Checking a surf forecast site last week I came across an image that has become a familiar asset in the reporting of big, long-interval WNW swells hitting Northern California during periods of cooperative weather: the view from the hillside intersection of Taraval and 24th Streets, in San Francisco’s Sunset District. It looks down at distant Ocean Beach, where corrugated lines of swell explode onto offshore sandbars, being compressed into hollow, gnarly 15 to 18-foot, Pipeline-esque peaks.
Photographers are obviously drawn to the incongruity of the shot, juxtaposing the Sunset’s prosaic urban expanse, with its quiet residential neighborhoods and modest commercial concerns, with the thundering Ocean Beach surf. And every time I see that image I can’t help but wonder, aside from the few dozen local surfers living in the area, do many other San Franciscans even acknowledge, let alone understand, the remarkable surfing scenario playing out down at the end of their street?
Apparently not. I recently came across an online feature titled “54 Cool Things to Do in San Francisco.” Right up there in the number one spot, of course, was “Walk Across The Golden Gate Bridge.” Fair enough. The list ended with “Lunch In Union Square” (with no mention of the blighted area’s many unfortunate, unhoused residents). Riding the cable cars was number 15, and way down at number 40 was “Standup Paddling On The Bay,” which at least referred to some sort of board sport. But surfing? Nothing. Zip. Despite the city’s often world-class surf conditions and growing population of enthusiastic participants.
Which is kind of weird, when you consider that San Francisco is, after all, a beach town. With almost three times as much beachfront within its city limits as San Clemente, San Francisco is also the traditional (and unceded) land of the indigenous Ramaytush Ohlone tribe, who a millennia ago first settled along what is now known as Ocean Beach. Meaning the area’s very first inhabitants were beach people. Nineteenth and early 20th century San Franciscans were also drawn to the city’s shore – the Cliff House, built overlooking Seal Rocks in 1863, was one of California’s first beach resorts, predating Coronado’s famous Del Coronado Hotel by 25 years. And there must’ve been some reason that Jack O’Neill opened the world’s very first surf shop – at least the first to actually be called “surf shop” – here at Ocean Beach in 1952. But for some reason it’s just never clicked with the rest of the world, or even the rest of the City’s residents, for that matter, that San Francisco has a great surf scene. So, having grown up surfing in the shadow of Seal Rocks and the Golden Gate Bridge (back before full wetsuits and leashes, if you can imagine that), I’ve decided – with tongue firmly in cheek – to put together my own list of cool things to do in San Francisco…if you’re a surfer.
Enjoy Fun to Medium-Sized Waves at Kelly’s Cove
If you think that all City surfers are big wave hellmen, 10 year-old Lyle Carson single-fin guns under arms, gazing out through their neoprene portholes with steely-eyed determination at the 15 lines of powerful whitewater they’ll have to negotiate just to reach the lineup in hopes of a decent one-wave session, guess again. In fact, there are plenty of high performance Ocean Beach surfers – gotta be 10 or 12, at least – who’ve honed their considerable chops in the smaller, much less arduous waves to be found at the north end of the beach, and the shifting peaks of Kelly’s Cove, San Francisco’s original surfing epicenter. On those glorious four-to-six foot autumn/early winter days with east wind offshores they’re busy surfing they way they do in all the video clips, with no ice cream headaches required. Only headaches they have to contend with are the hordes of East Bay newbies and (gasp!) Marin County interlopers, who have the unmitigated gall to want to horn in on all the fun.
Try Your Luck at the World’s Most Picturesque Surf Spot
Let others walk across, we’re talking about paddling out at Fort Point, the oft-photographed left reef/semi-point that predictably peels under the bridge and around the seawall of the restored Civil War-era military fort on the southern shore of the Golden Gate. One of the City’s most popular tourist destinations, out-of-town visitors have been gaping at intrepid surfers bobbing off the rip-rap shoreline, mere yards from the parking lot, for decades now. In the old days, meaning pre-leash, the easy-surfing lefts at Fort Point were for experienced wave riders only. Today, however, the lineup can get crowded with a disparate collection of surfers who, whether because of age, infirmary or simply inclination, show no interest in getting their head wet. Collisions and confrontations a’plenty, but hey, where else are you going to have that wave you were lucky enough to catch by yourself filmed by a family from Korea?
No, scrap that. When a photo of this grinding left first appeared in a 1967 issue of SURFER magazine, the name referred to the rocky shoreline against which it broke. Now it applies to anyone attracted to its awesome form and whose dad didn’t grow up surfing there. Forget I said anything.
Test Paddling, Duck Diving, and Rationalizing Skills at South Ocean Beach
Back in the sixties and seventies, hardly anyone surfed the stretch of Ocean Beach between VFWs (the peak just south of Kelly’s Cove) and Sloat Street, located at the end of, well, you get it, some three-and-a-half miles south. You could point to the fact that the coastal dunes were much higher then and you couldn’t see the water when driving down the Great Highway, but it’s most probably because there were no parking lots. A series of 1980s municipal projects eventually put in stoplights and crosswalks that provided access through the dunes and, much to even many longtime local’s surprise, during the right conditions that south end of the beach was revealed to be a full-on, world-class big wave break. Here hardy surfers have for the ensuing decades been fighting their way out through relentless sweeps of whitewater and furious side shore currents to then find themselves dodging set waves in the attempt to catch at least one screaming ride, before getting swept six or seven blocks north, beaten back to the beach, cold, exhausted, somewhat humiliated, and yet convinced that they love surfing Ocean Beach. Get yourself a six-mil, a 9’6”, a gym membership, and join the club!
Experience Being in the Lineup at Maverick’s
It’s just a short, scenic half-hour drive from Ocean Beach to Pillar Point Harbor, in Half Moon Bay, where during anything even resembling the ideal long period, 20-foot-plus W to WNW swell tracking in from 270 to 275°, with a low to medium incoming tide, many of the sport’s best big wave riders, including an increasing number of local aces, will gather to campaign the peak at Maverick’s, one of the world’s most ferocious mega waves. Then there’s the other 50 surfers out there, rafting up in their never-deployed Quiksilver and Patagonia inflatable vests, occasionally making half-hearted attempts to paddle in from the shoulder, scattering at the approach of every big set (“Like kitchen cockroaches when you flip on the lights,” says aquaman Mark Healey), but at the end of the day being able to say (so long as nobody asks to see any of their waves on Surfline’s cam rewind) that yeah, they were out at Maverick’s. Save yourself all that trouble by booking a spot on one of the channel fleet charter boats, where you’ll experience every truly awesome Maverick’s moment that the shoulder jockeys do – and just them, with your hair dry.