Legend has it that in 1885, three princes from Hawaii began attending school in San Mateo. Distraught by the comparatively calm waters inside the Bay, the royal trio made their way into the forest and shaped surfboards out of local redwoods for themselves. Next, California’s first surf gang ventured west to Santa Cruz where they paddled out and undoubtedly adored the now-famous breaks.
Santa Cruz has hardly looked back since then, providing waves for beginners and professionals all the way up to the Golden Gate. The Hawaiian princes may have been the first, but they are often overlooked among important historical figures within San Fran surfing. “Jack O’Neill put the region on the map, as far as surf industry is concerned,” says Matt Warshaw, author of the Encyclopedia of Surfing and the recent release The History of Surfing. O’Neill started a company in San Francisco bearing his namesake that is still a leader in the industry today. “Steamer Lane was always a pretty respectable place to catch a good-sized wave, but Mavericks — which came to everybody’s attention in the early ’90s — blew Steamer’s and every other West Coast break out of the water in terms of size and heaviness,” says Warshaw, “Probably the gnarliest big wave in the world.”
Mavericks has drawn much attention over the years, but the scene here at home has always had a certain draw to it as well, despite the gaping difference between its highs and lows. Ocean Beach is the undisputed champion among spots within city limits, and is coincidentally also the favorite of Warshaw. Why? “Too crowded in Santa Cruz. Too sharky north of the gate,” he explains. But the goods require some elbow grease. “Ocean Beach is about as fucked a paddle-out as anyone can endure. Any worse, and you just wouldn't even bother. And when things do come together here — usually when you’re just about ready to sell your quiver and take up rollerblading, mountain biking, anything but surfing, you get a magic session and all is right with the world.”
Many famous surfers have preempted this statement with their actions over the years. Dick Keating ruled the ’60s and '70s, Richard Schmidt the following decade, and Peter Mel, Ken Collins and Flea Virostko had the ’90s. All of these pros carved out San Francisco’s place in surf history and paved the way for young surfers. These are the guys that inspired generation after generation of kids to get out and surf.
Many of these groms started with a surfing class. Warshaw recommends the lessons at Bolinas or Linda Mar. “First time is easy, because somebody will be pushing you into waves. From then on, doing it on your own — that’s hard. Two years later, you'll still be pretty much a total beginner. But it still feels great.”
Matt Warshaw’s comprehensive tomes about surfing both globally and locally can be found at reputable bookstores and on amazon.com.
One to Watch: Wyatt Fields
Surfing in the Bay Area usually elicits responses about the cold water and choppy waves, but that hardly means that the city doesn’t have a tightly knit community of surfers which includes professionals and hobbyists alike.
Wyatt Fields has been a cornerstone of the community here for years. Growing up halfway between the world-class waves of Pacifica and Half Moon Bay in Montara, Fields paddled out for the first time at the ripe young age of 10 years old. He has since brought his beanie-covered green eyes to the Sunset, where he can often be spotted battling the breaks of Ocean Beach. Fields enjoys the consistent sets in the fall at Ocean Beach and tends to scope out spots north of the Golden Gate Bridge the rest of the year.
“That’s what’s cool about the Bay Area, the spots are diverse. You just need to know the conditions,” he says. Citing the less fickle and crowded waves of the city shorelines, Fields has the typical laid-back surfer vibe, yet is embedded in the busy life of a San Franciscan.
If the sun’s out but the waves aren’t firing, he can often be spotted at Zeitgeist or John Collins Bar and Lounge. Down to earth and friendly as they come, Fields is likely to hand out advice and share secrets about his craft with anyone who will listen.
“Surfing the Bay is more work, but it’s also more satisfying,” he says. Clearly enamored with the backdrops, landscapes and roots of the sport here, Fields is the epitomy of surf culture eloped with city living. To get started, he recommends Pacifica’s Linda Mar cove for beginner waves and reminds newbies to “start from the bottom, be humble about it and respect the locals.” This means that paddling straight out at the guys already out there isn’t allowed. Newer surfers need to feel out the waves towards the channels rather than going straight for the biggest break and risking getting in the way of a veteran. For the already-established shredders, Fields relays some advice from legendary Bay Area surfer Ragnar Johnson: “If you see waves paddle out, if you saw it you missed it.”
