by Brandon K.
I’ve lived on The Beach for the past 6 seasons and would rate the 2013-2014 surf season as above average.
For those of you who just want the final answer, I rate the 2013-14 Ocean Beach, San Francisco season as:
Ocean Beach, SF 2013-14 season: 7 / 10
Let’s recap in terms of the key dimensions Ocean Beach surfers care about: Winds and Swells. Then I will follow up with a Season Photo-journal, with pictures from many of the best days.
Winds are really the most important factor to monitor when hunting for surf at Ocean Beach. The real problem with OB is that it is at latitude 38° which means it is subject to the westerly trade winds that are generated by the spinning of Earth on its axis (wikipedia: Trade Winds to learn more).
Therefore 9 out of 10 days in San Francisco see at least some W, WNW, or NW wind activity. And that air blowing in from the ocean is cold and moist, which also explains why Sunset dwellers are usually bundled up in warm jackets. However, San Francisco is also known for its so-called Indian Summer, which refers to the periods of nice weather that typically begin to occur around September and can continue to occur well into the winter months of January and February.
These heat-waves are the result of high-pressure systems moving from the Eastern Pacific over the West Coast of North America and they typically occur in the fall and winter months. Notably they do not frequently occur in the summer months, when OB is almost always windy, gloomy and cold. The key is thing to know is that high pressure kills the trade winds and thus when the inland areas heat-up during the day we get N, NE, ENE, or E winds to blow around the San Francisco area. And as any surfer knows, E winds are offshore at The Beaech and can groom any incoming Ocean Beach swells to perfection.
It is worth mentioning that low pressure systems (the opposite of high pressure, duh!) pretty much produce the opposite weather. Low pressure usually means a storm, rain, and strong winds. Because in the northern hemisphere storms spin counter-clockwise (again, due to the spinning of the Earth, known as the Coriolis Effect), as a low pressure system moves from over the ocean onto land in California, the winds will usually blow S and then switch to NW as the system moves past.
In short, low pressure is usually bad for surf at Ocean Beach, although as winds switch there can be moments of brilliance. Also I should mention that we depend on those “big purple blobs” (read: low-pressure systems) to generate the swells we ride, but we just like them to be really far away! In my opinion the best swell for Ocean Beach is the “Japan swell”, or a swell that is generated by a low-pressure system all the up northwest of Japan. These are the best because the are the longest period.
The below chart is from Wunderground. They have a weather station somewhere near Kelly’s and it records all kinds of meteorological data continuously, including wind direction and speed. You can see the average daily wind direction and speed for August 1, 2013 through April 31, 2014.
Remember all those good days we had in December and January? Well, they can pretty much be explained by the average wind direction being E on those days. Additionally, there were very few low-pressure systems that rolled through the Bay Area last season, which means good surf wasn’t destroyed by S winds and generally bad weather (note: this was horrible for the Tahoe ski season, which was a bummer for those of us who like to surf the snow too!)
I don’t have detailed wind data going back to previous seasons, but when thinking about my 6 years here on the Beach I’d say the number of offshore days last season was much higher than normal and those days were concentrated during the months of December and January.
Overall Wind rating for 2013-14: 8 / 10
Ocean Beach faces due west and is highly exposed to any swell, from long period summer south swells to anything generated in the northern Pacific. Further, the strong tidal currents generated by water moving into/out-of the SF Bay create the potential for awesome sandbars and generally a bathymetry that is varied and thus produces few closeout waves. Awhile back Surfline did a great “Spot Check” write-up on Ocean Beach that you can find here. The last few slides detail how the bathymetry at OB creates such a peaky beachbreak, when normally a straight 3-mile straight shot of white-sand beach gives you a formless Huntington-esque closeout prone beachbreak.
At any rate, the 2013-14 was a below average year for big swells, as any Mavericks or SoCal surfer will tell you. The below chart plots dominant wave height from the San Francisco Buoy 42024. You can see some big spikes in January; the last of the 3 big spikes in January 24 when they ran the Mavericks contest. An important thing to remember when looking at buoy reported wave height data is that the buoys record the wave heights without distinguishing between superposition of multiple swells in the water, which can “stack” smaller waves up into one temporarily large wave. Another important thing to remember is that wave period also matters a lot, especially at very exposed and locations like Ocean Beach. So really, the below chart doesn’t tell us much because it plots only buoy wave height without consideration of wave period.
