In the eerie pre-dawn hours, before the first surfer has slipped into his wet suit, Mike McKenzie has his board packed in the back of his Volkswagen and is cruising the South Bay coast, hard at work.
The 34-year-old surfer stops near Torrance Beach at 5:45 a.m., leans on a metal railing overlooking the ocean and scrutinizes the action below. "Poor wave shape," he mutters. "A foot high. Crowd is empty."
Then he's back into the Volkswagen, up the beach, to the piers in Hermosa and Manhattan, to the foot of Marine Street, to the still-darkened county Beaches and Harbors building at El Porto, where McKenzie's early morning odyssey ends.
There, the public telephone rings at exactly 6:30 a.m. On the other end is McKenzie's boss at Surf Line, a Huntington Beach telephone surf report that employs dozens of "surf reporters" like McKenzie along the Southern California coast.
McKenzie, a San Pedro native who's been surfing Cabrillo, Royal Palms and other South Bay spots since he was 9, recites in quick surfer jargon everything he's seen that morning, an analysis that within an hour is available to any surfer who dials 976-SURF.
One million people call Surf Line every year from across the country to tap into its morning and afternoon reports covering Southern California, Florida, the East Coast and popular surf spots across the world. Word of mouth has always been the way surfers find the hottest waves, and the hot line is carefully presented in the beach lingo shared by surfers.
"When a non-surfer tries to act like a surfer, a surfer sees right through it," said Sean Collins, a leader in surf forecasting who is co-owner of Surf Line. "That's why we hire surfers. An English professor would probably have a fit listening to us but we don't care. As long as we let callers know about the waves."
Collins, 39, started forecasting waves for his own outings in the late 1970s. Soon, his friends were calling to get tips, and his reputation spread. He began working as an employee for Surf Line in the mid-1980s, left for a while to run his own company and returned earlier this year as co-owner with another surfer, Jerry Arnold.
From its beginning in 1984, Surf Line has turned to surfers as employees, considering them knowledgeable early risers who know their waves.
The 40 part-time reporters working in Southern California survey their assigned beaches twice a day, noting wind, wave and sea surface conditions. The first trek begins early, before many die-hard surfers head for the ocean at sunrise, and a follow-up report is filed at noon.
After covering their beaches, the reporters wait at prearranged telephones for calls from the office, a system that ensures that they actually visit the ocean and do not file fake reports from bed.
After the dozens of individual surf summaries reach the Surf Line headquarters, they are condensed into one of three regional reports for Los Angeles/Ventura counties, Orange County and San Diego County. The local surf line, which costs $1.25 a call, also offers a ski report and the latest developments in surfing competitions. Separate 900-number lines offer national and international surf reports.
In a grim sign of the times, the surf report recently began offering data on water quality gathered by the Surfrider Foundation, a Malibu-based environmental group. When bacteria levels rise after storms, the hot line warns surfers about especially polluted locales.
Those who live close enough to the ocean to gaze out a front window at the waves are not the types Surf Line is targeting. Most surfers live inland and need a foolproof method of determining whether it is worth loading up the car for a trip to the coast. Surf reports are especially well used in the South Bay, where the waves are inconsistent from morning to morning.
One of Surf Line's competitors is the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, which receives 100,000 calls a year to its four free surf reports. Surf Line officials, however, contend that theirs is the more detailed and accurate report because of the network of surf reporters and sophisticated computer models and weather maps they use.
Collins' reputation predicting wave heights is so widespread that he now works as a consultant to surfing magazines, production companies that are filming surf footage and tournament organizers at the Hermosa Beach-based Professional Surfing Assn. of America.
"Before we set our schedules we sit down with Sean," said Rick Waring, an avid surfer who is marketing director for the Bud Pro Surfing Tour. "He has a backlog of information tracking the weather and wave patterns. Since we started using Sean, we've hit really good wave patterns."
Not all surfers, however, are stoked about Surf Line and other such services. Providing information on the hottest waves to anyone who dials the phone translates into crowds in the water, something every surfer hates.
"Sometimes my friends will come up to me and say, 'Hey man, if the break is happening, don't say it on the air,' " said McKenzie, who has been working as a surf reporter for 2 1/2 years.
Collins said he realizes some surfers think telephone reports spoil otherwise perfect conditions. So he doesn't put all the information he gathers on the line, intentionally overlooking spots like Lunada Bay in Palos Verdes Estates that are known as local havens.
"We try to appeal to the masses by covering the well-known spots," he said. "We don't report on every nook and cranny along the coast. We hit the spots that are crowded anyway."
As soon as McKenzie files his morning report, he takes his own advice--and heads for the area's best waves.
"Sometimes I wonder why I keep doing this," he said on one recent morning. "Then I think, for someone who surfs it's ideal."
The day is still young, and McKenzie sets his own hours at the Torrance Volkswagen repair shop he owns. More important, he knows better than anybody how the South Bay's waves are breaking, and his board and wet suit are waiting in the car.
South Bay Surf Report
A SAMPLE ENTRY FROM MIKE MCKENZIE
"Here at El Porto, the shape's kinda poor to fair this morning, not as good as yesterday. We have a little northwest onshore wind blowing. It's a little bit bumpy. We've got some mushy sectiony peaks out there. There's some shoulders right around 40th Street, and right around Rosecrans there's a left break. . . . the crowd's very light . . . about 12-second intervals."
Blown out--Surf that is too choppy to be ridden
Glassy--A calm ocean with little wind
Mushy--A small wave without any shape or tube
Shoulder--The unbroken part of a wave, next to the white water
Wall--The face of a wave, measured in degrees
SURF LINE: 976-SURF for one local report ($1.25 per call); (900) 844-SURF for more than one local report (85 cents for first minute and 60 cents for each additional minute); (900) 976-SURF for national and international reports (85 cents per minute).
COUNTY SURF REPORTS: (310) 379-8471 for South Bay; (310) 832-1130 for Cabrillo Beach and Royal Palms; (310) 451-8761 for Santa Monica; (310) 457-9701 for Zuma Beach.