“Whoever controls the image and information of the past determines what and how future generations will think.” This very prescient pearl comes from the 20th century novelist George Orwell, author of books like Animal Farm and 1984. When I ran this particular quote by widely acclaimed surfing historian Matt Warshaw, he just laughed. As I expected he would. Warshaw, despite his impressive pedigree and resume, remains nothing if not modest. Or, if not exactly modest, at least predictably self-critical when it comes to acknowledging his own place in surf history, asserting that while he might chronicle the sport, he’s had very little effect on surfing’s current zeitgeist.
Fair enough. But while Warshaw’s personal impact on surf culture could provide fuel for debate, there’s no question that he’s comprehensively curated more information about surfing and surf culture, and articulated this wealth of data more effectively, than anyone else in our sport’s long history. Considering that the website version of his epic Encyclopedia of Surfing is currently enjoying its 10th anniversary, with a fully rebuilt, re-platformed version going up the first weekend in December, this seemed like a good time to tell the story about how this one man found himself in possession of such a vast breadth of knowledge, and then dedicated his life to sharing it with the rest of us.
First off, if Matt Warshaw had someone else write his entry in EOS, it might read something like this: Gifted surf journalist, author and archivist and former editor of SURFER magazine, Warshaw is considered one of the most significant chroniclers of the sport. Along with his surf magazine feature writing and articles for mainstream magazines like The New Yorker and Esquire, his books include Above The Roar, Maverick’s: The Story of Big Wave Surfing, Zero Break, Surfriders, Photo/Stoner: The Rise, Fall, and Mysterious Disappearance of Surfing’s Greatest Photographer and Surf Movie Tonite! Most notable, however, are his twin opuses The Encyclopedia of Surfing (2003, second ed. 2005) and The History of Surfing (2010). The EOS website was launched in 2013, and in 2016 he became an external outside consultant for the Oxford English Dictionary. A former Ocean Beach local, Warshaw currently lives in Seattle, Washington.
Yeah, he’d probably be fine with that. If it was up to me, however, I’d add that Matt Warshaw was a top amateur competitor in the ‘70s who grew up surfing with Santa Monica’s Dogtown crew, then later with hot South Bay stars like Mike Benevidez and Chris Barela, and not only placed in the semifinals of the 1977 Katin Pro-Am at Huntington Beach, but won the trials and surfed his way to a ninth-place finish in the 1982 Op Pro. Still in possession of considerable surfing skills, if a tuberiding contest were held today in clean, overhead beachbreak he’d easily win the senior division and give the masters a run for their money. But he also shocked the surfing world when in 1988, he inexplicably vacated the dream job at SURFER, choosing, rather, to…well, let him explain.
“After dropping out of San Diego State, where I went just so I could surf Sunset Cliffs, I got that job at SURFER and for a long time I just loved it,” says Warshaw, speaking from his neatly appointed office-archive in Seattle, surfing’s own ‘Library of Alexandria.’ “Working with all those great photographers and writers, putting stories together, I really enjoyed it. It eventually reached this point where they wanted me to become SURFER’s publisher, and the whole thing was laid out for me, assuming I’d be there forever. But at age 29, even though I was happy with what I’d done in surfing up to that point, at the same time I felt that I’d ignored everything else. Which I had. So I quit SURFER and talked my way into a junior year transfer at Cal State Berkeley. History major.”
Talk about a radical turn. Yet having moved to San Francisco’s Sunset District while attending Cal, Warshaw discovered the strenuous joys of Ocean Beach, where, more passionately than in any of his East Bay classrooms, he applied himself to a masters degree in barrel riding.
“I was never going to be a historian like my professors, or the way the other students in my classes intended to be. But I took enough classes that I eventually had to graduate, and then didn’t know what to do next. So I just punted and got accepted into a graduate program back down at UCLA.”
He got a West LA apartment, bought $500 bucks worth of text books…and lasted about two-and-a-half weeks.”
“I knew I’d made a mistake – I wasn’t cut out to be a historian. And after two-and-a-half years of surfing Ocean Beach I’d fallen in love with San Francisco like with no other location I’d ever known. And it was autumn, and I knew what was happening up there, the season just kicking in with the offshore winds. I couldn’t get back up there fast enough. So I had a plan, so far as that was concerned. But I didn’t have a career.”
Or a calling, apparently. That impetus came from another, unexpected quarter.
“I was sitting in my empty L.A. apartment, talking to my dad about all this, and he said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I told him I had no idea. I had this history degree, but what was the point? And I probably knew as much about surf history as anyone else in the world, but so what? And he said, ‘You should write an encyclopedia of surfing.’ I sort of laughed, and he asked, ‘Is there one?’ I told him no, and he just said, ‘Well, why don’t you do one?’ So I did. It was my dad’s idea, his title, the whole deal.”
Thus Matt Warshaw, having found his calling, began collating the contents of his epic volume of surf knowledge, the big brick of a book, with 1,500 alphabetical entries and 300 illustrations, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2003, with a second edition coming out in 2005. Reviewers were, in a word, stoked. Amazon.com editors selected it as one of the 100 best books of the year. The Los Angeles Times said it was, “both the old and new testament of board-riding culture.” Salon.com called it “a living, breathing masterpiece.” Warshaw followed EOS’ success in 2010 with Chronicle Book’s The History of Surfing (his true masterpiece, in my opinion) then took the cream of his body of work and took it digital in 2013.
“The digital Encyclopedia of Surfing in many ways resurrects the charm of the reference book,” gushed The Atlantic magazine in a 2013 feature review. “Because even though it has gone digital in the most beautiful of ways, it still comes with an editor who holds the keys to the kingdom.”
A decade later, Matt Warshaw still holds those keys, still spends his days adding features, entries, images and videos to the EOS website, delivering the sort of information the surfing world really needs. Like most recently, for example, that Australia’s Phyllis O’Donnell, 1964 Women’s World Champion, was at age 27 the oldest competitor in the event, men or women, and that after her victory – and first prize of a carton of cigarettes – she headed back to her job as a bar maid at the Tweed Heads Services Club.
He’s that deep into this. Not for the money, obviously; the almost trivial cost of a yearly EOS subscription runs you about the same as three acai bowls. No, something more essential is driving Matt Warshaw’s keystrokes. Remember, “whoever controls the image and information of the past determines what and how future generations will think.”
“I like writing about the past because I like seeing how it connects to where we are now,” says Warshaw. “It’s just that I love surfing so much that I’ve been trying to figure out what got us all into this, not just when we were kids, but when surfers like Duke was a kid. Trying to figure out what that unbroken thread means, and where it’s leading the next generation of surfers.”
Consider the Encyclopedia of Surfing an essential companion to your surfing life. Go to EOS.surf and dig in.