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.
Local vibe:"The S.F. surfing population seems to have multiplied several times over the past five years," says Mike. "Respect begets respect, regardless of who you are, where you're from, and how well you surf." There's a rub between locals and newcomers, but you won't have a problem if you go where the crowd is lightest. "So many times people paddle out at the best and/or most crowded peak on the beach," says Mike. "What are you thinking?" Another tip: Don't park next to locals -- surf wax is a bitch to scrape off windows. (Keep an eye out for telltale surf stickers on late-model cars.)
How to check it: Fire up your DSL. Surfline.com features two surf cams for a monthly fee, but the report sticks to bald facts about wave heights. Locals prefer Surfpulse.com's off-the-cuff report with details on wave shape, the wind and fog, and whether it's actually worth paddling out.
Tips for beginners:"OB is not a good place for beginners," says Mike. "If you surf anywhere within a mile of the north end of the beach, you run a real risk of getting sucked out to sea at the mouth of the bay." And stay away from Kelly's Cove, located near the rock in front of the Cliff House: "The current accelerates near the rock. Once it gets you, there's no escaping it."
When it's flat:Head across the street to Wise Surfboards (800 Great Highway; 750-8060) and futz over hundreds of boards from leading makers such as Channel Islands and Rusty; then pick up the 2005 video San Franpsycho: Wet and Wrecklessto watch the OB local boys surf, drink, and raise a fuss in the city.
Located under the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point is not for the faint of heart or lung: Currents can easily sweep the unwary out to sea, and the rocks in the shallows and impact zone leave a low margin for error. West and northwest swells can provide good lefts that wrap into the cove, but overall the spot is mediocre, notable more as a singular experience -- you're surfing in the bay, under the bridge, perilously close to container ships -- than as a place to call home.
To get there, take Lincoln Boulevard to Long Avenue and follow the tourists visiting the terrestrial Fort Point.
Local vibe: Brutal. In 2002, two men were convicted after attacking a Berkeley surfer before he even reached the lineup, delivering a gash to his head and a broken nose. Although the presence of park rangers has toned down the violence, Mike says that there are more people surfing there now, and more chaos. "Even if you're a pro surfer, you should sit in the parking lot and the channel a long while before even paddling into the lineup," he cautions. "Some of the older guys have been surfing there for decades. Give them some room."
Tips for beginners:"Don't surf there!" says Mike, citing the rocks, currents, and locals. "Even expert surfers have trouble getting waves here. Beginners don't stand a chance."
What we hope is not a final note: The fact is, we live in a shark zone dubbed the "Red Triangle," so named for the worst of reasons, which stretches from Monterey to Bodega Bay, tipped by the Farallon Islands. Another fact: Surfers look like seals from below. So, yeah, it's spooky out there, but draw courage from the plucky locals: "We're all aware they're there," says Mike. "But most of the regulars would stay out after a shark sighting ifthe waves were firing." Surfpulse.com offers the lowdown on Bay Area shark sightings. Last close call: On May 31, "a triangular dark gray fin with jagged edges on the posterior side" appeared at Linda Mar.
Surf Lessons and Board Rentals
Surf Camp Pacifica
Surf lessons for kids and families run $215 per week; wet suit rental, $20. Meets at south parking lot of Linda Mar Beach, Pacifica. (650) 738-5757, www.surfpacifica.com.
Three-hour lessons for men and women, gear included; $90 one day, $160 two days. Advanced lessons available. Meets at parking lot at Linda Mar Beach, Pacifica. (650) 557-0641, www.girlsadventureout.com.
Nor Cal Surf Shop
Soft- and hard-top longboards, as well as a few shortboards, rent for $15 per day; wet suits, $15. 5460 Highway 1, Pacifica. (650) 738-9283, www.norcalsurfshop.com.
Sonlight Surf Shop
Soft- and hard-top longboards rent for $20 per day; wet suits, $10. 575 Crespi (at Highway 1), Pacifica. (650) 359-0353.
The Log Shop
Longboards rent for $20 per day; wet suits, $10. 640 Crespi (at Highway 1), Pacifica. (650) 738-5664.
Aqua Surf Shop
Soft- and hard-top boards rent for $20 per day; wet suits, $10. Rentals run 24 hours, so you can pick up gear the night before. 2830 Sloat (at 46th Ave.), S.F. 242-9283, www.aquasurfshop.com.
SF Surf Shop
Foam longboards rent for $15 per day; wet suits, $10. 3809 Noriega (at 45th Ave.), S.F. 661-7873, www.sfsurf.com.
Bolinas Surf Lessons
Ninety-minute group lessons in Bolinas run $45 ($65 with gear). Private lessons run $80 ($105 with gear). Packages and advanced lessons available. 847-5489, www.surfbolinas.com.
2 Mile Surf Shop
Daily rentals: foam longboards, $15, soft-top longboards, $20, fiberglass boards, $30, wet suits, $10. 22 Brighton (at Wharf), Bolinas. 868-0264.
Live Water Surf Shop