Master Forecaster: Mark Sponsler and Stormsurf
by Heidi Trilling
Aug. 1, 2010 — Some little boys dream of being cowboys or pirates when they grow up. And some dream of being surf-forecasting meteorologists.
“I guess I was a quirky kid,” says Mark Sponsler, founder and CEO of Stormsurf, the preeminent surf-forecasting and marine weather website. “My friends were fascinated by cartoons and baseball, but I was interested in pressure systems, hurricanes and wave mechanics!”
And Sponsler had plenty to keep him busy.
Growing up in Miami and Cocoa Beach, Florida, Sponsler and his family witnessed fearsome hurricanes with roaring 100-mile-an-hour winds, power outages, and all kinds of objects crashing into their house. “Our big family movie was The Wizard of Oz,” Sponsler says. “The tornado scene, in particular … that sort of thing just stays with you, you know?”
It stayed with the whole family.
Sponsler’s parents were avid watchers of hurricanes. His kid brother Stephen got a degree in meteorology, worked with the Air Force, the National Weather Service, and then produced storm-chasing blogs.
Sponsler, a self-taught meteorologist and big-wave surfer, is the official surf forecaster for the Mavericks Surf Contest in Half Moon Bay. His forecasts are syndicated across a host of other websites, and Stormsurf clients include Nightline, 48 Hours, FoxTV and IMAX. Sponsler is also credited in scores of books, magazines and films. Since its inception in 1998, Stormsurf has become the industry gold standard for accurate marine weather forecasting data.
“It’s great to work with Mark,” says local big-wave surfing legend Jeff Clark. “He’s precise, he’s intuitive, he surfs Mavs. He knows the ocean as a scientist and an athlete. That’s why his forecasts are so accurate, so right on it.”
Big-wave chargers Mike and Sarah Gerhardt agree. Mike says: “Mark keeps all of us tapped into the breaks. We couldn’t do what we do without him.” Sarah adds: “He’s a great friend of ours. A guru and an oracle for all of us surfers. We have his number on speed dial!”
The international surf community relies on Sponsler’s forecasts to help call the Mavericks Surf Contest each winter.
“The jet stream flows from Japan right into Oregon all winter long,” Sponsler says, “and storms follow that track like a super highway across the North Pacific. Mavericks is situated perfectly to get the swell — but not quite all the wind and storm energy associated with it. … So, if the storms are following that bowling alley, we’re gonna catch ’em. Maybe then we’ll get a candidate storm for the contest.”
Candidate storms and big surf at Mavericks can occur any time between November and March.
“I think Mavs — Half Moon Bay, in particular — gets way more big surf in any given year than Hawaii ever gets,” Sponsler says. “But the reality is that 95 percent of all winter activity here just doesn’t meet the criteria of the contest. … It’s a tricky business getting everything right. That’s why it’s so much fun when it all comes together. … Providing this service is a pleasure for me, as a forecaster and as a surfer.”
A pleasure for the media, too.
“Mark’s one of the best forecasters on the planet,” says filmmaker Curt Myers of Powerlines Productions. “His website is killer. He’s a huge resource for our filmmaking and surfing, and a great guy all around.”
Filmmaker Eric Nelson of Powerlines says: “Stormsurf is the backbone of the surf industry … a treasure chest of info for serious surfers, filmmakers, photographers, everybody.”
Soon, Sponsler will be the guru to skiers and snowboarders, as well. His next meteorological business venture is forecasting snowfall, just as he forecasts surf.
Sponsler says: “Who wants to be a weather geek, unless you’re getting something out of it, right? And I am. Killer surf at Mavs, killer snow in Tahoe! It’s like a giant gift! I’m just thankful for everything that’s come down. It’s like a wonderful dream trip that I’m on.”
An accomplished skier as well as surfer, Sponsler believes these sports rejuvenate body and spirit.
“I’m from the ’70s school of surfing,” Sponsler says. “It’s communing with nature, getting in touch with your inner self. It’s a meditative activity, a re-nourishment of your soul. … Hyper-civilization, political games at work — surfing wipes all that away and you get back to who you really are.”
Sponsler says this mindset can renew the workplace and society as a whole. He ensures that Stormsurf follows this credo, avoiding over-commercialization and profits at any cost.
“There needs to be more integrity in business, more honesty and general caring,” Sponsler says. “Do something good for people who share the same interests you do. Don’t be so concerned about money. Just do the right thing. And let’s build something that everyone can enjoy and share and that makes their lives a little bit easier and better.”