The Man Behind The Weather Map

For Sean Collins the ride all started on a sailboat. Forty years later and he's still steering the ship. Collins Family

In this technological age, we take surf forecasts for granted. We flip on our computers, open up Surfline, spend a few minutes looking at web cams and maybe another couple of minutes skimming the forecast to see when it's going to be good again. Then we're either off to the beach or back to work. It's never been so easy to know if the surf's up or down. This was hardly the case in 1960 when Sean Collins began surfing in Seal Beach, California. But today, after staring at weather maps for more than 40 years, you could very much make the argument that Sean's developments and advancements in surf forecasting are responsible for more ground-breaking sessions and memorable moments than any other single human.

Recently, when asked who he'd like to interview, World No. 5 Damien Hobgood was adamant: He wanted to pin down Collins to get the full story. "He's at the center of so many key decisions — decisions that can change people's lives," explained Hobgood. "You don't hear much from him — I wanted to know what he was all about." The following is the conversation between one of the world's best surfers and the world's best forecaster.

When did you start trying to figure out swell forecast and who helped you learn this stuff? Was it only for surfing purposes?

Impossible for a short answer on this one. I'm actually supposed to write some of this stuff for another long-term project in a possible future book, so some of it may be a little long but I need to do it anyway so here it is.

My dad was really into sailboat racing. He had a 45-foot Ketch and I co-skippered with him hundreds of long-distance ocean races throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s, including Transpac to Hawaii and Mexico. In the course of our sailing I learned a great deal about the weather through onboard forecasting. My favorite part of the races was when we brought the boat back home because we always took a lot of extra time so I could try to find new surf spots throughout Mexico, because at that time there was very limited land access and no roads along most of the coast. So in a lot of ways surf exploration has driven me more than anything.

Using the weather forecasting knowledge I gained through sailing and navigation I attempted to figure out which spots to go and explore depending on what possible swell there might be. There was also something special about sailing through a storm, watching the seas build and transition into swell, and then being able to surf that same swell a day or so later.

I also learned a ton by looking at marine charts and the underwater bathymetry of potential spots, because what may look great for a surf spot above the water may not be good at all due to what was happening under the water, and vice versa. Needless to say, I found a lot of spots, and some world-class ones like Scorpion Bay in 1969. It's no longer as secret as it used to be, but there are still a bunch of spots out there that most surfers haven't found yet.

So it all started sailing up and down Mexico?

By the early '70s the Mexican roads had improved to a point where many of the spots that I used to only be able to reach by boat were now accessible by car. I had flexible restaurant and photography jobs, and saved my cash so I could take off to Mexico for weeks or months at a time. I'd camp out and chase waves. I also "borrowed" a bunch of weather forecasting equipment from our sailboat and took it with me to use in my truck in Mexico, so I would know where to go depending on the swell; same as on the boat, but driving was a lot faster.

North Pacific storms and hurricanes were the obvious sources of many swells in Mexico, but would usually only last a day or so at some of the better, fickle spots. The golden swells were Southern Hemisphere swells because they would usually last three to five days, and sometimes over a week. They often came in "three" back-to-back swell events, so the Southern Hemisphere swells were the ones I really wanted to figure out. If I could do that, I wouldn't have to camp on a remote windy, dusty Baja point for weeks on end to score great waves.

And nobody else was doing this at the time? You were like the only guy?

To put this into perspective for the time period of the late '70s, there were no swell models, there was no Internet, and any and all weather data was incredibly hard to come by unless you happened to work at NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] or for the DOD [Department of Defense]. And even then, there simply weren't any weather charts or data covering the Southern Hemisphere available anywhere, other than an occasional global satellite photo on TV. Even North Pacific and hurricane data was very spotty, so it really became a treasure hunt of sorts to find a way to get the info somehow.

After quite a bit of research, I found that there were a few stations in New Zealand and Australia that broadcast marine charts using single sideband shortwave radio. I had been using similar shortwave radio stations in California and Hawaii for North Pacific and hurricane info. After a lot of trial and error I was able to barely get reception from two of them in New Zealand using the WeatherFax machine I had "borrowed" from our sailboat. The charts were very basic, but a huge score as there wasn't any other source of data back then. The only time I could receive them was around 1:00 and 3:00 in the morning. I'd set my alarm every night for a couple years to manually tune them in to develop my chart library.

Was that the breakthrough you were looking for? Was that the moment you thought you were starting to figure it all out?

I also took daily 30-minute logs of the surf in front of my Surfside beach house. I'd document wave heights and swell periods as they bounced against a south exposed jetty. From that information I was able to back track to see the exact storm and time when these swells were created. As I sat on the roof every day taking my wave logs, my wife and neighbors thought I was nuts, but after a year or so I could see a very clear pattern about how to accurately forecast these Southern Hemisphere swells. In hindsight, the knowledge I learned from becoming a human buoy on my roof and doing that research was invaluable.

