Matt Warshaw

by Glenn Sakamoto on November 4, 2009 · 4 comments

Matt Warshaw is a surf writer who has written The Encyclopedia of Surfing and Maverick’s: The Story of Big-Wave surfing. He is currently writing his latest book about the history of surfing. We catch up with him and talk about his experiences and family life.

What was it like growing up in the South Bay?
I loved it. The perfect sunny beach-town bubble. Plenty of fun beachbreak waves, cruising the Strand, lots of local surf heros — especially Mike Purpus and Mark Levy — parties, worry-free pre-AIDS sex. Through high school and for a year or two after, there was absolutely no place else I wanted to live. I was so into my own little world there, and so surf-stupid, that I thought Manhattan NY was copycatting Manhattan Beach.



When did you get your first surfboard?
In 1969, just after I turned 9. My family lived in Venice at that time. Before that, we were in Tarzana — I’m an out and proud Valley boy — and my uncle Dan would push me across the pool on his big Hobie, so I wanted to surf even before we moved to the beach. The first board I had was a 7’4″ cut-down. In ’68, the year before I started surfing, everybody was stripping the glass off their longboards, and reshaping the foam blank in their garage. That’s what my first board was. It was fire-engine red. I couldn’t get my arm around it, and used to drag it tail-down through the sand.

What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
No idea. It was 40 years ago. I bodysurfed for two years before I surfed. Probably it was the same rush as dropping down a big slide on the playground, except it never gets boring.

Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?
Originally I was just a young long-distance groupie for the big stars: first David Nuuhiwa and Jock Sutherland, then Jeff Hakman, BK, Shaun Tomson, and Mark Richards. Later I became more interested in people who were really dedicated surfers but had something else going on in their lives. Mark Renneker, up here in San Francisco — I admire him. Dan Duane, the writer; he’s my neighbor, and I’m just in awe of how he finds new things to do — carpentry, cooking, guitar — and does all of it incredibly well. I’ve always had, like, two or three things in my life, and I put all my time and energy into those things. Dan’s constantly adding to his repertoire.

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What inspired you to begin writing about surfing?
I was a full-on glasses-wearing bookworm as a kid; I remember walking out of Venice library every week with books stacked up to my chin. For some reason, I thought that reading a lot meant I could write. I wrote an on-spec article after my first trip to the Hawaii, in 1983, and SURFER published it. “First Blood on the North Shore.” It’s terrible. I was already 23, and pretty old to be getting started writing, and too cool to really make a study of it. I just floundered on for years, writing more average-or-worse pieces, not knowing any better. My dad finally got me a subscription to the New Yorker, probably in 1990, and my writing starting to improve. I’ve always been a late bloomer.

What was it like working for Surfer Magazine?
I loved it as much as I loved going to high school in South Bay, and for the same reasons: it just felt like I was in exactly the right place at the right time, doing exactly what I wanted to do. For five years, at least. When it no longer felt like that, when I was 30, I quit and enrolled at UC Berkeley. Same thing. I loved that, too.

What was the inspiration to create The Encyclopedia of Surfing?
It was my dad’s idea. We were talking on the phone, and I was trying to figure out what to do next, something bigger, and he suggested that I write a surfing encyclopedia.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
Read lots, rewrite, and don’t quit your day job.

Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out?
And why?

For 30-plus years I went on surf trips and was usually disappointed. In 2001 I finally went to the Mentawais, and my aging cynical 41-year-old mind was blown, day in and day out, by how perfect the surf is there. Nothing else in my experience has come close. Three or four times we motored AWAY from surf that was better than just about anything I’ve seen anywhere else.

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Who/what inspires you?
Very few things are dependably inspiring. If I go looking for it, I’m usually disappointed. But stuff just turns up all the time. A Brian Wilson song, a Doonesbury cartoon, a David Foster Wallace essay. I thought was fantastic. Fleet Foxes — I played that CD a lot this year.

