Matt Warshaw knows more about surf history and culture then anybody who has ever lived, yet the one-time pro surfer barely surfs anymore. He lives in Seattle, of all places, hours from a surfable coastline. Oh, sure, he sneaks away for a Central American wavefest once a year, and bundles up for coldwater sessions on a drab Washington beach here and there. But for hardcore surfers, “to surf” means to surf pretty much every day. Warshaw ain’t doing that.
But this is a very good thing for surfers and surf fans everywhere. Warshaw has plenty of time to ply his trade. Each day he sifts through decades worth of surf history detritus, sorts out the gems, spit-polishes them with the hem of his shirt, and then proudly holds them up for all the world to see.
For the last few years, he’s shown off these gems through his website, the Encyclopedia of Surfing (EOS), a digitized, dolled-up version of a print encyclopedia he wrote a decade previous. But now he’s dragged another of his analog works into the digital age. The History of Surfing (HOS), Warshaw’s jaw-droppingly beautiful coffee-table surf history opus, is now available online.
It’s true that a coffee-table book has a couple distinct advantages over a website: coffee-table books are both decorative and boastful. It’s hard to smugly leave a high-brow surf history website open on your laptop for guests to see. But plop down a five-pound slab of a book next your coasters, and people will notice. Problem is, books never change, they’re never updated, people spill coffee on them, and guests borrow them and don’t bring them back. You get the idea.
Warshaw’s HOS website however, is portable, easily accessible, and is just as beautiful as the print version. It doesn’t so much pick up where the EOS leaves off but rather dives into the subject matter far more deeply, building connections between seemingly disparate surf figures and movements. Warshaw weaves an effortless narrative from surfing’s ancient Polynesian roots to human-built wave pools, and because he’s also surfing’s finest writer, it’s a pleasure to take his hand and have him lead the way.
Think history is dull? Those of you who follow AJ’s Historical Badass column know otherwise. It’s just cool, radical people from a different time, and Warshaw addresses them like a lyrical anthropologist. Take, for example, this section from Chapter Three, Malibu Swing: A Touch of Glamour:
Before World War II, surfing lived in the reflected light of the tropics, with Duke Kahanamoku’s noble dark-eyed visage shining godlike from on high. Surfers and lifeguards were one and the same (in Australia), or close associates (in America), and the sport in general was lightly spritzed in heroism. After the war, surfing began its long march to the near and far corners of industry and media, and it became the cool new activity of choice for droves of revved-up bushy-blond suburban Southern California teenagers. It traveled with pandemic speed north to Santa Cruz, east to the Atlantic Seaboard, further east to Biarritz and Newquay, and south to Lima, Rio, and Durban. Surfing had in fact already been introduced to many of these places. But the postwar style of surfing—the Southern California style, with trunks worn low on the hips, and an often-shouted litany of stoking new words and phrases, and a fervor not just to ride waves but to be known as a wave-rider, and do so in a way that might piss off non-surfers—this was new.
Beautiful stuff, that.
Warshaw has released the first two chapters so far and will post sections chronologically throughout the year. Each section is linked to relevant material in the EOS. If you’re reading the HOS section on legendary surfer Tom Blake, for example, and think to yourself: “I wonder if there are any films of Tom Blake lying around?” Well, you can click through the EOS links to find out that, lo and behold, there’s a video right there of the sad-eyed Blake talking about surfing with the great Duke Kahanamoku.
HOS, the book, isn’t going anywhere, and if you’ve got a copy proudly displayed on your coffee table now, that’s great. You’ll love the website too.