First Glance – Surfing Ocean Beach in San Francisco

I remember a day in about 1989 before I surfed. I had moved to San Francisco from some landlocked state without an ocean. I lived in the Mission on Valencia when you could find phone booths every four blocks or so and traffic was two lanes deep in both directions. Valencia was sort of a wasteland of old hardware and appliance stores, corner stores, a few Mexican restaurants but not much else. It is hard to imagine but true. If you rode a bike, you took your life in your own hands and probably were honked to the sidewalk. There was only one café that I can remember. Things have sure changed.

Anyway, I still remember that day. It was December and we took a drive out to Ocean Beach, the usual route, out San Jose to Brotherhood Way around the lake to hang out at the ocean. Maybe play a little Frisbee. When we came over the knoll by the wastewater treatment plant and looked towards the ocean we where greeted by quite a sight. It was a crystal clear winter day and the swell was huge, probably breaking on the outer bars. I had never seen waves this big and it made no sense at the time because there was no wind. I had always associated larger waves with thunderstorms and windy weather. We pulled into the parking lot and were simply amazed. It was like we were visiting another planet. The waves were these massive towering things that broke way out to sea.

It took about four years until I started surfing, courtesy of a Brit with a few garage sale wetsuits and equally lousy boards but a hefty amount of adventure and craziness. Due to proximity I definitely call OB my home break.

So last Friday I drove out to take a look. I doubted I would surf as I knew the waves were crappy. I just really wanted to hear the waves and smell the brine. When I got to the parking lot the wind was blowing hard from the Northwest but I realized my timing was perfect. I could take a photo of a dump truck dumping a bunch of sand and a guy driving a bobcat pushing it around. I knew this Ocean Beach Sand Management Project was going on and probably in the back of my mind I was curious how far they were along. You can read about the project here

I know they are spending a month moving sand from north to south and dumping it at my spot but in the end it is just an experiment. They are simply going to see where the hell it ends up. It probably will change the sandbars down there and it will be interesting to see what happens from a surfing perspective. Maybe they are setting stuff up for us for the fall surf season – like baseball umpires dusting off home plate. But I hate to tell them this. Anyone who has surfed that place in the winter knows that the ocean always wins in the end. If the ocean wants to eat a parking lot for breakfast, there is nothing you can do about it. A big December swell and a 6.2-foot high tide and half that sand will end up back were it came from. Anyone who surfs OB has a story about how far they drifted knows that stuff moves around down there, especially in the winter and a few dump trucks of sand is really just a small inconvenience to the big mama.

Which brings me back to the first time I saw a big swell at OB. To this day, when I go surfing and I make that same drive, when I drive over that knoll by the wastewater treatment plant, I turn off the radio and sort of hold my breath in expectation. Right away when you go over and get that first glimpse you can tell if it is going to be good or bad. Nasty or lame. Marginal or sublime.

NOTE: This essay first appeared on The Stoke Report as a Rant.

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