Sunday, January 11, 2004



Alaia to zero break

About the only thing this surfing
encyclopedia fails to tell you is
how it feels to ride a wave

Anyone who has ever wondered whether Hawaii has lost its status as epicenter of the surfing world can seek reassurance in the first compendium of surfing information, "The Encyclopedia of Surfing."

"The Encyclopedia
of Surfing"

by Matt Warshaw
(Harcourt, hardcover,
816 pages, $40)

It's almost impossible to open any page in this groundbreaking reference book without finding an entry involving Hawaii. The Bishop Museum, Hui o He'e Nalu, Hui Nalu, Duke Kahanamoku, the Banzai Pipeline, Megan Abubo, the brothers Ho -- the list is endless and confirms that although surfing has expanded across the entire globe, the land of its birth is still revered.

Indeed, the encyclopedia opens with an essay about the history of surfing, starting with its Polynesian genesis and ending with the newest realm of wave riding: being whipsawed by jetskis onto massive peaks, which was started in Hawaii and continues to be refined at Maui's and Oahu's cloudbreak reefs.

This unique book of surfing lore and data is the brainchild of San Francisco writer Matt Warshaw, who has spent as much time enjoying Hawaii's waves as any nonresident mainland haole. Additionally, Warshaw has interviewed most of Hawaii's remarkable surfing icons and current wave shredders as a writer for and editor of Surfer magazine. He also has extracted remarkable stories and incautious quotes from them for his articles for surf and mainstream media and books about surfing.

Warshaw isolated himself in his San Francisco apartment for more than three difficult years and, with a monastic monomania, attempted to quantify the ineffable: the pursuit of pleasure from riding ocean-borne bands of solar energy.

Surfboard stacking is a fad that originated in Southern California, according to "The Encyclopedia of Surfing."

UNFORTUNATELY for the publisher, Warshaw's subjects and presumed audience, surfers, are obsessed with an activity that they would much rather engage in than read about. And when perusing surf magazines, they prefer to scrutinize the photographs rather than glance at the accompanying text.

Making matters worse for someone attempting to create the world's first detailed reference book about surfing is that surfers don't actually comprise a subculture; rather, they are members of wandering tribes of global wave seekers. Like Australian Aborigines on walkabout in strange territory, the foraging surfers are linked by the lore of their elders, heroes, villains and shamans in an oral tradition that celebrates their triumphs, tribulations and exploits since the beginning of wave riding with the ancient Polynesians.

Only recently in the sport's millennia-old history have its adherents employed the benefits of the written word to preserve their advances and discoveries.

Warshaw was inspired and guided by his treasure trove of information, a unique and extensive multimedia database of surfing magazines, videos, books and surfing-related articles from the mainstream media, which provided the foundation for his impassioned prose.

Initially, Warshaw fretted that he would run out of material for his groundbreaking tome. But once he plunged into his task, he found that, much like the ocean, his subject was seemingly unfathomable, and deep enough to inform several such books.

As he toiled, Warshaw had a clear vision of his audience: the mothers, aunts, uncles and grandparents of his fellow wave riders, who were likely to buy his encyclopedia for their loved ones. And he nurtured a small but not unrealistic hope that librarians in every nation that has an ocean coastline would demand a copy of his book.

The result of Warshaw's prodigious task is an alaia-to-zero break look at surfing, compiled in random selections based on each day's inspiration and whim in entries of 100 to 1,000 words based on merit.

Ironically, the publisher was keen for a book overflowing with color photographs and flashy graphics, a kind of thick incarnation of current surf magazines. Warshaw managed to persuade Harcourt to embrace his vision of a weighty reference book heavy on text and sparsely adorned with a few carefully chosen black-and-white photos.

Warshaw writes with astonishing depth and breadth of knowledge, and uncommon grace, on subjects including meteorology, physiology, wave physics, nearshore marine topography, surf fashion, hydrodynamics, industrial chemistry and surfboard design, manufacture and repair.

In a delightful contrast to the many data-intense offerings, Warshaw throws in wonderfully whimsical gems such as "dogs in surfing," "surf bunnies," "pig boards,'' "spaghetti arms," "cheater five" and "soul arch" to remind readers that surfing is essentially an odd endeavor.

Some four-legged critters enjoy wave riding as much as their owners. California surfer Jim Bailey took his dog Rusty out on the waves in the 1930s. "The Encylopedia of Surfing" details the vital data of the sport as well as its whimsical aspects.

FOR ANYONE WHO is puzzled by terms such as bombora, cloudbreak, coolite, logjam, beaver tail, overgunned, rock dance, surf sacrifice or turn turtle, Warshaw aptly solves the puzzles.

Although he developed strong opinions about the many surfers he has interviewed through the decades, Warshaw resisted the temptation to let his feelings color the biographies. Instead, the quotes of others deliver revelations about unsavory, irksome or endearing quirks that paint realistic portraits of each individual.

Warshaw indulges himself with personal glimpses of exotic surf locations from Angourie to Biarritz to Chicama, and allows his insight to illuminate the entries on the sport's scoundrels, heroes and characters firmly bent by their pursuit of maddeningly transitory pleasure in the waves.

Interestingly, Warshaw chose to lavish special attention on Hawaii's surf zones, with an overview of the state and separate, detailed sections on the four main islands as well as Oahu's North Shore.

It will be obvious to even the most casual reader that Warshaw has worked hard to make the entries come to life and avoid an unwelcome aura of pedantry to create a book that is fun to read as well as authoritative.

Much like a good dictionary, in which the definitions are so adroitly crafted that a discerning reader can travel from a word to its homonyms, synonyms and antonyms for the sheer pleasure of the journey, this encyclopedia can take readers on an idiosyncratic and informative journey through the world of wave riding if they pick a topic at random and surf to the related topics.

This book splendidly answers the who, what, when and where of surfing, but, as always, the why remains elusive.

After a careful study of the encyclopedia, a person would know almost everything worth knowing about surfing except what it feels like to ride a wave.

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