Beneath the Golden Gate, a Rare Break Draws (Experienced) Surfers

Alex Carter drops in at the rare Fort Point break under San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge; Photograph by James Joiner
Alex Carter drops in at the rare Fort Point break under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge; Photograph by James Joiner

San Francisco may be a mecca for foodies, musicians, artists, techies, and skateboarders, but when it comes to surfing, the spots are, well, limited. And by “limited” I mean, “there’s really only consistently one that’s actually in the city, Ocean Beach.” Which is why, when the conditions are just right and the swell is hitting hard—and it is now with seven- to eight-foot swells—having a second break open up is pretty exciting. That this unicorn of an occasional spot happens to be directly under the Golden Gate Bridge’s iconic span is just an added bonus.

“Fort Point is one of the most unique and unusually beautiful surf spots in the world,” Bay Area-born surfer and photographer Jeff Johnson explained. “Technically the waves are sub par, but the novelty is unparalleled.”

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“Some people really like that spot. It works when it works, but most of the time it doesn’t work,” conceded Domenic Villeda of SF’s Mollusk Surf Shop, a ten-year Bay Area surfing veteran. The break is best with winter swells and only at low tide, so it’s really good only a handful of times a year. “It’s all the way inside the Bay pretty much, so you’ve got to hit it the right swell to go all the way in there.”

Breaking, as it does, right at the mouth of San Francisco Bay, it’s a short ride that unceremoniously dumps surfers directly onto a jagged shoreline.

“The break is a mix of ocean swell and tanker wakes,” said photographer and surfer Hunter O’Brien, who has shot at the spot before. “Then there is a pretty gnarly undertow, and the break is peppered with rocks.”

“When it’s pumping it is one big adrenaline rush, big and fast,” exclaimed Alex Carter, who happened to be in town on business from San Luis Obispo when he saw the chance to drop in on the break during this latest big swell. “There’s a lot of water moving at the take off underneath the bridge, and the rocks and backwash make the wave unpredictable. Definitely only experienced surfers are paddling out.”

As for paddling out, according to some it takes more than just experience to get in the lineup for this spot. With the Bay Area’s tight population and very limited number of breaks, competition can be fierce.

Surfer Alex Carter moments after clambering out of the water and up the rocks at San Francesco's fort point; Photograph by James Joiner
Surfer Alex Carter moments after clambering out of the water and up the rocks at San Francesco’s fort point; Photograph by James Joiner

“I wouldn’t say it gets super crowded,” Villeda laughed. “It’s kinda locally owned, so there’s all kinds of horror stories of people getting beat up or whatnot. Even before they get in the water, like you show up there and they’re like, ‘no, it’s not happening.’”

But sometimes you can get lucky.

“No locals were aggressive,” said Carter, who was one of only two people in the water when I was there. “But be respectful, that can change quickly.”

““I never got any stress from surfers. I’m not a local but have jumped in with a camera a few times when traveling,” O’Brien claimed. “To be honest, though, I think they liked the fact I was shooting them in front of bridge and I wasn’t takin’ any waves.”

Alex Carter staying ahead of the lip on a Fort Point wave in San Francisco; Photograph by James Joiner
Alex Carter staying ahead of the lip on a Fort Point wave in San Francisco; Photograph by James Joiner

Surf localism, or territorial protectiveness and harassment of outsiders over crowded, or potentially crowded, breaks isn’t a new thing. Southern California town Lunada Bay has made world headlines with its “Bay Boys” surf gang, who keep out-of-towners off their waves by any means necessary, including outright violence.

As inter-class tensions mount, traffic piles up, and housing prices skyrocket in San Francisco with the influx of people with high paying tech jobs, one would expect this pressure to spill over into popular pastimes such as surfing, especially with such extremely limited accessible spots. But that’s not necessarily the case. Luckily, such aggressiveness is usually mitigated by the advanced skillset required to ride the local breaks.

“There’s more kooks in the water, but luckily Ocean Beach is pretty gnarly and they can’t really get out too much,” Domenico chuckled. “There’s a lot of techies, but they roll north to Bolinas or south to Pacifica, and they have nice shiny boards that they don’t know how to ride.”

Still think it’s worth a potential beat down or rocky wreck to catch a wave in the bridge’s shadow? Well, all you have to do is get there, which may not be as easy as it sounds.

“How do you get to it? Very carefully,” Domenico says, snorting a laugh, then adding, “I can’t say.”

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Comments

  1. Marc
    January 27, 2016, 7:35 pm

    I am not a surfer but I am sure most surfers would enjoy the San Fran bay area surfing. I have been to the Golden gate bridge and never ever thought of doing it. I took the ferry ride several times but never noticed a surfer around there. next time, I could pay attention. Thanks for the share.
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