Matt Warshaw

Matt Warshaw is the author of "The Encyclopedia of Surfing," "Maverick's: the Story of Big-Wave Surfing," and "Zero Break." He was also editor of Surfer Magazine from '89-'91.

Marcus Sanders had this to say about Warshaw, "As far as me doing quotes about Matt... well, I worked with him on the Encyclopedia for over a year in his little office on 24th Av/Taraval with Nathan Myers and his obsessive attention to detail and unquenchable surf jones were pretty inspiring. I saw Matt get no shit, I counted 15-plus tubes in two hours. And that was only a part of a marathon nine-hour session he did a couple years back on a stellar inner-bar day. I love surfing with him 'cause he never goes left."

Matt was kind enough to answer a few questions for Niceness.

NICENESS: A few people have complained about the exploitation of OB in the Surfer's Journal article. (niceness.org readers inquired about Matt's roll in Ben Marcus' TSJ article "The Beach.")
MW: I don't feel at all responsible for the "So-Calification" of OB. I got here in '91. I didn't raise my head up at all. No one knew who I really was. Nobody knew that I worked for Surfer. I was just another guy on a clear board. I pretty much surfed by myself. Different peaks up and down the beach. Nobody knew I was really here until that piece came out in the Surfer's Journal. That was in 2001. The interesting thing about that article is that I'll always be aware that I'm a newcomer to this place. I wasn't born here. I didn't go to school here. I was 31 when I got here. I'm never going to be a born and bread local here. I've always much preferred to be anonymous. I don't do interviews on radio. I never go on TV. I've turned down so much stuff like that. I'm really uncomfortable in the spotlight. Things I like doing are phone interviews like this and print. When Ben Marcus said he wanted to do that article I said great but don't use any surf shots. There's a photographer around here named Chris Leschinsky. He doesn't necessarily shoot surfing. He shoots beach scenes, and cool buildings. I said, "Do this article, but just use that. Don't use pictures of the waves."

When that article came out. Steve Pezman (editor of TSJ), who I hold near and dear to my heart and is almost a second father to me, essentially pulled a fast one on me and the opening shot in the article is this incredible photo of waves at the beach. And there were all these surf shots. My jaw just dropped. It was supposed to be an article mostly about the making of the Encyclopedia. And I live in San Francisco, so San Francisco was going to be sort-of part of it. But it was like, this is were I came to write this big book. Part of the reason I came up here was because I could get a lot of work done. All of a sudden it's like I'm up here, from Southern California talking about the great surf up here in San Francisco. I kind-of felt like I was double-crossed on that whole thing. I was really pretty upset for a while. There were a couple of nasty phone-calls I got and that sort-of died off. I'm mostly just still surfing.

Getting back to the whole thing about So-Calification. I don't think that San Francisco has gotten more crowded at a faster rate than anywhere else in the nation or world. Surfing has grown so much. I wish that somebody had numbers on the growth rate itself. In the last 10 or 12 years it's really skyrocketed. I don't think for a second that Ocean Beach has outpaced anywhere else in terms of... I mean Ocean Beach has gotten crowded at the same rate as, say, Santa Cruz or Point Arena. It's just that, everyone, it seems, now wants to surf.

Matt Warshaw

NICENESS: Do you think it's fair to place any of the blame for surfing's growth on the surf media?
MW: I think the reason surfing has gotten more crowded... a couple things. I think that wetsuits got so much better and it became a lot easier to surf for a lot more hours. That's one thing. It's also the beginner's boom. There was always this idea, for decades that if you didn't learn to surf when you were a kid it was really too hard to pick up. Something happened sort-of in the early 90's where suddenly people of all ages, or at least in their 20's and 30's and 40's, it somehow became obvious that they could learn how to surf too. A huge beginner's boom. It seems that in this area at least it originates in Pacifica at Linda Mar. That's sort of a beginner's factory almost. It's even more obvious up in Bolinas where that little sandbar break in Bolinas is now just wall to wall people. When I first went to Bolinas in 1991 it'd be 2 to 3 foot with a half a dozen guys out and now there will be 75 guys out. I think they all learned to surf at Linda Mar and Bolinas and eventually, most of them live in San Francisco anyway, they sort-of filter back to Ocean Beach.

I don't know. It's frustrating. If anyone feels that I contributed to it I would totally understand that because of that one article I was suddenly front and center saying how good the beach is. I think that it's really frustrating to surf in a crowd. It's really easy... if anything it's human nature to want to blame someone or something. I would totally understand if guys who have lived here or surfed here for a lot longer than I have would see me as part of the problem and there's really nothing I can do about it.

