internet and surfing


The internet—a noncentralized computer network invented by the U.S. Defense Department in the 1960s; now available to PCs, tablets, and smart phones—became part of the surfing world in the mid-'90s, when wired American surfers began accessing websites like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as an aid to wave forecasting. Carlsbad bodysurfer and computer programmer Ron Brivitch set up a video camera in a friend's beachfront home in 1994 to relay 10-second clips of surf conditions to his Surf Windows website, making the images, as well as direct links to other popular weather information sites, available to any internet user.

In 1995, California-based surf forecasters like Surfline and Surfcheck—which had previously operated as phone and fax services—also went online, using live webcams or posting daily pictures to report conditions at dozens of American beaches. By the late '90s, surf break webcams were so common that internet users could within three or four minutes check the waves in Hawaii, Texas, California, Florida, Sydney, Queensland, Costa Rica, and Bali.

Surfer went online in 1996, the first magazine of its type to do so, with a site featuring late-breaking news, contest results and photographs, video clips, links, bulletin boards, and email contact to staff; virtually every other surfing periodical had followed by decade's end, along with surf shops, wetsuit-makers, surfwear companies, surfing associations and clubs, plus sites for surf history (legendarysurfers.com, surfresearch.com.au) and surf travel (wavehunters.com, surftrip.net). Several pro surfers, beginning with Kelly Slater in 2000, developed their own official, sponsor-backed websites.

Riding the internet boom, meanwhile, tens of millions of dollars in venture capital were poured into three America-based mega-surfing sites—Swell.com, Hardcloud.com, and Bluetorch.com—beginning in 1999. Unable to match the salary and stock-option offers made by the digital newcomers, surf magazines stood by helplessly as their top employees abandoned ship. All three of the new sites offered a mix of daily news, webcam and forecasting services, live contest coverage, surf history, discussion groups, and online shopping. All three failed to generate revenue. Hardcloud and Bluetorch both folded before the end of 2000; Swell burned through $24 million, then made itself over into an online surf store. By the end of the year, surfing's strongest internet presence by far was on Surfline, with one million unique viewers per month.

Not all surfers were happy with the internet revolution. In California, locals at surf breaks from Trestles to Pacifica, believing that the webcams trained on their breaks led to bigger crowds in the water, vandalized cameras and sent angry messages to the surf-forecasting services who operate them, as well as the surf media. On a lighter note, some wave-riders resented the fact that "surfing" became an abused internet catchword. "Surfing the fucking web indeed," indignant Australian surf journalist D.C. Green wrote in 1999. "Give us back our verb!"

By the mid-'00s, however, surf blogs and video clips posted to surf-specific websites, as well as to mainstream sites like YouTube and Vimeo, had become a bedrock, and in some cases much-loved, part of the surf media landscape. Surfline, still leading with its reports, cams, and forecasts, continued to draw the most traffic. But there was lots of room for commercial-free alternative sites (freesurfing favorite Dane Reynolds' Marine Layer Productions, for example), and comedy (Sterling Spencer's PinchMySalt). Print magazines moved more and more content to their websites, some archived past articles and posted video clips, and many offered digital subscriptions.

By 2013, the ease of posting video clips online, along with an increase in download speeds, moved the surf DVD toward extinction. Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes all offered surf video downloads or cloud-based streaming video, and surf contest coverage has been almost completely taken over by websites.