How to start surfing in Northern California

I always wanted to surf but used to live in Colorado so I could only snowboard. After college I got a job in San Francisco and was stoked to explore the Pacific Ocean and finally give it a go. This tutorial gives a brief overview and some pointers for other people who might want to start surfing in or near Northern California.

  1. the water is cold so you’ll need a wetsuit, I recommend at least a 3/4 but prefer a 5/4 and hood, booties are also good for walking out on rocky shores, here’s a tutorial I did on how to put on a wetsuit and booties easily in case you’re from Hawaii or Colorado and have never had to do it, ear plugs are also a good idea so you can avoid surfer’s ear from the cold water
  2. the waves are small and mid sized so a fish, hybrid or long board is good if you’re starting out, especially in the summer, if you’re into big waves and are more experienced you’ll need a performance thruster or gun, this is especially true in Santa Cruz
  3. get some cold water surf wax, it’s usually softer than warm water wax since it has to stay “sticky” in cold environments
  4. most people live and work far from the coast so you’ll need a car with a rack or enough room to stash a board
  5. great white sharks breed in Northern California between Santa Cruz, San Francisco and the Farallon Islands (known as the blood triangle) during the winter months so surf with a buddy, consider a shark deterrent sticker and avoid seals and creeks (which provide nutrients for animals that sharks eat)
  6. learn about rip tides and realize that there aren’t any life guards out here, again, consider a buddy

Here are a few beaches to consider along with ratings and advice for each, the image you see above is Linda Mar, Pacifica:

  • Linda Mar, Pacifica (aka Taco Bell Beach) – beginner spot, shore break, inconsistent small to large depending on conditions, lots of close outs, less agressive surfers, several rental shops right near the beach, showers and restrooms, lots of food and a Taco Bell with a “walk through” for surfers
  • Montara Beach, Montara – just south of Linda Mar, way less crowded, sharkier, heavy waves at times (I’ve broken boards here), rip tides and currents, no amenities
  • The Jetty, Half Moon Bay – beginner to mid level spot, closer to the jetty the waves are larger and more crowded but as you go South the crowd dies down and anyone can get out, road traffic and beach goers always present so it’s pretty safe, less sharky, several surf shops nearby along with food stops in Half Moon Bay
  • Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz – solid consistent waves with good… aggressive surfers, dangerous entry with waves breaking onto cliff faces. Don’t go here until and unless you are pretty good.
  • Ocean Beach, San Francisco – huge stretch of beach with tons of waves to pick from, heavy currents and waves with very little consistency, dirtier water but crowding isn’t really a problem, super convenient if you live in the City, look for Wise surf shop near the North end. Go out with a friend
  • Point Fort, San Francisco – this break is directly beneath the South end of the Golden Gate bridge, very cool location but serious wave (left only) with experienced and impatient surfers, waves break onto rock wall the entire way, during tide change currents can suck you right out into the Pacific where you’ll have to paddle over to Baker Beach or scream for help
  • there are a ton more places to surf in Santa Cruz and up by SF so do your research but start somewhere like Linda Mar in Pacifica, The Jetty in HMB or Cowell’s in Santa Cruz. and feel your way through it.

Here are some tips for surf boards that work well in Northern California, the image you see above is of two hybrid designs, note the pin tail and the shorter overall length vs. a true long board, other hybrids have swallow tails and are shorter with pointier noses:

  • hybrid designs work well, 7’s Surfboards are great
  • fish are really fun, easy to catch waves but turn well and hold an edge in larger conditions, Pearson Arrow is a good brand here
  • Al Merrick, Channel Islands Flyer and Flyer 2 are thicker, floatier short board designs that catch mid sized waves but are more fun to ride than long boards (in my opinion)
  • long boards… sometimes this is just the best tool for the job, especially learning and in the smaller summer months
  • mini guns, some of these are shaped custom but I’ve also seen them from Channel Islands, they are just like long skinny short boards that help you paddle into larger surf
  • thruster, short board with a pin tail good for the larger waves and ripping it up, M10 makes good stuff, check out Channel Islands since it is a recognized brand and easier to sell or trade, I had a Channel Islands Black Beauty that was awesome for Montara

Most boards you see out there that are used or new are foam with fiberglass and a resin layer but you can also find the plastic epoxy boards that are more durable and worth considering. I had an epoxy CI Flyer that was sick! Named it Plastic Fantastic and it lived up to the name, great mid level beginner board, fun and cool looking but still floaty enough to catch waves.

Other things worth noting: make sure you’re hydrated, check out craigslist for used surf boards, bring a friend and be safe. Have fun and remember that beach breaks are less consistent but way less territorial (since waves are always shifting), the water is cold here and sharks do exist. The pictures and video are all of Linda Mar in Pacifica just South of San Francisco.