Matt Warshaw’s History of Surfing

[Warshaw, Central California, 1982]

A devotion to surfing is at the core of the writing endeavors undertaken by Matt Warshaw, the researcher, historian, and radically motivated digital archivist. His books History of Surfing (HOS) and the Encyclopedia of Surfing (EOS), along with their catalogued website counterparts, provide an intimate and invaluable way for learning about surf history in its entirety.

Topics covered include ‘nudity and surfing’ and ‘Windansea,’ alongside characters both in the spotlight and obscure, all weaved through a contextualized timeline of hyperlinks. Warshaw has painstakingly sifted through the artifacts, mythology, and surf rags to find the very best anecdotes and photos worth remembering, making HOS -- a 500 paged mammoth of a book -- a digestible page-turner.

Warshaw has lived a little of the culture’s history, too. He grew up during the heyday of team Zephyr, hanging around Santa Monica with his childhood comrade Jay Adams (he also owned the first-ever Zephyr surfboard). He daydreams about post-war Malibu and sites Miki Dora and Dale Velzy as the most fascinating figures in the culture's history.

Here, Warshaw takes us through his surf history, the evolution of EOS and HOS, and spoils us with photos of Dora, Malibu, and the 1974 United States Surfing Champion, New Yorker Rick Rasmussen. To see more, visit EOS and HOS.

[Warshaw, Malibu, 1971]

“I was a Valley kid first. There, I’ve said it. Born in downtown LA, raised in San Fernando. But we moved to Venice in 1966, when I was 6, so maybe I get a pass. Was bodysurfing right away, then got my first board at 9, at which point Jay Adams and I got dropped off at Santa Monica Pier each morning by Jay’s mom. Each of us with a bag lunch and a towel. We’d surf, finish the lunch, surf, then go up on the pier and bum coins from the tourists. ‘Hey mister, can I have a dime to call my mom?’ Jay always got more money than I did. We’d each buy a bag of french fries, then spend the rest at the arcade. Then surf again, then wait for Jay’s mom to pick us up. That was my first summer. We started skateboarding a bit later that year, too.”

“The heroes growing up: it was all Hawaiians. California surfing was so in the dumps when I started. Just down on itself, feeling bad about Gidget still, about all the shitty nylon trunks, and competition stripes, and all that heavy-duty mid-‘60s commercial push. Hawaii was everything. Hawaiian surfers were gods. Gerry Lopez, Jeff Hakman, BK, Reno, and a couple years later of course Larry Bertlemann.” 

“The villains: for some reason, I guess because he was loud and funny and didn’t really give a shit about being cool or ‘heavy,’ we really disliked Corky Carroll. Later, at SURFER, I worked with Corky, and I loved the guy. Still do.”

[Warshaw, Venice, 1972]

“Just a couple years ago, I found out that I owned the first-ever Zephyr board. Which I was actually bummed about at the time, because I wanted a Jeff Ho board. Zephyr at first, I believe, was the discount line; if you couldn’t afford a Jeff Ho, you got a Zephyr. Anyway, I have almost no recollection of being on the team except that Jay and I were kind of the mascots. Everybody else was older. We were fierce little fuckers, though. We wanted to compete. I think for two or three years we traded off winning the Bay Street Championships, boys division. Some of those were before Zephyr. The really famous part of the Zephyr deal was the skateboard team, and I wasn’t part of that. That came together after I left Venice, around 1974. Jay and Tony and Stacy and the rest of the skate team just took off.”

[Warshaw, Indo, 2001]

[Warshaw, El Salvador, 2004]

[Warshaw, Nicaragua, 2015]

“I was a second-rate pro, and at best I’m an amateur historian. I like to organize things. I’m good at picking out the best bits of whatever material is in front of me — surf history, in this case. Mostly it’s an editing job. I run through massive amounts of text and photos and film, snatch things up as I go, and arrange them in a way that hopefully holds your attention, maybe gets a little back-and-forth going between past and present.”

