Surf history

Sean Collins


Soft-spoken, data-crunching surf forecaster from Long Beach, California; longtime owner of Surfline wave-information service.

Collins was born (1952) in Pasadena, the son of a navy navigator, grew up in Long Beach, and began surfing in the mid-60s. He was interested, like all serious surfers, in weather and wave forecasting. But where others ended their information search with the weather page in the local newspaper or prerecorded lifeguard reports, Collins began synthesizing data from at-sea ships, NOAA millibar charts, and satellite photos into his own customized—and, at first, personal-use only—surf forecasts. Driving through Baja on surf junkets in the early ’80s with a first-generation fax machine, Collins would pull off the road, plug the device into his car battery, toss a 100-foot antenna wire over a nearby cactus, and wait for satellite images of the Pacific Ocean to scroll out. He would then decide what beach to shoot for. Back in Orange County he waited tables and worked as a freelance photographer to earn money.

Although Collins was a junior college dropout with no formal meteorological training, he had nonetheless earned a local reputation as a wave-predicting genius by 1984 when he joined Surfline, a new Huntington Beach pay-per-call phone service. Surfline launched in March 1985, utilizing the just-approved 976 customer toll numbers; for 55 cents, callers got a recorded description of the surf, updated twice daily, plus a 72-hour Collins-formulated wave forecast.

Less than two years later Collins left Surfline and founded Wavetrak, a competing phone service. The two companies merged in 1991; together they received more than a million calls that year, and by 1993 Surfline-Wavetrak was covering 11 U.S. coastal states, Mexico, the Caribbean, and much of Central America. Surfline jumped to the internet in 1995; three years later Collins bought the entire Surfline-Wavetrak operation. In 2000 he sold the company to Swell.com, but stayed on as Surfline’s president and Chief Weather Officer, overseeing 10 full-time employees. (Surfline ownership changed hands again in 2001; Collins’s position was unchanged.) By that time Collins had been profiled in Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, and Sports Illustrated. He was also moonlighting as a consultant to lifeguard chiefs, harbormasters, and Hollywood filmmakers looking for dramatic camera-ready surf.

Not everybody was happy with Collins’s ever-more accurate wave predictions. Many of California’s surf breaks were already filled to capacity by the time Surfline launched, and Collins’s service had almost certainly made the crowds worse. “If you live by the beach,” as one surf magazine letter-writer put it in 1993, “you know what’s happening with the surf. If you live in Kookamonga or some inland valley, you don’t have a clue, unless some capitalistic scumbag sells the information to every wannabe this side of Bakersfield.” Collins admitted that Surfline and the rest of the forecasting services had not only put more bodies in the lineup on good days, but that the new science had reduced the sport’s mystique. “Some of the magic is gone,” he said in 1998, recalling a bygone era of the unannounced and seemingly miraculous arrival of good waves. But he also pointed out that surfers were no longer wasting time on fruitless wave hunts. Time management, Collins said in 1999, was what counted. “If I wanted to surf into my old age and share it with my kids, I was going to have to do a better job of getting waves when it counted and going to work when it didn’t count.”

In a 1999 article, Surfer magazine named Collins as one of the “25 Most Influential Surfers of the 20th Century.” In 2002, Surfer named Collins #8 on their list of the 25 most powerful people in surfing. The New York Times, in a 2002 profile, described him as “the ultimate web surfer” and “the new kahuna.” Collins appeared in the 2003 surf documentary Making The Call: Big Waves of the North Pacific. He was ranked among the most influential 100 people in southern California in a 2006 article in the Los Angeles Times. Collins was inducted into the Surfer’s Hall of Fame at Huntington Beach on 2008.

It was only with Collins’ thumbs-up that the early trips to Cortes Bank, a fearsome open-ocean break 100 miles off San Diego, were undertaken. Collins also made news in 2007, when a “Surfline Goodwill Tour” that he put together, consisting mostly of surf company CEOs, traveled to an A-grade Mexico pointbreak called Barra, and had local police keep all other visiting surfers out of the water—strongarm tactics were used, and the event turned into a small PR disaster for Collins and Surfline.

In December 2011, Collins died of a heart attack while playing tennis near his Orange County home. He was 59, with a wife and two sons. Thousands of mourners turned up for a memorial paddle-out at Huntington Beach a few days later.

In 2013, The Inertia website named Collins the 9th most influential surfer of all time.


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