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.

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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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, 2020, came under a strict, stay-at-home directive, due to a sudden increase in infection and hospitalization rates.

Since then, Covid numbers dropped significantly, but rose again when Omicron hit, then dropped again. They are fairly low now.

Big changes coming June 15 California was "fully reopened", meaning all business sectors reopened to full or almost full capacity, including concerts, stadium sports and festivals. SF since then has been basically open, though somewhat more cautious in some regards than other locations.

Vaccine requirements: as of March 9, 2022. SF no longer requires that restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms check for proof of vaccination, but they can choose to require it, so check each venue individually.

Documents accepted: paper or digital vaccination records.

Mask rules: as of February 28, 2022, no one is now required to wear a mask indoors in SF, whether vaccinated or not. Hospitals, nursing homes and public transit, still require masks.

As of March 28, 2022, over 88% of SF residents have been fully vaccinated.

Public transportation options have been cut back, but are expanding again. See SF transit for more info. Masks are still required of everyone on public transit (federal law), but not vaccination or test results.

The cable cars are running again.

What is open? Muir Woods, the Botanic Gardens, Golden Gate Park, Japanese Tea Garden, Pier 39, SF beaches, Golden Gate Bridge, most museums, and Twin Peaks (car access on Portola) are all open.

Parking lots for SF beaches, Twin Peaks, and the Golden Gate Bridge are open, including the Welcome Center lot.

Restaurants can now be open to full capacity for indoor as well as outdoor dining, and many restaurants are open for take-out or delivery. /p>

Bars that serve food can serve customers indoors.

Businesses can allow customers inside, up to full capacity. Malls are open.

The SF Zoo is open again.

Alcatraz is open.The Day Tours, Night Tours and Behind the Scene Tours are running now. The Cell Block is open also.

No proof of vaccination is required for the Alcatraz tours. Masking only for the boat over, the dock area and indoor areas. See Alcatraz.

Hair salons, and open air tour buses, outdoor walking tours, and boat cruises can now operate.

Indoor museums are open, including the CA Academy of Sciences.

Travel to SF: There are no quarantine requirements for travelers to SF.

Hotels are accepting reservations, but travelers are urged to limit contact with others in the hotel.

Masks are required inside the SF airport.

Exploratorium: open.

Playgrounds: open.

Indoor swimming pools are open to full capacity.

Schools: public and private schools are open. SF public schools started in-person learning for all students last fall (2021). Masks are no longer required for students in SF public or private schools.

Indoor gyms and indoor movie theaters are open to full capacity..

Indoor concerts, live theater, and sporting events, may open at full capacity. For indoor gatherings of >1,000, proof of vaccination or negative Covid test will be required.

Outdoor events for >10,000: may require proof of vaccination or negative test, but aren't required to.

Check individual events for requirements.

Napa and Sonoma county wineries are open.

See Covid rules for current SF status (April 2022).

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.

Also see site closures for the National Park Service (Alcatraz, Muir Woods, etc.)

And to check the air quality (fires) in SF and the Bay Area, see

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