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The ASM Interview: Micah Sklut Talks Starting Surf Captain, Leaving Swellinfo, & Surf Forecasting

Photo courtesy Jack Lajoie

Surf forecasting ain't an easy biz.

Whereas other jobs in the surf industry are straight forward, surf forecasting requires understanding swell height, swell period, swell direction, ocean bottom characteristics, buoys, and many more meteorological factors.

All of these data points get thrown into an algorithmic blender and the result is the simple "3-4 foot and offshore" metric that you see before loading your surfboard and heading to the beach.

To speak this forecasting language, not only do you need the brain for it; you have to be passionate about it. These are two qualities that Micah Sklut certainly has.

A Delaware native who got hooked on surfing, Micah also got hooked on surf forecasting. After a stint at Surfline in the early 2000s where he forecasted wave summaries for locations all over the country, Micah had what he calls "a lightbulb moment": he could automate the surf forecasting process and make it more accurate.

The result was Swellinfo, a surf forecasting & forum site that you've likely come across or used religiously. After years with Swellinfo, Micah sold it and stepped out of the surf industry for a bit.

But after missing surf forecasting being his day job, he jumped back into the ring with Surf Captain, a new forecasting site with some pretty rad and unique features.

We chatted with Micah about what makes surfing in Delaware unique and what he learned working at Surfline and running Swellinfo.

In a surf forecasting industry where it's easy to be wrong and hard to be right, we also talked about how he's working to ensure Surf Captain's forecasts are the most accurate in the biz. — Cash Lambert

ASM: Talk to us about your first surfing memory. What comes to mind?

Micah: I moved to the beach when I was 15 and was pretty hooked immediately on everything ocean related. I first got into bodyboarding the heavy shore break we have in Delaware.

Once I got a taste of some tube time, I was addicted. 

Photo courtesy Chris Joyner

How did surfing evolve into a passion for you?

In Delaware, like much of the East Coast, it gets super fun but it is really inconsistent.

Once I got a taste of those really good days, I just had to know when the next good day was going to be. This turned into a bit of an obsession.

Prior to the internet days I would study the weather maps in the newspaper to get an idea of what was going on.

The forecasting/anticipation part of it was almost as much fun as the surfing.   

Talk to us about the surf in Delaware. What makes it unique?

Delaware is definitely a unique area along the East Coast due to the shorebreak waves we get. 

We also have a point break style wave, and a consistent inlet beach break, but the shorey is definitely what makes Delaware different. 

Photo courtesy Mike Powell

We have this one shore break spot that is just heavy spitting A-frame barrels, but unfortunately it has been in hibernation for the last 6-8+ years due the build up of sand offshore.

It was this wave that got me hooked on surfing and we are eagerly waiting for it to wake up from its slumber.  

SwellInfo was the first surf forecasting service to fully automate surf predictions. How did you make this happen? How do you automate swell predictions?

I worked for Surfline for a few years in the early 2000s when I was in graduate school. I would wake up before sunrise every morning and analyze model data for hours and hours to come up with the forecasting summaries for locations all over the country. 

I got pretty tuned into the intricacies of the model data and what made each surf area work. 

As I did this over and over again, I realized that my mental computations to create the forecasts could be automated to come up with a more efficient forecast.

This was my light bulb moment for creating Swellinfo. Because the automated approach was more efficient, we could forecast for more locations and as a result become more accurate.  

This is a complex question, but what goes into making a surf forecast? Is it as hard as doing math, or as simple as reading buoys?

Surf forecasting is complex because there are so many different variables that make each individual surf break unique.

To break it down simply, there are 2 dimensions to a forecast: the surf height, and the surf conditions.

We derive the surf height from the predicted offshore swell using a wave model and use the model output swell height, period, and direction to forecast for a particular location’s swell window and ocean bottom characteristic.

Where models give predictions, buoys give actual measurements, so buoys can validate a model prediction and give you an accurate idea of what is occurring right now near the coast. 

As for the surf conditions, we use the government weather models to predict the wind, which is directly related to the surface conditions.  

Photo courtesy Christina Donnelly

Why start Surf Captain? Also, where did the name originate?

After selling Swellinfo in 2014, I needed a break from the entrepreneurial route and I took a regular office job.

I could only do it for so long, and was itching to do my own thing again.

I was helping the new owners of Swellinfo maintain the site for a few years, but when I realized they were not very  interested in my ideas on how to progress the site, I decided it was time for me to move on. 

It was not too long after I left that the Swellinfo forecasts had some major issues and the Swellinfo forecasts haven't been right since. 

Seeing Swellinfo tumble, I realized that it was time to get back into the surf forecast game.

The idea was to take the basic concept of Swellinfo, but to improve upon every aspect I could think of ... improving forecast accuracy, the UI, and the mobile app experience among others.

Additionally, instead of managing forums and media, like with Swellinfo, I wanted the focus for Surf Captain to be completely on the forecasts.  

As for the name, Surf Captain, I wish I had a good derivation story. It was really just a result of a brainstorming session and checking domain name availability.

It's quite difficult these days to find a good dot com name that someone hasn’t already purchased, so when I found out was available, I was stoked. 

What makes Surf Captain unique?

The biggest positive feedback we get about Surf Captain is that it is so easy to use.

People love the simple color coded chart that at a glance can give you an idea about the trending surf heights and conditions.

For those that like to dig into the gritty details, it's all there, but at a glance it's super simple. 

Photo courtesy Augusto Figueiredo

We've all seen a surf forecast or two be much smaller than anticipated. So how can surf forecasting in general improve?

We are constantly working on improving the forecasts. There are several ways to do this, the first of which is just tuning the parameters for each individual forecast location.

For example, on a given 3ft @ 12 second swell, location A could have 3ft surf heights, while location B could have 5ft surf heights.

Another way to improve the forecasts is by validating the wave model output and correcting the biases.

For example, for a particular swell direction and swell period, the model could underestimate a forecast by 20%. Using our buoy validation approach, we can correct these biases. 

Additionally, a  major way to improve forecasts is with better wind predictions.

The government weather models have improved significantly through the years, and will continue to do so.

The better the wind predictions, the better the forecasts will be. 

What can we expect in the future with Surf Captain?

I’m super excited about the future of Surf Captain. 

We will soon be releasing customized surf alert notifications, and I think users are really going to like these.

Customizing the surf height and surf conditions thresholds for notifications is going to make staying on top of upcoming swells so easy.

Users can also expect constant improvements in forecast accuracy with the methods mentioned above.

Eventually Surf Captain will offer global forecasts, but right now the focus is really on nailing down the US and the North America forecasts.  

Photo courtesy Christina Donnelly

Any advice for others looking to get into the surf forecasting business?

I suggest anyone interested in surf forecasting to start forecasting for your local area on your own — this is how I started.

Get tuned into how to create a forecast at home, and then you can expand your knowledge on how to apply the forecasting approach to other areas.

Start doing it for fun as I did and who knows where it will lead you. 

Check out Surf Captain's surf forecast by clicking right here.


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