On Surfing

Matt Shaw

Illustration by Matt Titone

A longtime editor, Matt Shaw has been through the peaks and valleys of alternative-weeklies to some of America’s most respected newspapers, yet he’s remained devoted to surfing as a writer from Duval County, Florida.

Can you describe one of the most challenging aspects of surfing to you?

Surfing is so unique in that it’s something you can do your whole life, dedicate an inordinate amount of time to, and still not feel really competent at it. I have moments, sure, where things click. But it’s always been a struggle to not feel obligated to improve (whatever that means)–Protestantism, etcetera. The FOMO aspect can also be a buzzkill–why I have to be jealous of others’ playtime is confounding. I have a two-year-old daughter now, so the double-sesh thing is out the window for the foreseeable future–thus, the FOMO is real.  

What’s one of the most redemptive or rewarding parts of surfing?

I don’t find it particularly redemptive or rewarding. It’s a break I guess from thinking about redemption or rewards. Which makes it rewarding? 

Has surfing afforded you anything in life? If so, what?

Oh man. Lifelong friends. A sense of community. Experiences. When I stumbled into writing about surfing, one thing I set my sights on was where the gig could take me. Though the budgets were shoestring and the interest accrued on credit cards while awaiting reimbursement would cause any financial advisor who may owe me a fiduciary responsibility to blow a gasket, surfing–or writing about surfing rather–has taken me places I would have not otherwise been. My wife is quite inspiring and her job is altogether more important. It helps that I have her (and no financial advisor, to date).    

How long can you go without surfing?

I would like to say a few days, but I live in Florida and our summertime flat spells certainly stretch that estimate. As I answer this, we’re in the midst of an open-ended pandemic, so the beaches are closed here, as they are in other parts of the world. There are things comparable to the feeling I get from surfing–playing music for an audience elicits a similarly indescribable high. But those things are currently cancelled too, so I’ll be looking for another hobby that combines a similar mix of personal fulfillment and suspect value outside the joy of doing it.

How and when did you fall in love with surfing?

My father was a lifelong surfer, so we grew up at the beach–body surfing, riding body boards, then standing up on our own consignment-cribbed sleds. Honestly, it was just something we did and I was not quite addicted to it as a youngster, even though I continued surfing. I played sports in highschool and, at one point, had delusions of earning a football scholarship. Eventually injuries, along with a lack of size, agility, or top-end speed put those allusions to rest. It was around the time that I was applying to college that my father got ill–by ill I mean, his alcohol addiction and mental health became debilitating. It was during the next three or four years that surfing became an escape, really. As my pops was in and out of rehab and Baker-acted several times over before finally succeeding in taking his own life, I was living close by, and those hours spent surfing were a respite, to put it mildly, from the world I knew, which had been upended.

I don’t want to characterize surfing as meditative or describe my connection in pseudo-spiritual terms–that’s the kind of surf writing that I loathe. Surfing is joyous and silly–it’s pointless fun. And I grew more fond of it when I really needed a lift.  

What’s one of your pre/post-surf rituals you hold dear?

I can’t think of any act I’ve ritualized. If I surf one of the more popular breaks, I do very much like to shoot the shit with the old guys–the salty dogs–in the parking lot. An American-style lager–cold and watery, with that translucent golden hue–can be a nice punctuation to a surf, regardless of wave quality.

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On Surfing is generously supported by our friends at McTavish

Michael Adno

Michael is a writer and photographer born in Florida as a first-generation American to Austrian and South African parents. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Bitter Southerner, and The Surfer’s Journal among other magazines.

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