That’s why I love to surf Ocean Beach, San Francisco; and why i hate him

Assess the range (and paddle-out) on a recent swell. Photo: SF Surf Maps.

This is my second winter in San Francisco and surf the infamous Ocean Beach. Frankly, the responses I get when I mention this to people have been pretty surprising. People talk about Ocean Beach like it’s Nazaré without the Jet Ski assistance, and while yes, the paddle can take 45 minutes on a bigger or more complicated day, and no it’s not a place I would take a friend for their first surf, it’s not as bad as public opinion might warrant. At least not all the time. There are definitely days when it’s as spooky as people say it is, and there are days (like Thursday and Friday of last week) when it’s as pristine and heavy and glorious as the photos and videos.

That being said, my favorite thing about Ocean Beach is not the waves, but rather what they teach me about myself and my surfing. I’m learning a lot and have improved tremendously since I started spending time at The Beach. Here are some of the things I learned, boiled down to 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 amazing) shots of Ross Warnlof from SF Surf Shots for a few perfect days last week.

Ocean beach in San Francisco

A recent massively overdelivered “8-10ft swell”, with 15ft waves and perfect offshore conditions. Photo: SF Surf Pictures

Why I love Ocean Beach

1. Ocean Beach is always sold out
Almost always. I have realized that some southern swells in mid summer will go completely OB, maybe bringing dribblers to the north end by Kelly’s Cove but nothing more than that. But if we talk about northern swell, Ocean Beach is where you will always find the biggest size and the best waves if the wind stays favorable.

2. The paddle
Wait a second, are we still on the positives? Yeah. Even when it’s a struggle to get out and I’m only catching a wave or two every 30 minutes, at the very least, I’m building up my paddling endurance and getting some exercise. Ocean Beach is my local gym, and the price of admission is just a broken board once in a while.

Ocean Beach, San Francisco

Paste the drop, or else. Photo: SF Surf Maps.

3. Power
The power level of the wave is pretty amazing and it pushed my shortboard. When it’s low tide and the wave is really kicking in, all you catch is a late free fall that ends in either your hook up or your annihilation. Power will also teach you how to deal with fear. Even on an average sized day, when I’m casually jumping into the waves, there’s bound to be a moment when this feeling of panic rises in my chest and I just have to deal with it – like falling on a wave and being simultaneously pushed down and dragged by my tombstone surfboard with no idea where the surface is. Keep calm and everything will be fine. This is the school of hard knocks.

Ocean Beach, San Francisco

Duck diving or bail? Easy answer on this one. Photo: Will Sileo

4. Duck Dive Training
Speaking of hard knocks, I thought I knew how to duck dive when I first moved to San Francisco. I did not do it. In most other breaks there is at least a margin of error. Say you didn’t go far enough, well the foam will probably catch up with you, but overall it’s no big deal. Now say you didn’t dive deep enough at Ocean Beach? Prepare for a world of pain as you enjoy a high spin cycle at the local laundromat. You’ll also learn when to bail out your board, as it only takes one explosive hit to the head with your board ripped from your hands to realize you might as well have swallowed your pride and bailed out.

Ocean beach in San Francisco

When it’s good, it’s very good. Photo: SF Surf Maps.

5. Incredible waves
I’ve caught the wave of my life there, many 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 life is the one you never thought you were making. The wave is at the limit of your abilities, so you’re barely able to tackle it, but you’re ready to go anyway. It takes a certain amount of “fuck it” to push you over the ledge. And with so much room for me to grow up there at OB, I can only imagine how many “waves of my life” the beach still has in store for me.

An unidentified solo surfer demonstrates what it takes to paddle at Maxing Ocean Beach

Don’t be that guy unless you’re looking for an amazing workout. Photo: Screenshot YouTube//NorCal Surfer.

Why I Hate Ocean Beach

1. The paddle
The paddle might be a pro, but it’s definitely a con too. To be completely honest, the paddle is overrated. It’s not always boring. But when it does, it really sucks. At low tide, the inside bar can be quite a pain, and if there’s enough swell in the water, getting out can feel like throwing yourself against a brick wall. There’s nothing worse than catching a wave (especially the first wave of the set), riding it a bit too far in, and then not being able to get out. Many sessions ended in frustration with tired arms that just couldn’t carry me through the break and back.

Ocean beach in San Francisco

Surfing OB is all about catching the perfect window where swell, tide and wind align. Photo: Will Sileo

2. Wind
The wind changes almost constantly. Aside from the few days a year when you have offshore winds from sunrise to sunset, you never really know what you’re going to get until you’re in the water. You check the cams and it looks amazing, drive down to the water and the wind picked up but it still looks decent, and fifteen minutes later by the time you came out the back, it sucks and everyone gets out. During an hour-long surf session earlier this year, I paddled out as the weather was nice and slightly offshore, only for the winds to veer inshore before I could catch my first wave. Within fifteen minutes, the onshore winds brought a fog so thick you couldn’t see the sand, which killed the wind and washed away the waves. And to top it off, fifteen minutes later the sun came out and cleared the fog. Caught a few clean waves and didn’t stay for the onshores to pick up.

Ocean Beach, San Francisco

When the current rips, with three miles of beach, it can be a long walk home. Photo: Will Sileo.

3. Current
The current is the real beast of Ocean Beach. You never know where you’ll drift or how fast. I thought it was all tides. When the tide rises, a huge amount of water flows into San Francisco Bay through the Golden Gate Strait. So logically, with a rising tide, the current should pull north toward the Golden Gate, strongest when it changes fastest. The tide goes out, tons of water come out of the bay and the current pulls south. But a few days ago, when the current should have drawn its strongest towards the south (the tide going down quite quickly), I found myself drifting very slightly towards the north. And the day before, when the tide was at its lowest and I should have barely drifted north, I found myself moving south at a good pace. If anyone has found the formula, please let me know.

4. Sandbanks
Thanks to the current, the sandbanks are always changing too. See a good peak nearby? By the time you’ve paddled out and waited for the next set, if you’ve managed to beat the current and stay in that spot, you’ll notice that the next set actually breaks at a completely different spot. Paddle there and you will receive the same treatment. Best to stay where you are and hope for the best.

Masterlock stolen cars do not use sign

Good Samaritans (and probably former carjacking victims themselves) trying to spread the word in Ocean Beach, SF. Photo: WS

5. Car crime
To top it off, you never really know when disaster is going to strike and how badly. Auto crime is notoriously rampant in SF, and OB sees the worst of it. I saw a bum walking from car to car, wrapped in a towel, breaking through the 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 trunk (sounds safe, right?) only to come back and find a broken trunk but no car. Every time I return to my car, I breathe a sigh of relief.

In all honesty, my attempts to categorize and share these “strict OB rules” shows how little I 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 it is, so I will continue to learn and surf here for as long as I can. What is your opinion of Ocean Beach? Don’t hesitate to ring.

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