Mobile Wild Water Cowboys
By Carol Posthumus, Fri Aug 09 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Internet and mobile play significant, and growing roles ? from weather forecasting to communication services - in the roaming lifestyles of surfers, surf information specialists and surf tourists.

If you live in a small surf spot such as J-Bay - home of the ‘legendary’ SuperTubes wave and some famous hippies who arrived in the 70s and just never left or changed their lifestyles - the arrival of the annual ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) World Championship Tour is akin to having an olympian event in a village.

A big flock of international media who move around the world with the tour, encamp in the town – from surf-passionate nations, including Australia, Brazil, Japan and the United States. The technological and mobile machinery around “The Comp”, officially known as the Billabong Pro, is slick and fast. It’s fairly incredible that in a place where, according to legend, just a couple of decades ago, the shells were stacked so high that bulldozers had to move them to make beaches; today people around the world get immediate livescores and webcasts of the surfing heats on the Internet, fed direct from the judges’ handheld terminals.

Mobile Means No More Hiding in a Surf Spot

As Cheryl McCarthy, mobile entrepreneur and owner of Ahead Cellular in Jeffreys Bay, puts it: “What mobile and Internet means for a place like J-Bay is that people cannot sit here and hide out from the world anymore. From a communication and enterprise point of view, people in remote places in Africa don’t have to rely on a sole telephone operator.

Just a few years ago, a big international surf contest here would have a serious communication information delay (for example in getting scores out live and globally) if there was a problem with fixed lines. Now, with mobile, and particularly with GPRS going live, this form of a communication barrier doesn’t exist. GPRS’ introduction here will make it even cheaper to access the Internet via mobile, which is a great advance.”

While one might think surfing is all about wild water cowboys, and far removed from technological advances, the Internet and mobile have come to play significant roles in the surfing lifestyle and professional surfing tours.

Interestingly, McCarthy saw rentals of mobiles leap in the 11 days of the Billabong Pro. This year, her store saw a surge in visitors, particularly photographers, wanting set-up pointers with mobile Internet. “One photographer who travels constantly around the world was delighted that we fine tuned and set him up to the Motorola 008’s mobile Internet capabilities.”

McCarthy says over recent years, surf tourists have become more used to international roaming with their mobiles. For surfers competing, their mobiles mean, as a part of their day at the office, they can “come in from the water and phone their friends or loved ones to report how they’ve just done in a heat. Camera phones are going to be big in surf locales, feels McCarthy. “Digital imaging has taken off rapidly: observing people and their techno-gear in our store, it seems every man and his dog has a digital camera or digital video,” she muses.

New Technology Works for Surfing

Life’s a Beach Communications, the local media outfit for the African part of the world championship tour, is the surf information enterprise of longtime surfer Paul Botha. Also a stalwart of the computer industry, Botha – who has surfed since the 60s – says new technology, and particularly the Internet, has brought changes to information consumption in the surfing lifestyle. Botha was once a hippy in J-Bay: in those days leatherware was his game. He appeared so different to other people while immersed in hippydom, traveling with his leather enterprise, people would approach him and ask him curiously “so what do you eat?”, like he was another kind of lifeform.

Today he gestures to the media center (a guest lodge colonized with technological apparatus and media people for the duration of the event) – while keeping an eye on the surfing in the distance ‘whew that was a beautiful floater’ - and comments: “When I started in the computer industry, our computer was as big as this media center. Now we’re in the era of miniaturization and mobile, and things just get more exciting and faster. Computers have always worked well for me with surfing, however. When I started as a programmer it was blissful for me to find a career where I could surf all day and work all night! Insanely perfect! Indeed, since I started surfing, every decision I’ve made has been motivated by whether or not it meant I could surf or has been related in some way to surfing.”

Internet Weather And Wave Reports: Important Surf Service

Botha says the wave and weather services on Internet are important, even mission-critical, for people involved in any “ocean side” activities or enterprises. “I’m addicted to the weather and wave services on the Internet. Services like buoyweather, with which you can create your own virtual buoys at sea, are a part of my day. Fishermen in South Africa use these services too, many which are based in other countries but give incredibly good global views of weather. In fact the guys who fish for a living base their lives and livelihoods on the tools of Internet weather predictions, one could say.”

Surfing competitions, which Botha has long been involved in as an organizer and media director, are totally dependent on wave conditions. While other sports may be weather governed to an extent, surfing is at the mercy of Mother Nature. Not a zone for control freaks: surf competition organizers have no option but to wait, sometimes for days, for the waves to produce the goods. Lots of phone calls are made to weather bureaus: but Botha says today the weather facilities available freely on the Internet make things a lot more, if not completely, predictable for surfers and surf contest organizers.

Resident ASP World Tour IT expert Robson Machado, who hails from Brazil and has been on this surf gig for the past eight years, tells that the next big technology wave for this acclaimed professional event is definitely mobile.

Surfing Tour Info...Moving More to Mobile

Machado feels communication technology is working better and better for surfing. The company he is with, Beach & Byte, based in Brazil, specializes in technology for surfing. Founded by a surfer with a talent for computing, Manu Ziul, Beach & Bytes has brought a lot of information technology services to the surfing community.

Machado elaborates: “Ah, Manu’s brain just never stops working! He’s so far ahead in thinking, that when he comes with an idea it’s taken as a joke but then is invariably a great success! In the mid 80s Manu had this idea to computerize the scoring systems for the tour – it was like a joke then, but of course it happened and became a part of the tour. Then, when we wanted to put the scores and more services on the Internet, that was also another thing that we were ahead with. Initially, years ago, we had to beg – sometimes borrow - phone lines for Internet in the media center! Now we’re fully on Internet with all our information: from videos to live audio casts.”

Machado feels the tour will be more mobile technology-enabled by the end of this year. They’ve been talking about mobile technology with players Boost Mobile. Boost is a Californian-based telecommunications group who directs its enterprise at the youth and action sports market.

“We have around 40 000 people surfing our website every day – and we feel it will be a real service to surf followers to have access to the tour’s information on their mobiles. Then they can catch up on the action, wherever they are – and they won’t have to wait to get home or to the office for scores or news.”

Carol Posthumus is a freelance author, analyzing how mobile technology impacts our lives. She lives in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.