Rip Curl Search GPS Watch Review: The Most Advanced Surf Watch Yet

By Brent Rose on at

It seems like there are GPS watches to track practically any sports activity, from running and hiking to cycling and swimming. So why have surfers been left out in the cold? Rip Curl aims to fix that with the first watch to track just how much gnar you're shredding.

What Is It?

The Search GPS is a waterproof GPS watch make specifically for surfing. It counts your waves and tracks your top speed and distance. It also shows you the local tides, how far you've paddled, how long you've been out, and it even has an alarm to keep you from getting a parking ticket. Then you can upload the data and see it all plotted out online.

Who's It For?

Surfers, duh. But specifically, more serious surfers. Nerd surfers. Surfers who might be interested in quantifying their surfs. Surfers with some extra pocket change.

Rip Curl Search GPS Watch Review: The Most Advanced Surf Watch Yet

Design

The Search GPS isn't much to look at. That isn't to say it's ugly, it's just kind of there. The thick, black, rubber watchband is all one piece and is integrated into the watch body. This makes the watch feel a bit bulky, though that's generally to be expected for a waterproof GPS watch. The band is thick, so as not to cut off circulation, and it feels very strong, with a thick locking mechanism.

Rip Curl Search GPS Watch Review: The Most Advanced Surf Watch Yet

Up front, you've got your standard digital watch LCD. There's nothing special about it resolution-wise, but it does have a backlight, should you decide to go for a moonlight session (one of my very favourite things to do). There's one big button that takes up the whole left side of the watch, and the right side is split in half by two more big buttons. These were designed so that the watch would be easy to operate even with 5mm gloves on. Smart!

Rip Curl Search GPS Watch Review: The Most Advanced Surf Watch Yet

The watch itself is waterproof to 330 feet, which means that if you ever wipe out at maxing Peahi it's a good deal more likely to survive than you are. Inside the watch, there are accelerometers to help the watch differentiate between when you're paddling and when you're riding, in addition to the GPS antenna. The watch charges with a USB cable which has a crocodile clip on the side.

Rip Curl Search GPS Watch Review: The Most Advanced Surf Watch Yet

Using It

Rip Curl's watch is extremely simple to use. When you want to go for a surf, you simply hold down the big button on the left, select Surf, and then Go Surf. The watch will take a minute or so (sometimes more, sometimes much less) to get a GPS lock. When it's ready, it will say Start Surfing, then you just hit the button and will paddle out. Not only does it use the GPS to determine where you are (it even knows the name of the nearby surf breaks, more often than not), it updates the watch to the right time-zone and gives you accurate tide information.

Once you're out there, you don't have to do anything other than surf as you normally would. It uses the accelerometers and GPS signal to determine when you've caught a wave and logs everything automatically. If you want to check out your stats as you go, though, you just hit the big main button to flip through the different screens. Each screen generally just has one item of data, so it's big and easy to read. Screens include how many waves you've caught, your maximum speed on a wave, your total distance travelled (includes paddling and riding), and the duration of your session. There's also a main screen that displays the time of day and the current tide information.

Rip Curl Search GPS Watch Review: The Most Advanced Surf Watch Yet

I tested the watch both in the cold waters of Northern California, with the watch on the outside of my 3/2mm wetsuit, and on Oahu with the watch on my bare skin. In both cases I found it to be totally comfortable and it didn't get in the way at all, though it manage to pick up a little bit of wax from my board here and there. It's definitely a big watch, but it didn't seem to hinder my performance at all.

I did see a fair amount of performance wonkiness while I was in the water, though. Sometimes I would have just paddled out and sat there for a few minutes waiting for a set, then I'd look down and it thought I'd caught a wave already. In fact, nearly every session I had I found that the watch would add at least a couple waves to my total, and unfortunately there's no Undo button. I believe this is because GPS technology and water don't always play so nicely together.

Rip Curl Search GPS Watch Review: The Most Advanced Surf Watch Yet

Occasionally the opposite problem would happen: It wouldn't see a wave that you caught. This is even more frustrating, especially if you've having a lousy session, you finally catch a good one, and it doesn't register. I found that it would miss roughly one out of every 12 waves. It's not the end of the world, but it's certainly aggravating. The watch can supposedly tell a garbage wave from a good one, so if you just stand up and instantly kick out (or immediately eat shit on the drop) it's not supposed to count toward your total. That's great, but it definitely missed a couple of my longest, fastest waves, so I'm not sure what was happening there.

Once you get out of the water, you hit End Surf, and then it scrolls through the session's stats. It's nice for at-a-glance basic info, but the real fun is when you upload your surfs. The easiest way to do that is with an iOS device (an Android app is supposedly coming soon). You install the Rip Curl Search app, and then you can sync your surfs with just a couple button presses on the watch. Alternatively (if you don't have an iOS device) you can use the USB charging cable and Rip Curl's desktop app.

Rip Curl Search GPS Watch Review: The Most Advanced Surf Watch Yet

Once your data is synced, that's where this goes from novelty to useful training tool. Using the app or the web-based version, you can see the path you took on every one of your rides. It does this by using the GPS tracks you recorded and laying them on top of a Google Maps satellite image. It shows you the distance and speed for each ride, but the most useful feature is that you can see where you took off each time. You can look at the map and say, "Okay, when I was sitting over here I was only getting 30-40 metre rides, but when I moved over to this spot, suddenly I was averaging 70-80 metre rides!" That's the kind of information you can use and benefit from the next time you paddle out. You can even see the landmark on shore and get an idea of what you should be using to line yourself up.

You can also put notes in about your session, including what board you were riding and what the weather was like. The app tries (though doesn't always succeed) to pull in data from Magic Seaweed (a surf forecasting site), so you've got information about the swell and tide already there. You can even snap a photo and add it if you like.

Rip Curl Search GPS Watch Review: The Most Advanced Surf Watch Yet

There's also a strong social component here. You set up a minimal profile and then you can share your surfs with your friends. You can also choose to hide any surf you want, or have it listed as a "secret spot" and no location data will be displayed, which is very smart. I would love to be able to follow my friends' surfs. I've got this one buddy who really kind of sucks, but every time I don't go with him it's all, "You shoulda been there, dude, I got so many good ones today!" This would keep his lying ass honest. You can also follow some pro surfers who have been using the watch for months. We're talking about people like 3x world champion Mick Fanning, Matt Wilkinson and current world number one Gabriel Medina. It's humbling to be able to quantify just how much better these guys are than you, but it's sort of inspiring, too.

One of the features I love is that you can enable a layer that shows your paddling tracks. Surfing is my favourite form of exercise, so when I see that I paddled 3.6 miles in a 96 minute session, it helps me quantify my in-shapedness, or lack thereof. This really helped when I was training to go surf in Hawaii.

Rip Curl Search GPS Watch Review: The Most Advanced Surf Watch Yet

One thing I really hate on both the iOS app and in the web version is that while it lists your waves numerically and shows the distance and top speed for each, that number doesn't correspond to the overlay on the map. This means you have no way of knowing which is which. It's really dumb and it would be a very easy fix to implement. Also, remember those phantom waves I was talking about earlier? Well you can see them on the map, and sometimes they're clearly going side to side in a way that the wave would never break. You'd think it would be possible to eliminate that, but at the very least Rip Curl could give us the option to manually delete waves.

Here's a feature I'd like to see. The Search GPS has Bluetooth. So does the new GoPro Hero4. Wouldn't it be cool if these two devices could sync up, so later, when you're looking at your ride data online, you could actually play the video of that wave? Yes. Yes it would. Rip Curl, GoPro… please get on that.

Rip Curl Search GPS Watch Review: The Most Advanced Surf Watch Yet

Like

It's the first watch (or, really, product of any type) that gives you some real data about your surfing, and that's pretty awesome. Overlaying all of your rides onto a satellite map helps you strategise about where you want to position yourself next time. I love being able to see how far I paddled each session. Great to have an alarm on your wrist so you don't get a parking ticket. Feels very rugged, but didn't get in the way. The display and information is very easy to read and easy to understand.

I really like the one-touch setup. Great to have tides readily accessible and nice to be able to immediately sync with iOS devices. Very good battery life, coming in at around 10 hours of GPS tracking.

Rip Curl Search GPS Watch Review: The Most Advanced Surf Watch Yet

No Like

There's too much inconsistency in its performance. Too many ghost waves are added in, and sometimes it misses the waves you actually did catch. That's the main thing they've got to fix. In the app and on the web version you can't see which wave is which on the map, which should be a no-brainer of a feature. The charging clip is a little bit of a pain to use, but not too bad. No Android app yet.

Rip Curl Search GPS Watch Review: The Most Advanced Surf Watch Yet

Should You Buy It?

So, this thing is pretty sweet, but it's also £290. For that you could get a high-end wetsuit or a pretty decent (used) shortboard. This watch is by no means a necessity, but at the same time, this is the kind of data that a lot of hardcore surfers have been dreaming of having for decades, and it's in a pretty elegant package. Is it a luxury item? Kind of, but it could also be considered a valuable training tool.

Personally, I really loved testing this watch. I had a lot of fun looking back at the data, and it really helped me relive the surf. As someone who always seems to have larger gaps in between sessions than I would like, that's a real added value. I'm not sure if I'd drop four bills on it, but it's damn tempting. [Rip Curl]