NICENESS: Is it enough to give you second thoughts about being a surf journalist?
MW: well... no because I myself have never written about San Francisco. San Francisco wasn't even in the Encyclopedia. It wasn't so much that I was scared of any repercussions. I don't know. I suppose at Surfer Magazine I did take a few hits for things that I wrote.

Matt Warshaw

NICENESS: Well what about the article on El Salvador for instance?
MW: The only person who was mad at me for that was Jimmy Rotherdam, the main surfer in the article. And this is another thing where I got kinda... Sam George was on that trip with me. I would write the piece and Jimmy said to me, "Besides from Libertad don't say where we surfed." So I said, fine that's no problem. So I turned the article in and... Sam George has been on a high horse about... he thinks that if you're going to do an article about some place that you should name where the spots are. I've always disagreed with him on that. I think that's ridiculous. I turned in my El Salvador article and when it got to me published Sam had gone in and put the spots in. Soo.. I didn't do that. And I should have known because Sam has made it clear that that's his belief. I didn't think to say to him, "Sam don't name this. Don't name the break. I told you I wasn't going to name them and that I didn't think it was the right thing to do." So, Jimmy was really upset and I understood. His dad Bob was really cool about it. He didn't care. It's a little bit hypocritical for Jimmy to be upset because the Rotherdam's run... they make their living from surfers, not only to Libertad but they also take surfers down to the spots where we surfed. For Jimmy to be upset about that I thought was a little bit ridiculous. On the other hand I did give him my word so I was really kind-of pissed off at Sam about it. I've got a couple messages into Sam and I haven't heard back about it so it will be interesting to see what he has to say. But, I know what he's going to say. If Surfer Magazine is going to send a group of surfers down to a place they're going to name the spot. I disagree with the policy. Anyone who wants to find out where those spots are, can. Even if it's doing no more than keeping the people that surf there a little bit less upset that's still worth it.

You'll find that if you write and you don't upset people now and then you're probably not doing your job as well as you should be.

NICENESS: I didn't mean to put you over the grills...
MW: That's ok. I've never gone out of my way to upset people. Your duty is really to the reader not to people who might be upset by what you write.

NICENESS: I think, or at least I hope, that it's the minority of people who are really getting angry.

MW: I mean I think it's really easy to explain in that there's never been enough waves to go around. And at Ocean Beach in particular. Ocean Beach has to be one of the most frustrating surf breaks in the world. I think that it makes for a fairly, almost slightly always pissed-off group of surfers and they're looking for someone to blame it on. They're looking for a reason for why they're frustrated. Even if there's nobody out at Ocean Beach it's still a frustrating break. That's where I think that comes from. Anyway, that whole thing when the article (Surfer's Journal "The Beach" in 2001) I did feel like shit. I understood why people were angry.

Matt Warshaw

NICENESS: It's unfortunate that you seem to have been duped. Editors seem to take license over articles.
MW: yeah, well... I think that the really good ones don't. The good ones let you have a look at what you're doing. The whole point of that article was that I said to Steve (Pezman), "let's do it this way" and he agreed.

NICENESS: Have you ever gone through surf burnout? Just been over surfing?
MW: I'm a little bit there right now. I actually just moved out of the Sunset district in July. I was down on 24th and Taraval for about 10 years and I just moved to Noe Valley. I've been hitting it really hard, almost daily, since the summer of '69. It's getting that I still get excited but my target... the target for the things that really get me stoked is just sort-of getting smaller. It's really down to now I just really like surfing really hollow 4-foot beachbreak rights. I'm getting less and less stoked and interested in doing turns. I mostly just want to find a way to get in early and get barreled. I can't do it left so it's gotta be a right. It's not that I've burnt out it's just that I've surfed so much that it kind-of comes at a cost. It comes at a cost to the development of the rest of your life. I spent a lot of time doing this and then I probably haven't made as much money as I'd like to and I probably haven't been as good at some relationships as I should've been. I've traveled to some of the places I'd like to travel and seen some of the things I've liked to see but it's just been super super hyper focused on surfing for 35 years. I'll surf till the day I die, no question. I could surf half as much as I've been surfing these last years and still surf more than most people and have a thicker, richer life for it. I'm not burnt out but finally after all these years some things are beginning to feel sort-of repetitive. At some point you have to realize that it's such a precious thing that I kind-of want to do it less than I do because I want to conserve how I feel about it. I want to save it. It's almost like this resource. I don't want to ever hit the bottom of the well on it. I feel like I'm getting, not closer, but I hope to surf a little less and enjoy it a little more.

NICENESS: In the eyes of many cube-dwelling surfers, you have a dream job.
MW: but I don't make much of a living. I don't make much money on it. Since I quit Surfer in 1990 I don't think I've ever made more than 40 grand a year.

