The need to know, since 1770
It’s a funny old thing working for a company that tells people when the surf is good. Not funny ha ha, but funny because it frequently forces me to confront my conscience in a way that I don’t imagine brickies, or bank tellers, or school teachers, ever have to. Working in the surf industry makes for a weird collision between profession and passion. “Do what you love,” my careers adviser once said to me, “and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Except he was a non-surfer and never faced the wrath of an angry local trying to keep a new south swell on the lowdown. Yet at the same time there are other surfers - maybe stuck on the construction site, or in the bank, or at school - who desperately want to hear about the arrival of said swell. They need a surf report and will gladly use it.
It’s at this point, where market demands meet cultural pressures, that I place my focus. The realist in me knows that if there wasn’t the demand there wouldn’t be the product, while the idealist simply wishes every session was unattended. The focal point changes over time: what was acceptable then may not be anymore.
Recently, while wrestling with my conscience yet again, I spent some time tracing the history of surf reports. You may see it as a naked attempt to allay some guilt, and you wouldn’t be completely wrong, though it’s not the whole answer and anyone who’s followed the historical articles on Swellnet would appreciate that.
The surf nerd sees a hidden history there. A history that, in its scope, demonstrates the lengths surfers will go to find out about the waves, and a history that also charts technological change, because since the first surf boom in the early sixties, we’ve used every available medium - radio, telephone, fax, pager, and the whole gamut of digital signals - to tell others about the surf.
If we're looking for a place to begin then April 1770 will do. Mid-afternoon on the 28th.
It was then that Australia's first surf report was logged. The HMS Endeavour dropped anchor a mile off Woonona, near Wollongong, and Captain Cook launched the jolly boat to make landfall. Cook, however, was beaten back by a good Autumn swell:
“...we found that we nowhere could affect a landing by reason of the great surf which beat every where upon the shore,” was Cook’s formal description, while the Endeavour’s 2IC, Zachary Hicks, already knew the value of a soundbite - make it short and catchy:
“Ye captain went away in ye yawl, but could not land for ye surf.”
Nearly 200 years of unreported surf later the first reports - sort of - were advertised in the early surf mags. In the December ‘62 issue of Surfing World, 3UZ Radio proudly advertised their “aerial beach and shark patrol”. With one eye on the sharks, the 3UZ pilot also provided listeners with “parking availability” at the beaches - though made no mention of the surf conditions.
That changed in December ‘63 when Parkview Surf Shop advertised a “daily advisory service” for surf conditions from Lorne to Phillip Island. Soon after, Tony Olsson’s Melbourne Surf Shop provided a similar service.
Up in Queensland, Ken Gudenswager gave local reports on behalf of Adler’s Surf Centres. To scope the surf between D’Bah and Noosa, Adler’s had occasional access to a ‘helicopter’ in the form of young Chris Gudenswager going “whoop, whoop, whoop” in the background as his Dad, feet firmly planted on the factory carpark, reported on the conditions below.
Around the same time - the dates are unclear - Bob Evans, who also edited SW and never let an opportunity pass by, convinced radio station 2SM that a surf report would be in their best interest. He also convinced them it would be in their interest to install a landline at his Elanora home - cutting edge tech for the early sixties.
Evo filed his reports from Thursday to Sunday and included other info such as gossip and contest news, however, the quality that made him an ideal presenter, that he was a mover and shaker within surfing, also led to the report’s demise: Evo was too often away from home. A surf reporter has to be dedicated and diligent, unless your name is P. Jarratt that is, but we’ll get to that shortly.
As Evo was winding down, Australia’s longest serving surf reporter was just winding up for a thirty year career hollering down the line. Shane Stedman started doing surf reports with 2UW in 1967, though he was never on the air - he phoned in the surf info, the presenter read it out. That changed in 1971 when Shane switched over to 2SM joining Frank Hyde (footy) and Alan Wilkie (weather) on the celebrity roster.
By summer of 1974, the year of the first Surfabout, Shane was on air ten times a day, every half-hour between 6am and 9am, then 3, 4, and 5pm. He was given a boxy Suzuki 4WD adorned with 2SM logos and despite being based on the Northern Beaches he had the Sydney coastline covered. Just as Evo convinced 2SM to install a phone at home, Shane had them install one in his car - one of the first ever car phones! He’d call Vic or Ron Ford at Bondi, and Frank Latta at Cronulla to get an update on conditions.
Shane’s access to surf stars helped him enormously, but it worked the other way too. Under duress from Terry Fitz and Simon Anderson, Shane was forbidden to mention North Narrabeen in his surf reports. Shane worked for 2SM up until 1982, providing thousands of reports, yet only one of them exists on the internet - and Shane mentions North Narrabeen.
In 1982 the wheels fell off 2SM and Shane moved to 2WS where he remained, first doing surf reports, then surf and weather, up until 1996 when internet killed the radio star. In all, Shane reported on the surf for three decades. So ingrained had he been in people's lives that even years after he retired from surf reporting he'd have people coming up to him saying they'd heard him on the radio that morning.
