A Beginners Guide to Surfing around San Francisco

Beginner's Guide to Surfing around San Francisco

San Francisco is notorious for freezing, shark filled water. It might seem a little daunting to newbie surfers, but there are great spots for beginners. There’s also beaches you should definitely avoid as a fresh surfer unless you’d like to be fresh meat for sharks, rocks, waves and rip currents. Here’s the best and worst places to surf around San Francisco, as a beginner, dangers and benefits included. 

The Best Spots

A list of three great beaches for beginners. The difficulty increases and you go down the list.

1. Pacifica/Linda Mar

Pacifica Beach

A quick 20 minute drive south brings you to Pacifica. There’s a relatively forgiving beach break here. The surf can be a bit inconsistent, according to sfgate, but when the waves are smaller, Linda Mar is a great place for beginners. Usually, you can expect the waves to be under 5 feet. Remember to bring your wet shoes, there’s plenty of sharp rocks to cross on your way out. On the warmest days of the year, a wetsuit might not be necessary for warmth, but is at least protective against the sting of migrating jellyfish during those couple days in late summer. Another downside is this beach is consistently busy during the mornings, weekdays, and especially weekends. The ample parking is probably partially to blame.  

Linda Mar/ Pacifica surf characteristics

2. The Jetty

Jetty Beach

The Jetty, also known as Princeton Jetty, has a long strip of beach breaks allowing surfers to spread out and the crowds to thin. There is a dirt parking lot that always has spots across from the north end of the beach. From there, it’s a little difficult to climb down the rocks with your board, so take care. This is a great beach for learners afraid of deep water. You can go 15 or 20 feet out and still touch the sandy bottom as a 5’5’’ person, (except when the waves roll in.) The shallow water gives newbies a certain comfort that sharks aren’t prowling around. More experienced surfers hang at the north end of the beach in front of a wall of rocks. These rocks can be a danger for inexperienced surfers. Head south for generally easier, less crowded waves.  

Surf Sites with cams and conditions on Jetty Princeton.  

Jetty surf characteristics

3. Rockaway

Rockaway Beach in Pacifica

 

Rockaway is not consistently good for beginners and should be treated as an intermediate step between the best and worst places for new surfers. "Rockaway is a sick reef break with waves 4 ft and up," says wannasurf.com

This alcove beach is 1 mile north of Linda Mar with much heavier ways. On a 4 ft day this can be a progressive spot for beginners, but it can also turn dangerous. The beach is surrounded by rocks and creates an alcove where water rushes out and forms rip tides. The good news is that rip currents make for an easy paddle out. Though, the south side of the beach can trap beginners between increasingly higher waves, cliffs, and rip currents. To avoid getting pounded by white water, you best way out might be strong swimming and smart navigating around the narrow channels outside the rip currents and between crashing waves. The beach is always cold and fog covered and due to shark sightings is especially eerie. Sharks and fisherman alike are attracted to these shallow waters due to an abundance of bait called bunkers, reported in the CBS New York article.   

Other dangers include rocks and pollution. A humpback whale has even been sighted 50 feet from surfers heading north. One local surfer Charlie Schock remembers, “What looked like a giant rock popped up 50 ft from me. It reappeared a handful of times in the next half an hour. It was awesome."

rockaway surf characteristics

 

The Worst Spot

These are the beaches beginners should work up to, once they are comfortable, perhaps after a year or two of weekly surf trips. These spots are definitely not for the faint of heart and can be deadly for weak swimmers. The difficulty of each beach increases as you go down the list. Enter at your own caution.


1. Ocean Beach

Cliff House Northernmost range of Ocean Beach

In the sunset district of San Francisco, lies a 5 mile stretch of world-class beach breaks ranging from Balboa Street, near Cliff House (pictured above) at the northernmost point to the Great Highway and Sloat at the southernmost point.  "The beach is completely exposed to the Pacific Ocean and the paddle out can be tough," according to SF Gate. You might think that sharks are the real danger, but its the rip currents that beginners should be aware of.  

Rip currents form just off the beach and move unpredictably about. Though all the beaches in San Francisco have rip currents, OB is the most dangerous. Then take into consideration that  80% of the drownings at surf beaches are caused by rip currents. The takeaway is don’t push yourself too far too fast.

how to escape rip currents info graph



2. Montara

Montara State Beach

South of Pacifica along Highway 1 is Montara, a hollow sandbar break. With a big swell, the beach is nicknamed Mini Mavericks and is for experienced surfers. You can park on the cliff and walk down the side, or park at the end of the beach in the dirt lot on the south side of the Chart House.  

Beginners and Intermediates like this spot when the waves are 3-4 feet, but danger lurks underwater. This spot has very few surfers and locals that hang around this break are sharks.  Like Ocean Beach, rip currents are a danger at Montara. On big days, it’s all walls and for experts only. If it’s over 8 ft and you’re not a strong swimmer, you’ll likely drown

Montara surf characteristics

 

3. Mavericks

Mavericks Beach

 

Even as a beginner surfer, you’ve likely heard of Mavericks. Just a few miles from Montara, this beach is for pros and mermaids only! The atmosphere of this beach is unwelcoming for newbies with “Cold, heart thumping, bone crushing, big waves.” Wanasurf.com warns that a “big heart and big balls are required. People have died surfing here, beware." If you do get in the water, you’ll notice few surfers, a rocky bottom with reefs and coral and that the waves can get higher than 16ft

Mavericks surf characteristics

 

Looking for other adventures around San Francisco? Check out the beginners guide to rock climbing around San Francisco and Secret Spots SF Doesn't Want you to Know About - California Street Edition.

When you can't get to SF anytime soon, but you're in need of a quick adventure check out 4 WAYS TO ADVENTURE RIGHT NOW

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