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May 19, 1997|PETE THOMAS

A consumer's guide to the best and worst of sports media and merchandise. Ground rules: If it can be read, played, heard, observed, worn, viewed, dialed or downloaded, it's in play here.

What: SurfRiders, In Search of the Perfect Wave (Collins Publishers)

Price: $20

Jay Moriarity has passed the point of no return. He stands in a crouch on a yellow surfboard, atop the crest of a towering wave, with nothing but air between him and the sucking trough, looking like a man who wishes he could fly.

Instead, the young surfer acknowledges his fate, plummets down the face, gets sucked up and over the falls and is buried by a mountain of water in one of surfing's most dramatic wipeouts.

"From what I've learned about wiping out, you just have to relax and let it beat the crap out of you and hope you come up," he later explains. "So I relaxed."

Moriarity's precarious pose on the humongous breaker at Maverick's, a notoriously dangerous Northern California break, is one of dozens of spectacular images plastered on the pages of SurfRiders, a refreshing surfing journal compiled by Matt Warshaw and Surfer Magazine.

Warshaw does a superb job of tracing the evolution of surfing--as a culture and sport--from the days of the legendary Duke Kahanamoku to recent times, which have a handful of surf-crazed daredevils strapping their feet onto modified boards and being towed into the most powerful waves in the world.

SurfRiders is appealing in part because it lacks the sometimes incomprehensible jargon that clutters up the pages of monthly surfing periodicals, but also because of the well-researched content and the quick format in which it is presented.

It profiles Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing and Olympic swimming champion who reaped few rewards for his celebrity and made a living pumping gas and reading street meters. It touches on competitive surfing and superstars of past and present. It chronicles the evolution of equipment that has surfers doing things that before were unheard of.

Mike Parsons and Brock Little are pictured trying to survive a mammoth Maverick's drop, unaware that the previous wave had already pounded the life out of their companion, Mark Foo.

Two pages later, Moriarity is pictured atop another Maverick's peak, preparing for a thumping he would eventually be able to laugh about.

And if you think these waves are menacing, keep flipping.

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