Even when surfers aren't out surfing, they're usually thinking about surf. This obsession has influenced the entire San Diego beach culture and even residents who don't surf, embrace its important role in shaping our local identity.
There are surf-themed restaurants and bars, surf fashion is practically obligatory among San Diego schoolchildren, and the whole city seems to be infected with excitement whenever the surf is up. Even though surfing has only been known on the mainland for the last 50 years, San Diego has played a prominent role in this brief history. It was here, in the time of the old Windansea Surf Rats immortalized in Tom Wolfe's The Pump House Gang, that engineer Bob Simmons pioneered the lightweight fiberglass surfboard that has remained the standard to this day.
In contrast to the traditional stereotype of surfers as lazy and illiterate, they are among the most ambitious and accomplished members of the local community. With UCSD overlooking Black's Beach and Sunset Cliffs at Point Loma Nazarene's doorstep, it's no surprise that bright students with their pick of schools, come from around the world to attend San Diego's coastal colleges. City council members and corporate CEO's, doctors and developers, lawyers and Nobel laureates count themselves among the local enthusiasts. As more young people take it up and older surfers stay with it, surfing has matured into a sport for all ages, and in recent years, more and more women have been joining the lineup.
On any given day, summer or winter, rain or shine, you can find people out enjoying the San Diego surf. For locals, riding waves is more than just a sport; it's a way of life, as much a part of their daily routine as a morning run is to a fitness fanatic. And, what was once a sport dominated by adult men, has become something today that men and women, girls and boys, young and old, teens and tweens can all participate in.
Surfing is a unique sport. The learning curve is as much about understanding the nature of waves as it is about perfecting your moves. Unlike traditional team sports, surfing is an inherently individual experience that comes down to you and the wave. There are no rules, no score, no win or lose. After you get into the mindset and master the basics, you'll discover that surfing is pure, self-indulgent fun, however getting started can be a bit frustrating.
So if you're trying surfing for the first time or if your swimming skills are limited, consider starting with a bodyboard (also known as a boogie board), and head on down to a sand bottom beach with a lifeguard on duty. You can wade out into the surf, push off, and get a good taste of the sport just riding the broken waves (or white water) into shore. The more adventurous, with the time and ambition to try board-surfing can give themselves a nice head start by enrolling in a surf lesson or surf camp. There, surfboards and wetsuits are provided, and the instructors will literally help you into the waves, so you'll be up and riding in no time.
If you already know how to surf, you'll find a variety of different of waves and conditions along San Diego's 70 miles of open ocean coastline to suit your individual style. San Diego's North County coastal from Del Mar north to Trestles, is characterized by predominantly south, southwest facing beachbreaks backed by bluffs. Patches of offshore reef, man-made jetties and rivermouths make for stand out waves like Tabletops, Swamis, Oceanside Harbor and Lowers. When a south swell is running, and especially when it coincides with an offshore Santa Ana wind (typically in late summer and early fall), North County is the place to go for rip-able, high-performance surf.
The central coast from Point Loma to Torrey Pines is a mixed bag of punchy close-out shorebreak, barelling reefbreaks and deep-water swell magnets. The rocky shorelines of Sunset Cliffs and La Jolla offer dozens of left and right breaks that work on different swell's directions, sizes and tidal conditions, while the submarine canyon off of the more westerly-facing Scripps and Black's Beach areas unleash consistent wintertime power. The jetties at Ocean Beach and South Mission have fast walls suitable for the young and agile, while the long, slow waves of Tourmaline are popular with older folks on longer boards.
San Diego's South Bay region from Coronado to Imperial Beach is a single, unbroken crescent of low-lying sand beach. Generally without form and prone to onshore wind, there are, however, magical days of glass-smooth water and peeling tubes to be had, especially in the summertime on the northern end of Coronado, where the coast points almost directly south. Check out this list of surf spots in San Diego for more information.
