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A Surfer's Love Letter to the Inexhaustibly Wild Ocean Beach

An ode to a famously difficult surf break.

 

 

Don't be scared, don’t be scared, don’t be scared. That’s what I said to myself when I saw the best wave of my whole year. I’d been in the water two hours at that point, paddling like mad for most of it. My arms and back were already quivering from the exhaustion of endlessly diving under waves and scrambling to avoid others. I also didn’t like how far out to sea I’d drifted. But that wave was just as pretty as they come.

As it rolled closer, I lay down and paddled toward the beach, hoping to catch it and genuinely frightened of its power. I repeated my mantra—Don’t be scared—then hopped to my feet and zipped the wave face, turning leftward into a five-or-six-second mind-blowing and face-melting screamfest of a rocket ship ride. Then: over the back of the wave to see, just behind it, yet another curling over to land on my head.

To paraphrase what others have said of Mavericks, that next wave beat me like I owed it money. I surfaced, gasping for air only to see still another one bearing down. I managed to dive deep before that wave detonated, but it grabbed hold of my board on the surface and hauled me backward and underwater by the nylon leash connected to my ankle. I clawed around until I found the cord, then pulled myself upward as if climbing a rope to the surface. I sucked a lungful of air just in time to dive back under yet another wave that exploded and dragged me backward, and then I did it again, and again, until I had been dragged beachward by six straight waves that left me exhausted and sputtering and about halfway back through the inner field of rolling white water. All for one wave.

This was last December, the first real surf day of what had been a lousy season. Just getting out to where the waves break at Ocean Beach is a workout that begins with ducking under dozens of rows of rolling white water. Once you’re through all that, it’s time to cope with currents that sweep you either down the beach toward the Cliff House or straight toward the Farallones. Every surfer who loves Ocean Beach—that windy, four-mile stretch of sand between the Cliff House and the San Francisco Zoo—has wondered what keeps that love alive. Just having fun out there demands such a high level of fitness, at least for me, that I start training in August. That means swimming and practicing breath holds three times a week to get ready for the fall and winter season. In a good year, the surf might kick in by mid-October and I can abandon all those tedious back-and-forth laps. Other years, October comes and goes without a single good day. November too. Last year, in fact, we didn’t have decent conditions until late December, when I finally woke up and checked the webcams and saw smooth swell under calm winds. At that point, I had been swimming hard three times a week for four straight months without getting one great wave.

 

My 50th birthday is coming up this fall, yet another Ocean Beach season is around the corner, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that particular late-December day. I remember almost hyperventilating with excitement as I made the 17-minute drive from Bernal Heights, where I live, to my friend Mark’s house near Ulloa. I keep all my surfboards and wetsuits in Mark’s garage. I spent 10 minutes there pulling on my wetsuit and gloves and booties and not one but three neoprene hoods for maximum warmth. Sufficiently armored in rubber, I grabbed the biggest board I own and jogged up a succulent-covered slope to the Great Highway, where I crossed four lanes of traffic and trotted out to the top of the dunes.

A quarter mile offshore, the waves looked fabulous: big, blue, perfectly shaped, breaking hard and fast, and without a single other surfer in sight. Walking a quarter mile at a leisurely pace on flat ground might take five minutes. Paddling that particular quarter mile at Ocean Beach took me 45 minutes of furiously hard work—heart pounding, lungs heaving, like sprinting straight up a mountain. There’s nothing unusual about that, either: Good days at Ocean Beach almost always feature endless walls of white water in those first hundred yards. So the first thing you have to do, every time, is fight your way out through incoming rows of foam and spray that carry the impact force of an NFL lineman—plenty to send you flipping and tumbling backward if you let them hit you square. Over and over, I had to bail off my board—it was too big to push underwater.

At Ocean Beach, waves pop up here and there in unpredictable patterns, so you have to keep moving and hunting if you want a good ride. That means more paddling. Catch one and you’re halfway to Fort Funston: more paddling, against the current, to get back. Get caught in that riptide? More desperately hard paddling. And my reward for all that paddling? Getting beaten and battered. At the end of that day in December, my fun-to-fight quotient was dismal. Time on feet riding waves: 15 seconds. All-out physical exertion: two hours.

I stumbled back to Mark’s, where a warm shower and dry clothes revived me. When I stepped back outside, I became aware of not annoyance or dejection but feeling so blissfully happy—satisfied, thrilled, grateful—that I couldn’t bear to drive away, even in the face of a profound yearning for a burrito. So I didn’t. I walked back over the Great Highway and out to the dunes and sat in the sand and stared out to sea and reminded myself, yet again, why I love this place so much.

 

Partly, it's mythos. I first heard about Ocean Beach in 1992, while I was living and surfing in Santa Cruz. My grandmother mailed me an article by William Finnegan in the New Yorker that described surfing at Ocean Beach in language so gorgeous that I wrote a surf memoir of my own about Santa Cruz and then, when that memoir was published in 1996, I moved to Ocean Beach. Another part of the equation is friendship. Often I have company—either Mark or another buddy or just one of the guys I’ve gotten to know in the water.

Mostly, though, I love Ocean Beach because it remains so inexhaustibly wild—and so indifferent to surfers’ schedules. As great as the waves can be, Ocean Beach pretty much sucks between early March and late September. Plenty of locals claim otherwise and swear they get fun waves year-round, but I find Ocean Beach in the off -season so frustrating—with such junky swell and bad winds and grim Outer Sunset fog—that I generally hang up my wetsuit for spring and summer.

The whole scene has changed in the 20 years that I’ve lived here. The Outer Sunset has gone from a sleepy cultural wasteland to a vibrant surf-inflected hipster community. And the surf has gotten more crowded. In 2013, the world’s finest big-wave surfers gathered for Mavericks, in Half Moon Bay. Right before the contest, Ocean Beach happened to have one of its best swells ever. I surfed that day, despite conditions well beyond what I could handle with confidence. A gaggle of pros joined top locals like Matty Lopez and Lewis Samuels in what was probably the all-time greatest display of high-performance surfing ever seen in San Francisco. Days later, when pictures surfaced in a piece on Surfline, the entire surfing planet saw just how good Ocean Beach can get. They also learned how stupidly exhausting Ocean Beach can be. “That wave will kick your butt. I don’t think people understand,” said Damien Hobgood, one of the pros quoted. “We were caught inside for 30 minutes at times—paddling for a half hour straight, watching the best waves of your life go by without you.”

I blame that article for the bump in crowds, but I love Hobgood’s quote. Because surfing Ocean Beach is about something much richer than simply getting satisfaction. It’s about yearning, and the way that yearning gives shape to our lives.

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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