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Warshaw: “My Fav Surf Brawlers!”

Derek Rielly

by Derek Rielly

And how he was once rewarded, post-fight, with a lifetime supply of cocaine!

Have you ever read Matt Warshaw’s History of Surfing? Oowee, it’s thorough. A quarter-of-million words spread over 500 pages and, according to Amazon, a “true category killer.”

But who reads books anymore, am I right?

Yesterday, Warshaw released a first instalment of the book’s contents online. Click here and you’ll be gifted the first two sections, the birth of surfing all the way to the early days of the North Shore. The other chapters will be dropped piece by piece over the course of the year.

Anyway, what was a conversation about history turned into a back and forth about surf brawlers, Warshaw’s favourites, how he was once cuckolded by a relative of Robert Kennedy and, in a separate instance, rewarded with a lifetime supply of cocaine after being mistakenly punched.

Read below.

BeachGrit: You a brawler?
Warshaw: No. A non-brawler from a long line of non-brawlers. My Jewish forebears ran off the Steppe years ahead of the invading hoards just to avoid any physical business.

I know you’re a man of distinction, owner of horn-rimmed glasses, live in a fog of perpetual white guilt there in Seattle, but no man is immune from our caveman past. Reveal, for me, those times when you’ve had to tamper down a burning desire to kill someone…

I was cuckolded by a Kennedy, RFK’s youngest if memory serves. Never met him, but he picked the phone up one morning when I called my girlfriend, and it stove in my world, and for a year or so after I spun out some pretty elaborate torture fantasies.

Kevin and I face off, and I’m sort of talking to him, not particularly worried, thinking it ain’t gonna happen, and next thing I’m my hands and knees, glasses sliding across the sidewalk, bottom lip burst open. One punch done. My pals who were supposed to jump in I guess were as surprised as I was, and faded into the crowd.

Ever put your fists up?

No. Almost. A guy I knew thought I was hitting on his girl at a party, and he called me out. Couple of friends were in my ear right away saying, “Hey man, don’t worry, if Kevin swings we’ll jump him.” So out we all go to the driveway. Kevin and I face off, and I’m sort of talking to him, not particularly worried, thinking it ain’t gonna happen, and next thing I’m my hands and knees, glasses sliding across the sidewalk, bottom lip burst open. One punch done. My pals who were supposed to jump in I guess were as surprised as I was, and faded into the crowd. Kevin and I had always been friendly, we’d surfed together a hundred times, and a couple days later he figured out that I wasn’t in fact hitting on his girl, it was somebody else. This was Manhattan Beach, 1982, and Kevin was an aspiring coke dealer. So next time he sees me, he fall over himself apologizing, and sets me up with a huge bump. For two years after that, ever time we ran into each other at a party, it was off to the bathroom. He overcompensated, if anything.

Historically, who are surfing’s most lively brawlers?
Johnny-Boy Gomes would be the most famous. Some of the Narrabeen guys in the ’70s, but we’d have to ask Nick Carroll about that. California surfer Gene “Tarzan” Smith, back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, was pretty dedicated to knocking heads. I believe he went out expressly looking to fight, the way other guys go out looking for pussy. Brock Little had a bit of that in him too, although I never saw it. Brock was so good at separating the different sides of his life.

Can you list Sunny Garcia’s most golden moments?
There’s a clip online of Sunny slapping Neco Padaratz’s head at Pipe, then chasing him up the beach into the bushes. I like that one because, like the story I just told, Sunny and Neco ended up friends. The fight at Burleigh (second clip below) hd something to do with Sunny’s kid. I don’t recall exactly. But anything having to do with your child puts violence in a different light. Somebody fucks your kid, right or wrong, all bets are off.

Is there a particular culture that celebrates surf fights? I know the Balinese do like a raucous gang bang, so to speak. Whereas the French will throw their arms up in the air, but rarely throw a punch.
I’m so afraid of fighting, or even being around it, that I won’t surf places that have a reputation for violence. I’m a short drive away from one of the greatest point breaks in the world, in Oregon, but the locals make the Bay Boys look like angry toddlers, so I’ll never surf there. Velzyland, back when I used to go to Hawaii, I would paddle out at daybreak then paddle in as soon the first local showed up. On the other hand, all my life I’ve cozied up to the enforcers at my local break. Never had anybody actually fight on my behalf, but I’d get mouthy now and then knowing that the gnarly guy a few yards to my right would jump in if necessary. Unlike my buddies at that party. Fuck, it is all pretty caveman out there in the water, still, isn’t it? Pussy cavemen were no doubt looking for protection from the local heavies just the way I did at Taraval Street, in San Francisco. Whatever gets you more waves, I guess.

All my life I’ve cozied up to the enforcers at my local break. Never had anybody actually fight on my behalf, but I’d get mouthy now and then knowing that the gnarly guy a few yards to my right would jump in if necessary.

Does it ever surprise you how… few… fights there are in the water? Why? Are we, essentially, cowards?
It does surprise me. We puff our chests a lot, and talk shit, but I’ve been surfing coming up on 50 years and can count on one hand the number of fights I’ve seen. Maybe two hands.

What would it take, right now, for you to punch someone in the water?
Nothing could make me throw a punch in the water. A half-century of personal surfing non-violence is what I’m shooting for.

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