We've all done it before. As much as we pretend to be self-reliant adventurers, scouring the coast in search of the best waves, at some point all surfers hit the snooze button and allow themselves to sleep in while a spot-by-spot account of the morning surf conditions gets uploaded to their preferred website.
I made this mistake a few weeks ago. When I logged onto Surfline for the report at Black's, it read: "Sectiony lines with selective open faced corners that can get bowly."
Are they sections or lines, I wondered. Bowls or corners?
Waves are mutants of hydrodynamics, but occasionally the surf report defies basic principles of geometry. Never mind the ambiguous language--selective corners that can get bowly? I had no idea, based on this description, what the waves would be like.
Glaring at the nonsensical text on my computer screen reminded me of the real reason I wake up and check the waves myself. Skeptical that the Wizard of Oz had taken charge of the surf report, I decided to step behind the curtain for a firsthand look at how each report is filed.
As it turns out, the wave wizard of La Jolla is named Mikko Flemming and he drives a red Toyota pickup truck from Bird Rock to Blacks, seven days a week. He took the job 25 years ago when Surfline was just a telephone report, which as he points out is "longer than most people these days have been surfing."
While following Mikko on his morning routine, I began to realize what a thankless job surf reporting actually is. There is no bright side to his work. Either he's waking up early to bear the news of bad surf or he's waking up early to tell thousands of strangers where the waves are pumping. Mikko pointed out the most torturous aspect of the gig: "There have been so many good mornings when I've got to keep going and there's nobody out."
After Mikko assesses the waves on offer at the local reefs and beachbreaks, he places a call to Bird Huffman at Surfline. This call contains a summary of the general ocean-and-weather conditions. From there, it's Bird's responsibility to combine Mikko's observations with what he sees on the live cameras. Using these resources, he develops the spot-by-spot morning report that surfers can log on and read.
Determining wave quality based on relayed information probably contributes to the vague and confusing nature of the final product. When I asked Mikko about the peculiar terminology that appears in the reports, he concluded, "Before the cameras, our description was a lot more important, but I think a lot of people now look at it themselves and go, 'Yeah, it's worth it,' or 'It's not worth it.'" Mikko underscores the reality that his profession is growing rapidly extinct.
In San Diego, there used to be correspondents for Surfline sprinkled along the entire coast, but in recent years that number has dwindled. Presently, there is one other reporter who covers the area from Ocean Beach through Point Loma. As for the rest of San Diego, "They just use cameras now," says Mikko, "they've gotten so good."
Surprisingly, he doesn't bemoan the fact that his occupation is being replaced by technological growth, which is good, because it's going to happen either way. Surf reporting is not the first aspect of the surfing experience to get drastically modified by technology. But as the quality of live cameras gets refined, one can see the future of the morning surf report making a shift from being partly descriptive to purely visual, which returns the decision-making power to surfers in assessing the wave-quality for themselves.