The Evolution of the Surf Cam

surfin the web 2


It’s ironic the designers of the internet chose “surfing” to describe someone using the world wide web for I doubt they could have imagined how dependent actual surfers would become on all that wind and swell information at their fingertips.  So much so  I actually believe surfing the web has improved surfing the sea.  Thanks to the internet the average person can know when the surf is up or when it’s going to be up and plan accordingly.   There’s also tons of surf video uploaded and free to watch at anytime, much of it new and fresh but more importantly it’s of the best surfers surfing their best.  Video study of surfing has been confirmed as one of the best learning tools for surfing and everybody is improving by osmosis as they watch these great surfers in a manner they’ve never been able to do before.  Even in a humble surfing place like the upper coast of Texas I believe I’ve seen an uptick in performance in general – experienced guys surfing better than ever, mid-range guys making visible improvements and beginners coming on faster than ever.

I’m a relative newcomer to the internet meaning I didn’t get “online” at home until 1996.  Before that I’d used it for research in college but felt the rest was fluff.  In ’96 I learned that real-time buoy reports were available online.  At that time I was still relying a weather-radio for buoy reports which were weak and hard to hear or slow to update and unreliable.

Buoy reports are as essential to a surfer the on upper coast of Texas as anywhere, probably more so because of how short-lived the swells can be. When I started surfing the buoy reports were not even available on the weather-radio. We went surfing based on the “coastal waters forecast”, the way the wind blew flags or maybe a call to a surf shop for an unreliable surf report. The short fetch and rapidly changing weather made disappointing if not downright skunk sessions happen all too often

The internet buoy reports were a revelation.  Once online at home I found a lot of other useful weather info I never knew existed.  Things like forecasts from private entities that could be compared to the government forecasts I was limited to before.  And more stuff from the government entities than I knew of before.  There are maps of all kinds.  There are animated models with colored graphics that depict swell height predict sea surface winds for over a week in advance and sites that give real-time wind reports.  There is current satellite imagery available that vividly shows the movement of storms, water vapor and the jet stream as well as sophisticated data from powerful radars that give pinpoint location of threatening weather or tell-tale “squall” lines.

And there are surf-cams.  Probably not as essential as the buoy reports the surf-cams nonetheless are the icing on the cake, the cherry on top for the surf forecaster in that they allow him/her to triangulate all the data they’ve just correlated on those other sites with a real-time image and see instantly how the forecasts panned out.  Even on days when the surf is up and you can’t go you still get to see what it was like under a given set of conditions.  This instant feedback has been an excellent continuing-education tool for me but it’s also fun.   It turns out it’s better to at least be able to watch a good day on the cams rather than miss it entirely.

This wasn’t always the case.  Early cams on the upper coast of Texas were fuzzy and and/or updated too slow to really be accurate.   There wasn’t enough of a market(and still probably isn’t) to justify much capital investment so many people made do with what they had.  I remember one early “cam” was literally just a guy walking out on the nearest rock groin in Galveston each morning, taking a snapshot and posting it on his shop’s website with a brief report.  While I appreciated the effort, our weather here changes so fast that a pic taken in the morning is useless within a couple of hours.

The earliest Surfside cam I can remember intermittently uploaded  grainy still images from an old sony hi 8 camera mounted on a tripod and pointed out the front window of the living room of a beach house.   This cam had a perspective that made wave size difficult to judge so they added a scale next to the image that you lined up with the furthest-out whitewater to tell how big the surf was.  The more you used it the better you got at interpreting that scale but it was hit or miss nonetheless.  Before I got used to “reading’ it I missed some good days when the cam made the surf look smaller than it was.  This was frustrating because these were days I would’ve probably gone just based solely on buoy data but missed due to the unreliable crutch of the surf-cam.

As time went on the cams got incrementally better.  Each new cam seemed to offer better resolution and a faster refresh rate than the last.  Today there are a handful of cams on the upper coast of Texas that offer a very clear image, refresh quickly and show a good perspective for judging wave size.  Video surf cams have were later to arrive.   Grainy, sticky and jumpy at first, video surf cams have evolved even faster than the still cams.  We recently got a new video surf cam in Galveston and it’s the best one yet.  It allows user control over several angles, the image is remarkably clear, is pretty reliable so far and it’s free!  To finally have a video surf cam of this quality on the upper coast of Texas has nearly rendered the still cams obsolete.  Soon the video surf cam will become simply “the surf cam” by default.

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