Remembering Sean Collins
If you think of every great surfing moment over the past 25 years, it's not a stretch to say that Sean Collins had a hand in it: Personal forecaster for Laird Hamilton as the tow-in era was being ushered in; ultimate decision-maker when it came to summiting Cortes Bank; in the mix when Teahupoo went from green to red; adviser to world champions like Kelly Slater, Andy Irons, Stephanie Gilmore, Layne Beachley and Carissa Moore; trusted consultant for most every ASP World Tour event.
Collins, who sadly died Monday at age 59, was the man who possessed the key to unlocking so many critical pieces of information that were both career-making and defining. His life's work was understanding and predicting when the waves we ride will arrive, thereby changing the entire dynamic of a centuries-old sport. Like Steve Jobs or other visionaries who have gone well before their time, Collins will be missed in ways we as surfers can't yet comprehend.
Innovator, inventor, pioneer, leader, scapegoat, businessman, father, husband and friend, Collins was a lot of things to a lot of people. Essentially creating the field of surf forecasting as it's known today, he understood more than anybody that the ability to accurately predict the biggest and best swells was as much a blessing as it was a burden. He was fully aware of the fact that once the call is made and broadcast to hundreds of thousands of swell-hungry surfers, there's an audience that depends on you to be right, which also immediately opens you to criticism and antagonism.
He also knew of the thin line one toes when adding live, streaming surf cameras to an already intricate web of worldwide, real-time surf reports. But he was never one to shirk one of his forecasts; if something ever did go awry, which it occasionally did, he was always eager to find out why. Over the course of his lifetime, he scraped together an encyclopedic knowledge of oceanic and atmospheric theory from any and all sources. He was confident of the data and information he'd both collected and provided, while also accepting that surf forecasting can never be an exact science -- which is what made it so intriguing to him.
"When I started I took daily 30-minute logs of the surf in front of my Surfside beach house," recalled Collins in an interview in 2009. "I'd document wave heights and swell periods as they bounced against a south-exposed jetty. From that information, I was able to backtrack to see the exact storm and time when these swells were created.
"As I sat on the roof every day taking my wave logs, my wife and neighbors thought I was nuts, but after a year or so I could see a very clear pattern about how to accurately forecast these Southern Hemisphere swells. In hindsight, the knowledge I learned from becoming a human buoy on my roof and doing that research was invaluable."
At the Surfline office in Huntington Beach, Calif., there are cabinets full of Collins' logbooks, some dating to the late '70s. He's literally been watching the weather around the world for the past 30-plus years, trying to figure out when and where is going to be the best spot to surf. "The combinations are infinite," he once said.
"We had four phone lines going into the lifeguard department," says Tim Dorsey, former Seal Beach lifeguard chief. "Sometime in the early '80s, we gave him one line to do his surf report. He was just a local kid, so we didn't think a lot of it, but it caught on. The line was always busy, so we gave him a second line, which got bombarded too. That's when we told him he might be on to something."
And that's when Collins began to change surfing as we know it. Growing up in Long Beach and Seal Beach, the son of a Navy man, Collins found himself on the water much of the time as a kid. Be it surfing missions deep into Mexico or sailing to Hawaii, he became a student of the ocean very early on.
As he tells it, originally he "just wanted to know when the waves were going to be good." That curiosity then turned into the lifeguard surf report, which then turned into Surfline in '85 (originally just a phone-in service). By the '90s, Collins was at the forefront of the digital revolution. Today Surfline.com is the gold standard for surf content online, offering seven- and 14-day surf forecasts (for a fee), live HD streaming web cams at more than 100 different surf spots around the world and a thorough network of surf reporters, editors and correspondence that exhaustively cover the sport. Hardly a wave breaks that's not reported on.
On Monday evening, when news of Collins' passing broke around the world, Twitter was aflutter:
"I talked with him 3 days ago and we were laughing about whether you would drive down in mex again ... just a great guy," noted 11-time world champion Kelly Slater.
"Sean Collins RIP. I will miss you Sean ... genius forecaster , true innovater ... was always there willing to help us," was XXL big-wave champion Maya Gabeira's response.
And Taylor Knox tweeted, "I can't explain the sadness I feel about the passing of my good friend Sean Collins ... my thoughts and prayers go out to his family."
But name-dropping and the headline-making stripped away, Collins was a soft-spoken, humble, sensitive man. His ability to listen and converse is what drew people to him. He was always understanding and enjoyed nothing more than a good surf trip, a fitful game of tennis or a beer with friends as the sun began to set deep into the Pacific.
In 2004, Collins sponsored a local surf contest in Seal Beach. "We hadn't had a contest here since the '70s," he noted. It was his way of giving back to a community that had provided so much support and affection for him. The contest ran over a weekend, raised well over $15,000 -- which was all doled out to local charities -- and of course, the surf was perfect. If you've ever lived in Seal Beach, you know that's no easy feat. But then that's just the kind of guy Collins was.
He will be profoundly missed.