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Warshaw: “This surf film changed my life!”

Derek Rielly

by Derek Rielly

Wipe everything but Riding Giants off my hard-drive says king of surf history!

A word about Matt Warshaw. He don’t exaggerate. So when the former Z-Boys skater-surfer and mag editor turned surf historian says a surf movie changed his life and the movie is Stacey Peralta’s 2004 mainstream documentary, Riding Giants, well, don’t it just make you distend your nostrils.

A call here, a call there, emails back and forth.

Now let’s reveal Warshaw’s reasons why Riding Giants is his perennnial candy.

BeachGrit: Tell me: how did the most unappealing member of the otherwise cock-swinging Zephyr skate team, stringy haired Stacey Peralta, become the king of surf documentaries?

Warshaw: Stacy and I weren’t quite the Z-Boy charity cases, but almost. Like we had maybe half the talent and one-quarter the charisma of Jay Adams and Tony Alva. Those guys looked fast and stylish in any situation, cool as fuck just walking into the kitchen to make a sandwich. Me and Stacy, it was pretty much down to our awesome long hair, and the fact that we tried harder, surfed longer, practised more, until we were at least not embarrassing ourself around our betters. To be close to greatness, but not great yourself, and to know that you’re not great, and hate that terrible fact — is exactly what you want for long-term success. Stacy is fucking relentless. His work ethic is off the chart. He surrounds himself with the best people. He backdoored his way to greatness, and I say that with the utmost respect, cause I know how much effort it took.

BeachGrit: Y’think Riding Giants matters?
Warshaw: Endless Summer, Riding Giants and Surfwise. Wipe every surf movie off my hard drive, but leave those three.

Stacy is fucking relentless. His work ethic is off the chart. He surrounds himself with the best people. He backdoored his way to greatness, and I say that with the utmost respect, cause I know how much effort it took.

BeachGrit: Riding Giants serves, to me, as a textbook to remind us how Laird and Darrick and the rest of the “Strapped Boys” opened the door to Jaws and so forth. Paint a little picture, for me, of the effect tow had on surfing in the late nineties…
Warshaw: Big-wave surfing never changed. Ever. For so many years. Which in a way was fine, because it was so knife-edge, so simple. Just the huge wall, and all you’re trying to do is track it down, catch it, get to your feet, and make it to the bottom. That was the whole deal, from the early ‘50s to the early ‘90s, and it was so hard to do, and there was a limit to how big you could go. Like, 25 feet, 30 feet, whatever you want to call it. But you know, it was also kind of boring too. The rest of surfing advanced by leaps and bounds, while the big-wave deal is pretty much the same year after year, decade after decade. Tow surfing, and Laird especially, as soon they ditched the Zodiac and went with skis, and made the boards tiny — I mean, “next level” doesn’t even begin to describe it. It look animated. It looked fake. And it happened so fast, two years, maybe three, and not only are they riding waves half again bigger than anything ever ridden, but Laird was carving Jaws like it was six-foot Honolua. It made you dizzy to watch. It made me insanely jealous in a way that traditional big-wave surfing never did, because they were surfing, not just surviving. I do think something was lost in that it was so easy to catch waves, and because suddenly they were riding a hundred big waves for every one big wave ridden in the ‘80s. But for a couple years there we were all just kind of stunned.

To be close to greatness, but not great yourself, and to know that you’re not great, and hate that terrible fact — is exactly what you want for long-term success.

BeachGrit: Speaking of Laird, isn’t it a mark of how far big-waving has come when his famous millennial wave at Teahupoo looks almost… easy.
Warshaw: It’s like Phil Edwards’ first wave at Pipe, which was the millennial wave of it’s time, and you watch it now and it’s really just a nice easy chip-in six-footer.

Tow surfing? I mean, “next level” doesn’t even begin to describe it. It look animated. It looked fake. And it happened so fast, two years, maybe three, and not only are they riding waves half again bigger than anything ever ridden, but Laird was carving Jaws like it was six-foot Honolua. It made you dizzy to watch. It made me insanely jealous in a way that traditional big-wave surfing never did

BeachGrit: And isn’t Laird fabulous in front of the camera, the way he sits, silent, after the wave, soaked in his cosmic awesomeness.
Warshaw: I entertain the same little fantasy with Laird as I do with Kelly, which is, How cool would it have been to just hang it up right there, right at the very fucking top?

BeachGrit:What’s with the fantasy of quitting at the top of your game? Isn’t it better to go down in flames of shame long past your use-by date? And tell, when is Kelly’s use-by date? Has it arrived, when did it happen, or is it still to come?
Warshaw: Mark Richards won his fourth title, leaned into the mic at the awards banquet and said he was “done busting down doors,” waved goodbye, flew home to marry his girlfriend and start a family and get on with his life That level of classiness imprinted on me in a big way. I once wrote that Kelly should have quit after number 10, then felt stupid cause he got number 11. But lately I’m thinking, yeah, he should have pulled an MR after 10. A nice round number.

BeachGrit: Do you have a favourite quote within? Mine is Greg Noll’s, you have a fifty-fifty chance of dying, when you surf big waves. Was Greg always the crown prince of hyperbole?

Warshaw: Untouchable. The first section of Riding Giants, Greg’s section, to me is so much better than Jeff Clark’s section and Laird’s section. Some little part of me is laughing at how high Noll’s ratio of bullshit is, but mostly I’m just grateful to be along for the ride. I remember interviewing him in the ‘80s about that famous big day at Makaha and he’s telling me about how he’s sitting in the lineup, all alone, and the waves grinding down the coast from Keana Point towards him, so huge that the water droplets on his board were dancing. I mean, he’s gone full Jurassic Park, years before Jurassic Park. Greg Noll is a huge blowhard, and I love him to death.

BeachGrit: Tell me: any historical inaccuracies?
Warshaw: Yeah, but not worth listing. Stacy made the choice to not include like 97% of all big-wave riders. It was pretty much just Greg, Jeff, and Laird. But that’s partly why the film worked so well, by focusing in on just three surfers.

BeachGrit: Riding Giants was made in 2004. Also tell me, the most significant moments in big-wave since.
Warshaw: All the slab insanity. The huge Cloudbreak Day, during the CT contest, a few years back. And then of course eight or ten Shane Dorian waves, which together are my favorite big-wave thing of the past 10 years, probably because Dorian’s approach is old and new at the same time. Take Greg Noll plus Brock plus Slater – that’s Shane Dorian.