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Chas Smith – On Surfing

Chas Smith is a luminous figure in surfing, an adept journalist, and author. Born in San Jose, California in 1976, Smith’s family uprooted and landed in Coos Bay, Oregon where he learned to surf. After studying intercultural studies in undergrad, Smith graduated with a master’s in linguistics, going on to study in Egypt and at Oxford. Following a story he published in Australia Surfing Life about surfing in Yemen in the wake of 9/11, Smith went on to report in Lebanon, Somalia, Israel-Palestine, and wound up a captive of Hezbollah reporting for Current TV. In the early-aughts, Smith worked for Vice. Soon, he joined Stab magazine at the behest of Derek Rielly, then editor-in-chief, and they set in on an unparalleled era in surf journalism. Some of Stab’s more controversial content garnered unsavory public spats that earned Smith some anti-Semitic epithets, and then in 2014, Smith and Reilly began Beach Grit—a deep well of incendiary, tongue-in-cheek honesty drenched in satire, sans filter. He’s now a regular contributor to The Surfer’s Journal, with bylines at Esquire and Playboy, and the author of Paradise, Now Go to Hell, a cultural vignette of Oahu’s North Shore, which was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Award for Nonfiction.

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

Oh, easy: Sticking my first full rotation air. But also I think forcing my body to look even 5% like my mind wants it to look. I love surfing. I love the feeling it gives. I love that rush of electric love when I paddle, paddle, paddle, pop up, look down the line and see a gorgeous shoulder starting to stack up. That canvas is the most enticing thing in the whole world save the female form. The possibilities, the potential, it’s all there and endless. I want to paint a masterpiece but am only able to scribble. That dissonance is challenging.

What is one of the most redemptive or rewarding parts of surfing?

Scribbling! And…ummm…being a surfer.

Walking around the streets of New York, Paris, Zurich, Djibouti, knowing that I do one of the greatest things on earth. Sure. I don’t do it as grandly as some, but I do it and on a proper surfboard too. On a proper Matt Biolos Puddle Jumper. Is that a proper surfboard? It totally is. I surf, and I get the feeling of being a surfer. Is there anything greater?

What has surfing afforded you in your life?

Almost everything: Books. A bizarre career. A wife. A child. The everlasting friendship of Derek Rielly. The ability to read Matt Warshaw’s History of Surfing and know why it matters.

How long can you go without surfing?

One month probably.

How and when did you fall in love with surfing?

At eight years old in Oregon, I grew up in a depressed, cloudy logging town on the coast, but the logging industry had long fled, and it was only depressed. I wanted to be in California. I would see pictures of California in magazines and movies featuring California in the theater. That was what and who I wanted to be. Surfing let me touch it even though the water was freezing and the sun never shone, and the rednecks were depressed about the logging jobs they wouldn’t have.

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

Pre: Get done posting a piece of worthless gossip on Beach Grit. Post: Get started posting a piece of worthless gossip on Beach Grit.

Beach Grit

/ Interview by Michael Adno, illustration by Matt Titone

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