The Diviner

Kevin Wallis, Surfline's chief forecaster, wants you to score

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Surfers are conditioned to experience a certain amount of guilt for missing a good session or a great swell. For Kevin Wallis this guilt is perhaps more intense because it is both personal and professional. Wallis, a forecaster at Surfline for more than ten years, knows how much good surf he misses and where he misses it and when.

In 2000 he first began managing the California forecast on his own. It was a weekend in early fall and a west-northwest swell was moving down the coast. Wallis completely misjudged the conditions and overhead waves met Santa Cruz and San Diego unannounced. At the time, Wallis was studying under the late Sean Collins. “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, god. I blew this. Sean is going to be so pissed.’”

Wallis went to Collins’ office at Surfline, which overlooks the Huntington Pier, the following week. He was surprised to find how well Collins took the news. When they discussed what went wrong, Collins told Wallis, “As long as you put in the effort, I’m never going to be mad at you for missing a swell. If you’re lazy and that’s why you missed it, then I’ll be pissed.”

Wallis, like Collins, began as a self-taught forecaster. In the intervening 11 years until Collins passed, Wallis learned how to decrease his margin of error by talking through each forecast with his mentor. “Every time I went into his office I would pick something up—whether it was the art of communicating a forecast or science-based stuff.”

At Surfline headquarters, very much plugged in. Wallis often has to track and predict several global swell events at once in order to advise special clients, many of them big-wave and professional surfers, on whether they should drop three grand on a whim. 
Photo: Jeremiah Klein

Until recently, Wallis was the Pacific Forecast Chief at Surfline but now handles the company’s specialty projects —working with big-wave surfers and consulting on ASP World Tour events. Most of the surfers whom Wallis consults with come to him wanting advice before dropping a few thousand dollars to chase a swell at the last minute. “Sometimes I have ten different people asking me about a spot,” says Wallis of the big-wave surfers—including Shane Dorian, Ian Walsh, and Garrett McNamara—who contact him regularly. “I’ll eventually just put everybody on one email and say, “It’s not gonna be un-crowded, but here you go.” In other cases Wallis does forecast research confidentially, if someone he works with is trying to sneak off to a spot that isn’t on other surfers’ hit lists.

Particularly at big-wave breaks, it’s difficult to know whether a swell will be worth chasing much more than a week in advance of when it arrives. But he sees this lead-time improving incrementally, as swell models continue to increase in precision and produce better long-term readings. “When we’re looking at these storms and what’s driving our models, it’s basically global wind models,” Wallis explains. “As that continues to improve, our confidence-levels seven-plus days out will as well.”

One byproduct of the improved accuracy of forecasting is the pressure it places on surfers. Favorable windows of surf that can only be detected days or hours ahead inspire more than a few hollow promises and guilt-ridden itinerary changes. Kohl Christensen, one of the surfers who seeks forecasting advice from Wallis, was on a snowboarding trip with his girlfriend in Canada when he received word that there would be a few hours of clean conditions at Cortes Bank. He was halfway up the Whistler gondola when another surfer phoned in the tip, which he confirmed with Wallis. Christensen notified his girlfriend of the abrupt end of their vacation as soon as he got to the bottom of the mountain. By midnight he was in southern California, heading out to the Cortes Bank. “Without this type of forecasting that wouldn’t happen,” Christensen says.

The information that surfers provide Wallis after returning from a swell can be critical to understanding future storms. Surfline maintains an archive on swells dating back to the 80s. (A record of storms since 2006 can be accessed online; the rest are stored in hard copy.) And Wallis keeps a personal log that goes into even further detail on a variety surf spots worldwide. The most gifted forecasters know how to wield historical data to compare past swells with future ones. This is formally referred to as “analog forecasting.” But many surfers instinctually recognize the value of this process and perform a crude version of it themselves: noting every detail of how swell, wind, and tide impact their favorite breaks, and learning which combinations produce the best days of surf.

Wallis’ mentor, Sean Collins, taking field notes in the late 1970s. Collins developed his forecasting skills as a offshoot of planning surf expeditions deep into Baja, teaching himself to read swell models (and download forecasts via satellite in the desert) so he could dial in his point-and-reef selections on the fly. Photo: Collins Family Archive

According to Wallis, Collins had an uncanny knack for analog forecasting. “Sean had a fantastic memory for past swells and conditions, and he could apply it to something happening right now,” Wallis says. “He kept detailed records but he could also pull it off the top of his head. I’d be talking to him and he’d say, ‘Oh, yeah. This reminds me of a swell in ’83.’ He could recall these unique characteristics of storms that created swells that we don’t see too often.”

Even with the best available resources and a lifetime of experience, forecasters work in a constant state of uncertainty. Each swell presents a fresh set of challenges. This means getting comfortable with publicly committing errors and correcting them to the best of your ability. It also means frequently admitting when you’re wrong. Enjoying this part of the job may seem to go against human nature, but Wallis finds it strangely compelling. “There’s something almost nice about being wrong,” Wallis says. “There’s always something new to learn. You can always get better.”