An interview with San Francisco surf author Matt Warshaw

By Colleen Corcoran

Photo: Kevin Starr

Matt Warshaw prefers the relentless whitewater of Ocean Beach to the glassy So Cal curls of his youth. Surf books, magazines, videos and DVDs line the walls of his surfer’s library. There, inside his San Francisco home, behind blankets that block the windows of temptation, he has toiled…

From the Aaberg brothers to Zuma Beach, the 816-page “Encyclopedia of Surfing” (2003) consumed more than three years of Warshaw’s life.

“Mavericks: The Story of Big Wave Surfing” (2000) begins, in its own roundabout way, with a Hawaiian riding a tidal wave, wraps in Jaws, Todos Santos, surfboard design, Mark Foo, and undersea topography, and bottoms out in the Quicksilver Contest days.

The former Surfer magazine editor is also the author of, most recently, “Photo/Stoner: The Rise, Fall, and Mysterious Disappearance of Surfing’s Greatest Photographer” (2006), “Surf Movie Tonite! Surf Movie Poster Art, 1957-2005” (2005), and “Above the Roar: 50 Surfer Interviews” (1997), among others.

As surf culture’s head custodian, he’s even created a database with more than 18,000 detailed records of surf articles from 1960 to today, as well as books, movies, contest results and more.

In this interview he shares his thoughts on his path to becoming surfing’s leading chronicler, the evolution of the sport, the uniqueness of the San Francisco surf scene, and the difficulty of integrating surfing into a productive, balanced life.

His literary niche:

I mean, I’ve been called a surfing historian. I’ve taken so many history classes. The history books are all so awful … Since I’m called a surfing historian, I’m just a surfing historian… I never really feel like I can look ahead and say anything of interest. My whole career is look what’s happened and trying to distill it or find a theme or two and looking back and analyzing that. I’m not particularly imaginative.

How surfing has changed:

I’m kind of of the opinion that the sport has sort of become so nostalgic. I sometimes get a little tired of how smug we are as surfers. We have this great thing – it lends this attitude that we’re too cool for the rest of you. There’s always been plenty of surf. The only thing that’s different is how many people there are in the water, because the rest of it – the commercialization of surfing – is not that hard to tune out. It’s not hard to tune all that shit out. If you want to get surf without that many people, it’s not that hard to do… Ocean Beach is a pretty good example, except the crowds at least doubled in the 15 years I’ve been out here. That’s hard if you’re really in love with a surf break. I tend to think it wasn’t that much better than in the past. There’s a lot to recommend being a surfer right now – wetsuits, surf forecasting. It’s seems to me that it pretty much evens out.

“Maverick’s: Fearsome big-wave surf break located just west of the Pillar Point headland in Half Moon Bay, California, 25 miles south of San Francisco; the heavily publicized focal point for West Coast big-wave riding since the early ‘90s… Three Half Moon Bay surfers rode the inside waves at Pillar Point in the winter of 1961, and the break was named after Maverick, a white-haired German shepherd who followed the group into the water. But it was 18-year-old goofy foot surfer and local carpenter Jeff Clark, beginning in 1975, who did the real pioneering work at Maverick’s… ‘It just goes to show,’ Clark told the [New York] Times, in one of his many gruffly theatrical quotes, ‘that no matter how prepared you are, [at Maverick’s] you’re in Neptune’s playground.’” – The Encyclopedia of Surfing

Finding his career path:

I was editor at Surfer and I quit at 30 to finish school and finish college ‘cause I was a dropout. Finished at Berkeley and ended up at a PhD program at UCLA and dropped out. Decided to become a surfing authority sort of. Before I wrote the Encyclopedia, I started putting together a surf literature database. My dad said, “Well, if you’re going to be a surf authority, why don’t you do a surfing encyclopedia?” And I said, “Well, maybe I will.” So it was sort of his idea …

The Encyclopedia of Surfing was a big book, and it was a giant effort. It was the only one that came out exactly how I thought it was gonna come out, and it is the one that I’m proudest of and by far took the most work. And it was also a book that was never done before.

