Know Before You Go

Know Before You Go

know-before-you-go-1Ironically, had Sean Collins knew what he was getting into when he started the venerable surf forecasting operation bearing this motto, we may never have had the benefit of his invaluable predictions. Before Surfline, there were no forecasts precise enough to rely on for surfing. Today, Surfline’s forecasting data covers regions around the globe accurately predicting swells well into the future. Surfline’s reports are relied upon by surfers the world over as well as state agencies, militaries, and movie producers.

What Sean didn’t know was that getting Surfline to where it is today would prove to be no mean feat. Despite Sean’s expertise in surf forecasting which continues to be unmatched, the business of forecasting profitably proved elusive. Surfline’s rise in popularity also epitomized the winner’s curse with purists decrying its sometimes too precise forecasts as anathema to the adventurous spirit of surfing. When he first decided to study meteorology and oceanography, all Sean knew was that there had to be a better way to predict surf.

 

Out of Necessity

know-before-you-go-4Sean’s invention would be born out of a necessity we all can relate to: finding epic surf. Born in Pasadena and raised in Seal Beach, he was exposed to the sea under the influence of his father. A former Navy lieutenant, the two would spend a lot of time in a 50-foot sailboat. Sean would sail all around California and co-skip races to Mexico and Hawaii. Although he loved to sail, his favorite part was returning home when he could take his time exploring the Baja California coastline for uncharted surf spots.

Taking up odd restaurant and photography jobs that allowed him the leisure time needed to pursue his passion, he found himself exploring increasingly remote regions of Baja. He also found himself increasingly frustrated at particularly stubborn flat spells. At the time, forecasts provided by the government were far too vague for his purposes.

As such, Sean decided to teach himself how to forecast. He frequented the local university library pouring over oceanography materials and spent hours studying the ocean from his own front yard. Over time, he educated himself on the science of meteorology and oceanography. More importantly, he developed a gut instinct on how to translate the mountains of data into reliable indications of when and where swell would hit. During the late 70’s and 80’s he consulted with Larry “Flame” Moore of Surfing Magazine, providing accurate forecasts for special photo surf trips planned around good swells. Soon, Sean would receive numerous calls from “friends of friends” seeking his advice on future swell activity.

 

A Real Job

In 1983, the reckless abandon would come to an abrupt halt replaced by an urgent sense of responsibility. Sean would have his first son, Tyler. And he would need a real job. A group of Orange County entrepreneurs had already foreseen the value behind reliable surf information, and Sean joined these entrepreneurs as a founder to establish Surfline in the fall of 1984.

After two years under a non-committed contract, Sean left Surfline to start his own company he named Wavetrak. Under his tutelage, Wavetrak gained so much market share with the accurate forecasting that he was able to buy out the partners of Surfline in 1990 and assume its moniker. Soon after, Surfline would expand to include a fax service and in 1995 would establish its first internet presence – Surfline.com.

 

The Art From the Science

know-before-you-go-2The initial success behind Surfline stems from Sean’s ability to distinguish the art from the science of forecasting. Simply stated, he knows when to go with his gut instincts. The slightest error deviation can result in grossly inaccurate forecasting. In particular, southern hemisphere swells, which originate six thousand miles away off the coast of New Zealand, are notoriously difficult to predict. As the swells makes their way along the great circle path to the shores of Southern California, weather buoys and stations become far and few between. Often times, data gathered are not only disparate but also contradictory. It is then that Sean must rely on his experience and instincts to determine which, if any, to trust. Putting forecasting into perspective, being off by a mere five knots (or just under six miles per hour) in determining the wind speed of a southern hemi can result in being off by as much as 24 hours in arrival time and four feet in wave face height.

Sean faced this gambit head on when he provided his first ever forecast with Surfline. On March 26th, 1985, Sean predicted that a confluence of a strong southern hemi, a northwest swell, and some Santa Ana winds for good measure was set to hit Southern California in five days. A week later, as overhead waves began to roll into Huntington Beach, the surfing world would never be the same again. Since that fateful day, Surfline has logged 95% accuracy within a margin of one foot of wave face height and twelve hours of arrival time.

 

Tails I Win, Heads You Lose

Make no mistake, what started out for simple reasons turned surfing on its head. No longer would dawn patrols be the hit or miss affair. Working people could now arrange their schedule armed with the foreknowledge of when and where a swell is expected to hit. Surfing was brought into a golden age and Surfline was its oracle of Huntington Beach. All was well in surflandia. Or one would think.

For some, Sean’s predictions were tantamount to blasphemy. Surfing, after all, was not merely a sport but rather a lifestyle. And the uncertainty inherent in Mother Nature was par for the course. These purists would decry Surfline as destroying the sense of adventure that defined surfing and surfers. To this, Sean concedes that Surfline does remove some of the trial and error surfers of the past once had to endure. He also points to the fact that much of the global wave data is publicly available through other sources; and if he wasn’t producing the forecasts, someone else surely would – as they are today. Notwithstanding, Surfline, unlike most commercial ventures, decides to draw a fine line between selling a service and preserving some sense of sanctity. Never will a Surfline forecast point out exactly the best spots where a swell will hit in advance. As far as Sean is concerned, some things still need to remain sacred and earned.

Although Surfline’s supporters far outnumbered its detractors, actually making money from the business of providing forecasts proved harder than it looked. For starters, the phone company would take the majority of the fees charged for the dial-in service. In 1995, Surfline launched its first internet presence and subsequently broke ground on its very first “Surfcam.” In another unprecedented measure, visitors to the Surfline website were able to actually see the surf in real time. The camera network and summary reports available free on the website was so widely accepted, that it greatly cannibalized the revenue being generated from the phone and fax services throughout the late 90’s.

