How to surf Ocean Beach in San Francisco

March 30, 2021 | Surfing
Ocean Beach, San Francisco: one of the most challenging surfing waves in California | Photo: ASP/Scholtz

Welcome to San Francisco's Ocean Beach, one of the most iconic surf spots in California.

Ocean Beach, also known as OB, has a rich history of surfing and has somehow been a proving ground for intermediate, advanced, and professional surfers in the region.

The place has been surfed since the 1940s.

Jack O'Neill, the inventor of the modern wetsuit and founder of O'Neill, opened his first surf shop at 3518 Wawona Street, in 1952, in Ocean Beach.

The store was the first of its kind in the sport's history, with O'Neill even trademarking the name "surf shop."

But the long 3.5-mile stretch of sand and its dunes have been attracting residents and tourists for over 100 years.

The beach runs along the western edge of San Francisco from the Cliff House and Sutro Bath in the north to the San Francisco Zoo in the south.

Ocean Beach is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and falls under the National Park Service administration.

Surf Shop: Jack O'Neill first surfer store opened in 1952 in Ocean Beach, San Francisco | Photo: O'Neill

A Northern California Proving Ground

When it gets big and intimidating, OB waves will build anxiety and nervousness in anyone who enjoys ocean life.

Nevertheless, Ocean Beach is regarded as one of the finest beach breaks in Northern California.

The spot holds powerful swells very well and may deliver the best wave you've ridden in your entire life.

In one moment, you're getting big, open, and clean walls of water, and minutes later, you're dropping into a perfect green barrel.

But on high surf days, there are also tricky and hazardous rip currents that can quickly turn your day into a nightmare.

Take note - every year, swimmers and beachgoers drown at Ocean Beach, San Francisco.

The outer sand bars at Ocean Beach are extremely sensitive and shifty - not only but also - due to the flow of water coming into the Pacific Ocean from the nearby Sacramento River.

Nevertheless, these sandbanks can also hold large waves during winter, making it a testing site for experienced and hardcore surfers.

Wearing a helmet is always a wise option in double-to-triple overhead surf.

Ocean Beach is not your typical warm water, user-friendly surf break.

Although the beach sees millions of visitors per year, it often gets cold, foggy, unpredictable, and too big for the less experienced wave rider.

Many residents believe there's no surf in the City by the Bay, given the striking images they often witness from street level.

Ocean Beach can get heavy, but it is definitely worth it and should be on any surfer's bucket list.

And since you're in Northern California, you'll surely need a good and thick wetsuit to stay warm, comfortable, and confident.

The water temperature at Ocean Beach is relatively stable and low and varies from 53 to 57 °F (12-14 °C), so you should paddle out wearing at least 4/3 mm neoprene protection.

Hoods, gloves, and boots might be helpful during winter.

Ocean Beach, San Francisco: a cold water surfing heaven with tricky and hazardous rip currents | Photo: Robert Couse-Baker/Creative Commons

Approaching Ocean Beach

Ocean Beach is a challenging surf spot, so surfers should approach it with caution.

The first thing any surfer should do is check the surf report and forecast for the upcoming hours, as conditions can quickly change from manageable waves to high surf warnings in less than an hour.

If you're confident enough to give it a go, get to the shoreline and spend 10-to-15 minutes observing the ocean's behavior and patterns.

The more data you collect, the better you'll know how to paddle out and where to position yourself for the set waves.

Respect Ocean Beach. The currents are powerful and might pull you out too far and drain all the energy you still had.

People are constantly being rescued, so play it conservatively because this is an unforgiving wave.

Some surfers need more than half an hour to get to the take-off spot. Therefore, knowledge and a good fitness level are precious assets.

OB is a 180-degree window to the Pacific Ocean swells that often inhabit these waters.

As a result, the spot can produce rideable one-foot rollers in one day and extremely challenging 20-foot monster waves 24 hours later.

In a way, it is similar to Puerto Escondido's Playa Zicatela and Peniche's Supertubos, with their highly volatile and temperamental waves.

Ocean Beach is exposed to northwest winds, which often affect the waves negatively.

But OB picks up all swells and tends to hold almost any size by having waves breaking further out.