At any time of year, the best advice is to check the current surf report to see if there's any swell in the water and which direction it's coming from. Tides can change as much as eight feet in San Diego, and have a huge impact on the surf. Some of the La Jolla reef breaks go totally dry at low tide, for example, while others crash right on shore when the tide is too high. Forecasters can predict surf conditions up to a week in advance, and provide other important data about wind and weather conditions. Free surf reports and live webcams can be found online and local radio and TV news stations provide daily reports.
Also, consider the trade-off between getting one or two great waves at a crowded marquis spot, or dozens of good ones at someplace less popular. Beach breaks are always more reliable and easier to figure out. If your visit to San Diego is a short one, maximize your water time by planning to surf where you stay, or staying where you plan to surf.
The biggest swells usually come out of the North from December thru February, generated by winter storms in Alaska. The spring months, from March thru May, are inconsistent and unpredictable; the conditions can be glorious one day and miserable the next. In June and July the water begins to warm and south swells begin to arrive. Periods of absolute flatness alternate with playful, head-high surf.
Generally speaking, San Diego's best surf season is August thru November. In late summer and early fall, big, orderly south swells combine with Santa Ana winds to produce beautiful offshore walls and barrels. October and November are transitional months; the water temperature dips as swell arrives from the west, but light winds and clean conditions typically prevail and there's almost always something solid to ride.
Surface conditions are often (but not always) cleanest during an early morning "dawn patrol" session, but crowds are usually at their lightest during midday, mid-week work hours. Also, consider the trade-off between catching two or three great waves at a crowded marquis spot, or dozens of okay ones at someplace less popular. If your visit to San Diego is a short one, you can maximize your water time by planning to surf where you stay, or by staying where you plan to surf.
Your favorite short board, hybrid or fish in the six-foot range is a good choice for most of the surf you'll encounter in San Diego, ideally something with a pulled-in tail for the hollower reefs, or a fat one for the mushier beaches. A longboard comes in handy to take advantage of our many small but clean days, and serious wave hunters may want to add a gun to their quiver, especially if you're visiting during swell season, when stand-out spots like La Jolla Cove and Sunset Cliffs can get well overhead.
Full wetsuits are the call from November thru April, a springsuit or jacket does the job in the transitional months of May and October, and warm-blooded souls are usually content with no more than a bathing suit from June thru September. It's not hard to find surf shops that will rent you a boogie board or softie style surfboard, but if you're accustomed to high-performance gear, you'll want to bring it with you or buy it upon arrival. Boardshorts and bikinis, leashes, wax and other accessories are all readily available up and down the San Diego Coast.
It goes without saying that surfing requires being a competent swimmer, but new surfers often underestimate the power of waves and the currents that accompany them.
The only other notable hazards are stingrays, prevalent at beach breaks during the summer months, but usually avoidable by shuffling your feet as you walk along the bottom. The bigger the waves, the greater the risks. Know your limits and, when in doubt, choose an area with active lifeguard supervision.
If you want to try surfing for yourself, you can rent gear from surf shops at all the popular San Diego beaches, or hire instruction from one of the licensed outfits that operate out of La Jolla Shores. If you want to ride the wave without dropping in, the best place to get a taste of the surfing lifestyle is Mission Blvd., from Garnet Avenue to the Belmont Park Roller Coaster. The shops here reflect the staples of the simplified surfing lifestyle: surfboards and bikinis, beer joints and Mexican food. To get more intimate with the sport’s history, check out the California Surf Museum at the head of the pier in Oceanside.
Spectators should set their sights on Windansea at the foot of Nautilus Street in La Jolla where the action is relatively close to shore and the talent is always worthy of attention. There are surf competitions in San Diego, notably the ASP events at Oceanside Pier and Lower Trestles, however it's just as fun to watch people out surfing for the pure fun of it.
San Diego has 70 miles of open ocean coastline and as many distinct surf spots. Most of the shoreline consists of long beach breaks with primarily southwest exposure, and Point Loma and La Jolla are rocky points with a variety of reef breaks that work on north, west or south swells depending on their orientation. There are also patches of reef between Del Mar and Encinitas, man-made jetties at the Oceanside and Mission Bay harbor entrances, and the famous river-mouth set up of Trestles at San Diego's northernmost limits.