Stab Magazine | "Why I Gave Up Surfing" – Matt Warshaw On Family, Work And Surf Frustration

“Why I Gave Up Surfing” – Matt Warshaw On Family, Work And Surf Frustration

“Surfing was feeling repetitive. It got to a point where I knew what a wave would be like before I even stood on my feet”

news // Apr 8, 2018
Words by stab
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Two days ago, we addressed a few common turn-offs from the exit-laden motorway that is surf addiction.

The deeper you’re enthralled, the more absurd the concept of retiring appears. For someone who might only surf, maybe once, twice a week, it’s difficult to imagine turfing your boards. It’s even more incongruous to think someone who’s work and livelihood revolved around surfing would be capable of resigning themselves to doing it “once or twice a year”.

Yet, that is exactly what one of surfing’s finest writers, Matt Warshaw, decided to do.  

Matt got barrelled for the first time in seven years at Kelly’s play pool last November, and has remained waveless since.

“I started surfing in 68’ or 69’ and went completely off the deep end on surfing from then on. Apart from going to school or having minor injuries I almost never had restrictions on my surfing until I was 51 and pulled the plug on it”.

Booze, women, work and a withering passion are all common, yet stereotypical, reasons for giving up surf; but Warshaw’s situation is much more complex. 

There were multiple catalysts for Matt’s decision to relegate himself to the spectator’s stand – a stand in which he remains firmly planted. He now runs the go-to site for surf history: boards, waves, characters, and events that went along with it all – The Encyclopedia of Surfing.

“The funny thing is, I’ve never spent more time in my work life neck deep in surfing. If i’m not working on the site then I’m watching the CT contests.”

From the perspective of a young and excitable somewhat-surfer, Matt’s story is intriguing: Watching, writing and working around surfing, but rarely if ever partaking in it.

What were the main motivations for your shift away from surfing?

My scheduling was entirely dependent on how the surf was. It was a ridiculously long and good run and I thought that was never going to change. However, focussing so heavily on surfing comes at a cost.

I got married when i was 45, and we had a child when I was 49 and at this point it was getting harder for me to hit a bullseye in the water. I was getting sick of the maintenance involved – specifically, surfing crappy waves.

I was really sick of chasing waves, I was essentially sick of everything except surfing barrels. My skills were also beginning to deteriorate.

It’s understandable Matt’s desire for tubes hasn’t changed a bit. Here’s one before his seven year hiatus.

Do you think a worsening skill-set was a contributing factor?

It’s sort of like the chicken or the egg. I don’t know if I was losing motivation because I was getting worse or getting worse because I was losing motivation.

In addition, surfing was also starting to feel repetitive. I’d surfed Ocean Beach for 20-plus years and it got to a point where I knew what a wave would be like before I even stood on my feet. Not consciously, but there was no sense of novelty left in surfing those waves every day. That removed one of the most enjoyable aspects about surfing. 

Ocean Beach to Seattle?

One day in 2011, my wife got a job offer up here in Seattle. She said, ‘it’s for a lot of money and I really want to take it’. I initially thought, ‘I can’t do that, i’m not going to move to Seattle and not be able to surf anymore’.

I went and spoke to my Dad about it – who’s always been a reliable counsel for me. I thought that he would reiterate my thoughts and tell me to stay in San Francisco, but what he did was the exact opposite.

This light suddenly went on in my head. I drove straight to my wife’s office and told her I’d changed my mind and we should go [to Seattle].

The part that was suddenly exciting for me was now being able to quit being a full time surfer. I went from fearing that exact thought, to embracing this opportunity as my exit from it. 

Moving to Seattle provided me with the opportunity to focus on my wife, my new family and also my work. I’m a better husband, father and my work is better than it’s ever been because of it. By removing the act of actually going surfing I was able to focus on other important aspects of my life. 

Now, after moving to Seattle, I only surf two to three times a year.

Have you replaced surfing with anything?

At this point when I surf I still try really hard to surf the way i used to – focussing on surfing well from a performance perspective. But what I really miss is just being in the ocean, getting rolled around by waves.

I love bodysurfing.

Just going to some small, thick shoredump and putting myself inside a tube for a few seconds and getting rolled. You can take ten steps back out to the “lineup” and I do this for 10 or 20 minutes.I come out of the surf and I’m so stoked.

There’s no performance worries about trying to ‘surf well’ when you’re bodysurfing. You have no control over the situation. 

There were days where I’d surf poorly for a few hours and my frustration would begin to build, but even when I eventually came out of a long barrel I’d still feel an underlying sense of anger and frustration.

I hated getting like this when surfing. I hated missing waves and yelling out ‘fuck’, that’s not what I surfed for. 

I’m just glad I didn’t end up like one of those grumpy old dudes that is just stuck in surfing. They should get out there and try something else.


So, what about yourself? Are you a grumpy fuck who needs to give it all up?

Perhaps not, but it’s easy to see the warning signs that mid-surf frustrations may be tending towards resentment. It’s not always a single persisting factor such as crowds, booze or the family which stifles your time spent getting wet, in reality it’s much more complex. 

Matt holds no such resentments towards surfing now, but his story leaves myself and anyone else with a tough to swallow question.

Do you ever see yourself giving up on surf?

Could that once sublime outlet from the world ever truly become a hinderance? 


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