CIRCUITS | June 13, 2002, Thursday

A Site for Real Surfers Catches a Wave

By CHRIS DIXON (NYT) 1638 words

Late Edition - Final, Section G, Page 1, Column 4


On a gloomy, overcast Southern California afternoon, Sean Collins's third-floor office still offers a surfer one of the best views in the state.

From his window stretches the broad, palm-lined expanse of Huntington Beach. Alongside the pier below, hordes of surfers scratch toward the horizon as a rare chest-high wave rises from the glassy water. For miles to the north and south, small, empty waves roll to shore.

``There sure hasn't been much surf lately,'' Mr. Collins said.

With that, the most wired surfer in the world sat down at his computer. Mr. Collins keyed in, an act other surfers duplicate 1.2 million times each month, and his creation, a monstrous collection of live beach cameras, programs and links, appeared. Clicking on a set of lips overlaying the word LOLA, it seemed he might be downloading pornography. But for a surfer, Mr. Collins's new LOLA program is far more provocative.

The result of a long partnership with Bill O'Reilly, a meteorologist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and a Navy weather specialist, Paul Whittman, LOLA gathers data from weather satellites, offshore data buoys, ship reports and wave and weather models developed by the Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The program then churns through the data, using parameters that take into account underwater topography and that compare current conditions to those observed in the past.

The result of LOLA's calculations materialized on Mr. Collins's PC in the form of a map of the South Pacific. Southeast of New Zealand, a vast red blob represented a storm covering a quarter of the Southern Ocean. As the program worked its magic, it forecast an animated zone of swell that would cross thousands of miles of Pacific to the California coast in a little over a week.

``This looks good,'' Mr. Collins said. ``It might be a solid south swell.''

By learning how to predict a swell's formation and arrival, and selling that knowledge to the world, Mr. Collins, 47, has made a very good business for himself. By placing cameras at more than 100 of the planet's best surf spots, he has also given desktop surfers a window to the beach and a far more suitable waste of on-the-job time than Internet porn. Along the way, Surfline has become a major force in the surfing business, with more visitors in a month than all global surf magazine readers combined.

The ability to check the waves without going to the beach and the seemingly simple, yet vastly complex act of predicting waves has also altered the world of surfing. Before Mr. Collins's predictable forecasts, committed surfers lived up to their reputations as beach bums - waiting and hoping for good surf each day, and dropping everything (including, if necessary, gainful employment) when it arrived.

Now, with knowledge of where the best waves are and will be at their fingertips, surfers can plan their lives and travels and remain committed to their sport well into their responsible years.

But despite these advances, some surfers lament the loss of mystery and wonder of awakening one morning to find a new swell pouring onto a favorite beach, and a few of those whose favorite beaches have cameras on them fear big brother is watching their waves.

While Mr. Collins recognizes the profound changes his forecasts have wrought, his motivation has been simple: a desire to surf as much as possible. In the 1970's, as a committed wave rider, he made ends meet as a photographer, bartender and waiter. ``Flexible jobs I could drop if the surf came up,'' he said.

Mr. Collins found himself wanting to know more about where the waves were coming from and when they would arrive. On a Mexican sailing and surfing trip in the late 1970's, he began studying crude marine weather faxes transmitted via shortwave radio in the middle of the night from a remote weather station in Christchurch, New Zealand. Poring over storms represented in the faxes and keeping careful records of the resulting surf, Mr. Collins began to recognize wave-generating patterns.

``I lived in a tent at Scorpion Bay, Mexico, with Sean years ago,'' said Sam George, the editor of Surfer magazine. Like most young, devoted surfers, Mr. George would head to Baja California for weeks at a time in the hopes of having just one perfect day of surf. Mr. Collins, he remembered, had a solar-powered fax machine in the middle of the desert. ``That was just unbelievable technology,'' he said.

At that time, a strong south swell was an almost mystical occurrence to Mr. George. ``When the moon came full and the day grew long the waves would come rolling in from the south,'' he said, laughing. ``We didn't even know what a south swell was.''

``Those were fantastic days,'' Mr. Collins said, ``because nobody else knew anything. I'd just get tons of waves and it was like voodoo.''

As his accuracy and reputation grew, Mr. Collins recognized a market for his information. In March 1985, he established a pay-for-service telephone number, hired a group of California surf-spotters and made his first official forecast just prior to one of the best swells of the decade. In its first year, 900-976-SURF received over a million calls, at 55 cents apiece. ``There was such a need,'' Mr. Collins said. ``It filled such a void.''

Other voids were filled with a subscription fax service in the early 90's and the creation of in 1995. Originally, the site served as a free supplement to pay services but that changed with the first live Huntington Beach surf camera in 1996.

``Our traffic shot through the roof,'' Mr. Collins said, ``and suddenly people were afraid that every time it got good, we would have a thousand people jumping in the water. It took us a while to realize that if people see a crowd, they'll say, `I'm surfing somewhere else.'''

Now, the Surfline site offers monthly subscriptions to its LOLA services and live camera feeds, for $4.95 and up. Surfline also pays its bills through online advertising and through its 900 number and a subscription forecast service delivered by fax. Mr. Collins also makes customized forecasts for companies that sponsor big-wave surfing contests to bring together the best surfers from across the world on just a few days' notice. Mr. Collins employs about 15 people in Huntington Beach. An additional 30 surf spotters around the world are paid to deliver daily e-mail reports about conditions.

Originally, the streaming camera feeds were free, but Mr. Collins said that ``incredibly heavy'' bandwidth use and the demands of maintaining more than 100 cameras led him to change the site so that nonsubscribers only see still images from the cameras. Other free content includes regularly updated live global surf reports, magazine articles, bulletin boards and travel guide information.

Yet it is the cameras that have brought the most traffic, and the most controversy. Recently a camera was placed above Mavericks, a big wave spot at Half Moon Bay near San Francisco, and another went online above a police chief's home at a spot called Indicators in Palos Verdes, south of Los Angeles.

For decades, the generally affluent Palos Verdes surfers have been notoriously hostile toward outsiders. After a well-publicized brawl between two visiting surfers and a crew of locals, the police requested the camera as an effort to curb what surfers call localism. But less than four months later, after city officials became concerned that the camera was drawing too many surfers to the area, it was removed.

``The localism that began in the water and on the beach moved into the affluent neighborhoods, and eventually into City Hall,'' Mr. Collins said.

As Mr. Collins's own middle age will attest, one of the most powerful but indirect effects of surf forecasting has been that the estimated two million American surfers are riding later into their lives, even after they have settled down.

``When I was young,'' he said, ``guys just didn't surf into their 30's. Once you hit 30, you had a real job, a wife, kids and mortgage and you couldn't plan your life around surfing anymore. That's probably the biggest thing we've changed.''

Mr. George sees a modern parallel to the historic Hawaiian culture in which surfers rode waves into their sunset years.

``In 18th century Hawaii,'' he said, ``there was this whole cult of surf priests, or kahunas. They had a temple on Waikiki beach. By monitoring natural things like water color and temperatures or bird flights indicating a far away storm, they could predict the surf.''

``The fantastic thing was, when the waves were going to hit, the kahunas would send kites above Diamond Head to tell the villagers, `Hey, the surf's up!' The villages would empty as the people rushed to Waikiki.''

He paused, chuckled, and added, ``Sean is our new Kahuna.''