These authors slash the pen as hard as John-John Florence’s layback hack.
The sight of the ocean is enough to leave a person lost for words. From the iridescent tropical waters that shimmer with a brilliant turquoise, to the disemboweling maelstrom of a darkened stormy sea, the ocean takes many forms. While its looks and movements are poetic standalones, the delicate and often dangerous dance of surfing a wave adds an anthropomorphic element to the subject. And it often takes a wave rider to fully appreciate and articulate the nuances of surfing. In turn, the best surf writers tend to be surf riders.
Here we take a look at the world’s 15 best surf writers and their influence on surf literature.
These are your surf writing heroes, read them as they write.
Table of Contents
Fulbright scholar Jamie Brisick explores the emotional side of surfing and deeply empathizes with it. “Sometimes I Wonder How I Keep From Going Under” perfectly captures the plight of the modern Malibu surfer: overcrowded spots breed local cynicism, unless you have the power to laugh it off. A long time photojournalist, some of Brisick’s best writing comes tucked under a photo as a caption. This masterful clip about Dane Reynolds in “Culturati” does the talking: “Reynolds demonstrates a hacking frontside top turn in his home office in Venture. His fins broke free and he went into a long tail slide that took him down the hall and into the living room. He knocked over a potted plant and crashed into a rickety bookshelf…But he held on, in a terrific layback, using the sofa to correct himself and clamber back up to his feet. He did not claim it.”
Daniel Duane probably has published more books than you’ve had barrels. His masterpiece, Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast, perfectly captures the process and sentiment of settling into a new surf spot as a traveler. Ever the keen observer, Duane does not miss a single detail, or the chance to connect with locals to learn more. In this discovery process, he lucidly captures an important truth in surfing: “off-the-rack boards cost more, generally speaking, than custom boards… even more peculiar is that there is no substantial price difference between the very best and the very worst boards: they all use largely the same materials in largely the same amounts.”
Where the typical modern surf narrative ends, Lauren Hill’s work begins. Her eco-feminist approach aims to turn surfing from exclusive to inclusive. Hill told Tracks that eco-feminism “links the exploitation of nature with the oppression of women. It reveals the underlying systems of thought that allow us to treat both as dispensable commodities.” Hill is one of the most talented surf journalists to date, giving a voice to both the past and present of female surfing. Her book She Surf: The Rise of Female Surfing, which details the rich history of water women, is described as definitive, a praise not easily gifted. Hill likes to play the well-deserved role of myth buster. In the article “Design Matters: How Women Have Shaped and Been Shaped By Surfboard Design” Hill divulges a historically significant fact — the first and oldest known surfboard belonged to a woman by the name of Princess Kaneamuna.
Back in 2003, Mcintosh made his splash by editing a learn-to-surf book alongside renowned pro surfer Taj Burrow titled Taj Burrow’s Book of Hot Surfing. He went on to do big things, like co-found Stab Magazine. Today, Mcintosh is documenting a previously blackbox topic in pro-surfing. “How Surfers Get Paid” is a series on Stab that figures out exactly how surfers get paid, and whether or not it is even profitable unless you are the 1% of the 1%. Always following the money trail, one of Mcintosh’s most fun reads is an article called “If you’re an A-list surfer, there’s a good chance you’ve invested in booze.” Mcintosh was recently deemed “the most important man in surfing” by esteemed shaper of Lost Surfboard, Matt Biolos.
Weisbecker is a memoirist whose tall tales of being a seafaring candy man — an ode to the days of surfing’s darker past of narcotics smuggling — weave into a new story. In Search of Captain Zero is not all degeneracy though, as Weisbecker scores amazing surf all along the way. The author touches the sky when describing time spent traveling in the barrel: “It is time spent within the confines of the sea’s emerald recess — the term green room was coined elsewhere and long ago. It says it all — that represents surfing’s real nirvana state: its place of secrets.” Though, his Spanish, and alleged 500-yard noseride, are questionable.
Winslow’s works of fiction like The Dawn Patrol and The Kings of Coolhave been described as “coastal noir” by The Surfer’s Journal. Inspired by the local scene in southern California, Winslow — who moved to the area as a private investigator — summoned his life experience, perceptive eye, and imagination when creating The Dawn Patrol, which is about a group of friends that are professionally at odds, but joined together by their morning surfs. The main character Boone Daniels is a private investigator.
Kotler’s West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief is an instant classic. The American author’s autobiography paints a vivid picture of the sort of self-searching and wanderlust that captures the imagination of any traveler. Kotler chases down the myth of the conductor — a surfer who controls the surf with a bone like staff — like a journalist, hopping from dot-to-dot around the globe’s surf map in search of the legend. Along the way, he dissects the neuroscience of surfing, revealing a great deal about flow states, spirituality, and why surfing is so addicting.
