the water. It’s as if his sense of adventure, and his kind, honest spirit guides him into places where most of us fear to tread. 

Stories of his narrow escapes themselves are worthy of feature films, which, ironically, is a world he was born into.

I recently visited Giles in his part-time home in Leucadia. There I received a fuller glimpse of his life. Photos of boats and Hollywood royalty, notably Bette Davis and Walt Disney, who wrote a paragraph to a then very young Giles, decorate the walls. 

For a time, the family lived next door to movie star David Niven, who had moved from England to Hollywood around the same time as Giles’ father, who was also a leading man. 

But Giles hardly mentions his Hollywood roots, or even his early surfing days. He is laser focused on the present and a future where undiscovered waves of wonder break on tiny atolls deep in the heart of the South Pacific.

That, his wife, his friends, a seaworthy boat and some hard-earned stories are all he needs to have the best life imaginable. 

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