Matt Warshaw

NICENESS: Does it feel like it's a constant hustle?
MW: It's not so much of a hustle. It's just that surfing, the whole surfing thing, to surf as much as I surf, it goes from this joyous thing and almost begins to feel a bit like a weight. Especially Ocean Beach because, when I lived at 24th, every time I'd get up to get an apple or take a leak or something I would pass by this window in my dining room that had this pretty panoramic view of the beach. It's just constantly, especially during surf season, I'd have the binoculars on my eyes 10 or 20 times a day. I'd be driving down there and I'd look at it 3 or 4 times before I'd drive down there and surf. It sounds ridiculous. It becomes this thing where it's hard to get focused on anything else. For me at least it is. And now just not having it in my range of vision. I have to drive up Clipper and down Sloat to look at it now. It's kind-of actually a relief almost. It takes up a lot of time. No one in history has been lucky enough to have such a stupid complaint as that. It's not really much of a complaint as far as things go in life but it was getting to a point where I just don't want to be checking it, I don't want to be "on it." I just want to be a little less on it.

NICENESS: If money wasn't an issue what would you be doing?
MW: Ya know I always have trouble with those types of questions. And this is sort-of true in my writing. I'm really not really that imaginative. I can just take what I know. I don't often think about... When I was 11 my parents were going to move to Washington DC and I had just been surfing for a couple of years by that point. And I think, what would life have been like if I moved to Washington and wasn't able to surf... and I can't really get very far with that thought. This has just been the way it's been. If I'd surfed less and made more money I probably would be like most people who I know who surf who wished they surfed more. I've surfed as much as most people want to surf. I guess that any route you go you're going to have some complaints or some thoughts or some second thoughts so those are mine. Those are my second thoughts about it (stated above). If I'd gone another way? Almost everybody I know wishes they could surf more. Soo.. I don't know how you do it perfectly where you balance things just enough. I don't know what I'd be doing otherwise.

NICENESS: It seems that you're a pretty natural historian.
MW: Actually, after I finished college, after I got my undergrad degree at Berkeley I went to UCLA to get a PHD in History.. But.. I realized that I'm not a historian. I like taking all the survey courses and the 101s and the broad subject things. The history of Japan in one semester kind-of thing. But when it got down to Agrarian culture in Colonial Virginia. At UCLA in this class I was surrounded by people who were into that subject I would be into how the sandbars along the beach were shaping up. That was the thing that people who were really into the obscure history stuff the way that I am into surfing.

Matt Warshaw

NICENESS: that's cool, you just went for the thing that interested you most.
MW: yeah, what I'm pretty good at doing is gathering up a bunch of information and hopefully being able to distill what's interesting about it. So that's why the Encyclopedia was a good project for me. That's why I like doing profiles on surfers because I can be with somebody and think about this person and the era that they were in and hopefully present them and present the era. I could never write fiction. I never wrote anything very imaginative. The next big book I'm going to write, I hope, is a big history of surfing.

NICENESS: I enjoyed the little intro history of surfing that you wrote in the Encyclopedia.
MW: Yeah, I'd like to take that and expand that and do another giant hardcover.

NICENESS: I read somewhere that you're thinking about doing second Encyclopedia?

MW: They're going to put it out as a paperback next year. There will be some revising that I'll do a little bit. But hopefully in three or four years I can actually do a second edition of it. There are actually a lot of mistakes in the Encyclopedia. Some of them are just typos. Some of them are just that we got the information wrong. It was later pointed out and corrected. There's definitely room to do another edition. There's also a ton of stuff that's happened in the interim. It's been three years since we've quit researching.

Matt Warshaw

NICENESS: I noticed that you included Evan Slater and Nick Carroll and Steve Hawk but you didn't include yourself.
MW: Well I did include myself. I did it but I felt weird about putting myself. The published ended up putting it in the back. On the second to last page of the book. It is in there. I was happy with that. It seemed a little weird to put myself in my own book. But I did, I actually did write an entry for myself.

NICENESS: I also notice that on mattwarshaw.com, in the bio that one of the things you liked was "hugs and drugs"?
MW: yeah. That was just sort-of a little thing. That was just sort of a little thing between my girlfriend and myself.

NICENESS: Nice, the reason I ask is because I'm actually kind-of a proponent of marijuana on niceness.org.

MW: it's funny you should mention pot because I grew up in Venice, California and I got stoned. Friends of my parents got me stoned when we were really little. There was a ton of pot. But I never liked the high. I want to be in control. I always loved alcohol. But for some reason marijuana just makes me feel incredibly paranoid. I've heard other people say the same thing. And you can hear me now. I tend to stammer and slur a little bit. With pot I really can't speak very well. I get all freaked out by it. But it's really weird because when I did mushrooms I really liked mushrooms. It was 20 years ago but I really liked, that was a high that I loved. I did that a half-dozen times or so. I would love to do that again some time. But I've never tried ecstasy and I think I'd like that too.

