It’s Monday night and we’re shoulder-to- shoulder at the bar of Tommy’s Mexican Caf on Geary in the Outer Richmond, sipping Tommy’s celebrated hand-squeezed margaritas and talking story about the infamous death rips of Ocean Beach. At the end of the bar, Julio, the garrulous “tequila ambassador” is showing off his latest invention that he states will flat-out revolutionize drinking in a moving vehicle. It’s a portable tequila luge, made from a cut-down laminated menu that can be curved into an instant funnel for a quick pour and gulp. Since I’m already down a pitcher-and-a-half and Grant Washburn is designated our host-driver tonight, I won’t bother with the legal possibilities of Julio’s claim, or why you wouldn’t just swig it straight from the bottle. I simply open up and say, “ahh” as Julio, a portly, beaming man in his mid-30s, pours a choice chilled shot of extra anejo down my gullet.
Washburn—Ocean Beach’s gentle giant, filmmaker, and Maverick’s paddle-in diehard—scoops up some stray salsa roja and continues his studied assessment of Ocean Beach’s notorious rip currents, at one time so feared it was illegal to swim there. Last year, two people drowned at Ocean Beach, one a surfer, bringing the death toll to nine since 1998.
“What happens, typically, is it’s a really nice day and there’s not much surf,” says Washburn, 39, a hulking 6’ 6” big-wave aficionado given to wearing wire-rimmed glasses and reading Tolstoy for fun. “It’ll be a small swell with big lulls. People will walk out there to cool off and suddenly it’ll undercut them and then pull them into a rip. The water’s cold and within a few minutes even a good swimmer starts to get kind of slow. And if you try to swim in, you swim backwards. The best swimmer in the world does not swim straight to shore at Ocean Beach in a rip. You won’t make it.”
Washburn should know. He’s rescued his share of near-drowned inlanders in his 17 years on “The Beach” since he moved here on a whim from Connecticut one long, flat East Coast summer ago. His biceps, thick as pine stumps from his near-daily battle with the ocean, have pulled him through the hellish inner and outer bars on big, winter days that send in relentless stacks of cold, gray smokers. In the city, Washburn says, the ocean bats first, and last.
However, he says, taking a considered sip, he sees OB as a near-perfect compromise of big-wave surf potential and urban amenities. He also observes a certain sense of traditional surfer camaraderie that recalls early days in California and Hawaii. “There’s enough space and waves to go around and everybody’s actually genuinely pleased to see each other and, you know, hooting each other into the waves and stuff. It does disappear some on the smaller sides of the swell, but it’s totally possible for it to be perfect conditions come the late fall. The waves aren’t stereotypical, the place isn’t stereotypical, and the surfers aren’t either. You can’t be surprised to see your doctor surfing, or your doctor’s secretary.”
We’ve just spent a day trolling the length of Ocean Beach, where the first hints of a growing south swell is starting to push into Kelly’s Cove. Since the small size and afternoon onshores didn’t interest Washburn, he opted to paddle me through the Sea Rocks tunnel, a surging barnacle-encrusted portal that requires a certain level of timing and fitness to pass through unscathed. I sputtered through, barely, but my encounter with the newly dubbed “Vagina Dentata” worked up enough of an appetite for me to feel that I earned a post-session feast here at one of Washburn’s favorite Mexican eateries.
Washburn, an accomplished filmmaker who has made the study of The Beach his avocation and passion, debriefed me over the second pitcher. The following are notes gleaned from my salsa-smeared log:
Ocean Beach was created over the millennia by enormous deposits of sand and silt, which flowed down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains into San Francisco Bay. Massive tidal flows (an estimated five billion gallons a day) eventually flushed this material through a single outlet, the Golden Gate, to create vast “sand waves” offshore of the Marin Headlands. During big swells, this shoaling creates the “Great Bar” or “Potato Patch,” a gigantic mysto cloudbreak. As the sand migrated south, it formed huge dune fields over which the “Outer Sunset” district was built after the Second World War. Wild and wooly, racked by fog, wind, and swell, the dunes west of 19th Street were once called “The Outside Lands” by the inland gentry. This same sand forms the ever-shifting bars that produce a moveable wave feast ranging from pristine tubes to hideously closed-out death walls.