Sean Collins, founder of the surfing forecast company Surfline, was struck by a heart attack while playing tennis on Dec. 26, and died at the hospital soon afterwards. He was 59 years old.
Collins’ love of the ocean was instilled early in life. Born in Pasadena in 1952, he sailed with his father, a general contractor and WWII navy lieutenant, around Long Beach and later co-skippered on races to Mexico and Hawaii. A surfer since he was 8 years old, it was sailing that sparked Collins’ interest in meteorology as it related to surfing.
“My favorite part of the races was bringing the boat back,” Collins told Transworld Surf in 2008. “We could take our time and search out surf spots. I explored all of Baja and soloed Scorpion Bay around 1970. I’ve been in storms 500 miles out at sea, and then surfed the same swells the next day. I was always monitoring the ocean and then looking at charts to plan my surfing and sailing, and that’s how I developed a weather sense.”
Following his graduation from Long Beach High School, he went on to two years at Long Beach Community College, where he took a few courses on meteorology, but didn’t pursue any formal training. He would study his own weather charts, research at the National Weather Service Library in Los Angeles, and compare his own observations of surf conditions near his Surfside home with week-old weather charts received from New Zealand to draw up his own formulas for determining and predicting swells.
It was in the early 1980s that he began sharing his forecasts with friends, having developed his skills as an entirely self-taught surf meteorologist. It was then that the phone calls started. “People started calling me. ‘You don’t know me,’ they’d say. ‘I’m a friend of a friend, but what do you think Mexico’s gonna be like next week?’”
With the birth of his first son, Collins began to look for more stable employment. A made-to-order opportunity knocked when Orange County businessmen –– who were looking to start up a proprietary surf reporting and forecasting phone service called Surfline –– approached him to found the new venture. Two years in, however, Collins wanted out; the project had developed no long-term incentives or prospects. He left to form a competing service called Wavetrak.
The gamble paid off; the new project was so successful that Collins was able to buy out Surfline in 1990. Other developments followed, including the subscription-based Wavefax service. In 1995, Collins launched Surfline.com, offering free reports and the first “Surfcam” network. These expanded free services became a major drain on the company’s revenues compared to its old phone-and-fax business model, but once again, the foresight paid off. In 1999, Surfline and its services were hot commodities, highly sought-after by every surf site on the Internet. Soon, the site was attracting 200,000 unique users every month; today, Surfline.com gets nearly 1.5 million visitors each month.
Collins was inducted in the Surfers’ Hall of Fame in Huntington Beach in 2008. In 2006, The Los Angeles Times West Magazine named him one of the top 100 most powerful people in Southern California, due to his significant influence and contributions to the region’s surfers, and in 1999, he was included as one of the “25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century” by Surfer Magazine. The publication also named him the 8th most powerful surfer in the surf industry in 2002. In his official position as president, Chief Surf Forecaster and founder of Surfline, Collins made it possible for thousands to pursue the waves and their passions.
“Sean Collins has literally transformed the way surfers chase waves around the world. From Huntington Beach to Mexico and Fiji, the entire surf industry has come to rely on his expertise in surf forecasting,” Surfers’ Hall of Fame founder Aaron Pai told Transworld Surf in 2008.
Collins is survived by his wife, Daren, and two sons, Tyler and AJ; his mother, Gloria; and siblings Whitney Jr., Gloria Burdette II and Robert. A paddle-out memorial ceremony will be held on Sunday, Jan. 8 at 11 a.m. at the Huntington Beach Pier. A forecast of the day’s expected conditions is available here.
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