So you were pretty much alone on this mission?

Various weather services and university libraries were places where I could look for papers about how to forecast swells, calculate swell decay, estimate swell speed and great circle routes, etc. There was so little swell forecasting information available anywhere at the time other than a study done here or there where I could glean a few tips, but nothing in the way of teaching me everything I needed to know. So using what I had experienced from my open ocean sailing experiences in forecasting storms, a few tips from the research papers, my sporadic shortwave radio Southern Hemisphere charts from New Zealand, and my daily surf logs, I reverse engineered the process and taught myself how to forecast swells by trial and error.

In the late '70s and early '80s I was still missing some forecasts and I realized that there was something missing regarding accurately forecasting surf heights. I spent a lot of time on the phone bugging oceanographers at NOAA and the U.S. Navy Fleet Numerical in Monterey trying to find answers to the puzzle. I finally spoke to this one professor at Fleet Numerical, I think his name was Thorton, and he basically told me it was impossible to do what I was doing. Well, that pretty much fired me up because I was already doing it. But then he also gave me my final clue that was missing, and his reasoning was that swell period and refraction was a huge factor in determining how big the surf will be as the swell grows from deep water to shallow water. If I couldn't get accurate wind data from the storm, there was no way I could accurately forecast swell height and swell period, the dominant controlling factors of swell travel time and surf size. He had assumed there was no wind data available from the southern hemisphere at all, so there was no way it could be done. But I had found it with my WeatherFax and shortwave radio, so I could do it.

So again, to put this into perspective, if you were into the stock market, and you were the only person around who could see days in advance what was going to happen in the market so you could move your money around appropriately? As a surfer, that's what it was like for me at the time. I could be in the right place at the right time. At the time surf forecasts had absolutely no validity whatsoever. I'm sure there were other surfers looking at the North Pacific and hurricanes, but figuring out those swells was pretty basic. That's not the case in the Southern Hemisphere swells. So when there was a swell on the horizon, I would cover my work shifts and do surgical strikes to Scorpion Bay and other spots when nobody else would know anything about the swell. It was an amazing time. Imagine surfing J-Bay by yourself or with only a couple other guys out, and being able to do that for years?

When did people really start to take notice of what you were doing?

Flame [Larry Moore] at Surfing Magazine was helping me with film and processing for my Mexico trips and learned about my forecasting abilities as we became good friends. So I began an exclusive forecasting retainer with Flame and Surfing to help them with surgical strike trips to send surfers and photographers to meet the best swells. That really changed how the magazines would plan trips around swells instead of locking in specific dates. Word about the forecasts began to get out and I was receiving lots of calls from people I didn't know looking for surf forecasts. So what began as my own selfish desire to score great surf lead into Surfline. That was launched in 1985 with 976-SURF, and the very first time the long-range swell forecasts had become available to the general public.

Did you ever imagine that the way we go surfing would be changed by all this?

No, I had no idea. I was very passionate about figuring out how to accurately forecast swells, not only because I wanted great surf, but because so many people told me I couldn't do it. That just fired me up even more. And when I did see the opportunity with Surfline in the early '80s, I dedicated myself 1000 percent to pull it off as a lifestyle and business because my free time to surf and chase swells was far more important to me than making more money at some other job that I would hate.

As a surfer I always understood the value of an accurate forecast to get good waves, and all surfers would want that product. So there was a clear need, but the larger issue was to figure out how to package the product so it could survive as a business. And the funny thing is, it's still the same product that we offered in the beginning. It's the mediums that keep changing from the phone, fax, cell phone, Internet, wireless, etc. So the challenge has always been to stay at the forefront of the change to embrace the next new medium.

What are some of the tools you use that go into predicting swells, and was there a tool that revolutionized swell forecasting?

Swell models are obviously a great tool today, and they became available around the mid '80s. We use NOAA's Wavewatch 3 and do a lot of special processing and formatting to develop a unique swell-modeling product specifically for surfers. We still use the weather analysis and prognosis charts we've always used because there's always a personality in the storm that you simply can't experience in a model. We combine that feel with the modeling output. Also the weather satellites like QuikSCAT, Jason, ERS, etc., along with buoy information to help validate the modeling data.

And what's next?

The next step in swell forecasting will include new accessibility through the mediums. Things like "follow me surf forecasts" that follow your GPS phone to alert you of good swells, or maybe to a special spot down the road that you should hit while you're in the area. We've already successfully experimented with real time buoys five minutes outside of surf breaks to monitor waves coming, and can even pick out the biggest waves long before they become visible in the lineup. It could be fun to develop a wireless watch to use in the water to see updated waves on the way from the buoy.

