Surf alert: Where to catch waves near campus

Aug. 10, 2021, 6:28 p.m.

As I peered over the rails of my friend’s sailboat into the bright blue water between Capitola and Carmel, a long shadow moved ever so slightly underneath the ship. Our captain, a smile extending from ear to ear, excitedly explained that a great white shark was below us. We rushed to starboard just as its fin breached the water.

When we returned to the marina, our friend said the plan for the following day was surfing. Surfing? No way I was going to surf in the same spot I’d seen a shark lurking beneath the surface. But our friend, an avid surfer and sailor, assured us that he knew several safe surf beaches.

Although we do need to be aware of increased shark sightings and attacks along the California coast, here are three surf spots within an hour of Stanford campus — all considered safe, and suitable for both avid surfers and beginners.

Pacifica: Linda Mar and Rockaway Beach

A consistent beach for waves is the popular Linda Mar Beach, located in Pacifica, just south of San Francisco — about 40 minutes driving from campus. Located inside a large cove, it is protected from larger rogue waves, but offers enough action for intermediate and advanced surfers.

About five minutes north is Rockaway Beach, which is typically less crowded. If the waves aren’t big enough at Linda Mar, chances are the waves at Rockaway will fulfill your surfing needs. Slightly less protected, there is a higher chance of larger swells reaching this spot. 

These beaches not only offer amazing areas to surf, but also offer restaurants just steps away. For those who want to stay in the water all day, there is a Taco Bell right on the beach at Linda Mar. About a 10-minute walk away, there are even more shops — Panda Express, Beach Boba and Safeway. Although Rockaway has fewer food options, it has a sit-down restaurant right on the water, overlooking the surf. On the pricier side, Moonraker probably deserves a reservation, and keep in mind this restaurant experience will definitely be a longer break away from the waves than a quick fix from Taco Bell. The Moonraker’s cuisine is surf-and-turf, though it’s slightly more surf-heavy.

Two surfers pictured, one surfs a wave toward the camera while the other swims away to the right.
Two surfers at Linda Mar/Rockaway Beach. (Photo: KATE TIPTON)

Santa Cruz: Pleasure Point

With its beautiful, baby blue waters and a quaint sandy beach along the shore, Pleasure Point is a sight for sore eyes. Some days during the summer, the weather and water are warm enough to wear simply a bathing suit, or sometimes a wetsuit top. Most of the time, however, wearing a full wetsuit is key. Warmer waters in the summertime offer a more pleasant beach experience, but there are typically larger waves in the winter. While there aren’t many storms in California, during the occasional winter swell waves can reach 10 to 15 feet — perfect for the advanced risk-takers.

A view of a beach cliff and the incoming waves. Several people are on the cliff and in the water.
Several visitors on a cliff and in the water at Pleasure Point. (Photo: KATE TIPTON)

As you are viewing the beauty of the beach, you may be wondering about the home on the cliff. This was the home of Jack O’Neill, the renowned businessman who popularized neoprene wetsuits and produced them through the O’Neill brand.

Several houses stand at the edge of the land on a cliff.
Beach houses at Pleasure Point. (Photo: KATE TIPTON)

Pleasure Point holds a special place in my heart — it is the beach where I learned how to surf for the first time, as well as the place where I met my closest friends. Although it isn’t protected by a cove, it is surrounded by a kelp forest that deters sharks and offers a comfy cushion for beginners. On a beautiful sunny day, an otter may make an appearance at the top of the water near your surfboard. Pleasure’s skill level ranges from beginner to advanced, but there will usually be more beginner and intermediate surfers at the beach.

This beach is very well-known, and there are often families lining the beach, watching the surfers paddle for a wave. Although often crowded, the beach spans such a large area — there will still be plenty of chances to catch a wave. Once the day is over, there is no lack of places to get a bite to eat — the most convenient would be The Point Market, right up the stairs from the beach, about a minute’s walk north.

San Francisco: Ocean Beach

The sun is on the horizon. Sand and hills extend to the right and incoming waves on the water are shown on the left.
Views from Ocean Beach. (Photo: SOFIA SCEKIC)

The last beach on my list is about a 33-minute drive from Stanford. Right on the coast of San Francisco, Ocean Beach offers a great location for a short surf day or an extended day trip to the city. This beach’s past is one to remember: in addition to being the birthplace of Jack O’Neill’s phrase “Surf Shop,” it also hosts the annual Corgi Con, during which people show off their furry pets to hundreds of corgi enthusiasts.

Although a special beach, surfing should not be attempted here (nor at any beach) by beginners without a guide. San Francisco is often foggy, and surfing with obstructed vision is never advised. During double to triple overhead, only advanced surfers should be surfing — and even they should wear helmets, advised Surfer Today.

Ocean Beach is close to multiple coffee shops — including Trouble Coffee and Andytown Coffee Roasters, some of the best cafes in the area — and restaurants sprinkled throughout the residential neighborhood across the road. The wide-ranging food options include Mexican cuisine at Sunset Cantina and seafood at Hook Fish Co.

Average wave heights can vary dramatically from day to day. Although I deemed some of the beaches in this article safe for beginners, the ocean is never on a schedule, and there can be larger swells any day. To find out if the beach you decide to go to is safe for your skill level, I highly recommend downloading the app “Surfline,” which displays information about the swells at each beach. For beginners, it is important to go surfing with either a guide or an advanced surfer. As well as being aware of the fluctuating swells, it’s important to be mindful of sharks. They are lovely creatures, but they do sometimes mistake people for seals.

Kate To is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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