What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
I don’t know if its the greatest thing, but the latest thing is that just about all of the common everyday stuff that I wasn’t much interested in during early adulthood is what counts. Marriage, family. My son Teddy was born in August; I’m a first-time father at 49. Everything I believe in these days seems like it was lifted straight from a Hallmark card.

Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
Wish I’d put on more sunscreen all those years.

What are you most proud of?
My son, my marriage, my relationship with my parents and brother. I’m proud of the Encyclopedia of Surfing, and Maverick’s. It’s too early to tell, but The History of Surfing is looking pretty good at this stage. I pulled into a pretty gnarly 10-foot backside tube last winter. I never pull in going left. Not pussying out for once — I’m proud of that.

What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Riding waves was the center pole in my life for forty-plus years. Hard to say how it changed my life — it just was my life, end of story. This year, finally, surfing is on the backburner, probably for good. I’ll always do it, but not like I did for all those years. I’m both saddened and relived by the change.

Matt4What brings you the most happiness in the world?
Taking my glasses off and laying my head down on the bed nose-to-nose with my son.

What is in your current quiver? What is your favorite board? Your favorite surfspot?
A bunch of roundpin step-ups from Don Kadowaki, my go-to shaper since the early ‘80s. I still have a couple of Glen Minami guns from the ‘90s, which work great. I have a 6’3″ Surftech/Merrick plastic popout pool-toy of a board that I ride all the time.

What’s your favorite meal?
I’d crawl over broken glass for a carnitas plate from Taco Temple in Morro Bay.

What are you currently listening to on your iPod?Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, an older My Morning Jacket CD, the Carpenters, Dusty Springfield, Arctic Monkeys.

What are you most grateful for?
That I didn’t miss the boat on fatherhood. It was close.

What’s next for Matt Warshaw?
The History of Surfing comes out in 2010. I’ve been pounding away on that one for five years. It’s probably my last book. Jodi, my wife, has been on maternity leave since July; she goes back to work full time in January, and then I’m pretty much on full-time daddy patrol.

Matt Warshaw’s book, The Encyclopedia of Surfing can be purchased here. More information about Matt can be found at his website.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Mitchell March 17, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Hi Matt,
Matt, I just finished The History of Surfing and enjoyed it very much. I was stoked to see a picture of my Grandfather with George Freeth on page 47. He is the kid on the far left. His name was George Everett Mitchell. He went on to work for L.A. County as a Heavy Equipment Operator. His job was maintenance on the beaches from Redondo to Zuma. He lived on one of the Avenues close to the Esplanade in Redondo . The kid on the far right, I believe is Jerry Witt. He went on to become a roofing contractor. His business was on the corner of 190th and PCH on the border of Hermosa and Redondo. His daughter, Mary and I went to school together. Thanks for another great book! Keep em comin. Mike


Mary Witt Boice January 22, 2014 at 9:29 pm

Hi Matt and Mike,
Fun to finally know that is YOUR Grandfather on the left! Yes, Jerry Witt (Blond hair, on the far right side) is actually my Grandfather. I’ll add that label to our family album. My Dad, Jack Witt took a bunch of his Manhattan pier surfing pictures and some of my grandfather’s to the Oceanside Surfing Museum.
Hope to see you and Ellen at the next ‘Costa reunion!


matt warshaw March 17, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Hi Mike,
Thanks for the response. Yes, the other kid is Jerry Witt; my mother taught his grandson, Tommy Witt, at Pier Ave. English. I think it was his grandson. Tommy was a super-hot goofyfooter.

Glad you enjoyed the book!



Rory Wicks February 13, 2014 at 12:43 pm

Matt, Mike and Mary: TheWitt family from Hermosa Beach (and San Clemente) has got to be the family that’s surfed longer than any other in California. Two Witt brothers were George Freeth’s gremmies in Redondo Beach in the early 1900s. During my era in the South Bay (late ’50s through early ’80s), their grandson or great grandson, Tom Witt, was a great surfer and Weber team rider. I read now that Tom’s son, Tom, Jr., is a professional longboarder. The Witt family must have four or five generations that were great surfers.


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