In contrast, Phil Jarratt’s surf reporting career was short and ignoble: more a front for a punchline than serious reporting. Jarratt got a guernsey when 2JJ went to air in 1975 and often appeared opposite Tony Edwards playing Captain Goodvibes. The two once joined DJ Holger Brockman for a Sunday night surf show which went live to air for half an episode before the station pulled the plug. According to John Witzig “Phil’s reports were the most disgraceful as he didn’t even get out of bed to do them.” Jarratt had a storehouse of generic terms that said much while specifying little - a valuable skill for a hard-partying surf reporter.
Jarratt passed the 2JJ baton to Nat Young, who in turn passed it to Andy McKinnon, who became Australia’s second-longest surf reporter. Over 28 years Andy Mac worked for 2JJ and 2MMM in Sydney, 2LM in northern NSW, then in 1989 he began a gig with SEAFM on the Gold Coast where he became the voice of surf.
By the time Andy Mac had started at SEAFM the radio personality was already being superseded by technology. Celebrity reporters endured, particularly on the Gold Coast where Tappa Teece worked Radio Metro, Rocky Rawlings reported for Channel 9, JC appeared in the Bully and on 2MMM, and Brownie ran Coastwatch on Channel 7. Yet as electronic communication improved, curious surfers no longer had to wait for the hourly update on the radio, nor have to call a local surf shop and risk copping a bum steer.
In 1985 Jerry Arnold, David Wilke, and Craig Masuoka started Surf Line in California, a telephone surf report on the newly created caller-pay numbers. Soon after launching they hired Sean Collins, a skilled, self-taught surf forecaster. Collins left Surf Line in 1987 to start a competing company, Wavetrak. In 1991, Surfline (now stylised as one word) and Wavetrak merged. Similar surf reporting hotlines emerged in California but by 1998 when Collins bought Surfline most of them had disappeared.
Pay phone technology lagged in Australia, though by the early nineties two main competitors emerged on the 0055 number - a premium call code which was also enormously popular with psychics and phone sex workers. Many a parent was shocked by an outrageous phone bill, attributed to either Waveline or Surf Alert (“70 cents per minute - cheaper than petrol!”), and later on Dial A Wave, all of which had a national network of reporters and a three day “long-range forecast”.
Surf Alert was run by American expat Mike Perry who managed to stay abreast of the evolving media technologies, first as founding editor of Australia’s Surfing Life magazine, then Surf Alert, which he expanded from a phone message service to a fax service, and in 1996 Perry launched Surf Alert online as Australia’s first surf report on the web - just a year after Surfline had done the same in America.
And the tech developments kept coming. The same time Surf Alert launched online here, a product with the same name was launched in the states. It was a pay service that buzzed pager-equipped surfers when conditions met a predesignated threshold. Surf Alert (US) only lasted as long as pagers, which were worn hitched to a person’s exposed waist belt, were fashionable - so somewhere between two months and never.
Yet it was the move to online that assigned the paging systems, phone services, and daily fax alerts to the trash file of history. In 1994, Ron Britvich from San Diego wrote a program that uploaded a ten-second video taken every ten minutes from a camera facing the surf. The staggered footage appeared on a website called Surf Net and in 1996 the idea was improved upon by Surfline who put up the first around-the-clock live-streaming surf cameras using technology sourced from the porn industry. ‘Surf cams’ were a huge success and led the surf industry into the dot-com boom of the late-nineties. The shift to online was, according to Matt Warshaw, “nerd-driven, passive, and useful to nearly every surfer on the planet.”
Warshaw’s quip about online being driven by nerds deserves to be held up to the light and scrutinised because it cuts to the heart of the dilemma. Almost all the online surf forecasting sites were started by people with a strong scientific or computer background who had been trained to maximise their efficiencies and achieve good results, yet they were primarily surfers who largely kept those ambitions in check. Directing hordes of surfers to specific breaks was in no-one’s interest so, at least in their forecasts and reports, they developed prose that sat somewhere between full disclosure and Jarratt-level generalisations. Striking the right balance was key. Let the punters join a few dots themselves.
In 2008, WaveWatch III, the model that underpins most surf forecasting systems, was upgraded to the point that anyone with an interest in waves could code a website and have it running on a server while generating passable forecasts in graph form. A slew of weather sites appeared that also gave surf reports and forecasts. If you could afford to take a hit on accuracy it became possible to get all your surfing information from a non-surfing site, neatly sidestepping the gatekeepers and also surfing’s cultural mores.
More recently, surf media has fractured in so many ways that the gatekeeping style of old is becoming irrelevant. Take social media for example. When anyone can be a surf reporter by livestreaming a session on Instagram - sometimes from waves that were once deemed off limits to photographers - then it makes a mockery of self-imposed codes.
There’ll always be critics of surf report sites, but it’s clear that they’ll never disappear: surfers want to know what the waves are doing now, tomorrow, and next week - always have and always will. But anyone who reports on the surf has a fraught relationship with their audience: sure, surfers want to know, but more importantly, they don’t want others to know, so by and large surf reporters are loved in secret, loathed in public. At best a truce arises, where the demand for the product is balanced by surfing's cultural code.
The balance point is ever-changing but I've got my eye on it, wrestling with it, and it wrestling with me.