Up north, near Point Lobos, you'll find Kelly's Cove, a spot with an SW orientation protected from NW winds that catches more south swells than all other nearby breaks.

The most popular Ocean Beach surf peaks are VFW (or Beach Chalet), Noriega, Ortega, Pacheco, and Taraval (The Avenues), Fleishhacker Sloat.

Remember that paddling out through the thundering whitewater lines can be an exhausting - if not impossible - mission during big wave surfing days.

Respect the Locals

Ocean Beach is more than just a single surf spot - it's a multi-peak, exposed beach break region with plenty of well-known take-off areas.

Almost every street intersecting the Great Highway points to a surfable A-frame gem, and each wave has its local faces and stars.

Although it is not one of the most aggressive and unwelcome surf destinations in California, you've necessarily got to be respectful.

To earn a chance to score a long, deep OB barrel, you've got to earn it, and that also means committing to each wave you pick, ride it flawlessly, and pay your dues, too.

Hesitations and uncertainties frequently have negative consequences.

Many waves pop out of nowhere; others arrive from the horizon carrying so much energy that they will require you to take off fast, get barreled, and find an early exit.

Quite often, in beach breaks, where there's a perfect tube, there's also pounding closeouts, so read each wave carefully before paddling for it.

Some of the world's most experienced big waves surfers live a few blocks from OB in San Francisco.

Mavericks, one of the world's largest, heaviest, and most challenging surf break on the planet, is located just 25 miles south of Ocean Beach.

Ocean Beach, San Francisco: 3.5 miles of sand and dune systems | Photo: Creative Commons

OB Surf Tips

One of the most important don'ts of surfing San Francisco's Ocean Beach is never paddling out alone in overhead conditions.

You don't want to put yourself in a position where there's no one to ask for help in an emergency.

One of the best entry points to Ocean Beach is near Golden Gate Park, on the north side - there's often less crowded.

The area also has several parking lots on the west side of the road, and you'll even find a nearby surf shop if you need wax or any surf accessory.

The best period of the year to surf Ocean Beach is during fall, winter, and early spring. Flat spells often take over most of the summer.

Whenever it is small and clean, you may have to compete with hundreds of highly anxious fellow surfers.

However, if you pay attention, you'll find numerous peaks, so there's often a good wave coming your way, sooner or later.

Once the game gets in the double-overhead plus range, only the connoisseurs will risk their lungs and bones in the XXL conditions.

Ocean Beach: a temperamental beach break that will provide perfect barrels and open wave faces | Photo: ASP/Scholtz

Getting to Ocean Beach

It's easy to get to Ocean Beach.

Get on US-101 South and merge onto US-101 South toward San Jose.

Continue on US-101 Sout, take I-280 South to John Daly Boulevard in Daly City, and turn on exit 49 toward Junipero Serra Boulevard.

Continue on John Daly Boulevard to Ocean Beach.

If you're in Santa Cruz, take CA-17 North to Los Gatos and then CA-85 North. Take exit 22 to merge onto CA-85 N toward Mountain View.

Then, drive from I-280 N to Daly City, take exit 508B for CA-35 N toward Skyline Boulevard North, and continue to Ocean Beach.

If you're in San Francisco, you can always ride a bike or get on a bus to OB.

OB, San Francisco: a 180-degree window to the Pacific Ocean swells | Photo: Creative Commons

Ocean Beach, San Francisco, CA | ID and X-Ray

Location: San Francisco, California
Type of Wave: Beach Break
Best Swell Direction: NW-W-SW
Best Wave Size: Waist-to-Triple Overhead (3-20 feet)
Best Wind Direction: E
Best Tide: Medium
Best Time to Surf: Fall and Winter
Best Board: Funboard, Shortboard, Gun
Skill Level: Intermediate, Advanced, and Professional
Crowd: Weekend
Water Quality: Average
Hazards: Rip Currents
Bottom: Sand
Water Temperature: 53-57 °F (12-14 °C)
Getting There: Bus, Bike, and Car
Nearby Surf Shops: Mollusk Surf Shop, Aqua Surf Shop, Wise Surfboards, and Las Olas Surfboards