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  • Writer's pictureOliver Lewis

5 Things That I’ve Learned From Surfing in Northern California

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

When I look back at my life, there are a couple memories that stand out more than others. The day my younger sister was born, for example. Or that time that I got lost in a Safeway for like four minutes. Or the day that I said goodbye to my family and traveled across the Pacific to go away for college. But, as nearly every surfer will tell you, few memories can compare to one’s first wave, and for me, a simple surfing folk, it is no different.

Photo courtesy of Brooke Raines

I remember laying down on a brown, beat-up board and looking back over my shoulder past my dad, who stood behind me, as we both scanned the horizon for a wave. He saw the set first and instructed me to get ready. Just a few seconds later, I saw it with my own eyes. “Too big! Too big! Too big!” I blurted out. Too late. He pushed me straight onto the wave, and I was flying towards shore, watching the colors of the shallow reef blur beneath my feet. As the wave died out and I looked back towards my dad, who was now cheering and splashing the water, I knew that I was onto something.

Unfortunately, my first surf in Northern California was equally memorable, but far less favorable. On a chilly, late autumn evening, I paddled out to Montara with a thin, borrowed wetsuit and slightly-too-small surfboard. The surf was big, not particularly good, and the sun was already dipping behind the fog that marched steadily towards shore. The sparknotes summary of the story is that I froze. The more elaborate summary is that I got smoked by some sets, was nearly hypothermic, and regretted the hour-long drive to the beach in the first place.

cold water surfing
Photo courtesy of Alexa Romano

I’ve since become more in tune with the cold, Bay Area waters and sporadic wind patterns as I’ve fallen in love with this rugged coastline (Montara included). It took a lot of time and a lot of numb digits to figure it all out, but I hope to shed some light on five tips that I wish I knew when I moved to California and began my surfing life up here.

1. Rubber is your friend.

Bay Area water temperature fluctuates between low fifties and low sixties Fahrenheit. Or, in less technical terms, it’s really cold year round. When renting or purchasing your wetsuit, go for something thicker. The standard anywhere north of San Luis Obispo is a 4/3 (meaning 4 millimeters of neoprene over the chest and legs, and 3 millimeters over the arms). However, I’ve personally upgraded to a 5/4/3 (5mm chest, 4mm legs, 3mm arms). A thick wetsuit, paired with booties and a hood, will keep your core temperature up, allowing you to preserve energy and stay out in the water longer.

wetsuit and flying
Photo courtesy of Alexa Romano

2. Extra board volume always helps.

Most surf spots in Northern California, with the exception of the jutting, rocky points of Santa Cruz, are beach breaks. This means strong currents, unpredictable lineups, and, oftentimes, steeper drops. One of the best ways to hinder these variables is to have a board that you can paddle well and can paddle fast.

northern california surfing
Photo Courtesy of Brooke Raines

The most obvious answer for this is to ride a board with some extra foam. More foam equals more volume, more volume equals more paddle power. Regardless of skill level, I recommend using a board with a little more length, width, and thickness than what you may normally ride. For beginners, the bigger the board, the better. Use longboards and soft-tops to help you paddle against currents with ease, catch waves as they appear, both near and far, and chip into steep drops early, thus avoiding the classic “pearl dive.”

3. You don’t need to travel far to find surf.

surfing with friends
Switchbackr cofounders catching some waves before class

Whether you are based in the East Bay, Marin, South Bay, or the Peninsula, there are surf spots to fit all skill levels just a short drive away. Bay Area traffic is real, but if you plan accordingly, you won’t need to trudge through it for too long. Of course the day-long surf trip is fun every once in a while, but you don’t need to drive for hours to find surf around here.

Getting familiar with your local spots doesn’t only save time, but it allows you to connect intimately with your surrounding area and community. Take beginner surf spots for example: Santa Cruz has Cowells, Half Moon Bay has the Princeton Jetty, Pacifica has Linda Mar, and Marin has Stinson Beach. These are excellent places to learn to surf and get comfortable in the water. They are also scattered up and down the greater Bay Area, so find a spot close to you for easy access to everything that the ocean has to offer.

4. Understand what the wind is doing (before you leave your house).

The Northern California coast is highly exposed to swell nearly year round. At all skill levels, and regardless of surf size, there are always protected nooks and exposed corners to find manageable waves when swell is big and rideable waves when it’s small. In the Bay Area, wind is almost always the make-or-break factor. Pick times where the wind is light or offshore to avoid the onshore slop. I use for accurate and reliable wind forecasts (up to two weeks in advance).

surfers heading out
Photo courtesy of Brooke Raines

5. Create a changing station.

This tip is less obvious than others, but perhaps the most important. Create a changing station in advance for when you come in from the water cold, wet, and tired. Personally, I use one of those blue Ikea bags and a gallon jug of water (which I reuse and refill every time). The Ikea bag is to stand on while changing. This prevents your damp wetsuit from getting covered in parking lot gravel and dirt. It is also an easy-to-carry and waterproof bag that prevents your car from getting soaked.

Ikea bag change
Photo courtesy of Oliver Lewis

The jug of water is to rinse your hair and face, and also your feet. Salty hair and skin is annoying, and even more annoying on the long drive home. The only thing worse than feeling sticky on the commute back is slipping sandy feet into socks and warm slippers that your icy toes desperately need. Rinse off the essentials, and finish it off with a hot shower at home.

Bonus Tip:

This one is a bit of a trade secret. Wear socks when you change into your wetsuit. It looks funny, but your feet will slip right through those tiny, clingy leg holes.

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