Surfline.com News story
OC METRO by PAUL
Sean Collins rides the wave of surf-forecasting success.
The first lessons about waves and weather for Sean
Collins began in the waters of Surfside, the city
between Seal Beach and Huntington Beach where he grew up
and has lived most of his life. As a kid, he loved to
surf ' he learned the sport at 8 ' and his dad, Whitney,
loved to sail. Whitney Collins owned a 50-foot sailboat,
and he and Sean entered races to destinations like
Mexico and Hawaii.
The part of those journeys Sean liked best was the
return trip home, because they could take their time and
search out the best surf spots along the way.
'My passion was looking for the perfect wave,' Collins
It's a passion that has continued unabated, and one that
led him to create a craft that's had a giant impact on
the sport of surfing.
Through years of dogged research, recordkeeping,
experiments and fine-tuning, Collins developed a
groundbreaking system for predicting surf conditions
that enables surfers to know where and when to find the
Such information is gold to people passionate about
surfing. It has influenced the most basic behavior of
surfers the world over. Instead of spending days or
weeks waiting around for the prime waves to hit at a
particular beach area ' looking at the sky, guessing and
praying ' those who are addicted to the sport (and what
surfer isn't') can use the forecasts to help them plan
daily and long-term routines: work schedules, vacation
destinations, whether it's really worth it to get up
extra early that morning and throw on the wetsuit.
For the elite, world-class wave-riders, such surf
prognostications are particularly valuable currency.
These athletes constantly pore over surfline.com, the
surf-forecasting website Collins started 10 years ago.
(He formed the company Surfline 20 years ago,
distributing data by phone prior to the advent of the
'I live at the beach and I check that thing all the
time,' says Jodie Nelson, a professional surfer on the
world tour, who also resides in Surfside, not far from
where Collins lives with his wife
and two sons. 'When I'm in Hawaii, I check it, like,
five times a day, because the big swells can change so
Nelson, who says Collins has been a mentor to her, was
traveling recently through Senegal in West Africa. She
says she'd call home and beg friends to check
Surfline.com for her, since she didn't have access and
didn't have a sense of the best surf areas and
conditions in such a remote locale.
How significant has Collins' impact been' In 1999,
Surfer Magazine named him as one of the '25 Most
Influential Surfers of the Century.'
'It all kind of blows me away sometimes,' says Collins,
reflecting on how big forecasting ' and Surfline ' has
become. 'This was something I originally just started
doing out of my garage.'
Indeed, the Huntington Beach
company has evolved dramatically since its inception,
becoming a surf-business juggernaut that has tapped into
a wide range of technologies and revenue streams.
It began as a pay-per-call service, offering reports on
Southland surf conditions as well as predictions of what
they would be in the coming days. It expanded to provide
increasingly sophisticated surf-tracking and forecasting
information through a mix of mediums: phone, fax, the
Internet, even global wave-modeling software.
The latter tool, called LOLA, has enabled users to
create their own forecasts.
Collins' efforts have allowed everyone ' not just the
privileged few ' to learn about the premier surf spots
and conditions in the world.
Selling the surf
'There's no secrets anymore,' notes Evan Slater, editor
of San Clemente-based Surfing Magazine. 'Sean has
created a level playing field.'
The most-used surfing-related Website in the world,
Surfline.com gets more than 1 million visitors a month '
that's not hits, but separate, individual people. The
site has a vast amount of surfing-oriented information
and products, including surf reports, predictions, video
footage, news and advice about all manner of medical,
cultural, scientific and other issues that fit somewhere
under the heading of surfology.
About 85% of the online services are free. The other
15%, which include access to forecasting data, high-tech
video features and the LOLA software, are available
through a premium subscription to the Website. The
annual fee is $70.
The surf-forecast company, which grosses about $4
million a year, has other revenue streams as well,
including e-commerce activities and online advertising.
Surfline also continues to provide pay-per-call surf
reports and forecasts at (900) SURFLINE for 95 cents a
As a teenager, Collins was a surfing fool. He went
wherever the waves were, one of his favorite jaunts
being down to Baja.
But he grew tired of traveling to places and then
waiting for days on end for the boffo swells to strike.
From sailing and surfing, Collins had learned some
meteorological principles, and in the ensuing years he
experimented to find ways to predict big waves.
