Matt Becker is one of the most interesting surfers I’ve ever met. He’s young, gifted in riding big waves, and he’s in tune with the ways of the world. Mostly because he’s spent his early adult life as a fisherman, taking to the family business he learned from his father growing up in Santa Barbara. I was lucky enough to watch Matt compete on a number of fronts when he was younger: paddle races and surf contests, and his demeanor never changed – always positive, always humble, always ready to charge. In fact, he’s probably one of the best professional surfers who also doubles as a professional fisherman in the world today. He might be the only one. Matt is an old soul. I caught up with him to talk about big waves and life, which are two of the coolest things you can talk about with people. Like I said, he’s one interesting surfer.
You seem to be all over the place right now, Matt.
I was in Half Moon Bay before living four years in San Francisco. I just moved to Santa Cruz. I basically split time between Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara now. Two weeks on, then a week off just surfing my brains out.
That’s the fishing schedule of being on a boat and all?
Yeah, thanks to my good fortune, my dad is surfer and a commercial fisherman. He owns a boat and fishes up and down the Pacific Coast between Santa Barbara and Alaska. When I was young I was thinking I wasn’t going to be a fisherman, but I got older and met all these interesting people. I grew up as a surfer, got into stand-up surfing, which crossed over to big wave surfing for me. Fishing, you can line yourself up, maintain your own schedule and still ride waves. And I like the process of doing hard work on a boat. You have to use your wits, intuition, and experience gained to make good decisions. Based around that, the fact that you can fuck off and go surfing and continue to follow your passions is what I’ve always liked.
The fishing life is pretty crazy though, right? You meet some gnarly characters.
I love the dirtbags. It’s so funny, the people you meet fishing are all over the map. You have these total dirtbags, just slimeballs, then you have these totally intelligent people that come out of nowhere. One of my friends, his name is Gaylord, funny name, he’s the nicest guy, one of most well read, interesting people I’ve met. Ask him about English literature and he’ll talk your ear off. He fishes up in Alaska for two months. There’s chicken farmers, guys from Idaho who do real estate. One of the reasons I’m attracted to fishing is there’s no corporate culture. You have a problem with someone you can tell them to go fuck themselves if you need to. If it comes to blows, it comes to blows, but at the same time, you go out fishing and everyone has each others’ backs. You meet the most investing, genuine, hard working people. It’s hard to be a bullshitter and not have everyone know it.
You’ve kind of been able to piece a cool little pro surfing career together as well.
For me, I was never the best surfer and I didn’t have the means to go pursue the competitive surfing lifestyle where you have to have your parents fund you to do contests. Same with SUP, you’re spending all this money, barely breaking even, what’s the end result? So I started looking outside the box – alternative ways to do what I want to do without having to rely on a company to totally pay my way. I love surfing big waves and I just set my life up to do that. Then I ended up getting these sponsors to do that. I was blown away. Why on earth would you want to sponsor a guy like me? Yeah, I can surf big waves decent enough but I’m not on the world tour. But people just find the fact I surf and fish interesting.
What’s the gnarliest situation you’ve been in on a boat? It can get kind of hairy when you’re 40 miles off shore.
There’s a few of them. I was crab fishing outside of Half Moon Bay on a boat called Mr. Morgan, a 70-footer known for bringing in big catches. The crew is a bunch of grinders, always working the hardest, really competitive. I was on that boat for crab season and at the beginning you do 48 hours, no sleep. The average work day is 24-30 hours. It’s six hours in rain gear starting at 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., with a 15-minute break to shovel food in your mouth. And the work itself is just a sprint all day and all night.
I’d been up for 30 hours, already eaten, walking with two 25-pound boxes of bait. There’s two-by-fours on the side of boat for some reason, it’s foggy, the middle of the night. I step on one, my ankle rolls and I start to fall over the side of the boat. I just managed to drop the boxes and there’s a wire cable around the side of the boat, head high or so, and I barely grabbed it before falling over the side. Had I gone over, you’re 30 miles off the coast of California. It’s like a bad movie, no one is gonna see you or even know you went over until morning. I found myself in situations like that a lot where you really gotta think fast and if you fuck up, you’re gonna kill yourself. It gets really addicting, though (laughs).
It’s pretty awesome how you’ve been able to balance both lifestyles.
There’s only about 12 days out of the year I call myself a big wave surfer. But one of the reasons I’ve been successful, I truly have a disease. I just love surfing, love surfboards, surf history. I have a hard time selling surfboards because I just like looking at them. Having a love for it has led me down this cool road. If the surf’s good, I’ll do four or five-hour sessions. I can’t get myself to get out of the water. I’ll get my wetsuit off and fall asleep in the parking lot with the car turned on.
You had a pretty crazy living situation in San Francisco.
I wanted to live in a place that had plenty of surfing that was close to Mavs. So I spent about 20 months living under a staircase at a friend’s place. I could live in a house for dirt cheap, and that allowed me to save money. I didn’t want to rent full time because I was traveling so much between fishing for three months, working at my friend’s heli ski operation in Alaska for another month and just surfing. So I just slept in the sleeping bag under the staircase. It was a good time – it’s nice to be a young man kind of dirt-bagging. I surfed Ocean Beach a lot. Now ending up in Santa Cruz, close to waves and snow. You know how it is with certain outdoor activities: you’re a slave to them.
Your family lost your brother, Patrick, a few years ago. I’ve always had so much respect for the way your family handled that. How are you all doing with it?
When you lose a child, it’s always a struggle. Now we’re used to it more, that sense of loss, and grief, dealing with it – as time goes on you learn to live with it. My mom and dad definitely still have moments, especially around friends. As a brother, it doesn’t bother me too much. I’m not sure how much is subconscious, though. It’s definitely tough when hanging out with other friends. He died so young we never got to go on a surf trip together.
I’m sure he’d be pretty damn proud of where you’re at now.
I would say so, he was super proud of the big wave thing, particularly when I was surfing Mavericks. I had some moments, right after he died, where I’d be walking down a dark street and feel like someone was behind me, the presence is in and around you. I had that feeling several times, most often when going to surf big waves, especially Mavericks. I know he’s gotten me into a couple of big set waves out there. He’ll always be with me.