Bay Area beaches: out to murder me or what?
April 19, 2016 6:37 PM   Subscribe

When and where in the SF Bay Area can I safely boogie board? Are there safer beaches? Safer tides? I see scary reports of several drownings a year, and it seems like all the beaches say, "Hazardous rip currents, if you go swimming you're an idiot." Baker Beach and Ocean beach don't seem especially hazardous to me, but the conventional wisdom is that they aren't safe for swimming.

The Delaware beaches I knew as a kid all had jettys to keep the waves from getting too big, but people still drowned. So what's the deal? Will I be safer the further I get from the entrance to the bay? What, specifically, should I look for?
posted by wnissen to Travel & Transportation around San Francisco, CA (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
We used to go to Pescadero to boogieboard when I was a kid.
posted by rhizome at 6:44 PM on April 19, 2016

Any time a wave breaks on a beach, there are rip currents. The water comes in and piles up on the beach, now it has to flow back out to the ocean. It's a "what goes up, must come down" situation. The complex interactions between the wave and the shore and sandbars determine the particular currents of water rushing back out to sea called rips.

You had these in Delaware, they probably just didn't trouble you most days, especially in the summer, because the waves were small. Less water means weaker rips. In northern California, there will be bigger rips on bigger days, and bigger days will come more frequently. But if you go out on a crumbly knee-high day, you will not notice the rips, just like back in Delaware.

The good news about the rips is that while they are scary at first, and while a few people drown in them every year, they are actually not dangerous at all if you know what is happening. First of all, they aren't like tunnels to the open ocean. They wheel out perpendicular to the coast and then generally back a little, like the wheels of a tennis ball shooting machine. If you do absolutely nothing in a rip, you will eventually end up not far from where you started, or at worst, just a bit out past the break. People drown in the rips because they swim against them (and often because they are drunk or otherwise intoxicated), which is literally the only thing you can do to make the rips dangerous. The conventional advice has always been to swim/paddle/kick parallel to the beach, which works great for getting you out of the rip, but even if you just sit there on your boogie board, you'll get a free ride back out to the line that will peter out soon enough.

The waves aren't really smaller in Delaware because there are jetties. There are jetties up and down the west coast, and their interactions with the surf are very complex (in some cases, they can make the waves substantially bigger). The primary determinant of wave size is how much distance the wind has to blow across the surface of the open ocean, and what that moving water runs into once it gets going. In a place like Delaware, you see this every fall. Warm water and warm air off the western coast of Africa gives rise to tropical cyclones that spin across the Atlantic, where they are called hurricanes. These hurricanes blow and blow across hundreds of miles of open ocean, and the resulting swells slam into the barrier islands of the east coast with terrific force.

It's just that on the east coast, most people don't go to the beach during hurricane season. On the west coast, the "big waves" time of year depends on more things: which way the beach faces, what's in the way between it and the storms of the Pacific, and so on. But the same basic thing applies: big storms out in the Pacific blow and blow across the ocean, the swell radiates in every direction, and then the swell runs up against the steep cliff of California, rising out of the Pacific. The bottom of the swell can't get out of its own way now that its dragging on ground, so the top falls over ("breaks").

When it comes to danger at most beach breaks, the dose makes the poison. You'll be safe on any small day, and it will get increasingly dangerous as the waves get bigger and there is more energy and water moving around.

Much to the chagrin of local surfers, there are tons of resources on the web about different surf spots pretty much everywhere in the world, organized by geography. Here's the Northern California section of Surfline, the SF/Marin section of Wanna Surf, the SF section of Magic Seaweed, and a random article that came up at the top of Google when I typed in 'best beginner surf spot san francisco'.

As for Ocean Beach specifically, Ocean Beach is an extremely popular surf spot. The reason people say it's not great for swimming is it's cold, it's sharky, the waves there get huge and unforgiving a lot of the time, it can be very difficult to paddle out, and I think generally there's just something unfriendly about standing in the foggy windy outer Richmond on a cold overcast day, looking out at the huge sloppy waves of Ocean Beach breaking in the murk, and thinking, "hell yeah, let's jump in there!" But it's not really all that dangerous, zillions of people surf there all the time, even little kids. Every once in a while, it can be pretty magical.

Long story short, I'll say try Stinson.
posted by jeb at 7:40 PM on April 19, 2016 [16 favorites]

There are regular swimmers at China Beach. I think they meet on Sundays around noon.
posted by alexei at 10:28 PM on April 19, 2016

Dillon Beach has the chillest waves imho, a nice long slow shorebreak. Sharky tho but where isn't?
posted by fshgrl at 11:16 PM on April 19, 2016

Pacifica is where the beginners go to surf.
posted by gnutron at 6:02 AM on April 20, 2016

China Beach is OK, but still has rips. Baker Beach has worse rips, and a kid got eaten by a shark a number of years ago.

Aquatic Park has a seawall that keeps out most of the wildlife and calms the surf a lot. The water doesn't really get warmer than 55F most of the year, so watch out for that.

As I understand it, most people go to the beach in Pacifica or San Bruno.
posted by blnkfrnk at 6:25 AM on April 20, 2016

Came here to suggest Linda Mar in Pacifica.
posted by smirkette at 12:55 PM on April 22, 2016

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