A surfer who is comfortable in a wide variety of ocean conditions, has a broad store of oceanic knowledge, and is accomplished in a range surfing-related activities, including diving, swimming, sailing, bodysurfing, fishing, spearfishing, surf canoeing, and oceangoing rescue work. Most watermen are from Hawaii. Surf journalist Dave Parmenter in 2000 described Makaha resident Brian Keaulana as "without a doubt the greatest all-around waterman alive, [someone who can] ride a shortboard or longboard at a world-class level, steer a four-man Hawaiian canoe through the Makaha bowl at 12 feet, and tow-surf the local cloudbreak—all in a single afternoon."

Although "waterman" was likely introduced to the surf world lexicon in the 1950s, it was little used until the late '70s; the word appeared in a surf press headline for the first time in 1978, as Surfer magazine noted the death of lifeguard and big-wave rider Eddie Aikau with, "A Hawaiian Waterman's Final Return to the Sea."

The expression gained currency, and was eventually adopted for commercial use; the Waterman's Ball, a fund-raiser held by the Surf Industrial Manufacturers Association, has been an annual event since 1989. Australian surf journalist Nick Carroll, writing that same year about an imaginary University of Riding Waves, proposed a four-year Bachelor of Watermanship degree, with course work in oceanography and meteorology (to better understand wave formation), chemistry (surfboard and wetsuit construction), design and visual art (to better appreciate the sport's aesthetics), engineering (board-shaping machines), business, and literature (beginning with Homer's Odyssey). "Eventually," Carroll summarized, "you'd emerge as a full Waterman, the Total Surfer, somebody who doesn't just ride a wave, but understands it."

Pat Curren, Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama, and Mark Healey are among the sport's most celebrated watermen.

While most surfers admire the waterman ethic, and celebrate those who embody it, there have been dissenters. Malibu surf icon Mickey Dora chose to live for most of his life away from the beach, and had as little to do with the water as possible during his nonsurfing hours. "When there's surf, I'm totally committed," Dora once said, asked about his relationship to the ocean. "When there's none, it doesn't exist."