Writer, Surfer
Matt Warshaw has helped surfers a lot. Time for us to help Matt. Photo: Courtesy Warshaw

Matt Warshaw has helped surfers a lot. Time for us to help Matt. Photo: Courtesy Warshaw

The Inertia

It looks like Matt Warshaw’s recent campaign to keep the Encyclopedia of Surfing afloat is a success, and that’s great. Looking at the donor list, it seems lowly surf fans, writers and photographers (including a $5k donation from an anonymous individual) can take the credit for keeping the doors open, so to speak.

Notably absent were the surf industry millionaires. The big brands. Those who have squeezed the surf teat dry haven’t coughed up a penny to add to the coffers of the greatest archive in all of surfing. A bit sad I suppose, but hardly surprising. As Warshaw says: “The big brands all took a pass on EOS. You guys did not, and that suits me just fine. I know who I work for.”

We reached out to Warshaw for comment, and he shared this via email:

“The brands all took a pass on this thing. Industry movers and shakers either don’t know about it, or don’t care, and it doesn’t matter. Regular surfers saved Encyclopedia of Surfing, and they mostly did it $5, $25, $50 bucks at a time. I’d much rather have a thousand small donors than one big name-brand donor, and that’s what I’ve got. I could not be more stoked.”

I’m sure Matt Warshaw won’t give a damn that the institutional money in surf has continued to ignore him. I’m equally sure he now recognizes that the boots on the ground appreciate him. He is our silent workhorse, dedicated to the archival and preservation of our lifestyle.

Without the illumination of Warshaw’s voice, some of surfing’s characters might easily vanish into the ether. But during this recent run of self-promotion, it’s been interesting to hear Warshaw’s own voice, however contrary to his instincts that may be.

Until the past couple of weeks, I knew very little about Warshaw the man. We’ve exchanged emails from time to time. He’s always gracious, always insightful. I’ve always appreciated that someone so dedicated to his work can be so approachable. And he tends to be pretty damn quotable, too. He even gave me some advice that helped greatly at the intersection between surfing and fatherhood.

But Matt Warshaw isn’t just a database. He isn’t just a surfer, or a writer, or a glorified librarian. And he isn’t, as he’s so often labeled, a plain old “surf historian.” He’s a bloody good writer, maybe one of a kind in surfing. His attention to detail and the sheer magnitude of his undertaking often belie the fact that he’s an engaging storyteller, and he definitely has stories to tell.

He grew up and learned to surf with Jay Adams, as in Dogtown and the Z Boys, and was later one of the first Zephyr Surf Team riders. He also owned the first ever Zephyr branded surfboard, a board that was originally a disappointing consolation when he was short on cash for the Jeff Ho shape he wanted. The significance of this only became apparent years later when Skip Engblom called and told him it was the first one ever made.

Matt Warshaw was also a pretty solid competitive surfer, ranked 43rd in the world in 1982. He won the trials event for the OP Pro in 1981, which would be roughly equivalent to winning a QS 10,000 today.

Later in life he ascended to Editor of SURFER Magazine, before quitting after a few months to go back to school at 30 years old. In the process, he sold a house he had recently bought in Southern California. A house he says would be “worth millions” today.

When he left SURFER and moved to San Francisco in the ’90s – in his words “talking” his way into UC Berkeley – he, like William Finnegan before him, found himself playing Doc’s games. In the shadow of Ocean Beach, Warshaw describes Mark “Doc” Renneker as his “spirit guide” in those days.

In more recent years he’s moved to Seattle, given away all of his boards, and pretty much quit surfing. Not as a conscious rejection (he still surfs occasionally on borrowed boards) but simply because he wanted to be free from the shackles of surfing every day in order to spend more time on work and family. A bold choice that might be more beneficial to some of us than we’d care to admit.

Matt Warshaw now spends the bulk of his time meticulously archiving the history of our culture to preserve it for the digital age. Up to this point, he’s done it mostly for free.

And he likes to listen to country and western music.

It’s fair to say Matt Warshaw zigs when everyone else zags. He’s the kind of character that we should cherish. There might be no one else in the world with the will to document this obsession that we share. I highly doubt there is anyone else with the required fastidiousness or skill.

Much has been said about Warshaw over the past couple of weeks, all rich praise, all deserved. It’s encouraging that, given a little publicity, there is a community that clearly appreciates his toil to lay bare the majesty of surfing and all her characters.

As a community, we should be proud that E.O.S will live on. I hope these weeks of encouragement have laid the foundations for Matt Warshaw to write about surfing for many years, and I think it’s important that we recognize not just the work, but the man behind the work.

There’s no E.O.S. entry for Matt Warshaw himself, but there should be. Self-promotion is against his constitution, so he’ll never write an entry of his own. But I can guarantee there’d be a queue of surf writers who’d happily oblige.


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