We interview a vegan pro surfer

Matt Smith, professional surfer and sailor, chats to Viva!’s founder, Juliet Gellatley, about his magical connection with the oceans, how
it’s hard to find a girl and being vegan in a largely male sport that dices with death...

I was about seven years old on the beaches of Cornwall with my sister and friends when I started to surf on the small waves. My father was a chef on the beach and would work whilst I learnt. It was a very young love and I’ve had such a long connection with surfing that it is deeply ingrained in my life.”

 Matt talks in an open, easy, friendly way that draws you in. It’s hard to not be fascinated by his utter love for the ocean and surfing, with its feelings of freedom, adventure and creativity all rolled into one. In the past decade he’s sailed over 30,000 miles across the planet and surfed along its most beautiful coasts. But make no mistake, it’s not an easy life, albeit an extraordinarily free one. Professional surfing requires huge strength, stamina and fitness – and nerves of steel! Matt is famous in the global surfing scene for ‘getting barrelled’. It’s one of the hardest things to do and means he rides gigantic waves almost as if in a tube, with his back to the towering arc and mightily little between him and the jagged reef below.

 He tells me: “In 2013 I spent nine months at sea, either in the Maldives, Ireland or the Northern Pacific. I love everything about the ocean and have spent only around 10 weeks of my life not within one mile of it and I am forever grateful for that. I was so lucky to be brought up being allowed to play in nature. It’s hard to explain how much the ocean means to me because I don’t really know life without it but I live, work and play in her, she keeps wondering and wanting. It keeps me content, happy and healthy.”

I asked Matt what does it take, both emotionally and physically, to be a professional surfer? “I’m not sure, there are many different types of surfers, both emotionally and physically, so we’re all different." 

I suppose, at the beginning, there are a lot of sacrifices to be made. I spend most of the year on the move and so miss special moments in the lives of friends and family. It’s not a very secure profession but I’m certain that almost every surfer would say they do it because it makes them happy. It calms the soul, keeps the body healthy and makes you smile. We train almost every day but it’s mostly about being active rather than endless hours in the gym.”

 How does this impact on having relationships? And would Matt ever date a woman who doesn’t surf? “I’m single at the moment, it’s pretty difficult to have a relationship when moving so much but I am alone, not lonely. I have met some very special people over the years and hope I can find someone who will make me stay still one day. “For me, her surfing is not important but I am attracted to passionate and progressive people. I hope she would feel similar to me about the way she lived her life and I imagine she would be vegan or something similar. It’s not because people have to think the same as me, it’s more about understanding how passionate I am on a few key issues. I hope she would want to be on the same side as me eventually."

My ears prick up, she doesn’t have to surf but it’s best she’s vegan… pretty important to him then! “I first gave up meat about 10 years ago and then slowly became a vegan from there. Over the years, I stopped eating fish – first unless I caught it and then no fish at all. I think that everyone should make their own decisions and it’s great that we can but that doesn’t mean everyone is making the right choices."

There is so much propaganda promoting slavery of animals that it’s not a level playing field. So, hopefully we can help with the tipping point. I think in this age of great understanding and scientific reasoning it is something all humans should be doing."

 I asked Matt if the breath-taking sights of underwater gardens with their myriad of colourful lives, helped change his attitude to eating fish? “Before I stopped eating fish, I used to believe that it was ‘human nature’ to kill animals and that if I caught and killed the fish myself it was somehow OK – spiritual. That is how I justified it But spending so much of my life in or on the ocean, I have seen the terrifying reduction of fish stocks. I spent a year on a sail boat in the Med, fished almost every day and caught nothing.

I have seen how good people justify killing and raping the ocean. I have watched fishermen in Asia dynamite the reefs to kill fish to feed to farmed fish. I’ve seen helicopters and armies of boats hunting Atlantic tuna to send to Japan Once you take this information in it is hard to forget it."

It’s heart breaking that we can be so OK with our ill treatment of land and sea animals and one day I believe we will look back and be so embarrassed – it will be one of the human race’s biggest regrets. There’s also the example we set our children about the treatment of other living animals. It’s obscene."

So what does Matt eat for his massively high-energy sport? “Most days I am surfing lots or exercising. I am by no means perfect and neither is my will power! But a good day for me would be to wake up with hot lemon water and try not to eat for a while. And then a bowl of nuts, cereals, dried fruit and Organic Burst – maca, boaboa, spirulina – wheatgrass sprinkled on top with coconut water. Then toast and coffee."

I snack a lot on nuts, fruit and hummus and have a soup or a curry for lunch and a big salad for dinner. Salads are epic, the more on the plate the better – beetroot, broccoli, apple, nuts – everything. And I love tahini, olive oil and lemon juice. I really like food, coffee, wine and coconut water, I love eating out and sharing food with people”.

Is the very male surfing world surprised by Matt being vegan? “Ha, I always get a lot of questions and try to be as honest as possible without offending people! I think I have had a positive impact on the image of veganism and hope I can inspire people to change their diet, for their health, for the animals. As surfers, hopefully they’ll appreciate it’s for the life of the oceans, too."

I know Viva! is 20 years old this year and it’s wonderful to be connected with you – keep on inspiring people every day and there has to be a tipping point of compassion and understanding. Then the world will really change for good.”

Finally, does this vegan dynamo see a time when he’ll put down his board?

Surfing has always calmed me, amped me and pushed me, so it’s something I want to keep doing for the rest of my life. I will go wherever she takes me. After all, if you’re happy, you’re happy – don’t fight it.”