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e-Review

Here's a Swell Idea: Surf Before You Surf

February 08, 2001|JOSEPH MENN | joseph.menn@latimes.com

One of the biggest challenges of surfing is just knowing where to go and when: The great waves of yesterday often turn into the blown-out mush of today.

So with a view to making the most of my limited weekly window for surfing, I set out recently to see how the latest offerings on the Internet could aid in my continuing quest for righteous rides.

In trolling for a technological edge, I checked out a dozen Web sites and discovered a variety of services. The most useful ones offered e-mail alerts about top conditions, on-scene reporting from multiple spots, wave forecasts and live video feeds from beach cameras up and down the California coast.

I soon learned that no one site can cover all the nooks and crannies of the California surfing scene. But two sites--SurfCheck (http://www.surfcheck.com) and Swell (http://www.swell.com)--managed to cover many popular areas between them. They also had enough information to help any surfer whose expertise ranges from that of my grandmother to frequent world champion Kelly Slater.

But before discussing the merits of SurfCheck and Swell, let me explain how things are usually done.

Method No. 1: This consists of driving each Saturday and Sunday morning to a favorite break, staring thoughtfully at what are often disorganized and sometimes ferocious waves and then heading to what are often more user-friendly waves somewhere else.

The chief advantage of this most traditional of methods is that it relies on little thought and less human contact.

Method No. 2: As previously practiced by me, this involves calling daily recorded surf phone messages for beaches near my home base in San Francisco: Ocean Beach, Pacifica and perhaps those more distant at Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz.

Though the Pacifica surf line is at times laughably out of whack with reality, this flexible approach has enabled me to catch marginally more waves than by employing the drive-and-see method.

Method No. 2 is what I sought to improve on.

Of the Internet sites I investigated, many had too little useful local information, such as Surfer magazine's Surfermag.com (http://www.surfermag.com).

Others, such as Stormsurf (http://www.stormsurf.com), had way too much: It looked as if about 4,000 university supercomputers had been linked together to generate multicolor maps with enough buoy data, topographical contours and circles and arrows to numb a MacArthur fellow.

Neither told me where to go surfing.

The clear winners, in this respect, were SurfCheck, a pioneer that was nearly ruined by the Internet stock bubble, and Swell, a newcomer that was created by the same temporary insanity.

SurfCheck was founded in 1996 by Huntington Beach surfer Ted Deits, who was sick of his friends calling him to find out where the waves were going off. As he posted written reports from more beaches, the number of site users climbed from 10,000 the first month to 60,000 the next month to 1.2 million the third.

"It just got huge. But I was spending two to three thousand dollars a month," Deits said. He began charging $6 monthly and did so well that he sold the site for more than $5 million last March to a company that tried to use it to sell clothing and surf accessories.

That plan failed, and the buyer handed it back to Deits, who more or less started over last month on a second shoestring.

One of the key features of both SurfCheck and Swell is the free e-mail bulletins about major incoming ocean swells. They recently sent me a three-alarm blast about the approaching weekend.

SurfCheck's message was spare: a "massive swell moving into Northern California" would hit Friday with surf heights up to 20 feet and would stay monstrous through Sunday.

Swell, which became the dominant surf site last year by buying Surfline, a pay-for-forecasts Web business, gave a lot more detail.

Swell predicted the wind as well as the water. Sunday would have smaller waves, the message noted, adding the crucial tidbit that the powerful waves would be coming from the west-northwest.

The thought of 20-foot waves gets the adrenaline pumping, but they are regrettably unridable for most mortals.

So as the weekend neared, I began thinking about spots that are more protected from the open sea than San Francisco's Ocean Beach, such as Pacifica and Bolinas, a Marin County spot that's nearly 1 1/2 hours away from home.

To pick among them, I began reading the daily surf reports from both Web sites and ogling the video shots.

The video cams are one of the main advantages to tapping into the Internet for surf information. You don't have to just read about waves, you can see them--in real time.

Both SurfCheck and Swell had video coverage of Ocean Beach. Swell had more functioning cameras, matching its more comprehensive, if at times conflicting, reports from spotters.

Both have many more cameras in Southern California, and the sites' locations often complement each other. Since they are free, it makes sense to check both.

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