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How The World's Best Surfers Will Use Forecasting Technology To Make The Most Of Their Olympic Debut

By Doug Williams | Aug. 21, 2018, 12:01 a.m. (ET)


As a young surfer in Huntington Beach, California, Greg Cruse always wanted to know the wave conditions at his favorite spots.

But that information was scarce in the late 1970s and early ’80s. He could gamble and head straight to the beach and hope waves were great, or he could call the lifeguard-recorded surf report and probably not get through.

“It would always be busy, because they only had one line,” he recalls. “So you’re speed-dialing it.”

Then along came Surfline, a new phone service he and his buddies could actually dial up, connect with and get thorough reports and forecasts.

“It was next level,” Cruse said. Suddenly, surf forecasts were at his fingertips.

Now Cruse is CEO for USA Surfing, and Surfline remains his go-to resource for surf forecasts. In fact, Surfline has become USA Surfing’s forecast and media partner for events across the country and will be the official forecaster for conditions at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 when surfing makes its Olympic debut.

Surfline will use its network of resources — its trained forecasters, historical records, network of on-site cameras and computer modeling — to help the International Surfing Association determine the best days to hold the surf competition during the Games, which are scheduled to be held July 24-Aug. 9, 2020. Organizers will need three to four days for all the heats and finals to be run. The ISA has the whole duration of the Olympics to hold the competition but will use a window of time suggested by Surfline, based on its forecast.

The good news is surf is usually good at that time of year on Tsurigasaki Beach (also known as Shidashita), about 60 miles east of Tokyo near the beach town of Ichinomiya in Chiba Prefecture. The Olympics will be held during typhoon season, when storms in the Pacific can often create nice swells at Tsurigasaki.

“A typhoon far enough out to sea will generate great surf without the bad weather that comes with it,” Cruse said. “So that’s what they’re hoping for is some typhoon swell.”

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Kolohe Andino competes at the Vans US Open of Surfing on Aug. 5, 2018 in Huntington Beach, Calif.


Though surfing is new to the Olympics, this procedure for staging a surf event and selecting the best days from a window of possible dates — using the forecasting of Surfline — is standard operating procedure for events held by USA Surfing, the ISA and World Surf League, where the shortboard competitors who will take part in the Olympics ply their trade during the year.

“I set my calendar for our events in the United States based on the best possibility of good surf at that time of year, so it’s peak,” said Cruse. 

The responsibility in Tokyo will rest with Mark Willis, the chief meteorologist for Surfline, who works with a team all year long to determine surf forecasts across the globe for amateur and elite competitions as well as the average, everyday surfers who simply want to know which local beach will have the best conditions on any given day (or time of day). With the sport making its Olympic debut, however, Willis says they want to take extra care to get the forecast right.

“Our job is to figure out the best days,” Willis said. “We want the world’s best surfers and the world’s best waves.”

Willis said Surfline has years of data on Tsurigasaki Beach and can run computer models of possible surf conditions based on previous years, current storms and projections of weather conditions.

“We’ve got a pretty good idea of what is going to happen, at least the range of conditions that could happen,” he said.

This year and the previous two years have been very active for typhoons, with those storms producing great waves. The three previous years, however, the storm season was light. The average wave heights at the time of the Olympics are 2-3 feet, he said, but that can vary significantly.

“The range we’ve had the last six or seven years has been pretty substantial,” he said.

Next year, Surfline will be involved in a test run, selecting a window to surf during the same Olympic dates of 2020, said Ross Garrett, Surfline’s senior vice president of corporate development.

“Think of it almost like a fire drill, like a simulation,” Garrett said. “Forecasters will watch the charts, the models and make some predictions about what the best days will be. We’ll have surfers on the ground in Japan, getting that information. Once the days get closer and when we’re actually there, we’ll continue to call out the best days … as if the event were being run.”

During and afterwards, they’ll get feedback from the elite athletes who actually surfed the site.

In 2020, Willis said another important factor will be for Surfline forecasters to be on site.  On the scene, they’ll be able to see if conditions (such as size of sandbars) have changed that could impact forecasts.

There had been some suggestions leading into the selection of surfing for the Games that using a wave pool might be the best option for surfers to ensure good conditions. But the history of good waves at Tsurigasaki Beach and the way the venue is set up — with a series of jetties in the area that can tend to focus the energy of swells into ridable waves — led to the decision to use the natural conditions.

Now, Surfline will use its more than 30 years of expertise — dating back to founder Sean Collins’ research and forecasting in the 1980s in Huntington Beach — to find the right window for the world’s top surfers seeking Olympic medals in Japan.

“We have a lot of experience with this,” Willis said. “We forecast for the World Surf League. … We’re uniquely positioned to succeed in forecasting for the Olympics because we’ve been doing it with the World Surf League and world championships tour for a long time.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.