The Definitive Guide to Oceanic Fun in San Francisco

Welcome to The Scuttlefish’s Definitive Guide to Oceanic Fun in San Francisco! With the help of our readers and friends at publications like Ocean Beach Bulletin, this list will be updated frequently and often, as we learn more about the best ways to start and continue enjoying the ocean in San Francisco. Last updated 10/11/2010.

definitive guide

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Frequently Asked Questions By Those Unaware of Her Oceanic Majesty’s Quirks

Will She Kill Me?

You’ll probably be ok if you are careful and respect her. Be aware of your limits. On a warm day, a quick dip in the cool ocean can feel great. But be careful. Many local beaches have very strong current, undertows, and rip tides that can sweep you out to sea unexpectedly. And then all of the sudden, the refreshingly cool ocean feels more like freezing cold.

So be careful, but have fun.

What about sharks?

Yes, sharks are real. We are in the Red Triangle, and so don’t kid yourself. They are out there. But they are not hostile, and they are not out to hunt you down. Some spots are sharkier than others, but every place has the possibility of sharks. But the amount of shark-human interactions on the coast is very low, considering how many people play in the ocean on a daily basis. Be aware, but don’t be scared.

Do I really need a wetsuit?

The water in this area hovers around 53 degrees all year. That is chilly. If you’re just going to dunk your head on a hot day, you’ll be fine. But if you want to spend some substantial time in the water, you’ll want a wetsuit. The standard thickness of a good wetsuit for this area is called a 4’3″, referencing the millimeters. If you get cold easily, you can get the thicker 5’4’3″.

Do I need a wetsuit in the summer?

Yes. Even in the summer. Especially because it’s typically foggy and cold on land, the wetsuit is even more handy. The only exception might be down at Santa Cruz, where you can often get away with not wearing a wetsuit during the warm summers.

Is it always foggy and cold at the beach?

Of course not. But it does get foggy. And very cold. But that’s part of the beauty of it. You want SoCal? Go to SoCal. But the fog and the cold give our beaches their wooliness and their character.

THE BAY MODEL

The Bay Model is a 1.5 acre indoor replica of the San Francisco Bay and its ajoining bodies of water. it was built by the Army corps to simulate tides, before computer modeling was an affordable or technological option. And you can visit it in Sausalito. ( 2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito. 415.332.3871)

sand castles

BUILDING A SANDCASTLE – building sand castles is probably the most childlike and accessible ocean activity you can find.

  • Sand Castle Central, a great online resource to help you get started with sand building.
  • Leap’s annual Sand Castle Contest on Ocean Beach is a wonderful opportunity to watch the creative energy of large-scale sand castle building. Typically held in early October in Kelly’s Cove, on Ocean Beach in San Francisco.
  • Kirk Rademaker, “The Sandguy,” is a talented sand sculptor based in Santa Cruz who can be hired for team building activities or special events. Included in his site is a rating of local beaches, and how good they are for sand castle building. www.kirkrademaker.com. 510.459.946

CAMPING ON THE BEACH

Camping is not permitted at any of the beaches within the city limits of San Francisco. In fact, the only camping available in the city is at Rob Hill in the Presidio, which is expensive at $100/night. But there are wonderful beach camping opportunities outside of the city, and vary depending on how far you are willing to drive.

  • NORTH – Beach camping in Northern California offers tremendous beauty, but can be cold. Be sure to plan for chilly weather. The closest option is at Angel Island, a short ferry ride into the middle of the bay. Further north, some of the more notable and beautiful options include, but are certainly not limited to, the Point Reyes National Seashore, Salt Point State Park, and Patrick’s Point State Park.
  • SOUTH – Camping options south of San Francisco tend to be more crowded. Advanced recommendations are encouraged, especially if you’re planning on going as far south as San Diego. The closest beach camping is south of Santa Cruz and Manresa Uplands State Beach. Further south, in the highly-recommended Big Sur area, one of the best is Andrew Molera State Park. For a more unique experience, go off-roading at the Oceano Dunes SVRA, where beach camping is permitted.

