First off, the SearchGPS looks like one chunky slab of a watch. And that's exactly what it is, though it doesn't feel that way on your wrist -- it's surprisingly lightweight and comfortable to wear. The straps and outer casing are fashioned out of a buoyant silicone polymer, the only exception being the underbelly which is outfitted with a carbon fiber shell and contact plates for recharging the battery. Water literally rolls off the SearchGPS in beads, and it has an almost jelly-like feel when wet. I wore it casually for two weeks in and out of the water and experienced no chafing at all. Obviously, that's pretty important to someone who surfs frequently (or really, anyone who's gonna spend $400 on a watch). As for battery life, I charged the device once, moments after it arrived on my doorstep. Thirteen days later, its power indicator finally dropped below 100 percent. Yes, really -- that impressive performance is partly due to the watch's power-sipping monochrome LCD display, which is easy to view in direct sunlight or while submerged in murky, particle-filled waters.
Between three buttons -- one on the left side of the device and two on the right -- you'll navigate the home menu for tide information (courtesy of Magicseaweed), alarm functionality, backlight control, and, of course, a time face. Once you're in the water, it's time for the "go surf" mode. When initiated, the SearchGPS gathers your wave count, distance traveled, top speed and GPS location. Then, after syncing your data with Rip Curl's Search app (iOS, Mac and Windows) via Bluetooth or the USB charging cable, those stats are translated into a map of your entire run, as well as a detailed report for each wave you caught, your longest wave and your "surf rating." Minus the map, you can also cycle through a less detailed recap on the watch itself.
The Search app has a minimalistic social experience -- there's no way to comment on your buddies' rides or chat with followers -- but the sheer simplicity is kind of refreshing. Basically, it's a river of streamlined stats. With one touch of the glass, you can envy Tyler Wright's 32-wave run in the waters of Latigo Point, California or Mick Fanning's top speed of 19.6 mph off the coast of South Africa. And if you're really serious, you can start a club and compete against your friends or even set up a trip or event.
How does the SearchGPS fare in the wild? In short, it's accurate, precise and telling of the wearer's skills. The swell in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina isn't exactly known for its killer waves, especially right after a storm. But, thanks to a buddy of mine (who's admittedly a much better surfer than me), we managed to catch six decent beach breaks in about 26 minutes -- all of which updated the wave count instantly. I did try to fool the watch by bodysurfing several times, but thanks to its well-calculated wave-counting algorithm, I failed to dupe it. And I'm a very decent body surfer, honest.
After reviewing the stats on my iPhone, I found both the GPS information and surf time right on track and quite interesting to investigate. But what about top speed? At an earlier date, I wore the SearchGPS while shredding water on a Yamaha WaveRunner VX Sport... and I went very fast. The watch recorded my top speed as 49.2 mph, which was impressively just three miles per hour lower than listed on the jet ski's speedometer.
So, let's say you're an adequate surfer with some cash to spare. Should you buy Rip Curl's watch this October? Maybe. If you plan to take your game to the next level, it might be a worthy investment. In the right hands, the SearchGPS can be a powerful learning tool (and convenient way to track your undisclosed surfing sweet spots, right down to their GPS coordinates). Otherwise, as in my case, it's a $400 gadget that quantifies exactly how mediocre your wave-ripping skills are.