Finding my lost Apple Watch may have just made me an Apple fan boy forever

Three weeks in the ocean and it’s still as good as new, and it’s found its way back to me!

I’m a keen bodysurfer and like to use foot fins and a handplane to help me get out amongst the bigger waves which are usually the exclusive domain of the board riders. Though Sydney’s Northern Beaches surfers are usually pretty chill, they’ll often use their greater mobility and the threat of a bump in the head with their hard, pointy surfboard to take a wave from me. I wouldn’t be out there if I wasn’t prepared to take a few risks, so I harbour no resentment, it’s just part of the deal, like getting dumped, stung or bitten.

My bodysurfing equipment: WAW handplane and foot fins.

I was doing my thing and trying to mind my own business in a big Autumn swell on the morning of Monday 13 April 2020, at The Peak at Newport when a board rider decided to attempt to drop in and take the wave I had already started on.

My left arm went through the loop of his leg rope, and my handplane (secured to my wrist) snagged on the rope. As he tried to take off on the wave, I acted as a big sea anchor, pulling him backwards off the board, at which point the big breaker pulled us ‘over the falls’, into the maelstrom of a big dumping wave and tumbled us like a washing machine.

Somewhere in that tangle of men, water and equipment, his leg rope, still wrapped around my wrist, tore the velcro watch strap and the Apple Watch Series 4 off my wrist. We both struggled to the surface to take a breath, assured each other there was no hard feelings, and then I realised my Apple Watch was no longer with me. Apple Watches are dense little packages of steel and glass — they don’t float under any circumstances.

When I got home, I marked the Apple Watch missing on Apple’s Find My app, which seemed futile but I planned to claim it on my insurance and figured that would help with my evidence.

Email from Apple noting my Apple Pay cards had all been suspended when I marked the watch as lost.
Email from Apple noting my Apple Pay cards had all been suspended when I marked the watch as lost. One of the many handy ways Apple helps you keep your stuff safe.

But I’d lost my Apple Watch in 3–4 metres of sea water, about 30 metres out from shore, in a surf break which is rocky in places and often has a deep sand trench running parallel to the beach. I assumed it would get wedged under a rock, get pulled out to sea in a trench, or just get buried in sand moving during the big swell over the next few days.

When my good friend Ben offered to go diving for it with his scuba rig, I said no, believing it would impossible to spot a small black watch against a red sandstone rock shelf black with algae and obscured by weed in the low-visibility, turbulent water.

What the break at The Peak, Newport looks like on a big day. Photo credit Wannasurf.com
What a big day looks like at The Peak. Not small. Not a place Apple Watches come back from. Or do they? Photo © Wannasurf.com

Surprise reveal

But last night, 5th of May 2020, 22 days after it had gone missing, I got an automated email from Apple. They’d been contacted by NSW Police to let me know that an Apple device “associated with me” had been handed in at Mona Vale Police Station!

The automated email from Apple saying to contact Mona Vale Police station.

I emailed the station immediately confirming I’d lost an Apple Watch and included my mobile number. They called me only a few minutes later to say I should print out the email, note down a reference number, and come in to pick it up.

“Was it even slightly working when it was handed in?” I asked. “It had just enough power to light up when I first pressed the crown button, but I think they battery’s flat now,” the Constable said.

“Did the person who handed it in say anything about how they found it?” I asked. “Just said it had drifted past his face in the shore break earlier today and he thought he better bring it in. Didn’t want to leave his details, didn’t want to be thanked or rewarded.”

Thank you, mysterious surfing stranger (even if you’re a wave-hogging board rider!)

This morning, I picked up my Apple Watch from the station:

My watch, outside the station. A bit sandy, but otherwise OK. Crown worked, no scratches that I hadn’t put there myself, and no external signs of salt water damage or sand abrasion.
Back home, still some Newport Beach sand in the Velcro strap but otherwise you wouldn’t know it had spent a couple of weeks in three meters of seawater and sand!

Within a few seconds of being attached to the Apple charger, the Apple Watch began displaying the low-power version of its screen.

Low power display works, maybe the electronics inside are as unscathed as the case outside?

And once it had enough power, the Apple Watch began displaying the notification that it had been lost, with my contact details if a kind soul decided to return it to me. So somewhere between me losing it and it being handed in at the station, it had received a notification from Apple and put itself in lost mode, so that it couldn’t be used without inputting the correct PIN number, and displaying my contact details.

Displaying the lost mode message I’d added when reporting it lost with the Find My app.

Just like it never happened!

I’ve spent the past three weeks living with my spare Apple Watch, which is a Series 1 version, and while it’s been pretty cool that it can run the current WatchOS at all, it’s very slow to respond, it only just makes it through the day if I use it to record a run or a workout, and there are some things it just can’t do. But it’s still a functional Apple Watch all these years later, still with the original band and a largely unmarked face.

If NRMA insurance hadn’t been so slow to respond to my insurance claim I might have replaced the lost Apple Watch with another Series 4 (they blame the backlog from the bushfire season, fair enough I suppose). I was also reluctant to replace it with a Series 4 when there’s a good chance there will be a Series 6 Apple Watch announced in Sept/Oct this year.

But that’s not the point. The point is: how amazing is it that this happened? That I lost my Apple Watch in the surf 22 days ago, that I could mark it lost and the magic of the Cloud would push a message with my contact details to it somehow, lock it securely, record its last known location, remove my private credit and debit card data from it?

That it survived apparently unscathed after spending at least a week or two in deep saltwater, rocks and sand? That this heavy little techno stone washed up on the beach and someone saw it before it got buried like everything else at the tide line?

That after at least two weeks, probably more, it still had enough power to suggest it might still work and shouldn’t be tossed in the nearest bin? That Apple’s thought to engrave serial numbers in the back face of their watches so they can be identified and traced to their owners? That Apple has provided the police with a means of reporting lost Apple property which the NSW Police are prepared to use?

That the person who found it didn’t even want a thank you, much less a reward?

There’s a lot of negative, nasty, sad and evil forces at work in the world today generating lots of depressing, infuriating stories about bad things happening to people who didn’t deserve bad things.

This has not been one of them.

I’m Alan Jones, an EiR for startup accelerators, GP at M8 Ventures. Previously investor, founder, and early Yahoo PM. Opinions mine (but should also be yours).

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