Surfline’s fortune would take a turn however with the “dot com” boom in full swing in 1999 and registering 500,000 unique visits in any given month. Every action sports internet company and venture capital firm had their sights firmly set on an acquisition of Surfline. Although Sean could have accepted more attractive offers, he decided to accept a buyout from Swell.com to preserve the integrity of his operation. Left at the controls of his company, Sean was able to focus on developing Surfline’s proprietary wave model and new camera locations while the new parent company would focus on the ecommerce aspect. Unfortunately, the boom was quickly followed by a bust and Sean encouraged that Surfline be spun off from Swell.com. Sean was on his own again trying to save a company that was bleeding cash, and with venture capital partners waiting in the wings for the company to falter.

know-before-you-go-3For all the storms Sean had predicted with surgical accuracy, the years to follow would bring Surfline through a financial maelstrom he would barely be able to navigate. Although continuing to gain in popularity, the company would continue to hemorrhage cash. With the ad revenue business model only in its infancy and the post-911 recession looming, there would be months on end when Sean would have to keep Surfline afloat with his own money. Rather than retrenching, Sean would be determined to grow Surfline. He purchased additional cameras to create the Surfcam network we all use today – all of which are still owned and maintained by Surfline. He also made the tough decision to carve out a fee based service. While Surfline would continue to provide reports for free, longer range forecasts and use of its proprietary wave model would come at a fee. This came as such a shock to some that there were numerous online physical threats to Sean and his family, and trash was even dumped in his front yard by those in defiance of his decision.

Having managed to keep its head above water throughout the adversity, Surfline slowly gained stability and traction. Once there was some light at the end of the tunnel, Sean received support from his “surf core” partners so they could buy out the original Swell.com venture capitalist investors in 2004. Additionally, Surfline was able to attract new internet savvy people to build out a great team. The internet ad revenue model began to take hold and Surfline continued to grow in popularity at an impressive clip. Its bottom line finally started taking on shades of black. Today, Surfline is considered one of the largest sports sites in the world. Nearly 1.5 million unique people visit the site – each month. In addition to you and me, Surfline provides its forecast to nearly every lifeguard agency in California, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy Seals, the National Weather Service, as well as entertainment production companies and foreign government agencies. Although a lot has changed since the days when Sean would sit on his Seal Beach rooftop studying the ocean, he will be the first to admit that what lies ahead may very well make the past seem trivial.

 

The End of an Era

Perhaps the biggest change in Surfline’s history occurred just last month. On February 17, Surfline pulled the veritable plug on the legacy phone service. This end of an era marks how well Surfline’s transition to the internet has been accepted; most people didn’t even realize that the dial-in services still existed. Going forward, Surfline intends to focus all of its resources on developing products for new media. What this means generally is that we can expect more through the internet and wireless platforms. What this means exactly, only Sean and his stalwart crew in the Huntington Beach office knows. Although Sean poses some interesting pontification on what the future may bring …

Maybe we’ll be sitting in the lineup using our GPS-enabled watches that access a real time satellite orbiting overhead that monitors ocean waves, confirming that a good set is on the way and will arrive at our exact position in the lineup in 2 minutes 13 seconds, and that the third wave of the set will be the biggest …

The rules may change but one thing will always remain the same: right place, right time. And whatever the medium, we’ll still be there helping you to get into the best waves. And oh, you can have the 3rd wave of this set. No worries. I’ll take the 4th one – which might be bigger…

 

Well Deserved Recognition

Throughout all this, Sean remains as humble as that kid from Seal Beach that just wanted to find waves. Not once will he boast about his long list of accolades. Among them was being named “25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century” by Surfer Magazine in 1999. He was also named the “8th Most Powerful Surfer in the Surf Industry” by the same publication in 2002. In 2006, the Los Angeles Times Magazine West named Sean in its “Top 100 People Who Wield the Most Power and Influence in Southern California.”

More recently last July, Sean was inducted in the Surfer’s Hall of Fame joining fellow 2008 inductees and surfing legends Mike Parsons, Brad Gerlach, and Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew. Perhaps nine-time ASP World Champion, Kelly Slater, put it best when he congratulated his close friend on this achievement …

On behalf of so many surfers around the world, I’d like to congratulate Sean on his induction today. I’ve personally known Sean since I was about 14 years old on trips to Cabo and hanging around Huntington in the summertime with his old buddy, Peter Brouillet. My brother and I were constantly amazed at the precision of Sean’s swell readings on our trips, particularly to Natividad, when Sean once gave us the times and intervals for an arriving swell many days ahead of time.

Today it’s understandable but in those days, around 1987, that seemed impossible but he always seemed to be right on. In fact, one of the best days of surf of my life was in Tavarua just about 5 years ago when Sean told me to expect the winds to switch and for the Rights to get good about a week out. 6 of us snuck a surf under everyone’s noses during the Quiksilver Pro while the semi’s and finals went on split between Cloudbreak and Restaurants. There still are a few secrets to find while everyone’s looking and I’ve been lucky to get the insider’s advice oftentimes.

 

I Score

Despite all these accolades and in addition to remaining humble, Sean remains focused on what drove him to start Surfline in the first place. In an L.A. Times article, Sean admits that issuing his forecasts can sometimes bring about a strange feeling. Knowing that he is predicting waves he likely will never ride. But he knows that someone, somewhere out there is riding those waves based on his forecast. Whether it be in Huntington or Bali, someone is enjoying the stoke. As far as Sean is concerned, “If they score, I score.”

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