History of Surfing by Matt Warshaw

Matt Warshaw just wrote the ultimate History of Surfing

It's been almost 20 years since the last decent history of surfing was published. 1966 world champ Nat Young wrote it, and it was mostly about himself. Now Encyclopedia of Surfing author Matt Warshaw — they say he knows more about surfing than anyone else in the world —is about to release a 500-page, definitive history book as well as an online edition of his massive Encyclopedia project.


We thought we'd find out what went into writing so much history…and who exactly he thinks actually wants to read all this stuff. —Nathan Myers

SURFING: Do you object to the term "surf nerd?"
MATT WARSHAW: Hardly. I embrace it with pencil-thin arms and fogged-up glasses.

Have you ever been in a proper fistfight?
In 4th grade I took a windmilling run at my tetherball nemesis, and we rolled around the schoolyard until somebody pulled her off me.

They say we should study history to learn from our mistakes. What mistakes should surfers be learning from (that we aren't and probably won't ever)?
"Surfing is life, the rest is details." That was an ad slogan, not an actual piece of wisdom.

They also say that history is told by the winners. Are you the winner?
The winner-in-life scenario? My one-year-old thinks I’m okay, so maybe.

How do we know you're right?
My big, throbbing database.

Having published The Encyclopedia of Surfing, do you expect a lot of people to come up to you saying, "No way man, I invented that!" or "I was the first to surf that wave!" Or do people finally accept defeat?
There are mistakes and omissions in the Encyclopedia, and I’ll be making a lot of fixes when I take the whole thing online next year. In general, it’s been the case that when people get in touch and begin with something like, "Great book, but in such-and-such entry you should have said such-and-such…" they’re almost always right. Guys who start with, "Hey dumbshit" are usually on some kind of self-serving mission, and their point usually isn’t worthwhile.

In telling history, does size matter?
The story has to be big enough to cover the whole sport without just skimming across the surface, but small enough that the reader doesn’t feel like it’s a giant homework assignment.

As a former surf mag editor, do you really expect surfers to read a 500-page book on history?
There are lots of pretty pictures to help things along.

I'm still scared of a book that big. What do we get if we read it? College credit? A merit badge?
Nothing to be scared of. Some four-syllable words, and a few non-surfing background set-up pieces. No reward for finishing, except for the tingly feeling of superiority you’ll get around those who didn’t read it.

Please tell us you kept in all the sex, drugs and rape of culture stuff?
All of that and more in the Mike Parsons section.

It weren't all just book-learning for Professor Warshaw. PHOTO: Divine

It weren't all just book-learning for Professor Warshaw. PHOTO: Divine

Were there stories too juicy to print? Tell us…we'll print them.
Mob ties to the Op Pro riot, Bradshaw’s great outer reef hoax of ’98, indeterminate gender issues with two of our most beloved surf legends. Sure, I’m holding.

How do you tell all of surf history without getting sidetracked on different subjects. Board design and exploration to fashion and music? How did you stay organized?
I started with a long outline, then kept track of the people, places and developments as I wrote. But history is subjective in terms of what you choose to put in and leave out. While I tried to balance everything, in the end it’s still just my version of things. Nick Carroll could write an equally valid surf history that would be a lot different than mine.

What's the funnest stuff to write about?
Surfing going bleach-blonde, bare-assed and suburban in the '50s and '60s. I still get a kick out of how the sport got through its young happy first-stage period of rebellion.

Do you finally put the whole "who surfed first" (Hawaii or Peru) issue to rest?
What those ancient Peruvian fisherman did a zillion years ago, standing up on the reed boats on the way in…they rode waves, but it wasn’t “surfing” as we’ve come to know the term. That’s Hawaiian.

What country has done the most damage to surfing?
Southern California is responsible for three quarters of surfing's R&D and entertainment over the past century, and three quarters of the various abuses the sport has been put through. Different sides of the same coin.

Is there a big unanswered question in surfing you thought you'd uncover and just couldn't?
There seems to be a kind of sadness floating around a lot America’s surfing founders: George Freeth, Tom Blake, even Duke. Surfing was good to them, and vice versa, but their personal lives often seemed kind of bleak. I don’t know if there’s anything there or not, but in some other context — not a history book — I’d like to check into that further.

It's kinda sad to think about you looking into that more. Were there any surprises for you in writing this, or do you already know everything?
After doing the Encyclopedia, making the databases, and just writing about this stuff for the past 30 years — nah, no big surprises. Lots of little ones that I can’t recall at the moment. But no major revelations.

Aren't you also developing an online version of the Encyclopedia? Is that because it's the only way to make something even bigger than your last two books?
The book version Encyclopedia is great, but it only has a few small black-and-white shots. It’ll be much better as a website, with thousands of photos and video clips. It’s like, almost 10 years later, I get to finish a project that was only half done.

Is it true you're also making a workout video that incorporates your last two giant books?
Here’s my fitness program. Push a stroller around all day, drink wine for an hour or so after the baby goes down, then a multivitamin and half-mg of Ativan, pass out, and start again the next morning.

What's the most recent thing in history? Like, will this interview be in there?
Layne Beachley's shocker on Dancing With the Stars.

Are Dane and Jordy part of history? Are Clay and John John?
Yes, yes, no, and no.

Can you think of any circumstances under which knowing surf history makes you a better surfer?
Sometimes at night I imagine each ASP world champion jumping over a fence, in order, and it helps me fall asleep. That and the Ativan.

Thanks, Matt. We look forward to looking at the pictures in your big word-book.

[Matt Warshaw's The History of Surfing will be available September 1st. — but you can pre-order here: http://www.amazon.com/History-Surfing-Matt-Warshaw/dp/0811856003/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1281529377&sr=1-1]