Local Surf Shops that have Gnar
Aqua Surf Shop
Aqua has two locations in the city. At Ocean Beach, the store is rootsy with a true surfer’s vibe, while the Haight location serves up a more boutique atmosphere and boasts a great selection of board shorts.
1742 Haight Street, San Francisco | 415.876.2782
2830 Sloat Blvd., San Francisco | 415.242.9283
San Francisco Surf Company
Nestled in Cow Hollow, this tiny shop has the staff to help set you up with a new shred stick or a simple T-shirt if you just want to look the part. They have a true commitment to the environment and feature eco-friendly boards from Entropy.
2181 Union Street, San Francisco
415.440.SURF | sfsurfcompany.com
Mollusk Surf Shop
Mollusk has shops in Venice, Calif. and Brooklyn, N.Y. in addition to this beauty of a shop in the sunset. The staff here has the typical offstandish vibe of most surf stores — apparently we can’t all be cool enough to work at a shop — but their artsy T-shirts are worth the hassle.
4500 Irving Street, San Francisco
415.564.6300 | mollusksurfshop.com
Wise Surf Shop
This San Francisco original began making its own boards in 1968 and now houses the largest selection of all the gear you need to get started or go pro. Be sure to also ask about their monthly specials on everything from wetsuits to wax.
800 Great Highway, San Francisco
415.750.9473 | wisesurfboards.com
Sayulita: Surfing with the Beach Gypsies
by Erica Henderson
Ready for warmer waters? Many Bay Area surfers like to take a slight detour, roughly 2,000 miles south, to the beach town of Sayulita in Nayarit, Mexico. “Discovered” in the 1960s by the rest of the world, this small fishing village has grown into a vibrant, multicultural melting pot of, as one resident described them, “beach gypsies.” Just 35 minutes north of the Puerto Vallarta International Airport, Sayulita is nestled just far enough in Riviera Nayarit to have the best of both worlds, close to a big city, yet far enough away to become a burgeoning oasis for the surfing community.
While the waves don’t offer much of a challenge for pro surfers, they are reliable and break year round, making Sayulita’s beach a perfect place to get your surfer’s learning permit, figuratively speaking. With dozens of surf schools and surf shops available to outfit any surfer, the hardest decision becomes whether to ride a longboard, a shortboard or the standup paddleboard, which has been steadily gaining popularity in recent years. In fact, this past February, Sayulita hosted the Second Annual Punta Sayulita Longboard & SUP Classic attended by the legendary American surfer Gerry Lopez, aka Mr. Pipeline.
Regardless of skill level, Sayulita is a perfect destination for Bay Area surfers or anyone wanting the beach bum experience.
For more information on Sayulita, visit sayulitalife.com
Where to Eat:
This restaurant has prime real estate right on the beach and, no matter who you ask, it will be on the top of their list of where to grab a bite. Serving a mix of Mexican and California cuisine, don't forget to try the signature Sayulita fish tacos.
Calle Marin #2, Sayulita, Nayarit | donpedros.com
Where to Drink:
Sayulita Fish Tacos
While the fish tacos are superb, locals and tourists alike flock to Sayulita Fish Tacos for the famous tequila bar serving over 250 types of tequila. Salud!
Sayulita Main Plaza, Sayulita, Nayarit
Where to Shop:
Revolución Del Sueño
This vibrant shop is a testament to the creative spirit of Sayulita. Brought to life in 2008 by Nicolas Kereven, who is originally from France, Revolución Del Sueño holds a well-curated collection of graffiti-inspired screen-printed shirts and home goods. Viva la Revolución.
55 Calle Manuel Navarette, Sayulita, Nayarit
Where to Sleep:
Bungalows de Los Arbolitos
Forgo the hotel and rent a bungalow. Located in the heart of Sayulita, Bungalows de Los Arbolitos offers a central location to enjoy all that Sayulita has to offer.
Calle Marlin 20, Sayulita, Nayarit | sayulitabungalows.com