H20 Paddles Into Surfer Lit Waters Again

We’re chatting with onetime surfing idol and magazine maven Martin Sugarman about the second wave of H20, a literary quarterly that’s washing up onto a newsstand near you any day now. If you were one of the 5,000 lucky folks who bought the quirky magazine during its first round from 1979 to 1989, you could have waved a copy in the face of anyone who ever sneered at L.A. as a cultural wasteland.

Hey, we always had culture--surf culture. And no, that’s not an oxymoron. “What’s below the pavement?” muses Sugarman, a hybrid surfer-sociologist who’s languidly pursuing a doctorate at UCLA. In sociology, not surfing, that is. “Remove the city and you’ve got the beach. There’s a culture there--surfing culture, boating culture, diving culture, and artists and writers who care about it. Look at Herman Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick’ or Henry Thoreau’s ‘Walden Pond.’ A lot of great works of literature have water as an integral part.”

Sugarman, 52, was a professional surfer in his teens, lending his name--and address for royalty checks--to a surfboard company that put his signature on some of its products. By the late ‘70s, he was flirting with filmmaking but found the medium too expensive. So he went searching for the perfect wave in magazines.

“To me, it was a cheap way to make films, but in a print format,” says Sugarman over lunch at Replay restaurant on Melrose. “My film idol was John Cassavetes, so the magazine is more or less garage-built. All his actors worked for free. Everyone did everything. It was a real tribal enterprise, and I was the John Cassavetes of the magazine world.”


The select world of surfing magazines with, shall we say, little cash flow but big ambitions.

“I always thought surfing magazines didn’t paint a truthful picture of surfing, because 90% of the time there are no waves. Moreover, they never portrayed the surfer as unemployed or having problems in his life. It’s like Playboy, where every girl is beautiful. It was a misrepresentation of the sport.”

The original H20 depicted unemployed surfers dealing with relationship problems, going to the beach and looking at a “blown-out ocean,” bereft of precious waves. It touched on ecological issues, examining nuclear-waste dumping off San Francisco. And it covered the waterfront’s art world by publishing fiction, poetry and fine-art photography.

Not that H20 veered entirely away from the Playboy aesthetic. Each issue came with its own serving of cheesecake photos.

“Hey, the sun, the beach, nudity,” Sugarman says. “It’s the whole gestalt.”

Is that what it is? Anyway, after a decade of haphazard publishing, Sugarman got restless and took off for Latin America, Cuba, Bosnia and Pakistan, where he sometimes courted danger as a photojournalist. But after a while, the lonely nights in strange hotels began to wear on him, and he returned to L.A. last fall.

Now Sugarman lives on a boat in Marina del Rey, natch, and periodically sails to Malibu to pick up his mail from a box he’s had for years. And with the encouragement of friends and fans, he’s rounding up the kids to put on another show from an office in Santa Monica.

The new incarnation of H20 includes work from writers like Deanne Stillman, a former Buzz columnist and occasional New Yorker scribe who writes about her first view of the Pacific Coast Highway 13 years ago. There’s a photo essay on swimming in Albania, a reprint of a Christopher Isherwood story about the Santa Monica Canyon and a profile of beach-loving architect Brian Murphy.


“It’s a little more sophisticated,” Sugarman says. “We’re a lot older now. But it’s cool. The magazine’s cool. Here you’ve got an article on East Timor and an article on the history of the Malibu Surfing Assn. Where else can you find that?”

Irene Lacher’s Out & About column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays on Page 2. She can be reached by e-mail at