I’ve been surfing for just about half of my life, and although I’m only in my late twenties, my early days of surfing were in the time when the Internet was a strange, foreign concept, like Finland, or McDonald’s chicken nuggets. I remember watching the weather obsessively, and making dozens of wrong predictions, getting out of bed at 5:30am to drive to the beach and be skunked with crap, yet to occasionally be paid of with gorgeous dawn patrol surf, relatively alone.
Nowadays, we are inundated with online opportunities to learn about the surf conditions. I’m pretty sure the first to get into the game was Surfline, but quick on Surfline’s heels were Wavewatch, Magicseaweed, and many others. Out here in the Bay Area, there was Surfpulse, blakestah, and now the hugely popular Stokereport.com. On Twitter there are surfers throughout the world who post live-update tweets and pictures of surf conditions, and so between all of these options, it’s almost impossible to not know when there is good surf. I contribute to Stokereport, so my feelings on this question might be obvious. But I thought it important to give voice to the unspoken controversy that I know is out there: are online surf reports good or bad for surfing?
Let me first voice the opinion of those who think that over-sharing of surf conditions on the Internet is a bad thing. I have several friends of this school of thought, and so summarizing them shouldn’t be tough. The sentiment is relatively simple: the more people that know about good surf, the more people will actually go and surf when it’s good, and the more crowded it will be. More crowds = less waves for you, so that’s obviously a bad thing. Some places, like the wide-open Ocean Beach or in-front-of-everyone’s-face spots like Linda Mar or Surfer’s Beach in HMB, are going to be crowded regardless, because it doesn’t take any work to go and find them. But scattered up and down the coast are tons of secret spots, and if word got out onto Stokereport.com with updates about spots like (insert, for example, the SF spot that we all know but I refuse to put in writing on the internet, or coves up North and South), there might be real anger about things. I remember reading that when a live surf cam was installed at Linda Mar, locals stormed a town hall meeting after the camera was stolen, literally armed with pitchforks and torches. (Ironically enough, I read about this story in a book about California surf spots.) (It’s more ironic because Linda Mar kind of sucks as a surf spot.) In short: surf reports are equivalent to crowds, which surfers don’t like.
Going to the good side of the argument, surf reports are incredibly convenient. We all generally know that surf is better on a falling tide at most Bay Area spots, but the winds can change, the fog can roll in, the sand bars can shift–the unpredictability of surf in general, but specifically at Ocean Beach, makes real-time updates via cameras or tweets extremely useful. Also, you can better plan around surfing if you know how conditions might be. You can strategically plan a sick day if you have a high degree of confidence, based on multiple sources, that the surf is worth skipping work over. This also applies to the at-home negotiations we must manage in order to occasionally sneak out of familial responsibilities in order to score when it’s firing. Few things suck more than taking on additional chores for the weekend and sitting through a chick flick on Saturday night, all to clear a two-hour window for surf on a Sunday afternoon, only to get to the surf on Sunday and find out it’s awful. Online surf reports greatly decrease such incidents. Likewise, you will know if you’re going to be over your head, if you might be under-gunned, what board to bring, etc etc.
I think the basic argument has always been convenience vs. crowds. However, I’d like to push this argument a bit deeper. Surfing, it’s fair to say, is an activity that is good for you. It’s good exercise, it’s good for your soul, it’s good for your friendships, it’s just a good thing to do. When I finish surfing, I am in a good mood, and treat people better, which includes my family as well as strangers. And yes, at its essence, surfing is an extremely selfish pursuit. Few waves are best when shared, and so the attitude in the water is of Adam Smithian self-interest. However, in the modern era of anxiety and obesity, it seems to me that encouraging others to engage in a fundamentally wholesome, healthy activity like surfing is good for all. If more people built time into their schedules to do something like surf, we’d have more mellow, balanced people out there, people who constantly appreciate the beauty of a sunset, or a hollow barrel that looks like this.
A society of surfers sounds pretty good. Of course, I don’t claim that online surf reports will create a society of surfers. But knowing the wave conditions in advance, getting advice from other surfers through forums, and meeting people online to surf with in the real water, all which is lubricated by online surf activity, is likely contributing to an increase in the amount of surfers out there. And so if surf reports can help make learning to surf more manageable for newbies, or can allow more people to score a memorable wave or two, then isn’t that good for all of us? I’m not saying that I encourage crowds, but I don’t mind them too much either. The more people out there that are stoked, the more we’ll tolerate waiting in the line together at the grocery store, the less we’ll cut each other off on the road, and in general the happier and more fit we’ll be. And if this sounds overly naive, maybe it’s because I’m writing this in the glow of having surfed almost 4 hours today, in beautiful conditions. Was it crowded? Sure it was. Everyone knew it was going to be good today. But, I still got my fair share of waves, and really enjoyed watching the rest of the surfed waves. I can’t help but wonder if everyone else out there who had fun surfing today is feeling equally naive, idealistic, and let’s just say…optimistic.
So I will absolutely continue to contribute reports to stokereport.com, I will tweet surf-related tweets from @oceanbeach, and in general I’ll encourage people to enjoy the waves. Spread the goodness.