Swell Season: How The Apple Watch Conquered Surfing

20 February 2020
Watches, Apple Watch, Surfing, Fitness, Smartwatches, Apple, Gadget, Apple watch series 5
The Apple Watch quickly became the best-selling piece of wearable tech on the planet, but the waterproof features of the Apple Watch Series 5 now make it a favourite amongst surfers

Timepieces have been a staple of many a man’s uniform for decades. And while the “investment purchase” nature of such goods has made it perfectly acceptable to fork out a sum that would see your wrist become something akin to a piece of real estate, the rapid advances of technology suggest a watch can’t expect to be in your daily rotation if it only tells you the time alone. Now, a watch has to connect to your music library; give you an accurate forecast of the week’s weather; track your daily activity (and bully you into working out when you’re lagging behind); and pretty much rival the fictional creations once described in a “James Bond” novel.

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A watch capable of shooting lasers and detonating an enemy base may not be on the market for some time (we can only hope a license is required should they emerge in the future), but the innovators at Apple have created something that does most everything else: the Apple Watch Series 5.

It’s hard to believe the Apple Watch was first launched in 2015. Despite numerous iterations from competitors and well-regarded luxury watch brands, the Apple Watch promised something more and quickly became the best-selling wearable device, selling 4.2 million in the second quarter of 2015 alone. As of 2020, the Apple Watch has become the number one best-selling piece of wearable tech on the planet, selling in excess of 33 million devices – a number so staggering, even Tim Cook would be rubbing his glasses in disbelief.

But despite the success of the 2015 model, it pales in comparison to Series 5. The first iteration had heart rate and motion sensors, with the lofty goal of driving simple but compelling fitness activities to its users. The focus was simple: help you move more and sit less. Today, in a culture that seems fixated on health and its all-encompassing nature, from meditation to diet, HIIT workouts to daily steps, such an aim would barely register on our radar. Consequently, the Apple Watch has adapted to our own demands. We’re no longer sedentary workers simply wanting to accumulate steps in our given day, but fitness fanatics who want to measure our heart rate and track our run-commute to work.

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So Apple naturally did what the tech giant does best: they added a compass and GPS to provide a robust experience for runners and hikers. They improved the heart rate sensor and motion tracking, and added a number of important health features like fall detection and heart health notifications. Developers were able to take advantage of the tools through the app ecosystem, producing various innovative programs and apps that are inline with users' passions. And then they did something we didn’t expect: they made it swimproof. Not only that, but they made it the ultimate companion for those in the surf.

Surfing is a pastime that doesn’t discriminate between age or gender, and if you’re blessed with local surf, to frequent a beach is to see many an amateur and professional making the most of good weather and big waves. Now, with surfing set to makes it debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, it’s sure to entice many more people to take up the sport and its meditative offerings in the water.

To experience the features of the Apple Watch Series 5 firsthand, I went to the home of surfing: Byron Bay. In recent years, Byron has come to be known as the mecca of Australian fitness culture, with its outdoorsy, laid-back vibe, complemented by a booming wellness industry thanks to organic markets, farm-to-table dining, and yoga studios that are more frequent on street corners than coffee shops. It seems that to take your place calmly in the scenery of Byron Bay, you need something to be tucked under the arm at all times; preferably a surfboard, yoga mat bundled in an Aztec-designed bag, or a green juice bigger than your head. But when it comes to the surf, you need only enthusiasm. 

Regardless of the fact that the watch has a water resistance rating of 50 metres, what’s most impressive about the wearable device are the apps that make it an exceptional experience for surfing. Most notably, the app Dawn Patrol allows users to track their surf with actual tide information from your favourite beaches. The app is the genius of creator and avid surfer Anton Bremer, who developed Dawn Patrol with the latest Apple Watch in mind. “We built an incredibly comprehensive and accurate tracking app for use while you’re out in the surf, and surfers can relive and share the surf sessions after they come out of the water. The app also provides tidal forecast complications and alongside Apple’s wide range of available complications like wind speeds and moon phases,” said Bremer.

Before getting into the water, I powered up the app and started my session. And as I was getting battered around by waves, wobbling briefly on a surfboard for brief seconds before toppling into the whitewash, I feared nothing was being picked up. But when I glanced down, there it was to my delight: the distance travelled and the time I spent on a wave, the number of waves I’d caught, as well as my heart rate and calories burned (surprisingly a lot, surfing is hard work).

With this kind of information, it’s easy to see how avid surfers would benefit from the technology. Cooper Chapman, an Aussie pro surfer, has been using the Apple Watch in his training. “When it comes to surfing, it’s a game changer. Being able to know my heart rate while competing through the Dawn Patrol app will allow me to control my breathing and keep my HR at a level I’m most comfortable to surf to the best of my ability under pressure. Also knowing my speed and wave count is handy information when it comes to training, and having the tide on my home screen means I’ll always be on top of it when conditions turn on.”

And after a morning surf, there’s nothing better than being able to buy a coffee and some hot chips to enjoy at your local beach café without needing to rush back to a car, grab a wallet and credit card. Instead, you can stay zipped up in your wetsuit and merely tap the watch to pay – as simple as that.

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For some, the idea of a watch being able to track your daily activity goals, respond to emails and play your pump-up Playlist might all seem superfluous and unnecessary. Certainly, it’s something I expected to find when using the watch. But the Apple Watch Series 5 actually proved the opposite. In our hyper-connected lives where the 9 to 5 workday has morphed into an all-encompassing lifestyle few can disconnect from, there’s never been a greater need for such a device.

The watch actually encourages you to spend less time on your phone, as you can be aware of notifications and changes to your work schedule, but dismiss them with a touch of a button. In doing so, it also keeps you focused on the message at hand, as opposed to holding a phone that opens a rabbit hole to Instagram-stalking, online shopping, and wading through various other distractions. That the watch can work in the surf, too? That’s just an added bonus, and a great one at that.

The Apple Watch Series 5 is available from Apple stores and online, $649.

Via GQ Australia