NICENESS: that's what I thought that "hugs and drugs" meant.

MW: that's sort of an ecstasy thing, huh?

NICENESS: yeah a little bit.

NICENESS: I remember in the El Salvador article. I heard about the woman that has a little restaurant where she gives joints and I noticed that you wrote about it and that none of you sparked it up?

MW: Yah no Fuck That! That was Sam once again, who put that little thing in there. Those guys smoked. So Sam has to clean that up too. Sam has never had a single drug outside of aspirin or advil in his life. He's never had a sip of alcohol so he's a real blue-stocking (strait-edge). So, the rest of us did partake, i didn't partake but they did, of course they lit up but Sam had to clean that up and make it sound like we went in there all holy. So that was lame.

NICENESS: do you have a favorite all-time surfer?

MW: well.. Jeff Hakman was my favorite when I was a kid. And that made sense too because just like in my writing I've never been an imaginative surfer. I surf very predictably, like Jeff Hakman.

NICENESS: I saw some of your surfing in the El Salvador footage where you were trying to tuck into those barrels and it looked pretty good.

MW: Yeah, well.. if a wave will stay the same for a couple of hours I will really dial it in and I'll try to do pretty much the same thing every ride. That's what I like to do. If I can get a nice hollow wave I won't turn. Actually there are certain days where I love doing turns. But if it's hollow I get obsessed with just trying to find tube sections.

(at this point in the interview the recorder ran out of space so Matt answered the remainder of questions via email)

NICENESS: Do you have a particular barrels from the past that you rehearse in your brain when you want to remember the barrel experience?
MW: I obsess on tubes and tuberiding constantly, and it's healthy up to a point, cause you're sort of working out different techniques and positions and adjustments in your head, which you can then apply when the situation comes up. But that kind of thinking almost always goes over into a thing where I'm just thinking about it and thinking about it, to no purpose at all, just trying to count how many tubes I got in a session for instance, or trying to think if I could have gotten deeper on that one, or if someone saw that other one, really stupid and embarrassing stuff like that, and then I start getting adrenalized and hyper and jumpy. Tuberiding in a way brings out a lot of the worst in me.

But since you asked...I got a super-long double-tube at daybreak on the second-to-last day in El Salvador, last April, a sheet-glassy six-foot wave, and I kind of feel like that might have been my last best barrel, I've gotten a few okay ones since, and hope to gets lots more in the future, but if I ever get another one that long and fast and perfect I'll be surprised. I got that tube in Salvador one week before my 44th birthday.

NICENESS: What do you envision the top surfers doing in 50 years?
MW: Haven't a clue. Saddens me to think of it because there are too many surfers, not enough waves, and not a thing anyone can really do about it. I fantasize backwards, to 50 years ago.

NICENESS: Favorite non-coastal place?
MW: Yerba Buena Garden; the Blue Plate on Mission; my Aunt Mary's house up in an apple orchard valley behind Watsonville; Elizabeth Street west of Noe.

NICENESS: Trepid traveler rather than intrepid? (my friend said she talked to you and you told her that?)
MW: I'm never all that hot to travel, but once I get there I'm always glad I went. Given a choice I'll go somewhere I've already been, so obviously not intrepid.

NICENESS: Trips gone bad?
MW: Never anything horribly bad. Flew to Natividad once, surfed crap two-foot closeouts that afternoon, then hopped on a plane the next day and bailed.

Driving from SF to LA a few years ago, I had three incredibly bad sessions in the same day, at Morro Rock, Rincon and County Line.

NICENESS: Favorite wave?
MW: A long left in the Mentawais, not a marquee spot, but a perfect semi-hollow wave that ends in a bowl section. I can't pull in backside, but loved it anyway. But generally speaking, my favorite waves are four-foot hollow beachbreak rights.

NICENESS: Favorite surf writer?
MW: Derek Rielly, former editor of Australia's Surfing Life, now editor of Stab.

NICENESS: Favorite magazine (surf or otherwise)?
MW: Surfer (1969-1970), National Lampoon (late '70s), Australia's Surfing Life(mid-'90s), New Yorker (today)

NICENESS: Favorite writer?
MW: PG Wodehouse (Jeeves books), George Malcolm Frazier (Flashman books), Richard Russo (Straight Man, Nobody's Fool), Roddy Dolye (The Commitments, The Van, The Snapper)

NICENESS: Dream trip?
MW: back to the Mentawais...i really do actually have dreams about that place.

Matt Warshaw


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