According to esteemed historian, author and former SURFER editor Matt Warshaw, it's an uphill battle getting surfers to click on links with terms like "history" and "encyclopedia" in the headline. "People hear those two words and in their mind it's like, 'Eat your vegetables,'" says Warshaw. "But I know how to make surf history dance and move. Our past is just as funny and tragic and ridiculous as the present, and you get a 3D quality when what you're experiencing today connects to what surfers experienced in the past. There's a resonance to that."
Although the Encyclopedia of Surfing (EOS) is technically a reference site, that doesn't stop it from being a vibrant living document, constantly changing to accommodate the present and spotlighting some of the most obscure corners of surfing's past. Where else could you read about Brazilian pro surfer Neco Padaratz's dating troubles with voodoo-practicing women?
Or Australian globetrotter Peter Troy's expulsion from Syria on smuggling charges? Or Southern California surfers' bizarre flirtation with Nazi
imagery in the late 1950s? The good, the bad and the ugly aspects of surfing come to life in the pages of EOS, which is why it's become such a beloved site for those who pride themselves on understanding the nuances of our culture.
This summer, Warshaw took a sledgehammer to the EOS website and brought down some walls to make way for a couple of gorgeous additions: History of Surfing and Above the Roar. Both started as must-read hardcover books for dyed-in-the-wool surf fans — the former a beautiful, humorous, era-by-era breakdown of surfing's storied evolution, the latter a collection of insightful and off-the-wall interviews from some of surfing's most interesting characters. Together, the three masterworks create an uncompromised view of modern surfing, from its rough-and-tumble roots to the present.
[To subscribe to Encyclopedia of Surfing, History of Surfing, and Above the Roar, click here.]
"My sweet spot is probably right after World War II to around 1990," says Warshaw. "It's harder for me to relate to surfing in the pre-war era, when nobody really turned. And then also in the '90s, when there was less risk involved with committing yourself to the sport — when surfing shed the last of its weirdness — I didn't tune out, exactly, but it doesn't get into my heart the same way. I love that Tom Carroll worked in an auto repair shop before turning pro. I love that Shaun Tomson more or less quit being a pro in 1976 and went back to college, then rushed over to Hawaii when he found out the IPS [International Professional Surfers] tour just got formed. Being a full-time surfer, pro or not, involved making a pretty big leap of faith. And more often than not, if you missed the mark you ended up splattered on the rocks."
Warshaw has taken his own leap of faith, dedicating his life to the Sisyphean task of searching for clarity in our sport's hazy past (a tall order, considering most surfers are world-class exaggerators) and putting his work online as an entirely reader-supported platform. But it would be hard to overstate the value of what Warshaw does for the surfing community by educating through entertainment, giving us an electric one-man show rather than a sterile, professorial lecture.
"The history books you read in high school and even college are mostly shit," says Warshaw. "They were forced on me, too. But when it's done right, history will roll you in the dirt, put you in the lineup, the shaping room, the bedroom, entertain the hell out of you and drop knowledge. So you're eating vegetables, but you're getting fries, too."