BEASTIARIES AND NATURALISM

Photo from natalielucier

BONFIRES

Bonfires are permitted on Ocean Beach in the fire rings located between stairwells 16 and 21 on the norther side of the beach. There is ample parking. There are several regulations regarding bonfires, most notably that alcohol is not permitted and that the public parking lot closes at 10pm. Park rangers often circulate to enforce these rules. An excellent source for all of the rules regarding Ocean Beach bonfires can be found at beachcalifornia.com.

Photo from jillclardy

A BRIEF GUIDE TO LOCAL BEACHES

  • Ocean Beach OB is San Francisco’s largest beach, and its most dynamic. It can be hot and enticing one day, and frigid with howling winds and storm surf the next. It is the western border of the city, and is a popular destination for surfing, kite surfing, dog walking, bonfires, and beach combing.
  • Baker Beach Baker Beach is a bit more protected from the wind and fog than Ocean Beach, which makes it a popular destination for sunbathers. Be wary walking too far north, as it becomes clothing optional, which always sounds awesome until you realize it’s just wrinkly old dudes who tend to be naked sunbathers. Baker Beach has an off-leash dog policy and has more mellow surf than Ocean Beach, and can be fun for skimboarding and bodysurfing.
  • Chrissy Field The most protected of San Francisco’s beaches, and also its most busy. This area is extremely popular with joggers and dogwalkers. The waters are more protected, and make it a good place to learn how to windsurf, kite surf, or Stand-Up Paddle.
  • Other Options. To find warmer waters, head south. It’s remarkable how much warmer the water in Santa Cruz can be during the week. For more remote beauty, head north to wonderful beach hikes at state parks like Point Reyes.

SEA CHANTEYS, OR SAILORS SINGING SONGS

For twenty years, people have gathered on historic ships, the C. A. Thayer and Balclutha to listen to sailors sing traditional work songs, or chanteys. Free, with free cider if you bring a mug. They happen on the first Saturdays of every month and reservations are mandatory. (Hyde Street Pier, 415.561.7171)

surf shops and lessons art

SURF SHOPS:

  • Aqua Surf Shop is a wonderful neighborhood shop with a good selection of boards and wetsuits and extremely informed and friendly staff. It’s a great place to go and learn more about the materials involved in surfing. Aqua has two locations: the one in the Haight is more of a clothing store (1742 Haight St, 415.876.2782), while the one on Sloat near the zoo is more for surf gear (2830 Sloat Blvd, 415.242.9283).
  • Mollusk Surf Shop is a more refined, artistic approach to a surf shop, and sells more retro and unique wares. It’s a cool place with a cool vibe. (4500 Irving Street 415.564.6300)
  • Sunset Shapers is the newest gig in the city, and sells almost exclusively custom-shaped boards. Shaper James Mitchell shapes in the backroom and sells the boards in the front. One of the coolest options is that you can rent the shaping room and make your own board. (3896 Noriega St 415.379.4387)
  • Danny Hess is a maker of wood surfboards and Ocean Beach local. He makes handplanes and boards that well could be considered the pinnacle of local gear meant to ride local conditions. (415.867.3214)

Photo from Kanaka

BODY SURFING

Bodysurfing is one of the most pure and basic ways to ride a wave. There aren’t schools for this sort of thing because all you need is some common sense, fins, the ability to swim comfortably in the ocean in whatever conditions you’re out in, and a handplane if you so desire. Mollusk Surf shop sells Danny Hess handplanes, and so does The Scuttlefish store.

surf lesson image

SURF LESSONS

  • Adventure Out: Adventure out gives two day lessons in Santa Cruz and Pacifica, a few minutes south of the city. Their instructors are patient and solid and they include all the gear you’ll need. The classes are a great combination of practical and theoretical knowledge and they teach you both skills and etiquette important for staying safe and having fun in the water. Recommended. (800-509-3954)
  • For those who might want a more DIY approach, you can rent a board and a wetsuit at Aqua Surf Shop on Sloat for pretty cheap. Equally affordable is NorCal Surf Shop in Pacifica (650.738.9283), which is closer access to Linda Mar, which is more of a beginner wave than what you would find at Ocean Beach.

