Ocean Lessons From a Big-Wave Surfing Commercial Fisherman
Between 2011 and 2014, Matt Becker was one of standup paddleboard racing’s biggest names. He had a signature line, a trophy case full of awards and expeditions lined up worldwide. SUP magazine often featured him as editors covered his races and trips. Then, in 2015, after his brother died of a drug overdose, Becker gave it up overnight.
Becker moved into his truck after losing his brother, Patrick, and headed up California Highway 1 to “surf my brains out,” he says. Stops included San Francisco—where he slept in a friend’s house under the staircase—and Half Moon Bay before settling in Santa Cruz, which he believes has some of the world’s biggest, wildest waves. He toured the coast because he needed to be in the ocean, on his terms, where the cool waters and heavy waves healed him.
Raised in Santa Barbara, Becker’s earliest memories are being with his family on his dad’s fishing boat and surfing with him. Since 1976, his dad, Mark, has worked as a commercial fisherman in both California and Alaska. “If my dad couldn’t get a sitter for my brother and me, we went fishing,” he says.
He picked up surfing at age 7, and at 15 he began SUPing and riding big waves on Maui and Oahu. Summer fishing trips included visits to Bristol Bay, Alaska, to catch sockeye salmon and out to California’s Channel Islands for spiny lobster. By day the family fished and by night they camped out on the islands. At 15, he began working as a deckhand for his dad. “I thought that was a normal childhood,” he says.
Becker’s father instilled a strong work ethic in his son, who applied it to his first job as a professional deckhand on a 70-foot crabbing boat in Half Moon Bay. At 19, competitive SUP racing took Becker to the Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard World Championships. The 32-mile open water race crosses the Ka’iwi Channel separating the islands and is considered the most challenging SUP endurance ocean race in the world. He completed it four times.
At age 20, he told SUP magazine, “the whole reason I did standup and why I do these other disciplines is getting that same stoke like when you’re catching your first wave.”
This month when we caught up with Becker, 26, he had a different view on SUP racing. “I got sick of paddling in a straight line,” he says. “I did paddleboarding as a job and getting paid for something I loved muddied the waters, and I started thinking, ‘Who’s going to pay me at 54, 55 if I continue that as a career?’”
That big-picture outlook shift is why Becker took his 2015 California coastal journey solo. During days out on the water, he felt his brother’s presence around him. Riding giant waves reinforced what he truly valued and helped him recover from grief. “If I’m out in big surf, I continually think to myself, ‘This is exactly where I want to be,’” he says. “That sense of belonging—it’s a basic human instinct to connect with nature. I also feel that way on the back of a fishing boat.”
Today, often working beside his dad, he follows the seasons to make a living so he can surf in his free time. He works as a commercial fisherman during summer, often grinding out 16- to 20-hour days for 20 to 40 days straight. This hard work includes catching Dungeness crab off the coast of northern California, where he’s often sleep-deprived and managing risk around heavy equipment. The tasks are so grueling, cold, and wet that his fingernails have fallen off from lifting heavy crab pots. But he says the hard work is what brings the reward. “After the fishing season, when you’re flying home, the sense of accomplishment is immense,” he says. “You’re tuned into nature in a way that a lot of people never get to feel. It’s such a gift.”
Accordingly, his takeaways from big-wave surfing and fishing run parallel: “The most important thing is the need for human struggle, whether it’s physical or emotional.”
During winter, when fishing is over, he steps off the boat and grabs his board. This time of year is when storms barrel down from the northern Pacific and slam into the California coast, home to Mavericks, outside Santa Cruz. When the epic swells come, Becker is ready. This past season brought the best conditions he’s seen in his 18 years of surfing; he chased waves every day. He spent upwards of six hours in the water, for 16 days straight.
“The sense of freedom I feel after enduring these intense experiences is enriching,” he says. “I think to reach happiness, you have to put yourself through a little struggle each day.”
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