Safety Tips for Beaches
in San Francisco

Here Be Monsters!

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.

Ocean Beach, San Francisco

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.

What are Rip Currents?

A rip current is a strong current that flows away from the beach, out to sea in a sand channel.

diagram of rip currents

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.

Watch Some Rip Currents:

What to Do If You Are Caught in a Rip Current

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.

Why Is Ocean Beach So Dangerous?

Of all the beaches in San Francisco, Ocean Beach is the most dangerous. This beach has some monster rip currents because of its size and location, and the huge quantity of sand on the continental shelf here. Storms and currents mold the sand into the sand bars and channels that create the rip currents.

Added to this problem is the flow of water coming into the ocean from the Sacramento River. The river flows into San Francisco Bay and out the Golden Gate. After the river empties into the ocean, the water flows north and south along the coast. A lot of it flows south past Ocean Beach, creating a strong current parallel to the beach just past the breakers.

Hopefully you won't be caught in an Ocean Beach rip current after reading this (!), but if you do, swim south (away from the city) parallel to the beach to escape the current. That way you won't be fighting the offshore current heading south.

There are no lifeguards at Ocean Beach.

How to Avoid the Rip Currents

The solution: unless you are an experienced surfer, DO NOT go in the water at Ocean Beach.

Most of the people who have drowned here were inexperienced swimmers who were only wading in the water and were knocked down unexpectedly by a large wave and pulled out to sea.

Surfers rarely drown, but one did in 2008. Most surfers are aware of the rip currents and know how to handle them. Seeing all those surfers out there on a beautiful sunny day makes it look safe to swim, but it's not.

ocean beach san francisco surfer
Surfer at Ocean Beach

Don't even go wading; besides, the water's so cold your feet will be totally numb within 30 seconds!

beaches in san francisco, warning sign

In spite of all the fatalities, over the years, the city has done very little about warning people. Ocean Beach is where many people come from all parts of the city and bring their children; this is the most heavily used of all the beaches in San Francisco.

There was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle back in 1998 discussing this problem and explaining why Ocean Beach is so dangerous.

Until very recently (summer 2016), only a few of the beach access points had warning signs, and most were really wimpy. Small signs warning of "dangerous surf" doesn't begin to convey the danger. Most access points had no signs until August of 2016, when small signs were added to all but two of the main beach entrances.

ocean beach warning sign
New Warning Sign at Lawton Street

The area with the best warning signs is one of the most popular access points: the large parking lot in from of the Beach Chalet Restaurant, at the northern end of the beach.

ocean beach san francisco rip current warning sign
Signs at the Beach Entrance near the Beach Chalet.

There are about a dozen stairways leading down to the sand, and each one has a rip current warning sign. However, if someone doesn't already know what rip currents are, and what to do about them (don't go in the water!), it may not help prevent the kind of tragedy we just witnessed again (April 2016) when two teenagers drowned. This was the exact spot where the drowning occurred; five young men waded into the surf here, and two were pulled out to sea.

My impression over the years is that most of the drowning victims are young people from an immigrant background who don't swim well. The Spanish version just says "dangerous currents", which doesn't really tell you to stay out of the water.

There are beach patrols that drive along the beach periodically and tell parents to get their children out of the water, but a drowning can occur in a matter of minutes.

On any warm day, you'll see scenes like this: kids playing in the water at Ocean Beach.

ocean beach san francisco, kids playing

The beach access at the end of Taraval Street has one of the new signs, but you can see how small it is. This is where the L-Taraval muni street car brings visitors from Market Street downtown. Warning sign is on the left.

ocean beach san francisco, taraval street access
Taraval Street Beach Access

The access points at Pacheco and Rivera Streets still have no warning signs; they are both major entry points to Ocean Beach.

Rivera Street Entrance

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.

seal rock, ocean beach, san francisco
Seal Rock, Ocean Beach

Are there any beaches in San Francisco safe for swimming?

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.

Rip Current Statistics

  • 80% of the people rescued from drowning by beach lifeguards were caught in rip currents.
  • About 100 people drown in rip currents every year in the U.S..
  • 80% of the drownings at surf beaches are caused by rip currents.

In spite of all these warnings, beaches in San Francisco are great places to spend the day!

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> > Beach Safety

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