Coastalwatch Joins Surfline?

17 Nov 2020 8 Share

Photo: objuannn/CW Community

Photo: objuannn/CW Community

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

A Perfect Fit

If you didn’t know much about these two sites, you might wonder why Coastalwatch was joining forces with Surfline… or at least, why now?

In fact, the pair, while seemingly separated by oceans, have been evolving toward this destiny for decades.

Both were there at the dawn of digital — the late 1990s, when the whole world seemed about to be turned upside down by dot-com.

A lot of promises were being made about the Internet back then, on both sides of the Pacific. And really, a lot of it was fantasy stuff.

But there were two huge things a surf website could do that a surf mag couldn’t. Two key questions it could answer in a mouse-click. What was the surf like, right then? And — what would it be like next Tuesday?

Surfline founder Sean Collins. “Rather than wilting when Collins unexpectedly passed away in late 2011, the team doubled down in his memory.” Photo: Jeremiah Klein

Surfline founder Sean Collins. “Rather than wilting when Collins unexpectedly passed away in late 2011, the team doubled down in his memory.” Photo: Jeremiah Klein

Surfline and CW both began with extraordinary people who were willing to wrestle with these fiendishly simple questions. Surfline’s founder, Sean Collins, had been answering the second one for over a decade. Sean was a surfer from Seal Beach, California, who more or less invented modern surf forecasting. Nerdy yet somehow also cool, disciplined, and hard as nails, Sean turned his desire to predict surf at his favourite spots into possibly the most vital resource in surfing, next to the surfboard itself.

Coastalwatch started with a guy who just wanted to check the surf.

This was Chris Lane — a young Queensland university student with a passion for technology and the coast, who did what in 1998 was kind of unbelievable.

Chris, a keen surfer at the time, was doing long hours at uni, and wanted to know when Burleigh was good. But Burleigh was 25 kilometres away. So, he set up a surf cam — Australia’s first.

“I couldn’t believe it!” says surfer and journalist John “JC” Charlton, who’d heard word of this miracle, and gone to visit Chris for a story. “We were sitting in Narrowneck and watching the surf in Burleigh.” He calls Chris, “a total Gyro Gearloose, a genius. He was one of those guys who could see the future.”

“Surfline’s forecast and reporting team is expanding to allow a closer focus on all of Australia’s massive coastlines.”

“Surfline’s forecast and reporting team is expanding to allow a closer focus on all of Australia’s massive coastlines.”

Being ahead of their time, both Surfline and CW needed people willing to invest — both time, and money. All the tech that would one day drive a strong “live” surf site was still underdeveloped. If they were going to answer the two key questions, they had to build a technical base beyond anything attempted before by surf media.

CW was saved by an angel investor, Sydney’s Kim Sundell, who had a track record of success with tech start-ups. Extroverted, ebullient, fascinated by cultural ideas and visions, Kim had big ideas and wasn’t afraid to back ‘em. Kim and Chris poured energy and resources into the cam network, using government grants and income from universities and surf rescue teams who could use the cams to check coastal erosion and danger to swimmers.

But while Surfline had a solid anchor in surf culture, Coastalwatch was less locked in. It looked as much like a government weather site as anything. Its viewers were as likely to be fishermen. “At the time it wasn’t necessarily a surf site,” says Doug Lees, co-owner of iconic surf mag Surfing World, who joined forces with CW in 2007. “Surfers were using it for sure, but it wasn’t as focused on the surf culture.”

Sundell invested further, hiring more surf reporters, surf forecasters, and a full-time editor in Sydney’s Ben Horvath. Then came the Surfing World partnership — an injection of core surf culture energy that helped turn CW toward its true destiny.

As CW evolved into a full-on surf site, Doug says the crew always looked at Surfline as the Everest site, the one who’d set the pace, with its major feature pieces. It was hard to pull that stuff in Australia, where internet speeds were terrible, but Doug still dreamed. One slideshow he recalls, with Mark Healey at Cloudbreak, blew his mind: “I thought it was a beautiful thing.”

Meanwhile, Surfline was also digging deeper. It had its own angel investors, including Florida surfer and CEO Jeff Berg, and had built LOLA, its own unrivaled custom forecasting software engine. Its editorial strength was growing under the influence of former Surfing magazine ed-in-chief Dave Gilovich. Rather than wilting when founder Sean Collins unexpectedly passed away in late 2011, the team doubled down in his memory.

No filmer? No problem. Surfline Sessions will record your rides for you.

No filmer? No problem. Surfline Sessions will record your rides for you.

It was now the strongest surf website in the world, answering the two questions for millions of surfers a month. But Australia was still a bridge too far. “I was wary,” says Jeff Berg. “It goes without saying that we wanted to be in Australia. It may be the most important surf culture in the world. But we had to wait…it was important for us to partner with an Australian.”

That chance finally came in 2019, when Kim, keen to change his life and move up the coast, decided to let go of CW.

So, what’s next? Starting November 5, Surfline is encouraging Coastalwatch users to visit Surfline.com, or to download its popular iOS app or Android app. It is also offering a free, three-month trial of Surfline Premium.

No changes are coming to Coastalwatch in the near term. But over time, as the focus on future innovation is directed toward Surfline, at some point Coastalwatch.com will redirect to Surfline.com. Following that, the Coastalwatch app will no longer be updated and users will be encouraged to try the Surfline app.

For Berg, Surfline now faces a challenge: “Now we have to earn the right to be in Australia.” That starts with ongoing investment in technology — stuff like major cam upgrades, multi-cams at some locations, access to the Surfline Sessions ride-recording software, and to the worldwide Surfline cam network, giving Australian surfers a day-to-day understanding of surf, both local and global, that even a year ago would have been hard to imagine.

Surfline’s forecast and reporting team is expanding to allow a closer focus on all of Australia’s massive coastlines. The crew now has access to the LOTUS forecasting software backbone, Surfline’s next-generation swell model — written partly with Australian surf conditions in mind.

In the background, Surfline’s VP of Product and Innovation, Ben Freeston, will apply unique machine learning abilities to the Australian cam network, tuning forecasts into hour-by-hour accuracy.

The goal: “Score More Waves.”

The goal: “Score More Waves.”

That tech will be the merger’s most obvious immediate benefit to Australian surfers. And there’s a lot more to come. At a time when the big surf magazines are winding down, Jeff can see there’s a big cultural gap to fill: “I do think the digi experience can replace what print has done. And we can do it across other mediums.

“We’re still innovative. We’re a 35-year-old startup. There’s so much still to learn and to do.”

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