Everything surfing in one place:

Once I had the databases I could research with a few keystrokes. People who like databases can really bore to tears other people what are not interested in it. It’s this miracle research tool… If someone is doing a documentary on surfing in the ‘70s, on the rise of pro surfing in the ‘70s say, then that’ll take me a few searches to do, and put together a few three-ring binders of that subject. And it might be a couple of days work for me, but it would be stuff (others) wouldn’t be able to do period.

On settling in Nor Cal:

I turned 30 and I’d been on the beach since I was seven or six or something, and I’d been in So Cal my whole life, and suddenly I just thought I wanted to try something else, something different. I felt I was getting to old maybe for the Surfer magazine audience. So I talked my way into Berkeley and it was great. I actually did return to So Cal when I was in the PhD program, but it wasn’t for me. I wanted to be up here. I fell in love with San Francisco and really wanted to be up here. I wanted something different … I liked that surfing up here wasn’t yet quite as commodified. There was one surf shop – Wise – (and) it was in a much smaller building…

Surfing in San Francisco:

San Francisco is this great surf break, but it’s a pretty self-contained thing. It hasn’t had much ripple effect in the bigger surf world. It’s just a big giant mostly, often raw and often sloppy. It faces so much into the wind and swell. It’s not that often that it really comes together. When it does, it’s a fantastic break. You need a half dozen things that need to be in alignment even on a good day. If one of them is out of whack, it’s a really frustrating surf break. It’s sort of like surfing in general. The reason people surf for 40 years or longer is because you don’t spend much time as a surfer on your feet riding waves. You almost never feel faded. And Ocean Beach does that one better because it’s always harder to be in the right spot on the right day. It’s a weird thing to say because the effect of that is you end up wanting it more so you just keep surfing. The little bits that you get are amazing.

On balancing life and surfing:

I’m 46 now (at time of interview last year), and I’ve been surfing since I was eight and it is all still pretty gung ho. I’m still able to go out twice a day if it’s good, and almost 40 years of surfing. That’s really repetitive. Today, a good example – it was perfectly fine surf and I spent an hour or so in the water and enjoyed myself and got out of the water pondering what you just asked. It’s not what I remember it when I first moved up here. I will surf for the rest of my life. The degree with which surfing had me by the throat – I’m kind of relieved I’m not the slave I was for decades where when the surf’s good, it’s not, ‘drop everything.’ I got married and that made a difference. The edge just came off my fanaticism. I still surf a lot, and it’s just down-shifted a tiny bit recently…

I’d never do anything else. I’ve tried everything else and there’s never been anything that even caught my eye… There’s not a whole lot to say about surfing. It’s how you make surfing fit into your life just for the simple reason that waves don’t come when you want them to come. Try to make deadlines and be on time, and be on time for dinner and holidays, and be able to drop everything when the surf’s good and have a life outside is really difficult. It’s just challenging. Even if you’re just a happy stoked beginning surfer, it’s really hard if it gets into your blood to not have it change your life in ways not like if you’d picked up golf or tennis.

On being “nobly maladjusted”:

A lot of people – surfing just eats their life up and they end up in middle age with very little else. It’s pathetic… Surfers are nobly maladjusted in terms of doing what most people would expect us to do…

Surfing hasn’t given me any insight into anything. The only thing that I might have any insight on is that if your lucky enough to be able to choose to do something that you really want to do, and if you can do it and keep your life in balance… It just made me sort of not that interested in gathering stuff and being a – the money doesn’t seem to mean all that much. There’s a certain value in having experience instead of money. I think the deal is people don’t discover the thing they want to do and they still want to dedicate themselves to something, so they become a lawyer. If you can find something you really want to do and stay with it, it’s a good a way to live and it’s often not what other people are doing…

Leaving Surfer to come back to school – it was a long two to three years of playing catch up and still is to this day. To focus this much on one thing can be detrimental to your development in other areas of your life. I was really lucky in a lot of ways – my family’s been right behind me. I knew from a really young age that I wanted to surf and surf a lot.

I feel I’ve barely managed to, but I’ve managed to.