diving lessons and gear image

DIVING LESSONS AND GEAR

  • Bamboo Reef: The best school for learning how to dive in the bay area. The staff is friendly, funny, knowledgeable as you’d expect for a dive shop around since 1961. They also manage dive trips. Diving’s a few hundred dollars to get started, but other than the cost is an easy way to get spend time in the water and is life changing for most who start it. Recommended. (415.362.6694)
  • Surf Camp Pacifica: Located at the beginner-friendly Linda Mar, Surf Camp Pacifica has programs specifically geared for kids as well as adults. They even offer lessons for special events, like company bonding. (650.245.2924)
  • San Francisco Diving Academy. This is a solid place to learn to dive in a pool, hosted by UCSF, before you get to advance to a guided dive in Monterey. The academy is deliberately unaffiliated with any shop, and so they take pride in the unbiased gear advice they offer. Contact via email sanfranciscodiveacademy@gmail.com

WINDSURFING and KITESURFING – most schools and stores that focus on windsurfing also offer kiteboarding, and so the following resources are for both of these activities.

  • San Francisco Boardsailing Association: This is your one-stop spot for all things windsurfing (and kitesurfing, too). They offer a host of services, from water quality conditions, wind forecasts, gear suggestions, you name it. A very worthwhile resource.
  • Boardsports School and Shop: Their flagship store is located in San Mateo at Coyote Point Park, and affords learning opportunities in more protected waters. This is a paradise for beginners. They sell new and used gear, and offer lessons across all wind-based sports. Highly recommended. (415.385.1224)
  • Cal Adventures: this is run through UC Berkeley, and is a non-profit, volunteer run opportunity to learn a wide variety of water sports, such as windsurfing, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding. They also have a division that focuses specifically on camps for kids focusing on different activities, including windsurfing.
  • KITESURFING ONLY Your best bet to get in touch with the kitesurfing community is through www.justkiteit.com, a catch-all for kiting specific resources. The best local service that focuses exclusively on teaching kitesurfing lessons is the Wind Over Water Kiteboarding School.

SAILING

  • OCSC Sailing: This is a sailing school that is much, much more than a sailing school. It is a haven of water and sailing culture. Their beautiful Berkeley campus features local artists and lectures from traveling watermen. Learn to sail here, but more importantly, learn to love to sail here. Highly recommended. (1 Spinnaker Way, Berkeley 510.843.4200)
  • Modern Sailing School and Club: : Located in the north bay, Modern is another fantastic place to learn to sail. They offer packages oriented around CA and even foreign blue water trips that also include certifications. And they’ve got a heavy offshore weather course, too.  (2310 Marinship Way, Sausalito 415.331.8250

Photo from Mat Honan

SWIMMING

  • If you want to dive into the open water swimming culture in San Francisco, you basically have two options: The Dolphin Club, or The South End Rowing Club (don’t be fooled by the name, they swim too). These two swimming and rowing clubs are bitter rivals. Choose your club wisely. It will become part of your identity. The Scuttlefish is too afraid of this fierce rivalry to endorse one club over the other. The clubs offer hot showers as well as guided swims through the bay.
  • If you’re not up for full membership to either club, then Swim Art is an excellent school that can help initiate you to the joys and challenges of open water swimming.
  • If you don’t want to jump in the cold water, there are plenty of wonderful swimming pools in the city. The newly renovated Sava Pool (19th Ave and Wawona 415.661.6327) is a great option, as are the Embarcadero YMCA (169 Steuart St 415.957.9622) and the kid-friendly Janet Pomeroy Center (270 Skyline Blvd 415.665.4100). It’s really too bad there’s no longer the Fleishhacker Pool.

