This is my second winter living in San Francisco and surfing the infamous Ocean Beach. Frankly, the responses I get when I mention that to folks have been pretty surprising. People talk about Ocean Beach like it’s Nazaré without the Jet Ski assist, and while yes, the paddle out can take 45 minutes on a bigger or messier day, and no it’s not a place I’d take a friend out for their first surf, it’s not as bad as the public opinion might warrant. At least not all the time. There are definitely the days when it is just as scary as people say it is, and there are the days (like Thursday and Friday of last week) when it’s just as pristine and heavy and glorious as the pictures and videos show.
That being said, my favorite part about Ocean Beach is hardly the waves, but rather what they’re teaching me about myself and my surfing. I’m learning a lot, and have improved drastically since I started spending consistent time at The Beach. Here are some of the things I’ve learned, summarized into a few easy to digest points and paired with some of my own (not so great) shots of the infamous Beach taken in early January, and some (really incredible) shots from Ross Warnlof of SF Surf Shots during a couple of perfect days last week.
Why I Love Ocean Beach
1. Ocean Beach is Always Breaking
Almost always. I’ve realized that some south swells in the middle of the summer will pass by OB completely, maybe bringing some dribblers to the north end by Kelly’s Cove but nothing more than that. But if we’re talking north swells, Ocean Beach is where you’ll consistently find the most size and the best waves if the wind stays favorable.
2. The Paddle
Wait a second are we still on the pluses? Yup. Even when it’s a fight to get out and I’m only catching a wave or two every 30 minutes, at the very least I’m building paddling endurance and getting great exercise. Ocean Beach is my local gym, and the price of entry is simply a broken board every once in a while.
3. The Power
The level of power that the wave has is pretty incredible and it’s pushed my shortboarding. When it’s low tide and the wave is really throwing, everything you catch is a late-drop free fall that either ends with you somehow hanging on or getting annihilated. The power will also teach you to deal with fear. Even on a medium-sized day when I go nonchalantly skipping out into the waves there’s sure to be a moment where that feeling of panic rises in my chest and I’ve got to just deal with it – like falling on a wave and being simultaneously pushed to the bottom and dragged by my tombstoning surfboard with no clue where the surface is. Stay calm, and you’ll be just fine. It’s the school of hard knocks.
4. The Duck Dive Training
Speaking of hard knocks, I thought I knew how to duck dive when I first moved to San Francisco. I didn’t. At most other breaks, there’s at least some margin for error. Say you didn’t get deep enough, well the foam will probably catch you, but overall no big deal. Now say you didn’t duck dive deep enough at Ocean Beach? Get ready for a world of hurt as you’re treated to a high-spin cycle at the local laundromat. You’ll also learn when to bail your board, because it only takes one explosive set on the head with your board getting ripped out of your hands to realize you might as well have swallowed your pride and bailed.
5. The Incredible Waves
I’ve caught the wave of my life out there, multiple times, and I have no doubt that OB is where I’ll find the next “wave of my life.” As the saying goes, the best barrel (wave, really) of your existence is the one you didn’t think you were going to make. The wave right on the edge of your ability such that you’re barely capable of scratching into it but willing to go anyway. It takes a certain amount of “fuck it” to push yourself over the ledge. And with so much room for me to grow out there at OB, I can only imagine how many “waves of my life” the beach still holds for me.
Why I Hate Ocean Beach
1. The Paddle
The paddle might be a pro, but it’s definitely also a con. To be quite honest, the paddle out is overhyped. It doesn’t always suck. But when it does, it really sucks. On lower tides the inside bar can be a massive pain in the ass, and if there’s enough swell in the water, getting out can feel like throwing yourself against a brick wall. There is nothing worse than catching a wave (especially the first wave of the set), riding it a bit too far inside, and then being unable get back out. Many a session has ended in frustration with tired arms that simply couldn’t carry me through the break and out the back.
2. The Wind
The wind is almost constantly changing. Apart from the handful of days per year when you got offshore winds from sunup to sundown, you never really know what you’re going to get until you’re in the water. You check the cams and it looks incredible, drive to the water and the wind has picked up but it still looks decent, and fifteen minutes later by the time you’ve made it out the back, it sucks and everyone is getting out. In one hour-long surf session earlier this year, I paddled out as it was sunny and lightly offshore, only to have the winds veer onshore before I could catch my first wave. Within fifteen minutes the onshore winds brought in fog so thick you couldn’t see the sand, which killed the wind and cleaned up the waves. And to cap it all off, fifteen minutes after that the sun came out and burned off the fog. I caught a few clean waves and didn’t stick around for the onshores to pick back up again.
3. The Current
The current is the true beast of Ocean Beach. You never know where you’re going to drift or how quickly. I used to think it was all the tides. When the tide comes in, an enormous amount of water flows into the San Francisco Bay through the Golden Gate Strait. So logically, with an incoming tide, the current should pull north towards the Golden Gate, strongest when it’s changing the fastest. Tide goes out, tons of water comes out of The Bay and the current pulls south. But a couple days ago when the current should have been pulling its strongest south (tide going out pretty quickly) I found myself drifting very slightly north. And the day before that when the tide was bottomming out and I should have been barely drifting north, I found myself moving south at a good clip. If someone has figured out the formula, please tell me.
4. The Sandbars
Thanks to the current, the sandbars are always changing too. See a good peak close by? By the time you’ve paddled over and waited for the next set, if you’ve somehow managed to beat the current and stay on that spot you’ll notice that the next set is actually breaking somewhere completely different. Paddle over there and you’ll receive the same treatment. Best bet is to stay where you are and hope for the best.
5. Car Crime
To cap it all off, you never really know when disaster is going to strike and how bad. Car crime is notoriously rampant in SF, and OB sees some of the worst of it. I’ve seen a bum walk car to car hand wrapped in a towel punching out windows just to get a better look inside and see if he wanted to steal anything. I’ve heard stories of surfers putting their key in a lockbox (seems safe, right?) only to come back and find a broken lockbox but no car. Every time I get back to my car, I breathe a sigh of relief.
In all honesty, my attempts to categorize and share these “hard and fast rules of OB” just goes to show how little I do know about the break after two years of surfing there. But I guess that’s just to be expected. Do the pros outweigh the cons? For me they do, so I’ll keep learning and surfing here for as long as I can. What’s your opinion of Ocean Beach? Feel free to sound off.