The real secret at Ocean Beach is that the Beach loves long period. The longer the better. It’s almost like if the period is long enough, wave height doesn’t even matter. Remember the epic MLK 2013 weekend of waves, when Ocean Beach was 20+ foot? That swell initially hit the buoys at a 23+ second interval but the buoys never recorded a period much above 7 feet during the entire duration of the swell!
Surf science tells us that a wave’s energy is proportional to the square of period, so bigger period drastically increases wave power — and then when that wave slams into the shore it can grow much bigger on the face than its open ocean swell wave height. Check out this page on Surfline for a good overview of “surfology”. In the below plot I try to distinguish “good” swell conditions by filtering for days when the period is above 15 seconds and the wave height is above 3.5 feet. We can start to see that the December and January months look pretty good by this measure, but we also see a lot of false positives in the early and late season. Of course here, the missing factor is winds… on any of those days if the winds would’ve been offshore, it would’ve been good!
In general the number of swells and the size of the swells were good for Ocean Beach, but not great. The season got off to a sluggish start and a lot of really beautiful offshore days had surf that was below head high, which is not what any hard core Ocean Beach local surfer would want. There were 2 or 3 long, long period swells and fortunately they were met with good conditions.
Overall Swell rating for 2013-14: 6 / 10
Overall Conclusion for 2013-14 season: 7 / 10.
I had a great season, probably my best season since I moved here. There were so many days with good conditions and it seems about half of them had solid surf. For me to have assigned a higher rating, perhaps more epic days with big surf & good conditions are needed. In fact, I was tempted to give it a higher number as is, but there is one important factor that I haven’t written about yet which brings it down one notch: the crowds. This year was by far the most crowded I have seen in my 6 years here.
There were some days that ridiculously crowded, especially around Noriega, where I surf most often. And I’m not even a real local and I am in fact a part of the problem both for having moved to Ocean Beach 6 years ago and for writing this blog post. The issue seems to be that with social media and attention from contests, etc., word has spread about Ocean Beach and people know when to be here. The saving grace for Ocean Beach is that once it gets double overhead or bigger, which is the way I like it, the lineup is self-regulating; only those who have put in the time will desire to attempt the paddle out and pull in!
I also only give a 7 out of 10 because I need to leave room for even better years going forward! 6 years of observations is simply not enough to have claimed to seen a really, really good (e.g. 8 or 9) season or an ALL TIME EPIC season. I hope to witness that one day!
El Nino / La Nina and Ocean Beach
One more meteorological point to mention is that in my opinion Ocean Beach seems to like La Nina more than El Nino. The reason is that La Nina tends to bring more frequent Indian-summer high-pressure episodes and more mid-sized swells. As surfers we are conditioned to think El Nino is the greatest thing to hope for, but in my opinion El Nino creates problems for Ocean Beach because NW swells often get too big and all those storms bring funky winds.
For SoCal, Mavericks, Santa Cruz and many other spots the El Nino winds may not be an issue and the more swell the better, but when considering just Ocean Beach, I’ll take La Nina over El Nino anyday. During the 2013-14 season the oceans were officially classified to be in an ENSO neutral state, although really we had very, very weak La Nina conditions present . We had a weak El Nino in ‘09-’10 and weak La Ninas in ‘11-’12 and ‘12-’13. My remembering both the previous seasons (‘11-’12 & ‘12-’13) to also be above average for Ocean Beach reinforces my liking of La Nina, but during the weak El Nino of ‘09-’10 I remember more frequently retreating to Santa Cruz or SF secret spots because of wrong conditions for Ocean Beach.
If you’re interested to check out the complete history of the ENSO cycle from 1950-present, here is a link to the NOAA page:
Ocean Beach Season Journal
Here is a photo journal I put together from my archives of the 2013-14 season. The waves I like and thus photograph more often are usually on the bigger side, but there were lots of smaller days that were offshore and super fun, more than are represented below. I know that in the first half of the season I was on my log more than ever!
Sept 29 — first good sized swell of the season with good conditions. The surf filled in through the day and I surfed 3 sessions, first at Sloat, then VFWs and finally sunset at Noriega. The waves were well overhead by the time of my 3rd session and guys were getting tubes all over the beach.
