Beaches in San Francisco are great for walking, surfing or just enjoying the view, but there is a serious danger lurking in the water that visitors should be aware of. And it's not the Great White Sharks!
Great White Sharks are numerous in the waters off San Francisco, but they are rarely a problem. The big danger is the rip currents that form just off the beaches in San Francisco, especially at Ocean Beach. There are some small warning signs, but most beach-goers don't really understand the risks.
I'm including this page because I don't think the city does enough to warn people about the very real hazards of swimming at beaches in San Francisco. Almost every year, people drown at Ocean Beach, and most of those deaths could have been prevented. An unpleasant topic, but necessary I believe.
A rip current is a strong current that flows away from the beach, out to sea in a sand channel.
Image courtesy of the United States Lifesaving Association
The incoming waves bring tons of water to the beach, but the return flow is blocked by sand bars, so the water rushes sideways until it gets to a break in the sand bar. Then massive amounts of water pour out to sea in the narrow (or not so narrow) channel.
The force of the water is so great that even a strong swimmer will be carried out past the breakers. Drownings usually occur when a less-experienced swimmer gets knocked down by a wave and sucked out to sea; the impulse is to fight the current and try to swim back to the beach, but that doesn't work. The swimmer becomes exhausted, or panics, and can't stay afloat.
Rip currents are sneaky; often you can't see them and they move around.
Here is a brief film with footage of actual rip currents on an Australian beach. If you look closely, you can see a narrow stream of water heading away from the beach, even as the breakers are rolling in. As you can see, they're not easy to spot; and they are not always as obvious as the ones in the video.
Knowing what to do can often make the difference between living and dying.
If you get pulled into a rip current, the best thing to do is stay calm and try to keep your head above water. Rip currents are not undertows. The word "undertow" is now out of favor and no longer used "officially"; the current flows horizontally, so you are not pulled under water unless the beach is very steep.
Don't fight the current. Never try to swim back to shore against the current; that is usually when the drownings occur.
If you can, swim at right angles to the current, parallel to the beach, to get yourself out of the current. Once you are free of the current, swim toward the beach at a 45 degree angle away from the rip current so you don't drift back into it.
If you can't swim out of the current, let it carry you out. The current will peter out at some point, past the breakers usually, and you can then swim parallel to the beach a little way and then head back to the beach at an angle away from the current.
Shout for help and wave if you feel you can't swim back or are losing strength.
If you see someone else has been caught in a rip current, shout out instructions for swimming out of the current and throw them a floating device of some kind if possible. Be very careful about going into the current to save them, unless you are a strong swimmer and know what you are doing. Many have drowned trying to save others.
Of course, the best thing is not to get pulled into a rip current in the first place. Beaches in San Francisco are not safe for swimming, and that goes double for Ocean Beach, which has the worst rip currents and most drownings.More information on rip currents from the United States Lifesaving Association.
Here's a tempting mini-beach in a beautiful setting at the foot of the Cliff House, near Seal Rock. Don't do it! The incoming tide could trap you there.
Probably only at Aquatic Park (near Fisherman's Wharf), where there is a wall or breakwater around most of the swimming area. And some people do swim at China Beach, though I wouldn't say it was particularly safe; there's a strong current flowing out to sea there. See San Francisco Beaches for a list, photos and map of the beaches in San Francisco.
In spite of all these warnings, beaches in San Francisco are great places to spend the day!
COVID-19 Status: at midnight on Monday, March 16, San Francisco was placed under a "shelter-in-place order.
All residents were ordered to stay home, except for necessary trips to grocery stores and essential medical visits, and solo outdoor activities like hiking.
The city had been gradually reopening of many businesses and activities, but in December, came under a strict, stay-at-home directive, due to a sudden increase in infection and hospitalization rates.
Since then, Covid numbers have dropped significantly.
Big changes coming June 15 (assuming the Covid numbers stay down). California is scheduled to fully reopen, meaning all business sectors will reopen to full or almost full capacity, including concerts, stadium sports and festivals.
Most recently, May 6, 2021, SF has moved to a less restrictive status.
Public transportation options have been cut back. See SF transit for more info.
Cable cars are expected to resume running in the fall; the Powell-Hyde line will be first.
See COVID rules for current SF status.
Mask rules: everyone in SF is required to wear a mask when they are outside and within 30 feet of other people.
Now fully vaccinated people may go without masks outdoors, but must wear masks in indoors settings.
Masks must be worn in stores and places of business and people not within the same household must stay 6 feet apart.
June 15 mask changes: fully vaccinated people can go without masks indoors as well, with some exceptions like hospitals, schools, nursing homes and on public transit.
SF Curfew has been ended.
What is open? Muir Woods, the Botanic Gardens, Golden Gate Park, Japanese Tea Garden, Pier 39, SF beaches, Golden Gate Bridge, and Twin Peaks (car access on Portola, main parking lot open) are all open.
Parking lots for SF beaches, Twin Peaks, and the Golden Gate Bridge are open. But the Welcome Center lot and Merchant Road lot at the bridge are closed.
Restaurants can now be open to 50% capacity for indoor and outdoor dining, and many restaurants are open for take-out or delivery.
Bars that serve food can serve customers indoors.
Businesses can allow customers inside, on a limited basis (grocery stores 50%).The SF Zoo is open again.
Alcatraz is open. Day Tour tickets only. See Alcatraz.
Hair salons, and open air tour buses and boat cruises can now operate.
Indoor museums are open, including the CA Academy of Sciences.
Travel to SF: non-essential travel to SF is discouraged but the quarantine requirements are no longer in effect.
Hotels are accepting reservations, up to 25% capacity, but travelers are urged to limit contact with others in the hotel.
Exploratorium: opening July 1.
Indoor swimming pools are open to 50% capacity.
Schools: many private schools are open. SF public schools started in-person learning for elementary students April 12. Older grades: negotiations are ongoing. Hopefully will open for fall classes.
Limited opening: indoor gyms and indoor movie theaters to 50% capacity.
Indoor concerts, live theater, and sporting events, may open 50% capacity. Proof of vaccination or negative Covid test will be required. See more info on indoor events.
Some venues are waiting until June 15 because capacity limits don't work for those businesses.
Napa and Sonoma county wineries are open.
For a handy list of what's open or closed in SF, plus info on what's open in other cities and counties of California, see California reopening schedules.
See coronavirus news in the SF Chronicle for details and updates.
See SF closures timeline.
Most recent Bay Area stay home order.
Also see site and parking lot closures for the National Park Service (Alcatraz, Muir Woods, etc.)
Plus helpful info on which parks and hiking trails are open in the Bay Area.
Get the latest tips on visiting San Francisco.