I remember thinking, when I met Matt Warshaw, that for a guy who
loves surfing so much, he appeared to have taken very little sun
It was the summer of 2001, and we were on a boat off the coast of
Sumatra, covering a surfing event called the OP Pro Mentawai
Islands. Warshaw was one of the world's most respected--if
pallid--surfing journalists, I was a football writer on holiday.
When he wasn't poaching waves himself, Warshaw held my hand,
figuratively, filling in longboard-sized gaps in my surfing
But why the ghostly pallor? Warshaw explained that he'd been
spending most of his time holed up in his office in San
Francisco. With a slightly haunted look he said, "I've got this
project I'm working on."
He was a year into what would turn out to be a 3 1/2-year labor
of love, a push to compile a reference book for his sport, a
774-page, 1,489-entry tome that would be at once comprehensive
and compelling. Better you than me, bro, I thought.
I visited Warshaw recently. He's got some color in his cheeks and
a spring in his step: The Encyclopedia of Surfing (Harcourt, $40)
is finished, and it is fiendishly addictive. Even as he covers
the sport's waterfront with his customary authority--with entries
from "A-frame" to "Zog, Mr. See Sex Wax"--Warshaw cannot help but
allow his own quirkiness to shine through. The s's alone provide
an evening's diversion, from "sea urchin" ("The old salt's method
for on-site urchin wound treatment is perverse but effective:
Remove the spines ... and urinate on the affected area") to "sex
and surfing" ("Whether or not surfers were having more sex, or
better sex, than nonsurfers is debatable, although [Mike] Purpus
later boasted that he 'had to put a drive-through door in my
bedroom' to handle the increased flow after his Playgirl
spread.") to "Spicoli, Jeff." The five appendices include one
devoted to surfing movies, videos and DVDs. It is great fun to be
reminded, under "Apocalypse Now," of Robert Duvall's
surf-obsessed Colonel Kilgore, who shouts over the din of
shelling to a famous surfer from California, "I've admired your
noseriding for years. I like your cutback, too."
In his foreword William Finnegan, a writer for The New Yorker and
a surfing aficionado, describes the finished product as a
testament to Warshaw's "manic curiosity and Talmudic diligence."
That's high praise for a guy who lasted one year at San Diego
State before dropping out to--what else?--spend more time
A self-described "second-rate pro surfer" in his early 20s,
Warshaw gravitated toward surf publications, working his way up
to Surfer magazine, whose editorship he assumed in 1990. He had
that gig for six months before a "mini-midlife crisis" beset him.
"Since the age of nine," he says, "I'd done nothing but be part
of the Southern California beach scene." It was a culture he
loved but had come to fear. "Surfing is so powerful and
attractive," he says. "It's easy to lose curiosity in other
things. It can stunt your growth."
Determined to broaden his horizons, he quit his job at Surfer
and, at age 30, enrolled at Berkeley. Two years later he'd earned
a bachelor's degree in history and a Phi Beta Kappa key. After an
abortive stint in a history Ph.D. program at UCLA--"I was sitting
in classes on precolonial agrarian society in Virginia with
people who dug that topic the way I like to talk about the
Mentawais," he says--he realized that he wanted to make a career
out of writing about surfing.
In 1999, while completing his third book, Maverick's: The Story
of Big-Wave Surfing, Warshaw signed with Harcourt to do an
encyclopedia. He spent the first year compiling a database. He
blew through the advance in 18 months. He never panicked. Before
he wrote a word Warshaw knew he would have about 1,500 entries
and knew what those entries would be. "It became like writing
1,500 small articles," he says. "It wasn't daunting, because when
I woke up every morning my project was not to finish an
encyclopedia, it was to write three entries. I could do that."
That he has done it is not necessarily good news for purists.
"All of our sacred knowledge is now included in one book," says
current Surfer editor Sam George, whose voice bears a trace of
sadness as he notes, "Now anyone can find out what a beavertail
If someone had to bring surfing lore to the masses, however,
better it be Warshaw than anyone else, says George. He describes
the encyclopedia as "a book by a guy who's a bit of an
academic--but an academic who also happens to be a good
COLOR PHOTO: TOM SERVAIS ON-SITE RESEARCH Encyclopedist Warshaw rips into his subject.
"Surfing is so powerful and attractive," Warshaw says, "IT CAN
STUNT YOUR GROWTH."