Sean Collins dies at 59; surfer created system to predict waves
Sean Collins, an avid surfer and entrepreneur whose self-taught ability to forecast ocean swells changed the way surfers worldwide chase the perfect wave, died Monday after suffering a heart attack while playing tennis in Newport Beach. He was 59.
The longtime Seal Beach resident was a founder of Surfline.com, the Huntington Beach company that employs a proprietary prediction methodology to forecast global surfing conditions weeks in advance.
Collins’ spot-on predictions transformed the sport. Surfers who had always reacted to good waves by dropping everything — calling in sick to work, canceling meetings, stiffing dates — could use Surfline.com to plan their days and vacations. The site gets nearly 1.5 million unique visitors a month.
“Most young people today have grown up in the Internet age,” Collins told the Huntington Beach Independent recently. “They don’t realize what it was like in the ‘70s and ‘80s.… It was really like the Dark Ages. It was hard to find data to forecast storms, let alone swells.”
So respected was Collins that Surfline’s forecasts are used by a wide range of people and organizations — from professional surfers and contest organizers to lifeguards, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Navy SEALs and the National Weather Service.
Surfer magazine named Collins one of the 25 most influential surfers of the 20th century, and he was inducted into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame in Huntington Beach in 2008.
“His impact on the sport is profound,” said Steve Pezman, a surfing historian and publisher of the Surfer’s Journal.
While government agencies collected oceanic weather data to provide hazardous wave or small-craft warnings, no one had ever scrutinized that information to predict wave conditions for surfers, Pezman said.
“They weren’t concerned about that unless they were invading a beach,” Pezman said. “He cobbled it all together and provided results that only surfers cared about.”
Collins was born on April 8, 1952, and grew up in Southern California. He began surfing at age 8. Trips on his father’s sailboat to races in Mexico and Hawaii ignited Collins’ interest in meteorology. Eventually he combined the two.
“My favorite part of the races was bringing the boat back,” Collins once said. “We could take our time and search out surf spots. I’ve been in storms 100 miles out at sea, then surfed the same swells the next day. I was always looking at charts to plan my surfing and sailing, and developed a keen sense about the ocean.”
After graduating from Wilson High School in Long Beach, Collins attended Long Beach City College, where he took a couple of meteorology courses — his only formal training.
Collins adopted the flexible lifestyle of a die-hard surfer, working as a waiter and bartender and selling surfing photos to magazines.
But beyond catching waves, he studied them — poring over weather charts, reading oceanography textbooks and receiving reports of storms from New Zealand via short wave radio and following their progress across the Pacific.
He traveled to Baja California for weeks at a time and spent countless hours on the roof of his Orange County home studying wave patterns — the way that water, wind and terrain shaped their movement and shape.
“Everybody who drove by would look up and wave at him, knowing that he was doing his thing,” Collins’ wife, Daren, told The Times in 1998.
Collins eventually developed his own system to predict waves — when the good ones would arrive, how big they would get and when they would subside. His accuracy became known within the surfing community.
In 1984, with his reputation growing, Collins partnered with some businessmen in founding a company called Surfline, which offered forecasts by phone for a fee. Two years later he left to start a rival company called Wavetrak. In 1990, he bought Surfline and started a subscription fax service.
In 1995, Collins brought his idea to the Internet with Surfline.com as a free forecast service. Today, the business sells premium forecast content and access to live webcams of surf breaks around the world for $70 a year.
The company’s forecasting team, which includes two employees with doctorates in ocean science, also does consulting work for movies, commercials and event coordinators for fees that start at $1,000.
But the biggest impact Collins had was letting the average surfer know whether the waves on any given day would be worth getting up before dawn for.
“He was a great person, a great family man and a great friend of ours,” said Aaron Pai, the owner of Huntington Surf & Sport. “He changed the way surfers chased waves.”
Collins is survived by his wife, Daren, and sons Tyler and A.J.
Michael Miller of Times Community News contributed to this report.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for the L.A. Times biggest news, features and recommendations in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.