“Without surf history I’d be in the basement 16 hours a day working on Civil War reenactment models. I can’t find another online sports site that reads or looks as good as History of Surfing. None of it feels new anymore. I’ve jumped into surfing, just cannonballed into the deep end, when I was nine years old. I probably know way less about it than I’m given credit for, but the major contours of surf history, the main characters and a lot of the minor ones — I’ve got a pretty good grasp of all that. At this point, with Encyclopedia and History, it’s a matter of adding texture and detail. My hardcore research days are done. Now it’s archiving, organizing, and presentation. Surf history is glorious. And ridiculous, and contrary, and embarrassing. Like any other genre history. Except our looks so much nicer, what with the beaches and sun and waves and everything.”

“At the end of Bud Browne’s life, when he was blind and more or less confined to his bed, he'd have visitors read entries aloud from his copy of Encyclopedia of Surfing.”

[Malibu, late ‘40s]

[Malibu, around 1947]

“The last surfer to blow my mind was Filipe Toledo. The last event to blow my mind was the original clip of Kelly’s wavepool. Which was as disturbing as it was exciting. Surfing is just with us way too much now. We’re just getting firehosed by vids and photos and FB posts, it never ends. You end up numb. Visually, nothing excites me. That’s not true. The only time I get excited is during WSL feeds, when the surfing is live. 98% of the time it’s dull as hell, but when the surf is good, and you’re invested in the outcome, and your Twitter window is firing, it’s great. Surf writing, also, is lightyears ahead of what it used to be. Lewis Samuels and Derek Reilly pushed open the door ten years ago, give or take—Derek actually has been doing great work for much longer—and surfing is now, in my opinion, the best-written genre in all of sports. Chas Smith and Rory Parker are fantastic. Sean Doherty, Justin Housman — the list goes on.”

[Dora, Pipe, ’64 or ‘65] 


[Dora on the set of “Beach Party"]

[Dora showmanship, ‘67]

“Bill [William Finnegan] and I became email pals in the ‘90s. We’ve met face to face just once. We had lunch in the Hamptons one summer, probably in 2000. He told me about playing tennis against Martin Amis. I was in nice cafe, eating lunch with a legendary New Yorker writer, talking about surfing and Martin Amis—my highbrow buttons were all pushed. Two years later Bill wrote the Intro for Encyclopedia of Surfing. He would not, however, let me use ‘Playing Doc’s Games,’ his amazing two-part New Yorker article on Mark Renneker for my next book, which was a collection of surf lit, because he was saving it for his own book. That book never came out, and I was always just a tiny bit bitter about not getting ‘Doc’s Games.’ Then Bill’s book did come out, and hello Pulitzer!”

[New Yorker Rick Rasmussen (left) and Jim Cartland, 1972]

[Rick Rasmussen, 1972. Photo: Darrell Jones]

“The research-driven stuff is what matters, and 10 years ago I wouldn’t have been out there, in any kind of media, dancing and frolicking and opinionating the way I do now. On the other hand, I love doing all that stuff. In fact, it usually feels closer to who I am than the serious work does. But no need to chose, I think, in this day and age. When I first had the idea of putting Encyclopedia of Surfing online, I vowed that I wouldn’t blog. Lewis Samuels, who I surfed with a lot in San Francisco, told me I had to. Blogging, Tweeting, waving your arms on social media — that’s part of the job. Opened a Facebook page, a Twitter account, rolled my eyes, and started in. And loved it. Social media removed the stick from my ass, made me lighter on my feet, dragged me into the present day. Lewis is almost always right. On the other hand, if I died this afternoon, the work that would outlast me is History and Encyclopedia. I’m very much aware of that.” 

[Review in 1988 WSJ by Warshaw]

“It comes down to compelling stories, that’s all. Compelling not just in terms of a person dying in huge surf, or winning a contest, or designing a new board, but in terms of recognizing your own experience in something that happened 50 or 100 years ago. Tom Blake finding solace in the ocean — all surfers can relate to that. Miki Dora being a hustler and a part-time criminal to further his obsession with riding waves — even if you’re not kiting checks to pay for your next surf trip, you’ve ran all kinds of small hustles to catch more waves. That’s why we love Dora the way we do.”

[Warshaw family, 2015]

-- Interview by Chelsea Slayter