Scientifically I think one of the missing links in high-end surf forecasting is wave consistency and numbers of waves per set. That can be a huge factor for many spots that are crowded if there are only two good set waves every seven minutes, or six good set waves every four minutes. I've done quite a bit of research on this and have a very good idea in many cases how to forecast numbers of set waves and consistency, but not to a point where I can do it most of the time. There's a lot of wind and wave logic in the storm fetch, propagation and travel, and local bathymetry effects, all of which can play a role so there isn't a simple answer right now. But someday I'll figure it out, I think.

You've obviously got some weird stories after doing this all this years, what's one that stands out?

Oh yeah, lots of stories. One of the best ones was Mike Stewart at Teahupoo in July 1996. He wanted to leave and there were only a couple of flights per week to Hawaii. I convinced him to stay because there was a huge swell in a couple days, and I had this plan about trying to follow the same swell and surf multiple spots all the way to Alaska. So he scored huge Teahupoo, then huge Maalaea in Hawaii, then huge Wedge in California, and then I got him to follow it all the way up to Alaska to surf off a glacier up there. A local bush pilot dropped them off on a remote beach with bear tracks all over so they stayed in the water for hours until the pilot came back to pick them up. There was a lot of media coverage about that trip.

Lots of Slater trips, chasing swells here or there and trying to plan when to arrive at an event when they would likely begin his round. Many surgical strikes for swell with guys flying to West Oz or South Africa for a big swell. Greg Long and Twiggy in Puerto and flying back to California and then to Dungeons, South Africa, for a two-day swell there. Mark Foo and Ken Bradshaw doing Waimea, and then I convinced them to also come over for Maverick's and maybe a Todos run. Unfortunately Foo died at Maverick's that trip.

Do people get angry at you if you make a wrong call such as contest directors or pros who you tried to help out?

Well, fortunately we don't miss too many, and when we do it's usually due to poor communication. Ironically, most of the time it's the local conditions that may mess up a swell forecast because surfers assume that if it isn't good then as far as they're concerned the swell didn't exist, but the swell actually did exist under the wind. And many surfers actually hear about a swell forecast second- or third-hand and when something happens like Malibu isn't pumping on a southwest swell because it is shadowed by the islands on that swell direction, they figure we missed the forecast, even though we specifically said that area would be shadowed. A lot of our communication is assuming that our forecasting info will be spread second- or third-hand, so we try to use terms that will hopefully hold accuracy from person to person. So yeah, there's a lot of psychology in the proper communication.

But we're not perfect, and if we do miss a forecast people are usually pretty cool in realizing we can't control the winds in a storm or 100 percent accurate wind data from the other side of the world. With contests there are many moving pieces and the event directors often use the forecast to plan specific days so they get the best exposure for certain heats, etc. And sometimes they know the swell may be bigger on another day, but if the wind forecast is really threatening they risk it and end up with the final in blown out surf, or score the previous day in still very good surf. That happened at J-Bay a couple years ago when we knew the waves might be best on the last day, but there was a fifty-fifty chance of Devil Wind problems, so they ran it on the previous day. Of course the last day ended up perfect without the winds so the surfers were bummed. As forecasters we just try to provide the most accurate forecast we can and let the head judge and event directors make the call because there is often many other variables. But naturally, if it doesn't work out perfect and no matter what the reason the forecasters are always to blame. And now that I think about it, that's usually the only time we really get singled out for our work.

Do you ever get skunked?

No, but a lot of times my trips aren't always around the best swells. A lot of times I'm into going after the medium-sized ones with better conditions and less crowds. Timing is a big issue with crowding, especially with a big swell on the way after a long period of no waves.

Do you ever feel guilty when the entire state of California wakes up at 5:00 a.m. and drives around on wild-goose chases only to find out the swell never materialized?

See above. Ninety-nine percent of the time if a surfer is on a wild-goose chase looking for a swell he doesn't think materialized, it's because he's chasing it at the wrong spot, or we didn't properly communicate the forecast. If we missed it, then we missed it, and yeah it sucks. The funny thing is, there is a very small window of judgment between sunrise and 9:00 a.m. Even if the swell arrives an hour late at 10:00 a.m. then "we missed it." Or if we said the swell would arrive late morning, but everyone assumed it should be here at sunrise. And every time we might miss a forecast we always go back to find out where it went wrong. Maybe the wind speeds were wrong or something else. Or if it was the perception of what surfers had thought about the swell then we didn't communicate well enough, and we need to fix that.