On a big day this past December, three surfers were rescued by the Coast Guard at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. One of them died. I’ve lived and surfed in San Francisco for 30 years now, and I can’t remember as many rescues in one season, much less on the same day. I have a theory about why this is sadly becoming more common, though.
On New Year’s Day, for example, shortly after the death at Ocean Beach, my husband and I took a drive to bring our dogs there. We parked next to a surfer that was getting ready to paddle out into the jumbled, stormy conditions. From the back of his truck, he pulled out an orange softtop surfboard. My husband and I exchanged eye rolls. We’ve noticed the increase in surfers thinking it’s cool in an ironic way to surf foam boards in the heavy and dangerous waves at this world-famous break. As somebody who’s spent nearly three decades trying to befriend its waves, the fad drives me crazy. To be casual about surfing Ocean Beach is an insult to Mother Nature herself. It’s one of the most dangerous waves in the world with signs posted along the shore that plainly say, “People have drowned here. Call 911 in an emergency.” Between the brutal paddle out, the relentless current, the cold water, how far out the wave breaks, and the shocking power it carries, it’s taken me all of those 30 years of experience just to finally stop physically shaking with fear when I change into my wetsuit before a surf.
I’m starting to think the insane footage of guys like Jamie O’Brien charging 10-foot shorebreak on a foam board, doing board transfers at The Wedge, or going over the falls riding pool toys is rubbing off on the average surfer in all the wrong ways. Maybe the common surfer is becoming numb to just how experienced and exceptionally skilled these pros are when they watch them in their social media feeds, forgetting that these are the same people who make surfing Maverick’s or Teahupo’o look casual. Maybe they start thinking that since everyone on Instagram and YouTube can surf crazy waves on equipment that was picked up from Costco, they can too.
Let’s all Google some footage of Jamie O’Brien at Pipe and then try to rationalize why we are just as qualified to bring softtops to Ocean Beach on an overhead day. I’m all for pushing limits and having fun out there, but it would be great if everyone knew their own limits.
As for that guy we saw in the parking lot on New Year’s Day; well, when we returned to our car, his truck was gone, presumably having wrapped up his session and home safe for the day. But sure enough, right next to that warning sign about people dying at this very beach, was his orange foam board snapped clean in half.