As good as forecast sites like Surfline and Magic Seaweed have become, do you often find yourself paddling out at your local spot and laughing at how totally inaccurate the surf reports were? No? Then you must live in a sheltered spot where swell’s filtered on the way in and winds aren’t swirling directly out of the freezers of hell. Those of us north of Point Conception laugh at surf forecasts. In fact, the further north you get, the harder you laugh.
Ashley Ellenson, who lives and surfs way up in central Oregon, laughed so hard at her local forecasts that she decided to figure out how to create her very own surf forecasting app. Ellenson, a grad student at Oregon State University, is originally from Virginia Beach, Virginia, where she learned how to surf. After stints in Hawaii and California, she ended up in Corvallis, Oregon and when she’d check the forecasts for the frigid beach breaks nearest her home, she’d frequently pull up to see a totally different set of conditions than she expected.
“I was tired of trying to go out for a surf and getting totally skunked. Swell interaction, current strength, sandbar formation, tide/wave interaction (tidal push) aren’t conveyed in surf forecasts, but it’s super crucial to know what kind of session to expect,” Ellenson said.
As a student of coastal engineering, she was uniquely positioned to do something about it.
“I could see that there are ways to quantity and articulate this information. It’s already available, we just have to repackage it and give it to people in a way that’s clear and understandable and that actually represents the full picture of conditions at the coast.”
Ellenson points out that standard surf forecasts are too reliant on a few bits of information like wave height, period, and direction, which, while crucial, don’t tell you everything you need to know in coastal zones that are raw and rugged.
She’s spent lots of time interviewing Oregon surfers about their experience with surf forecasts, how they could be better, what they’d want to see, and how the interface could be improved. She wants to build a new kind of forecast model that focuses on the information that’s as locally applicable as possible, not relying solely on far off buoy readings and projections, but, hopefully, real-time factors that affect local beaches.
That last part involves getting super intimate with local sand movement patterns, current flows, wind shifts, and how all that stuff historically mixes with swell direction and size to create a way more personalized, localized approach.
Not an easy task. Ellenson has to not only learn how to more accurately predict wave conditions, but also how to build a coherent website and simplify the user experience. Essentially, she has to learn about a dozen different disciplines all at one. Fortunately, her project has been accepted into a tech startup incubator in Corvallis called the Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network (RAIN), an arm of Oregon State University, where she can work on her project under the guidance of entrepreneurs experienced with bringing tech ideas to life.
Once the bugs are worked out, there’s the long difficult road of bringing her program to market. But first, Ellenson’s got plenty of surf testing to do.