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The Prince of Tides

Sean Collins' Dead-On Wave Forecasts Revolutionized Surfing. Just Don't Ask Him About El Nino.

January 18, 1998|JIM BENNING | Jim Benning is a freelance writer and surfer based in Manhattan Beach

One night near the end of the disco era, Sean Collins excused himself from three surfer friends drinking Coronas at a Cabo San Lucas hotel and strolled through the night air to his pickup truck. He flipped on a shortwave radio mounted behind the seat and listened intently as it sputtered weather data. He plotted the coordinates of a hurricane spinning 500 miles off the coast, noted its wind speeds and direction, scrutinized a map and returned to the table.

"We've gotta get out of here," he told his buddies, who knew better than to question their friend. "The swell is coming right on schedule."

The next morning, Collins and his friends turned onto a dirt road leading to the patch of Baja coastline where he had divined the swell and its near-perfect surf would come ashore. As they neared the beach, Collins looked in his rearview mirror and saw dust rising from the desert floor. Then he spotted a surfboard-stacked truck. Collins shook his head. Sure enough, word had gotten out. Master wave forecaster Sean Collins was in town, and he had predicted surf.

Twenty years later, Collins, 45, is regarded by many as the world's best wave forecaster. He has almost single-handedly led surfing out of the Dark Ages of little more than a decade ago, when great waves washed up with no warning, forcing surfers to cancel meetings, call in sick, ditch school or, worst of all, miss out entirely. In the surfing firmament, where riding the waves is less a sport than a way of life and the quest for the perfect wave a religious Grail, Collins and the Huntington Beach forecasting firm he is a partner in, Surfline/Wavetrak, are held in something close to awe. "Sean," says Surfer magazine editor Steve Hawk, "has changed the whole mind-set."

Surfline fields nearly a million calls a year, at $1.50 each, from surfers seeking forecasts for waves from Malibu to Waikiki, Cape Hatteras to Costa Rica. "He's the authority," says Bob Rich, 29, an El Segundo surfer who checks Collins' forecasts before he loads his truck for the beach. "If you know the surf will be good on Thursday you get your errands done Tuesday." Professional surfers use Collins' forecasts to accomplish feats once only dreamed of. Two years ago, hopping on and off planes, champion bodyboarder Mike Stewart chased a swell across the Pacific and surfed waves generated by the same storm in Tahiti, Hawaii, California and Alaska. The weeklong odyssey, now legendary among surfers, would havebeen impossible without Collins' dead-on predictions.

Other wave-forecasting businesses have sprung up since Collins' debut, but most have disappeared. (One that survived is Surfax, run by Carpinteria surfer Steve Decile, who monitors wind and wave reports and says of Collins: "He's the big fish.")

Collins hangs satellite photographs of storms in his office as if they're old friends and talks about powerful hurricanes as though they're his children ("You've got to follow a storm and nurture it," he'll murmur) and is at the moment busier than ever. Lifeguards use his forecasts when deciding how many beach towers to staff. Movie makers hire him as a consultant when shooting surf scenes. Frenzied reporters demand quotes whenever a storm brews off the coast. And then there's El Nino. Collins sighs at its mere mention, weary of the incessant hype. Yes, he says dutifully, the potential for big waves is high. Yes, the coast could get battered. And, yes, "We'll definitely have a few scares this winter."

On a gloomy weekday afternoon offering Southern California surfers only small, mushy waves--a fact that came as no surprise to Collins or callers to Surfline--Collins sits in his oceanfront offices overlooking the Huntington Beach Pier and, the Weather Channel flickering on a nearby television, explains how a surf-fanatic college dropout with no formal meteorological training became the world's preeminent wave forecaster.

"I was obsessed," Collins says in the same soft, measured voice that has delivered countless forecasts over telephone lines since the mid-'80s. "Number one with getting good waves, and number two because it was a personal challenge. I was just thinking of myself."

Growing up in Long Beach, Collins fell in love with the sea while sailing a 40-foot ketch with his father, Whitney, a former Navy navigator who clipped the weather page from the daily paper. Sean liked the big boat, but he preferred his 25-pound Harbour surfboard and the rush he got racing down waves at Seal Beach. Surfing proved an enduring distraction for Collins through high school and two years at Long Beach City College. Then he quit school. "I was more interested in surfing," he admits.

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