rowrow

ROWING & KAYAKING

  • Since we are talking about San Francisco, there are a multitude of options out there for what type of rowing you want to get into. Here are some of the best.
  • For traditional rowing, we can once again point your towards the South End Rowing Club and the Dolphin Club. (See the section on swimming for more details.)
  • The Embarcadero Rowing Club is a non-profit that lets you experience historical rowing in their traditional whaleboats. They host Tuesday evening and Sunday morning rows that are open to the public, and the first month of rowing is free! Recommended. (The Renegade is at 835 Terry Francois Blvd, and La Sirena is at 405 Terry Francois Blvd)
  • Lake Merced is a popular destination for “crew” rowing, the type done at universities. There are several great organizations to row with who house their boats at the Lake Merced Boathouse, such as the Pacific Rowing Club and the SF Rowing Club (both use the Lake Merced Boathouse, located on Harding Road)
  • A hugely popular activity is dragon boat racing, based on ancient Chinese rowboats, and teams are located throughout the bay area, practicing in places like Lake Merced, Oakland, and Alemeda. To get a sense of this unique and intense sport, you can check out the San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival, held annually at Treasure Island. It is the largest dragon boat festival in the United States.
  • For kayaking, there are plenty of user-friendly rental options available. City Kayak launches from SOMA and is a very popular option (South Beach Harbor 415.357.1010) A great option for Sausalito is Sea Trek Kayaking (415.488.1000), and in the East Bay, the best option is the previously mentioned Cal Adventures. All three of these also include the option to rent StandUp Paddleboards.

FISHING

  • As with rowing, there is a large variety of the type of fishing you can do in the city.
  • Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club affords the opportunity to fly-fish right here in the city, at Angler’s Pond in Golden Gate Park. They offer lessons, which are occasionally free (no phone number, use 1232 John F. Kennedy Dr as the location in online mapping agencies to find the clubhouse in GG Park)
  • For surf fishing at Ocean Beach, the must-stop shop is Gus’ Discount Fishing Tackle. There you can get hooked up with gear, permits, and knowledge. (3710 Balboa Street, 415.752.6197)
  • There is fishing in Lake Merced, but the water quality of the lake is generally considered to be low.
  • If you’re interested in getting out on a boat to fish, the best place to go to is SoleMan Sport Fishing. Chartering a boat to go fishing is never cheap, but it’s kid-friendly and looks like a good way to get on a boat in the open ocean (510.703.4148)

Photo from ahisgett

WHALE WATCHING

  • Whale watching can be one of two ways. The first is to find a nice cliff or beach and to scan the horizon until you see one. There a few locations where whales are more commonly spotted along the California coast. One of the closest is at Montara State Beach, about 20 minutes south of San Francisco, Another great option is to take a day trip up to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, where whale-watching is only one of many spectacles to enjoy. With a little bit of patience and a pair of binoculars, your chance of spotting whales is pretty good.
  • The second way to watch whales is to take one of the many whale watching boat cruises available. It’s a far more expensive option, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll see whales, but customers generally return happy. The option we recommend the most is the whale watching tour provided by the Oceanic Society because of their obvious commitment to protecting the environment as much as enjoying it.

Photo from hermanusbackpackers

Photo from hermanusbackpackers

SHARK DIVING

  • This is a no-joke kind of ocean experience, and one that will probably change your life. It’s expensive, at $775 a head, but from all accounts it’s totally worthwhile. The best boat to get on is the Superfish. The practice of cage diving at the Farallon Islands got a lot of bad press in the Susan Casey book The Devil’s Teeth, but the cage diving company and the scientists who study the shark have become a lot more amiable since the days of the books publication.

SPEARFISHING & ABALONE DIVING

  • Spearfishing and abalone diving are fairly popular activities, especially further north along the Marin and Sonoma County coastlines. They are gear-heavy activities, and are highly regulated. It’s not an activity you can just go out and “do,” you probably need an experienced friend to introduce you to it.
  • The San Francisco Reef Divers is an organization of divers who spearfish and abalone dive together. If you already have experience diving and the right equipment, this is a great group to join, and membership is cheap at only $25 a year.
  • There is a terrific blog run by Carrie Wilson, a 20-year veteran of the Department of Fish and Game, which answers pretty much every question about what is and is not allowed when it comes to all things fishing and hunting. You can search her website for answers to some of your questions, or else submit your own question to her.
  • If you’re only interested in abalone diving, the most exhaustive website by far is abalonediving.com, which includes regulations, locations, and shop recommendations.

Photo from bazylek

MAKE YOUR HOUSE (OR YOURSELF) LOOK LIKE A OLD PIRATE SHIP

  • Franks Fishermen has been around for over 50 years, hunting down nautical antiques. (366 Jefferson St,  415.775.1165)
  • The Pirate Supply Store at 826 Valencia is Dave Egger’s writing workshop armed with a healthy inventory of eye-patches, maps, lard and glass eyeballs. (826 Valencia, 415.642.5905)

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