Micro-Chips and Gravy

Words by Chris Nelson

« “If a tree falls in a wood with no one there to see it, does it make a sound?” It was the philosophical version of the prawn cocktail. A pink, rubbery and safe conversation that was perfect for those little 1970s dinner parties with a few friends.»

What about if a swell breaks on a small beach in Cornwall, and there is no one there to see it, would it make any difference to the world at large? Ten years ago it could have led to fevered debate with the humanistic view that if an event was not witnessed by human eyes, did it really happen? Today the goal posts have changed. Progress has stepped in to clarify.

News of the first three foot set to hit the southern sandbank spreads like wild fire, even though the car park is empty and beach left to the squabbling gulls. News proliferates at the speed of electrons racing along a copper wire or microwaves through the ether. The ever-vigilant webcam is watching, capturing the ebb and flow of the ocean in real time. Or is it QuickTime? The first driver into the lot has flipped open a matt black mobile before the wheels have stopped turning. People are monitoring the ocean’s every move.


We have become the paparazzi of the tidal range, even when we are tied to our desks, trapped at work, deadlines looming, can we resist loading that window to have a little peek at that peak? Logging on, lifting the veil, just to look.

Last week I watched the Pipe Masters live from Hawaii without leaving my desk. There. I said it. I’m not proud. But you can’t fight progress. If it’s dangled in front of you like this, it’s hard to resist. We used to be a tribe of the spoken word. Secret spots whispered of, before the inevitable cave-in of willpower and spilling of the beans. Surfers have never been very good at keeping secrets from one another. Now we have the internet. Ignoring porn, there are probably as many surfing websites as any other topic. And why? Have you ever met a surfer without information to share, a story to tell, an opinion to give? Now that the internet provides a ready and waiting worldwide audience, what better way to spread the word than by utilising these evangelistic portals offering to lead us towards a better surfing life?

We can now log on and find out what the surf will be like in the future – seven or ten days’ time. Weekends are planned around long-range forecasts and swell predications. Spontaneity is dead. Does this progression in technology take some of the fun out of surfing? Depends on your viewpoint. Does it remove the element of the educated guess work? Well, sure it does. But one thing to bear in mind is that the ocean, by its very nature, is fluid. It changes from day to day and hour to hour. Progress has narrowed the margins, but it isn’t exact, it can’t allow for localised anomalies. At least not yet.

« But there is one common factor at most breaks that you can rely on. ‘The Indicator’. There is always at least one surfer who seems to log more water time than anyone else and seems to wring more fun out of every ride.»

Our village has at least two ‘indicators’, and when I hear one of them pass, feet padding along tarmac and the leash flapping against board, I stick my head out of the window and try to look at the sea from a different perspective. Theirs. What do they see in that uninspiring, onshore mass that we miss? Because you can bet your house that when they jog back the other way after an hour in the wintery Atlantic, they’ll be smiling from ear to ear.

How can we use progress to harness their inner vision, their sixth sense, their ultimate stoke? Surely if we knew when the indicators were surfing, we could have more water time and therefore more fun. Well, there is a way. What about a network of electronic tags attached to local indicators that will alert your mobile when they hit salt water. A kind of ASBO – a surfing brother outback. After all, the sea is a slippery character. People on the other hand…

So what do you think? Are the wealth of surf reports and webcams ruining surf culture as we knew it or are they an essential and useful tool for the thousands of surfers not able to afford a house on the beach?

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