Many of us aspire to live life doing what we want to, but few of us actually do it. Matt Warshaw, though, is different. By his own admission, he has surfed as much as most people claim to want to have surfed, and yet he has had real jobs, written books and graduated from one of the best universities in the world, all while maintaining a steady diet of tube time. But all this pales in comparison to what he is now unleashed on the world.
A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Warsaw launched the EncyclopediaofSurfing.com, the single most comprehensive site on surfing ever created. It’s a follow-up to his book of the same title but with all the advantages of the Internet. Matt Warshaw is really good at this sort of thing. His surfing books have been a hit, combining history and personal stories. He’s written a few you may have heard of: Maverick’s: The Story of Big Wave Surfing, Above the Roar: 50 Surfer Interviews, Surfriders: In Search of the Perfect Wave and The Encyclopedia of Surfing. And what a wealth of knowledge he has to draw from. He began surfing at age eight, and by 1982, he was the 45th-ranked professional surfer in the world. Later, he became the editor of Surfer magazine, and after receiving a B.A. in History from UC Berkeley in 1992, he started writing books. To find out a little bit more about who Matt Warsaw is and how he has done what he has done, I shot him a few questions via email.
Noah Dundas: What do you see as the future of pro surfing?
Matt Warshaw: Anyone’s guess. I’m really bad at predicting the future. I thought when webcasts got to the point they’re at now that everybody, sponsors included, would see how ridiculous the giant carnival parking-lot-ready contest is. But that hasn’t been the case. Given the ZoSea deal — who IS ZoSea, anways? — it’s all a mystery.
I have an idea that I think might help competitive surfing transition to the mainstream: pools replace the ocean for competitive surfing. They can be built anywhere, and the exact same wave can be replicated time and time again. What do you think about that?
I’d sooner sit on a corner and watch traffic go by than watch a wavepool contest. And whatever tiny shred of “cool” surfing has left is because it hasn’t yet gone totally mainstream. Is this a trick question?
One of the hardest things for a surfer to do is to find balance between surfing and working. Given your varied, interesting careers, where do you think the balance is?
My life wasn’t out of balance when I surfed a lot, because I didn’t really have anything else going on. Surfing and work. That’s how I set it up. I loved it; it was a perfect life for years and years. When I got married and had a kid, that didn’t work anymore. Surfing had to go. Or rather, surfing the way I used to surf, which was to put it ahead of everything else. Letting it go, versus doing it half-assed, was easy. I still surf now and then, but I am fast regressing back to kookhood, which is fine too. Hopefully I’ll end up just bodysurfing again, like I did when I was a kid.
You went from pro surfer to magazine editor to Berkley and eventually went to UCLA for your PhD. How did it happen, and why did it happen the way it did?
I bailed UCLA after three weeks. Missed my PhD by only seven years. But the rest, how and why did that all happen the way it did? I was a failed pro surfer and a bookworm. Those two together, plus some good luck, got me the job at Surfer. Six years later, I turned 30 and was tired of Orange County, so I sold my beautiful little house in San Clemente and went to Cal, which led to a whole rebirth in my surfing, at Ocean Beach. I loved undergrad, and got all As, but grad school back in LA was a mistake, so I dropped out and drove as fast as I could back to the Bay Area. I started writing ridiculously long articles for Surfer’s Journal, which led to the ridiculously long books, which lead to EOS online. Simple!
What would your advice be to someone coming up who surfs really well but maybe not quite good enough? What are some other options they should try and explore?
Surfing, if you let it, and almost all good surfers do, will just put you in a cramped little box. It doesn’t seem that way, because you’re traveling, you’re popular; maybe even somebody is paying you. But it’s actually a confining little world, and unless you’re at the John John level, or at least the Brett Simpson level, I would say find a career outside of surfing. Find something you enjoy doing. Surf before work, after work, on trips. Surf forever. But break out of the surf-world box. Of course, the younger version of me would never have listened to that advice. There’s not a hot young 17-year-old surfer in the world that would take that advice.
Most of surfing seems to be represented in picture books, websites, or the history-type books that you do. Do you think there is a market for surfing literature?
A little tiny niche-within-a-niche market. Ask Dan Duane. Ask Tim Winton. They’d tell you it’s worth doing, but only because they wanted to get their work out there, to describe what hasn’t yet been very well described. Money-wise, at best, it’s a nice little advance upfront, then maybe double-digit royalty checks.
You recently launched the best surfing website ever, The Encyclopedia of Surfing. How did you go about telling the story of each surfer?
It’s really just a matter of working out a format beforehand. With the images, the vid clips, the text, all of it. Same as the design. With any given surfer, for example, figure out what is essential to that person’s story first. Just data: birthplace, home town, highlights. Then on top of that, try and add a bit of color. Make them human. Where did the person come up short? Did anybody talk shit about them? What kind of non-surfing events changed their lives? And finally, write clean efficient sentences. Take a scalpel to the text and trim it down, one word at a time. It turns out that going through that exercise back in 2000-2001, writing that way, was really good practice for the web. EOS is a huge site, but also very compact and concise.
What was the process to get such a comprehensive website up and running?
The process was me being totally fucking clueless about what I was getting into, and having to make my way up about six different steep learning curves at once. I loved it, but it was really hard, and I drop to my knees six times a day to thank my wife for letting me pursue this thing.
Do you have any other projects coming up?
You have stated that you admire really dedicated surfers who also had other things going on. What are some things you will teach your son to help diversify his interests, so he isn’t only really good at a few things?
He’ll be that way, too. Just like my dad is. Even now, it’s like, if he’s watching Scooby Doo, he ONLY wants to watch Scooby Doo. Nothing else. He hates water and probably won’t surf, which is fine. Whatever part of my life I’m not pouring into EOS, I’m living vicariously through my son, and I’m looking forward to him being into stuff that I wasn’t into, just so I get to experience something new.
You’re famous or infamous for never going left, yet OB has some of the sickest lefts ever. So what gives?
No, I love going left. Always have. But I never learned how to ride the tube backside, and I got really tube-obsessed in San Francisco, so rather than blow good waves, I’d let ‘em go. And sometimes guys I gave lefts to would turn around later and give me a right. It worked out great.
Any last words of advice for aspiring surf journalists out there?
Look outside of surfing for inspiration. Insecurity is good; rewrite it 10 times. On the other hand, loosen up and try to write quick first-drafts. Joining Twitter was the best thing I’ve done for my writing since high school typing lessons. Find a nice clean spot to break off work for the day. Or better yet, and it’s kind of the same thing, know exactly where you want to pick up the next day. Do that, and you’ll sleep so much better.