Britton is a core surfer with chops in and out of the water. Not only does she hold a PhD in Environment and Society, Britton is considered a pioneer of women’s big-wave surfing in Ireland — heavy. Saltwater in the Blood: Surfing, Natural Cycles and the Sea’s Power to Heal ties together human health — both mind and body — and the ocean. Britton is constantly adding to the body of evidence that the ocean heals. In “Being Well in the Swell” she writes “The health benefits of surf therapy are linked to the fluid and dynamic nature of surfing and the sea… The added challenge and unpredictability associated with surfing also builds resilience, helping us better cope with stress.” If nothing else, Britton’s words will give you an excuse to get wet as much as humanly possible. It is your therapy.
Warshaw is a prolific and knowledgeable writer, with a twist of humor. His style was once described as “surfing’s Herodotus and Homer rolled into one” — equal parts funny and factual. This style is perfectly captured in an excerpt on the late, great Jay Moriarity from his book Maverick’s: The Story of Big-Wave Surfing. “Moriarity’s banal reaction [to a heavy wipeout] may have had less to do with a deficient imagination than with the general inarticulateness of sixteen-year-olds. Or perhaps he was just following the form of big-wave protocol that says, play it down, play it cool.” Many have called Matt Warshaw the foremost authority on all things surfing. His book The History of Surfing is praised as definitive. The Encyclopedia of Surfing became an evergreen project that’s now online.
Co-founder of the irreverent publication BeachGrit, Reilly is an industry veteran who also Co-founded Stab Magazine. If the sardonic style isn’t your cup of tea, check out his reporting in The Surfer’s Journal. Reilly’s profiles are beautifully crafted stories that showcase a lighter, even family friendly side. Just see “Mason Ho Makes You Feel Warm All Over.”
Orbellian’s Essential Surfing is the ultimate guide. It covers a wide range of topics, from learning how to surf to designing and crafting your own board. There are tips on how to surf shallow reefs, what animals to be aware and weary of, and other bits of timeless advice on how to improve your surfing. Above all, the following excerpt stands alone and applies to all who find themselves in an ocean that pushes one’s limits: “If you get a strong feeling about a situation, act on it and figure it out later. Experience will hone your sense and you’ll learn when to push and when to back off.”
William ‘Bill’ Finnegan is a superb penman. A writer for The New Yorker since the 1980s, Finnegan published profiles of surfers like Mark ‘Doc’ Renneker (“Playing Doc’s Games—1 & “Surfing with Doc—II”) and Kai Lenny (“Kai Lenny Surfs The Unsurfable”) in The New Yorker. His biggest achievement in surf writing came from the Pulitzer Prize winning memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. Finnegan’s tour de force leaves no stone of the surf life unturned. From sessions at Tavarua before it became a destination to his later life strikes to Montauk, New York, Finnegan perfectly captures all of the subtleties and stereotypes of being a core-surfer with his stockpile of metaphors and ivory-tower adjectives.
Casey has a constant finger on the adrenaline inducing pulse of the ocean. While not directly a book on surfing, The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks is a must read for any San Francisco surfer or those with a fascination of white sharks. The book details her time spent off the coast of San Francisco with a team of surf-scientists studying the behavior of the Farallones whites. There’s a rumored wave on the island, but it remains an unrideable myth for obvious reasons. The Wave covers the science of the wave: “the primordial force”. Casey follows Laird Hamilton and his merry crew of tow surfers known as the “strapped crew” to some serious swells. Casey found another big-wave truth when writing “Every big-wave rider I’d spoken to had stressed the impossibility of getting a good night’s rest before a large swell. Hamilton referred to this tossing and turning as ‘doing the mahi-mahi flop. Full pan-fried mahi. Up every hour, looking at the alarm clock.’ ”
Alongside his wife Debbie, Steve Pezman co-founded the most highly regarded modern surf magazine: The Surfer’s Journal. A bonafide veteran of surf writing, Pezman’s 2022 book Turn and Go! is a collection of the author’s major works over the last 5 decades, plus some unpublished work as well. Pezman is an iconic writer, who seems at home when writing on Trestles Beach — now home to the World Surf League Finals — in San Clemente, California. Pezman’s “Capers in the Key of ‘T’ ” gives the reader the lay of the land, and the curious history of the famed collection of surf spots. His description of the stretch of coast is as great a hook and spot guide there is: “The brief, undulating two-mile strip of California coast running from Cotton’s Point south to San Onofre, which also encompasses Upper Trestle, Lower Trestle, Middles and Church is a miraculous little run of surf breaks. All within walking distance of each other, its breaks are soft, surfable things, with long, tapered walls, enough slope at the bottom to let you around, and enough push so that a special mindless freedom can occur there — which is all you can ask of a surfing wave.”
*Note: Selecting only 15 of the best surf writers proved to be a difficult, exclusive task. There are countless writers that should be mentioned. Here’s a brief list of authors that were on the original list of before it was edited down to 15: