World’s Best Surf Watch

Summary: The best surf watch in the world is a Garmin Forerunner 245 with a custom watch face and the Surf Tracker 2 data field

Surfcrunch watch face on Garmin Forerunner 245What do I, Todd Glaser and Mark “Doc” Renneker have in common?

We have all spent hundreds of hours documenting surf sessions. I remember being 14, putting a line through a day in my year-to-a-page calendar to signify I had surfed. Sometimes I would have two sessions in a day, and have the satisfaction of drawing an X over the date.

It stems from my wanting to extend the session beyond the time I’m in the water. It’s a trick I’ve embraced as I’ve grown up. The more responsibilities that overtake surfing; spouse, kids, mortgage, the more joy I find in extending my surf experience.

More recently, I created the tools for recording and revisiting surf sessions. It’s similar to the Rip Curl Search GPS watch and website system, but better suited to surfers like me.

The Best Surf Watches

Several thoughtless but SEO friendly advertorial blog posts will tell you there are plenty of great surf watches out there, just pick the one you like the most. They’re wrong, most watches aimed at surfers are not great.

There are lots of other surf adjacent watches, and they might be the best option for you, depending on your needs.

For me, there are only a few watches I’d consider proper surfing watches:

  • Rip Curl Search GPS
  • Garmin Instinct Solar Surf edition
  • Apple watch (one of the newer, waterproof ones with GPS)

The others that you see promoted on surf blogs have one or two features which might be useful to surfers, but they lack at least one essential feature.

Why don’t I just buy one of these watches?

I use an android phone, for many good reasons covered in my project: Minimal Smartphone

I don’t have an iPhone, so I can’t use the Apple Watch, and the Rip Curl Search GPS requires that android users manually upload their surf sessions via a clunky desktop app like it’s 2009.

The Garmin Solar Instinct Surf edition might be a reasonable choice, it ticks nearly all the boxes I need for my surf watch. Unfortunately I don’t like the way it looks, which is not a show stopper, but as it turns out, I can get a similar, but much more flexible, device from Garmin for less money.

Why the Garmin Forerunner 245 is the best watch for surfers

I have used half a dozen GPS enabled watches for surfing over the last 8 years. Here’s my list of must haves for a watch you want to use in the surf:

  • Low profile – chunky watches with bits sticking out don’t slip under a wetsuit easily
  • Physical buttons – touchscreens break and barely work when you’ve got wet hands
  • Easily Replaceable straps – I want a subtle metal strap for every day wear, and a sports friendly unbreakable silicone strap for the rare sessions I have without a full wetsuit on
  • Good battery life – I don’t want to charge every night, I want to be able to record a couple of hour long surf sessions between charges at least
  • Ability to fairly accurately show waves ridden during the surf – this is less important now I use surfcrunch to analyse my sessions after the fact
  • All the usual watch features, well implemented, including a decent alarm
  • Good customer support from a recognised brand

And here are some optional extras:

  • Ability to track other activities, sleep, steps, heart rate etc.
  • Tide display on the watchface
  • Swell conditions display on watchface
  • Wind display on watchface
  • Moon phase and times of first and last light available
  • Alerts from a mobile phone, you can activate or deactivate
  • Third party apps/integrations for stuff like smart home control or music playback controls

I’ll save you some time, effort and trial and error and tell you that the Garmin Forerunner 245 with the Surf Tracker 2 data field and, if you’ve got time to build one, a custom watch face, is the best possible option if you want all those features.

It’s relatively inexpensive, is made of tough matte black plastic and has 5 physical buttons and no touchscreen. It does all the activity tracking you could ever need, and when combined with a black steel strap, looks great.

Tracking Waves in Real Time

The beauty of Garmins mid-high end watches is the Garmin Connect eco system of watchfaces, apps and data fields.

The barriers to entry for making an app or watchface for a Garmin watch are fairly low, even I can do it after all, so there’s a lot of unpolished stuff in there. Fortunately, there are also some excellent official and unofficial apps available that allow your inexpensive activity tracker to outperform the best surf specific watches on the market, for tracker 2 data field running on a Garmin watch

Surf Tracker 2 is a “Data Field”, that means you can assign it to any activity that you can track on your watch and it appears on the screen during the activity and writes extra information to the activity file that is displayed in the Garmin web interface afterwards.

It has over 37,000 downloads, and a 4 star rating. The people who didn’t rate it 5 stars are people who haven’t read the instructions.

This free data field allows you, with a little set up, to see how many waves you’ve ridden, the length, speed and duration of the last wave you rode, and the longest/fastest ride from the session, all at the same time. You can also see the current time and how long you’ve been in on the same screen.

It makes the watch vibrate when it’s logged a wave, so you know it’s working. It even runs on the Garmin Vivoactive HR, an aging device which you can pick up for about £25 second hand, as well as any modern watch that runs Garmin connect data fields. I had a Vivoactive HR, and it worked great (although eventually the touchscreen died on mine).

Surf Tracker will never be 100% accurate as it relies on the real time GPS data, but you can tweak several settings to make it a bit more accurate if you wish. I use it every session out of curiosity, but I don’t rely on it for analysis, that’s where surfcrunch comes in.

I usually find it might miss 3-4 waves in an average session, but they’re picked up in surfcrunch when the whole gps track is available and can be smoothed and processed on the server to pick up most of the missing waves.

My Custom Watchface

The standard options available for the Forerunner 245 are fine, and there are loads of extra options available in the Garmin Connect store, but none that look like a true surf watch.

I decided to take the best bits from the surf watches I’ve used in the past, and some design inspiration from some that I’ve only seen online, and make my own watch face.

Programming the watch face was not trivial, but I managed to do it as a hobbyist in the evenings over a month or two. If you want to try it yourself I’d recommend the Garmin developer forums for all the info you’ll need. Also search Github for some examples of watchfaces, that will save you a lot of time if there’s something similar to what you want out there already that you can build on.

I don’t think the skills I picked up are very transferable, so unless you’re going to be getting value out of the watch face every day, it might not be worth trying this yourself.Screenshot from Garmin emulator

Actually coding what I ended up with is a whole other story which I might write up properly at some point.

Suffice to say, there’s very little memory available for a watchface, so I needed to build a custom api on top of the web app to pull data from my self hosted Postgres database of swell, wind and tide conditions and deliver an array of values that the watch could translate into the values and charts you see on the face of the watch.

This is a screenshot of a nearly finished version of the watchface from the emulator provided with the Garmin SDK.


I wanted an easily readable display which wasn’t overwhelming, but also included the following information at all times:

  • Time, 24 hour format
  • Date, including year and day of the week
  • Combined swell size, period and direction
  • Wind speed and direction
  • Tide chart for the current day at my local spot
  • Time and height in metres of the next high or low tide
  • Some indication of the times of first light, dawn, last light and dusk

I looked at lots of tide and surf watches for inspiration:

Surf Watch inspiration

One of the ones that really caught my eye is the Nixon High Tide (far left of the images), and that was the main inspiration for my watchface aesthetics.

I used built in fonts and sizes from Garmin’s system, to save memory, but they turned out to look nice and they render smoothly on my Forerunner 245.

You can see the familiar two tone design, giving me a high contrast time and date display in the top half for very easy time telling, and then a fairly information dense section on the bottom for all the surf/tide stuff.

Here’s a diagram with all the features indicated:

Surfcrunch Watch Face details

The height of the tide chart area is the highest astronomical tide for the location, so if there’s a spring tide, the charts fill the height, if it’s a neap, they fill a smaller vertical space.

You can always look at the extreme tide height at the bottom to get an idea of the actual height of the tide, if you’re in an area of big tides, like me, it’s easy to tell from the low or high tide height whether it’s a spring or neap tide that day.

The red line is hard to make out in this photo, but it’s clear in real life. The bar along the bottom is the current 24 hour period, there are two grey and one white sections shaded in the bar. Grey means twilight, between first light and dawn or last light and dusk, and white is daylight.

The idea is to get an idea at a glance about what the tide will be doing first thing or last thing, to time a session better.

Combining the watch face with a couple of extra widgets, like the official moon phase widget, and using surfcrunch to log and visualise my surf sessions, makes the Garmin Forerunner 245 the world’s best surf watch.

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