There wasn't much available in terms of forecasting
tools and techniques at that time, he notes, 'It was the
But Collins was resourceful and determined. He received
late-night weather faxes from New Zealand via a crude
shortwave radio. He charted wave movement near his
family's home, keeping meticulous files of the
information and patterns he recorded. He pored over
satellite photos and readings from ocean buoys, and he
delved into reams of material in the National Weather
Service library in Los Angeles.
Gradually, he was able to devise his own formulas and
system for predicting surf conditions, and he became the
first person to accurately forecast Southern Hemisphere
swells on a regular basis.
'I was doing this for selfish reasons ' I just wanted to
find the best places to surf for me and my friends,' he
says. 'And I did find some wonderful ones. It was just a
But that would change soon enough. Collins had worked in
a series of waiter and bartending jobs so that he could
keep a flexible schedule for his surfing. But when his
wife, Daren, gave birth to the couple's first child in
1983, he quickly realized it was time to head down a
more serious and strategic career path.
So he launched Surfline, and the business was a big hit
with surfers from the get-go. The company now has about
30 employees and dozens of 'surf spotters' around the
world. Generally, Surfline can forecast wave conditions
five-to-seven days in advance. The website also has
live, streaming 'surf cams,' which provide viewers with
an online look at international beach sites 24 hours a
While Collins knew a lot about waves, he admits he
didn't know anything about running a business when
Surfline debuted. He plunged in and learned on the job,
allying himself with financial people he trusted,
staying open-minded to new ideas, and working fervently.
He says he went six years without a single vacation day.
'There were definitely some difficult times in the
beginning, but I just stuck with it and stayed focused.
I knew things would be OK, because I really believed in
what we were doing and I was committed to making it
His service has helped everyone from sailors to surfing
publications to filmmakers. Seeking desperately to keep
costs down, producers of surfing-themed movies ' like
'Blue Crush' and 'Step Into Liquid' ' consult with
Collins before going to shoot surfing footage.
Surfline also uses its resources to help with beach and
ocean safety, working with the Navy, the Coast Guard,
various marine-life groups, and lifeguards up and down
the California coast.
'Sean's been a resident of this community for just about
his whole life, and he's helped us out immensely,' says
Ross Pounds, lifeguard captain for the city of Seal
Beach. 'When there are conditions that could cause
safety problems in the water in this area, we get a
personal phone call from him.'
Forecasts for coming swells or the potential for coastal
flooding, says Pounds, allow lifeguards to anticipate
particular danger areas or the possibility of large
crowds ' with the safety problems crowds often cause.
'It's essential to our preparation and influences
everything about how we do our job,' Pounds says of
Fun atmosphere, serious business
Collin's company, appropriately enough, is located in
the heart of 'Surf City,' at the intersection of Main
Street and Pacific Coast Highway, near the Surfers' Hall
of Fame ' a walkway that bears the handprints,
footprints and signatures of surfing greats such as
Laird Hamilton, Corky Carroll and Jack W. Haley.
Surfline's offices are in a building directly across the
street from the Huntington Beach Pier. When conditions
are good, Collins allows employees to dash across PCH
and shoot the curl ' as long as they take the extra time
later to get their work done. In fact, the 52-year-old
bossman likes to join them. He thinks the breaks are a
good idea for employee morale and for accurate
forecasting. Even if you immerse yourself in studying
all the appropriate data in books and on monitors, much
of the job comes down to having a sense of the surf that
is honed from instincts and experience.
Besides the surfing, there are other employee benefits
here as well. Office d'or is dominated by vivid surfing
photographs. And the dress code' Shorts and Flip Flops
are just fine.
But don't get the idea the Surfline chief is just an
easygoing chap who surfs his way through his working
life. On the contrary. He's fiercely dedicated to the
business of forecasting. David Gilovich, a former editor
of Surfing Magazine and now Surfline's senior vice
president for sales and marketing, has been a friend and
industry cohort of Collins for many years. But he says
when he started working for him he saw a completely
different guy than the easygoing one he knew: This man
was intense, demanding, and tenacious in his efforts to
make sure the company does good work.
With Collins, 'things are going to get done and they're
going to get done the right way,' Gilovich says.
There's many more Surfline projects on the horizon that
Collins is excited about. For this veteran wave seer,
the ride has come full circle. Just like his father took
him out on the ocean, he now ventures out to sea with
his two sons: Tyler, 21, and A.J., 14, both of whom are
eager and excellent surfers.
'I think every surfer's goal is to surf with their
kids,' Collins says. 'It's wonderful.' OCM
Paul Sterman, a longtime journalist and editor, lives in