Joe Surf: Before there was Surfline, there were landlines

Editor's note: Joe Haakenson is a veteran Orange County sports writer, editor and surfer. This is the debut of his new weekly column, Joe Surf.



Technology. Can't live without it.

Even surfers.


Back in the day, you would have to drive to the beach, park on PCH and check out the waves. With your eyes.

If you had a long drive to get there and it was flat, or it was blown out, then you just wasted your time, not to mention that gas money.

Maybe if you had a buddy who lived close by, you'd check on the conditions by calling him. On a landline.

True, maybe back then you had that one special spot where you could park and there was no meter demanding that you slide your debit card through it. You could stick your car key in the wheel well and have no worries your ride would get ripped off.


But that was then.

Now, though some things are not quite like the good ol' days, there are some things — you just have to admit — make things better.

Even if you're only a mile or two from the shore, is there any good reason not to go online and check the conditions?'s motto is "Know before you go." Makes total sense. gives you surf conditions all over the world, but they are based locally in Huntington Beach.

Need to check out 17th Street in Huntington? How about 36th Street in Newport? Or Rockpile in Laguna?

For you dreamers, you can also check out the swell in Playa Hermosa in Costa Rica, or Rocky Point in Hawaii. has live webcams placed at the shore all around the world that give you a real-time look at conditions, and the website has many other features that provide anything and everything surf-related.

Jeff Spicoli's famous line from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" was: "All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz and I'm fine." Now that might be: "All I need are some tasty waves, wireless Internet and Surfline."


All together now: "Thank you, Sean Collins."

Collins admits he started Surfline for selfish reasons: "The whole thing started for myself, so I could get some good waves. I wasn't interested in sharing it with the whole world."

But the whole world gets it now. attracts 90,000 unique visitors per day and 1 million per month.

All because he wanted a good wave.

"Most young people today have grown up in the Internet age," said Collins, 58. "They don't realize what it was like in the '70s and '80s. Before we had Surfline, it was really like the Dark Ages.

"It was hard to find data to forecast storms, let alone swells. Basically, you had to rely on satellite information and usually half the satellites were down. There were not very good global weather models.

"When I learned how to forecast, the primary challenge was finding information at all, let alone having the network to distribute the information like now."

Collins became a pioneer in forecasting. He was a self-made meteorologist of sorts, where he started out using weather charts obtained through shortwave radio. He eventually developed his own system of forecasting thanks to years of research, experimenting and record-keeping. He then would amaze friends with his accurate forecasting.

"We'd look out at Huntington, and it would be 2 feet," Collins said. "Then I'd say, 'It'll be 8-10 feet tomorrow.' And they'd say, 'Yeah, right.' Then it would be huge the next day. They thought I was a witch doctor."

His accurate forecasting led to a gig with Surfing magazine. Collins said the magazine would take surfers on a trip for a photo shoot, but might have to spend two to three weeks before getting good swells, which cost the magazine plenty of money. But with Collins' expertise, the photographers and surfers were able to get in and out in two or three days, timing their trips perfectly to get the good swells and saving lots of money.

Once Collins became the surf forecasting guru, getting that information out was the next big hurdle. He created Surfline in 1985 as a phone number — 976-SURF — then graduated to a subscription fax service in 1992. Fortunately for him, the Internet age was upon us. Collins ran with it, creating in 1995.

Collins moved into Surfline's offices on Main and PCH in Huntington in the early '90s and is still there today. At the 1995 U.S. Open of Surfing, they posted still images taken from video because streaming video was not yet available.

By the 1996 U.S. Open, Collins spent the $10,000 for their first surf cam and presented the first live surfing webcast in history. Now, Surfline has 150 surf cams around the world.

Collins, who was inducted into the Surfers Hall of Fame in 2008, lives next to the Seal Beach Pier, and still goes to the office in Huntington a couple times a week when he isn't traveling the world looking for the perfect swell. Back surgery and a hip replacement prevent him from surfing much, but he shoots video and still photography, is into standup paddleboarding, and supports his two surfing sons: Tyler, 27, and A.J., 21.

A.J. is sponsored by Hurley. Tyler, though he is sponsored as well, is focused on his own career in search engine marketing. He's also created, a chip off the ol' block.

"Both are really good surfers," Collins said. "They're my lifeguards now."

And to think, it all started with that simple search for the perfect wave.

"The secret to it all is that I've surrounded myself with great people," Collins said. "I have 35 full-time people, and if the waves are good, they can go surf and still do their work later in the day."

JOE HAAKENSON is an Orange County-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at