This spring I saw a surfer at Ocean Beach tear through waves like he was exacting revenge. He'd bury his rail off the bottom and ambush the lip, which he wouldn't hit so much as vertically displace, launching sheets of water that blew apart in the wind. It was high-level stuff, and my first thought -- that should be me -- was quickly followed by a pained realization: Bay Area surfing is not a hoax.
Let me explain: I'm a lapsed surfer from Southern California; I grew up believing Nor Cal was a desolate stretch of maxed-out beach breaks, sharks, and lone carvers riding single fins. Blame Nor Cal surfers, who veiled the area in a secrecy that seemed wacko until the riches spilled out. Mavericks -- who could have guessed? To this day, certain spots are still "unidentified" to the world at large.
My bias kept me out of the water for a decade, to the delight of the locals, but I've caught on -- if only to the obvious. Here's the rundown on the better-known beaches in and around the city, aided by Mike H., co-founder of surf-report Web site Surfpulse.com, who started surfing Ocean Beach in the '80s and surfs nearly every day, regardless of whether the waves are up or down: "It's all good to me."
When the sun is out, rounding the bend on Highway 1 overlooking Linda Mar is the perfect time to belt out Huell Howser's shtick about California's gold. At one end of the crescent-shaped beach are rickety-looking wharf shacks reminiscent of the movie Popeye; at the other sits the majestic Harold and Maude cliff that destroyed the lad's hearse. The valley seems to have an otherworldly arrangement with S.F. fog, which often suspiciously halts just north of the beach. Men and women of every age pack the lineup, which ushers gentle rollers into the semiprotected bay, ideal for longboarding or testing out your retro fish. It doesn't, however, impress most shortboarders. "It's usually a mediocre beach break," says Mike. "On rare occasion it can get good. But it's a good beginner spot; more user-friendly than Ocean Beach."
To get there, pull into the lot after Crespi Drive on Highway 1 in Pacifica. From downtown S.F. to a parking spot, it's just 15 minutes, using I-280 to 1.
Local vibe:Nothing to worry about, provided you follow the rules: Don't paddle around or drop in on anyone, and give people room. Rank novices should stick to the waves on the south end, which are usually smaller. "There are so many people out there on any given day, just assume that everyone is a local, and be courteous, and you should be OK," says Mike.
Tips for beginners:Rejoice. You've found a beginner break that's practically built by committee, with soft sand, gentle waves, private bathrooms, high-pressure showers, a well-paved parking lot, and nearby shops eager to rent you a board. Nor Cal Surf Shop is your best bet, located right next to the beach on the south end. Park next to the shop, pick out a soft-top longboard from the cage in back, and walk the short trail to the beach. Call (650) 738-9283 for a recorded surf report.
When it's flat:Go to Taco Bell (really), which sits right on the beach, and eat the best damn chalupa in California. Or head over to L&L Hawaiian Barbecue in the mall across Highway 1, order the kalua pork and lau lau plate lunch, gaze at the hills, and imagine you're in an Oahu minimall.
Everything is outsized at San Francisco's version of the boardwalk beach, from the massive sea wall to the acres of shifting sands and a surf zone that extends miles out to sea. It's an ominous place, wide open to every lick of wind and swell, battered by currents and socked in by fog. North and west swells during fall and winter deliver miles of thick, postcard peaks, from waist-high to triple overhead; summer, however, is often beset by onshore winds and fog. "Conditions often turn on a dime," says Mike. "It can be good for a couple of hours, and then within 15 minutes it can turn to complete slop. I've seen it go from 4- to 18-foot within a day."
Even when it looks good, OB can be deceptive. Paddling out can be a Sisyphean march through punishing whitewash; outside, peaks often appear everywhere you're not. "Finding good waves can be like trying to find your keys in the sand," says Mike. "You know they're there, but sometimes it seems like you'll never find them." Those waves, however, can be among the best you'll ever ride -- thick, wide-open barrels that rival any beach break in the world -- as well as the most brutal. "I got held under one day so long that I saw stars," says Mike. "My vision was blurred for a few minutes after I surfaced."
To get there, stop anywhere on the three-mile stretch of Great Highway from Balboa Street to Sloat Boulevard. Pick a peak and name it; it'll likely be gone tomorrow.