Oct 5 weekend — The Bluegrass Festival last year received a classic SF Indian Summer heat-wave and although there wasn’t much swell it was still super fun and lots of people enjoyed the waves. I love it when you can surf fun waves in the morning and then go listen to great music at a festival, all without ever having to leave your neighborhood. Gotta love SF and the Sunset!
Oct 21st — A good day of surf, gloomy but with overhead and relatively clean waves. The most notable occurrence this day was when this sailboat got way too close to shore and the Coast Guard had to come in to make sure he didn’t wash up on the beach by a rogue set wave. Don’t underestimate long period Ocean Beach!
Nov 5th — There was a stretch of 3 midweek days that had good and sizable surf. I remember going in late for work 2 outta 3 of those days! Below is a pic from the first of the 3 days, when the swell was a little bigger and more raw than the other two days, which were better.
Nov 9th — By the weekend the on Nov 9th swell had dropped considerably but the Indian summer remained in effect and the waves were smaller but super fun. But then on Sunday a new swell filled in and waves were slightly overhead, sweeeet!
Nov 23rd — During month of November in 2013 there were many Indian-summer, offshore days but on many of those days the waves were head-high or smaller. When the swell gets really small you gotta bust out the log and get on it anyway! It is actually rare that the surf at Ocean Beach gets this user friendly and there were lots of newbies taking advantage of it.
Thanksgiving — I was out of town visiting my parents, but I heard the swell picked up to well overhead and that conditions were good. There always seems to be good surf on Thanksgiving, X-mas, Super Bowl Sunday, …
Dec 1 — I got back into town in time to get some of the leftovers from the swell and it was super fun!
Dec 8th & 9th — Into the beginning of December many surfers were wondering how the good conditions would last and if we might be so fortunate as to have good conditions combine with some big surf. Surely some BIG swells would arrive, but with so many offshore days behind us, how many could be left? Whatever the case, smart surfers get it while the getting is good. And as the below pics of Dec 8 and Dec 9 show, it was still pretty damn GOOD at the beginning of December.
Dec 14th – 17th — Now things REALLY got cooking. Conditions remained good and some bigger swell finally moved in. Dec 14 marked the beginning of a good run. Dec 16 was the best day as a new 20+ second period swell moved in. The morning was a little funky, but by 11am Pacheco Bar was on fire! I played hookie from work and surfed all day. Dec 17 was gloomy and darker but the swell was still pumping and conditions remained good, although not quite as offshore.
Dec 26th – 30th — This was my favorite period of surf for the 2013-14 season. I usually like to not plan a vacation around Xmas + New Years because oftentimes the surf gets good and work slows down so I can make escapes without anyone noticing.
Dec 26th was all-time. I woke up at dawn to 22+ second lines coming in with superb conditions. Nobody was out and by the time I got out there were just a handful of us. The bar at Pacheco was spitting perfect, racy, double overhead tubes. I got the best OB wave I’ve ever had that morning, a 6 second left barrel that I didn’t even really have to do anything but stand there in. By noon my arms were noodles and all the regulars were on it so I went in to recharge for awhile and snap some more photos. I saw a bunch of great rides but Lewis Samuels was a standout and got the barrel of the day, at least that I saw. By 2-ish I was recharged and headed back out. Luckily my friend was snapping pics and caught me get a sweet doggie-door right hand barrel. The photo is so beautiful, I just love the backlit water texture!
The next few days were really good too. I basically didn’t work at all, I just surfed my brains out and snapped a few photos here and there. Many barrels ridden. This run of swell was the best Christmas present a surfer could hope for: light to offshore winds, sizable long period swell and lots of time to surf!
1st half of January –– I didn’t take many pics for some reason, but I remember the 1st week was relatively uninteresting compared to the previous week, although conditions remained good. Maybe I was surfed out! The 2nd week saw some NW winds and thus lackluster surf.
Jan 15th — Things turn on again. It was well overhead and the offshores were back! The regulars are in good condition as a result continous surfing during the previous month and the level of surfing at OB is sky-high. Pros from Santa Cruz and SoCal descend on OB as word has gotten out. In SoCal and even Santa Cruz many of these swells that are well overhead at Ocean Beach thanks to good sandbars and broad westerly exposure don’t even register in at head high, so surfers started making the drive up to Ocean Beach to get some juice!
