Ocean Beach, A Love Story or Whatever

Sunde White illustrates her surfing experience at San Francisco's Ocean Beach

I love you, I love you not

San Francisco’s surf beach that runs the width of the city is called Ocean Beach.  It is one of the world’s most dangerous waves because of its power, huge winter waves, rip currents, cold water, nearly impossible paddle outs and how far away from shore it breaks.  It is surfable from October thru March or maybe April if you’re lucky.  Even on a small day it’s intimidating.

In late October, the San Francisco air gets warm and dry.  Light offshore winds make Ocean Beach’s waves clean and perfect.  They are consistent but not too big and the water temp is the warmest it will be all year.  It’s when Ocean Beach and I experience each other at our best.  Its waves are awesome and not as scary and I’m pumped and ready for them, fit from a summer of surfing all the time. We are like lovers that have been apart for months, showing up as our best selves to impress each other.  After the first few sessions, I’m already feeling psyched about our winter together.  In October and November I’m always certain it’s going to be a great season.

Like falling back in love, the beginning of the season at Ocean Beach is exhilarating.  It leaves you breathless with its power, its perfection.  You mind surf every wave you got that day before you fall asleep at night.  You can’t stop thinking about it. You’re obsessed.  Like all addicts you’d give up everything for those waves.  You call in sick to work, show up late to functions, you lie about where you are and you just don’t care about anything else.

Sometimes you can go years surfing there with no major problems.  You feel like you’ve learned the wave by now and it’s no longer the threat it used to be.  It seems you have developed an easy relationship with it after a while.  It no longer terrifies you.  Even though the wave breaks differently each year, you feel like you’ve consistently been ripping out there for years.  You wonder if maybe, from now on, your experience out there will just keep getting better and better.  You feel calm, informed and experienced.  You’re psyched and proud of yourself every time you climb out of the water safe and sound.

If you’re lucky you might get a few seasons in a row where it’s pumping and consistent.  The sandbars are built up perfectly to allow the waves to break with few close outs and shaped perfectly.  Yes, it’s always challenging but that helps you to grow.  Winter there is hard work, but if you do the work it all pays off with super fast walls of water that scare the shit out of you but give you the best rides of your life.  When you come in from a perfect winter day at Ocean Beach, you feel like you have conquered nature.

It makes you a better surfer too.  Anywhere else you surf will be easier than Ocean Beach.  Anywhere else the paddle out will be shorter, the wave not as icy and heavy, shore will be closer, the current will not be as relentless. No wave will ever be that scary.

A set wave out there looks like a black hillside building up on the horizon, casting its shadow over you.  When it breaks it will sound like a canon going off.  You force yourself to sit unmoving under it until it looms over you and then, against all your better instincts,  you turn your back on it, lay down on your board and start paddling as hard as you can. You dare not look back at it.  If you do you’ll see the huge jumble of curling water that is bearing down on you.  You must only look forward, at the gleaming open face.  The wave catches up to you and accelerates with you tucked in its shoulder.  You pop up and hold on as you shoot down the face.

The wave is so fast and dense that sometimes you want to do a turn or a cutback back but the wave will not allow it and it pushes you forward so fast that the fins lock into it and you just can’t create a change of direction.  So you just do your best to hold on and get some turns in at the end of the ride if you’re lucky enough to find a wave that takes you into the beach.  My gosh, it is heaven, absolute perfection when it’s good.

Then one day it hurts you.  Nothing serious, just pushes you around, holds you down.  Maybe some bumps and bruises, a small sprain.  You shake it off, laugh about how rough it was but you know you can take it.  You’re strong.  You’re prepared.  You train for this.  Anyway, it’s probably your fault.   You made it happen by taking off too late or you thought you could handle the size that day but you over estimated your abilities.  Maybe you took out the wrong board, too small or too big, too much rocker or  not enough.  3 fins when five would have helped to lock you in.  Or maybe you’re weak, not fit enough, not brave enough, not bold enough.  You hesitated when you should have gone.

It’s fine.  You tell yourself.  It won’t happen again.  You’ll get fitter, be braver, choose your board more wisely.  And it doesn’t happen again for a while.  You’re trepidatious but you finally get your will up to go out again and it’s great!  Your fears dissolve.  Your love and trust for this challenging wave grows brighter than ever before.  Your confidence grows.  Seasons pass and you’re still in love year after year.  You look forward breathlessly to each October when its waves will arrive again to thrill you.

And then one day you get hurt again and it scares you even though you don’t want to admit it.  You can’t stop thinking about it, the worst case scenarios that could have happened during the wipeout.  “What if I had blacked out and been dragged to the bottom forever?  What if I had become debilitated, unable to get to shore safely?  What if the fin had cut me somewhere more dangerous like an artery, or my eye?”  These questions haunt you.  But you keep them to yourself.  A shadow has been cast over your relationship with Ocean Beach.  Your trust in it is shaken.

You watch the other surfers casually changing to go out, laughing with each other like it’s no big deal. You feel embarrassed that it’s not easy for you anymore to just change and go out.  Even on a smaller, more manageable day you worry.  You can’t breathe right from the stress as you warm up on shore.  Ocean Beach has shaken all the confidence out of you and now you’re just not sure anymore if it’s you or the waves that is the problem.

“Am I even good enough to be out there?”  You ask yourself.  You become confused.  You doubt yourself because the times Ocean Beach has struck out at you you were at your best.  You and the wave were so good together.  Your confidence surfing out there was unshakable so when the wave strikes out at you for no other reason than just a mood or wanting to remind you of its power, you’re shocked.   It happens so fast you don’t even know what happened.  You go over the wipeout in your mind and everything was lining up to be a perfect ride.  You ask your husband that witnessed it, what happened on that one?  “I don’t know.” he shrugs, “It looked like it was going to be perfect and it just dropped out from under you.”

All you can do is move on after each hard wipe out.  But Ocean Beach’s inconsistency mixed with its power is unsettling.  You realize that at any time, at any moment the wave, that beautiful shining face, can drop out from under you, hit you with all its weight and then bury you until it says you can come up again.

To be honest, you have become exhausted by the whole thing, the drama, all the ups and downs, highs and lows.  After a 36 minute paddle out, where you sit in icy water and watch bombs go by that get held up by 15 mph offshore winds just to explode on the inside, you get disheartened.  Or you sit out there for an hour and a half, freezing to death,  just to catch two waves and both of them are close outs that drill you into the sand bar.  Session after session is leaving you feeling disgusted.  Like, how much more do you have to take until you decide you never want to see it again?  It’s over.  I quit!  I just can’t do this anymore.  “What did I ever see in you?”  You ask it after another horrible session.

You begin to put off going out there.  You lie to yourself and your husband and friends.  You say you have a cold or you have to work.  You don’t want to admit to yourself, much less anyone else, the truth.  That you’re scared now, maybe even phobic.  You are avoiding going out.  Maybe you’ll never go out there again.

Then one sunny winter day, there are no more excuses.  You have the time, it looks really good and you know there’s no more putting it off.  A little hope sparks in you that this time it will be good, easy, fun, beautiful– like the old days.  You paddle out and it is all of those things.  It’s truly magical.  There are dolphins, rainbows sparkle out of the feathering spray floating off the top of the waves.

You come out of the water relieved and exhausted.  You’re high as hell on Ocean Beach again.  All the good times come rushing back to you, the bad times are all forgotten.  The slate is wiped clean with that one perfect day.

You begin monitoring Surfline for the swells and conditions again.  You skip work to get it when it’s good.  Ocean Beach has reeled you back in and you are powerless to resist it.