Encyclopedia of Surfing collage

Finding the Unbroken Thread with Surf Scribe Matt Warshaw

10 years after publishing surfing's most comprehensive archive, The Encyclopedia of Surfing went digital, and is a continuation of Warshaw's ongoing “love letter to surfing”. 

By Hannah Truby

Prior to my interview, the Internet presented me with many titles and descriptions of Matt Warshaw: “One of the world's foremost historians of surfing", "surfing's foremost scribe and record keeper”, and “the leviathan of surf literature", were some of the results, with the others emitting a similar air of prestige. In other words, this guy was the big kahuna. 

Matt Warshaw published The Encyclopedia of Surfing in 2003, a collection of surf history and culture that was - and remains today - remarkable on all accounts. With 1,500 alphabetical entries and 300 illustrations, it's the sport’s most comprehensive archive. 

Warshaw is also the former editor of SURFER Magazine, and, according to his LinkedIn, the Surf Consultant for the Oxford English Dictionary (not kidding here). The big kahuna, indeed.

In place of any intimidating prestige there was a general warmth and modesty that was palpable through the video call. 

“You read about Hawaii, hundreds of years ago, when the surf would come up and everybody - in the villages, in the taro fields - just dropped everything. I mean, what is that!?” Warshaw grinned as he spoke, his enthusiasm contagious.

Mantling the wall behind him were rows and rows of books, magazines, and catalogs, enough to rival a true zealot.

“I just love it,” he continued. “And I think that still exists. That’s really the whole point of The Encyclopedia. I wanted to figure out what got us into it, not just when we were kids, but when surfers like Duke were kids. I wanted to figure out what that unbroken thread means, and where it’s leading the next generation of surfers.”

It was clear that Warshaw's devotion to the surf world was alive and well. And yet, I was aware of his departure from SURFER in 1990, after only a year had landed Editor in Chief. To many, this would be the holy grail of surf media jobs - why leave it?

Warshaw has lived his life in servitude of surfing, with every decision, he says, made in pursuit of how he could keep surfing. He grew up in the surfing mecca of SoCal, and while he was a top amateur competitor in the ‘70s, says he wouldn't get far in the “comps”. Instead, he grew up to be the editor of SURFER - not too shabby for a backup, if you ask me.

“All I’d done was surf, or write about surfing, for so long,” he explained. “I wanted to broaden it somehow. So, I turned 30, and went back to school. History major.”

In full pursuit of that “unbroken thread”, Warshaw studied the likes of Duke, Miki Dora, and 12th-century Polynesians at UC Berkeley, with no real idea of where it might lead him. To an unprecedented catalog of the sport, it turned out.

Fast forward to 2013, 10 years after the publication of his 2003 bound opus, The Encyclopedia went digital. EOS, as it's known, is a continuation of the book, and is Warshaw's ongoing “love letter to surfing”. 

“Every project I do takes twice as long as I think it will,” he said. “And this one absolutely did. But I had this insane support and a million lucky breaks that allowed me to really pour my heart and soul into this.”

Launched in 2013, the EOS website features Warshaw's succeeding book, History of Surfing, as well as its ever-growing archive dedicated to the preservation and celebration of surf history and culture. Spanning the sport’s history, users can find information on surfers, interviews, places, events, contest results, video edits, surf commentary, and more. Besides the usual “person”, “place”, or “year” categories, the EOS search bar allows users to filter by type of gear, weather & oceanography, and even by wavepool category!

Screencap of article titled 'There are other Christmas Islands in the Lives of Men'    Women's International Surfing Association photo collage
Screencap of Rell Sunn surfing video


“Are you familiar with the Winchester Mystery House?” Warshaw asked me. “It’s kinda like that. I just kept adding bits and pieces to the site until it evolved into these seven color-coded sections, like history, videos, interviews, surfboards, and contests. I'm not a historian, and I'm definitely also not an archivist. It might sound like false modesty - maybe it is - but it's honestly a really big scrapbooking project.”

Equally appealing to the site’s content is its obvious lack of advertisements. EOS is completely independent, subscriber-funded, and is actually registered in California as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Like any passion project, the revenue is, at times, low - but EOS is as much Warshaw's brainchild as it is a labor of love.

“I chose something that is a guaranteed low-paying job. And I have no real business skills on top of that,” he laughed. “I can’t say to somebody, ‘this is a thing you should pursue’. But it's amazing that it's working. I love doing it. I pour my heart and soul into it.”

Warshaw's latest addition to his EOS Mystery house is “The Sunday Joint”, a weekly newsletter that offers subscribers a deeper dive into surf and surf-adjacent topics, accompanied by links to explore the site further. 

I asked if Warshaw had found what he was looking for, what that unbroken thread means. 

"I recently went to Fiji with a friend of mine," he started. "I was really good, up until about 10 years ago. Now, every time I surf, I get worse. And it really frustrates me, because I'm so egoed-out. But I caught this little wave. And it just sped me along, for about 100 yards, through this insanely clear water. Whatever I was feeling when I was eight...I'm right back there. I’m 63, and still feeling that same thing"​​. 

Warshaw shared with me many more stories - like surfers during the Great Depression who stowed away on ships set to Honolulu - to demonstrate “all the crazy human stuff, all of the knots we tie ourselves into, in order to do it”. 

Expressing concern about modern innovations like wave pools, ("you've changed the sport, so fundamentally, it is not the same thing."​​) Warshaw remains “cynical but optimistic”, simply because of that thread that has remained throughout.

“It’s that mini-adventure that happens every time you’re on our board,” he explained. “It's so weird that we’re trying to change it with inventions like wave machines. But even still, we sit, we wait, we look at forecasts, and we try to figure out where and when to have that mini-adventure. It’s this amazing chess match that you're playing with the elements."

He continued, “It’s so obvious, and yet it doesn't get talked about much. And maybe it's because it's hard to build a story around that; it's just a matter of doing it, of wanting to be able to do it, and that’s the thread I wanted to be able to convey."

 Images courtesy of Matt Warshaw & The Encyclopedia of Surfing