Huntington Beach News story


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 recalls.

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 big swells.

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, 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 Internet.)

'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 quickly there.'

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 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, 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 minute.

Teen dreams

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 Dark Ages.'

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 hobby.'

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 day.

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 work.'

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 surfline's forecasts.

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 Orange.