Sound of the Surf Puts Money in His Bank : Entrepreneur: Solana Beach surfer-turned-businessman takes data compiled by the U.S. government to produce 19 regional versions of glossy tide calendars.


From the living room of his seaside Solana Beach home, John Conover listened to the thunder of an ocean wave that slammed the jagged coastline 120 feet below.

"Wait, did you hear that?" he asked, stretched across a well-worn sofa. "Gosh, what a great wave that one was."

Conover is an avid surfer. To him, the crash of the surf and the relentless cycle of the tides are wondrous events, recalling the freedom he felt when he first climbed atop a short board 28 years ago.

But Conover is a savvy businessman as well. So the restless groaning of the sea outside his window has another very real attraction. It's the sound of money.

At 39, Conover is the owner of Tidelines Inc., which last year sold more than 50,000 tide calendars along both the East and West Coasts and Hawaii.

Taking tide data compiled by the United States government, he produces 19 regional versions of the glossy annuals, replete with beautiful photographs of life in and around the sea.

There are active shots of surfers and sailboaters as well as graceful views from the inside loop of arching waves. The guide notes the seasonal equinoxes and phases of the moon, as well as the important days in any seafarer's life--including Mother's Day and Halloween.

The $9.95 tide calendars, which also feature a squiggly line graph of an area's low and high tides drawn across the date boxes, are used not only by surfers, but also by sailors and swimmers, fishermen, beach strollers and scuba divers--anyone who might stick a toe in the foamy surf.

After all, surfers know the tide affects the shape and height of the waves. Beach enthusiasts know walks are better at low tide. And scuba divers realize that high tide stirs up less sediment on the ocean floor.

So to hit the surf without a tide guide, satisfied customers say, is like wilderness hiking without a trail map.

One Encinitas surf shop owner said he sells several hundred copies a year. A San Diego charter fisherman gives the calendar away to his customers.

"People will call back--not for another fishing trip, but for more calendars," said Ron Costa, owner of Happy Kanake charters on Point Loma.

"The calender is top shelf. You can't beat the quality of the photographs and the tide and moon charts. It's easy to read. It's something you want to hang in your living room."

Conover's success proves a point: a Southern California surfer boy can break the anti-establishment image associated with the sport to become a legitimate publishing mover and shaker.

His small publishing business hasn't exactly made the Orange County native a fortune, but he makes enough to hit the surf whenever he pleases.

Conover, a former professional baseball and football player, keeps his triumphs in perspective.

He works to have fun, he says, and to make enough money to keep surfing. A member of the Surfrider Foundation, a national coastal ecology group, he also keeps in mind the causes that inspire him.

"Actually, I hate business," said the lanky surfer who, at 6-foot-5, resembles writer-actor Sam Shepard. "I'm an athlete first. But I had to learn business ways so I could continue having time to be an athlete."

He has stuck to his surfer's roots. His rented house with hardwood floors is decorated with campy, '50s-style furniture. A guitar rests in the corner, a set of bongos nearby. On the walls hang several color pictures of the stupendous surf.

But the prettiest picture lies just outside his back window. It's the view of the Pacific and Tabletop--Conover's all-time favorite surfing spot. As a dozen wet-suited surfers bobbed in the water like so many seals, Conover smiled with satisfaction.

Were they to consult his guide, they would know the best days to surf and when to stay home and wax their boards. "With the calendar calculations, I know exactly which days the Tabletop surf is best," he said. "It hasn't failed me yet."

Frankly, however, Conover is a bit surprised at the success of the venture he envisioned in a Solana Beach diner six years ago--back when he was an unemployed builder fresh from a short-lived career as a professional athlete.

For three years in the early 1970s, he pitched for the San Antonio Brewers, the Texas League farm team of the Cleveland Indians. He had a 90-m.p.h. fastball and a decent curve, he recalls, but his arm gave out.

Conover also spent a season playing tight end with the Southern California Sun of the now-extinct World Football League before moving to San Diego in 1975 to become a building contractor, designing and building custom homes.

In 1981, after constructing a house in Solana Beach, he found he couldn't sell it. So he waited out the soft market. And he surfed.

One day over breakfast, he and a friend had seen an amateurish version of a tide calendar and figured they could do better.

"It was ugly," recalled Conover, now sole owner of the business. "It was all numbers, no charts, no photographs. But we realized the market was there."

That first year, with data purchased from the National Ocean Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, he published a tide calender for the Southern California area.

Today, the calendars cover tidal movements of not only San Diego and Los Angeles, but also the Bay Area and Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, Massachusetts and Florida's Atlantic coast.

There have been some rough times, including the year he printed too many calendars and almost went out of business. But the idea hatched over a bacon and eggs breakfast has thrived.

"It's amazing the way these calendars have taken off," he said. "On planes, when I tell someone what I do, someone else will usually jump up and say, 'Hey, I've got one of those.' "

Business is so good, Conover has an 800 telephone number to handle the nationwide orders. In a bedroom-turned-office that houses his computer and charts, the off-key ring of the line is just another sign of money, coming in as regularly now as the morning tide.

"These things have shown up on boats in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on coffee tables in rural residences in France and down on mainland Mexico."

Like any entrepreneur, Conover has more ideas.

This year, he has begun developing a pocket-sized tide guide he plans to market with the help of local business sponsors who will have their names engraved on the front. He has sold 20,000 mini-guides, which were test-marketed in Hawaii, in the first year alone.

But Conover isn't the only tide guide publisher. There's competition out there, and more of it surfaces every year.

"The people who want to use our data are coming out of the woodwork these days," said Jeff French, a NOAA oceanographer.

"We sell the information pretty cheaply, and we get several calls a week from people wanting to start their own tide calendars. All these guys with home computers are getting into the act."

Conover says he's ready for the competition. He recently conducted his own survey of all types of calendars--even bikini types--sold in independent bookstores from Santa Barbara to San Diego. His guide was among the top two sellers in more than 90% of the outlets, he says.

And he has moved beyond the bookstore market to surf shops, drug and stationery stores, as well as marine supply companies.

"Sure, there's competition," he said. "But most places aren't going to have two tide calendars. They have the tide calendar, and that's the one I do."

As he rides the crest of the tide-plotting wave, Conover is already planning his next move.

Soon, he may take his idea Down Under, if he can convince the Australian government that supplying data for a professionally produced tide calendar is not an insurance risk, that they won't get sued if someone gets injured or killed using the published information.

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