Jan 16th — Surf drops but word continues to spread that Ocean Beach is the place to be. This day was the most crowded I’d seen Noriega up to that point. So many dudes burning other dudes. Ridiculous. I end up riding my log so I could fetch waves before anyone else and woe to them if they were to burn me as my log is thick and not quick to turn. I got some sweet rides, trimming down the line and gliding super fast and even getting some head dips! I love to hate these kinds of days when the crowds get thick when OB is head high and the kooks abound. It’s amazing the difference in the crowd between 5’ Ocean Beach and 10’ Ocean Beach. I’d prefer 10’ anytime.
Jan 18th – 20th — A new swell moves in for the weekend and conditions remain very good. This swell isn’t quite as long period as the Christmas swell and so barrels are harder to find, but the waves are tall nonetheless. At this point quivers have been decimated and the surf shops are out of quality step-up semi-guns. The locals with deep quivers built up over the years are still in the game, though!. Jan 19 was the day the 49ers got knocked out of the 2013 season playoffs, losing to the Seattle Seahawks, which made that day a little less awesome, although the waves were triple overhead and spectacular. Monday I played hookie and surfed all day.
Jan 21st — Tuesday the 21st was the best day of the year at Mavericks, super clean and hitting 40+ foot faces. Alex Martins, a Sunset local charger and owner of the local ding repair shop, suffered a horrific wipeout at Mavs that and was injured so he had to withdraw from the Mavericks Invitiational (link to Surfline feature here). That same day Damien Hobgood and Lewis Samuels paddle out in maxing Ocean Beach and prove that it IS possible to paddle out at 20’+ Ocean Beach. Here’s an Instagram video of a barrel Damo got out there this day. It should be noted that Ocean Beach can easily get too big for mere mortals. 20’ faces and super long period is doable, like the 2013 MLK swell, but 20’ and 16-17 second or less period makes paddling out damn near impossible and getting caught inside a serious issue. On this day I wanted nothing to do with the hellstorm at OB or the high level of charging at Mavs and ended up having a fantastic morning at Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz.
Jan 22nd -26th — The swell drops a little on Wednesday the 23rd but then gets reinforced on Thursday 24 and the Mavericks Invitational runs with Grant “Twiggy” Baker taking the win. Ocean Beach is plagued with somewhat funky winds that combined with the huge surf make it very, very gnarly. Nobody I know of tries to surf. I don’t have any pics of the Beach because I went down to SoCal to surf Ventura for the largest swell of the year. Friday the 25th some of my friends score the best Todos Santos of the year. The weekend of January 25-26th it is great to be a California surfer as the large swell lights up all kinds of nooks and cranies that hadn’t worked all season.
February — No pics taken. I remember surfing some during this period, but the quality didn’t hold a candle to what we had in December and January. You can see this from the wind and swell data, where very few days in February had a wave height bigger than 3.5 feet with a period of over 15 seconds and for the most part the winds were NW. Surfers who neglected their wives, girlfriends, families, and jobs use the month of February to make up for their previous neglect. It is surprising how quickly the door of good surf seemed to have slammed shut at The Beach, but up to this point we’d been feasting for the good part of 3 months and that felt like a great run.
March 9th — In March the season took its last gasps, but they were strong gasps indeed. March 9th was a gloomy, ugly day but the winds were calm and the surf was good.
March 12th — This day snuck up on and a lot of people didn’t score it. A long, long period (20+ second) swell moved in through the day and the winds were light in the morning and slightly offshore/sideshore by midday. It got epic for a few hours during the afternoon. I paddled out and there were only a handful of others out there to share with, unlike during the December and January swells. Triple overhead sets were bombing in every 20 minutes and I managed to score a sweet left barrel before buckling the 8’0” Barbera when ditching to avoid a severe beating while paddling back out. Never ditch your board, bro!
March 13th — Winds switch back to NW and the The Beach is still pretty big, but not good.
Mid-March through April — Spring officially starts on March 20 and Ocean Beach usually has a horribly windy spring with not too many good days. Long period swells stop coming and you just take what you can get in weaker spring surf. I don’t have any pics from this period and pretty much considered the season over after the March 12 epic day.