NOR CAL SESSIONS: Winter Kiting in the SF Bay Area
By Jonathan Buys
Originally Published in the February 2009 Issue of The Kiteboarder Magazine
Every fall, we set our clocks back one hour, and this officially ends the summer kitesurfing season in the San Francisco Bay area. The summer pressure gradients that churn out steady northwest winds for the Delta, Alameda, Third Avenue, Crissy Field, Waddell and other coastal spots start to fade making most days light wind, with the exception of when storms roll through. The wind during storms usually blows from the south, and often storms are cleared by a strong northwest wind. Southerly storm wind is hard to predict and can be extremely gusty, making it more appropriate for advanced riders.
Most kiters put their equipment away till the next summer and reintroduce themselves to their non-kiting friends and family, while a few head to Baja for the winter or some exotic kite vacation. But a core group of San Francisco kiters look to fall, winter and spring as a time for a different kiting experience, where big waves and wild winds at a number of key spots make for some of the best kiting of the year.
In October, Crissy Field in the heart of San Francisco will turn out a few days to bring a smile to every rider’s face. The big swells hit the Northern California coast and Fort Point under the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge will start to break, offering ride-able waves and huge ebb tides of up to 5 mph. With many of the other Bay Area spots shut down, new faces show up in the Crissy Field car park. Crissy Field offers great kiting but it also is very unforgiving. The wind on the inside close to the launch area can completely shut down, and swimming the last 400 feet is not uncommon. Local knowledge of the tides is key. In a big flood tide, try to make it to “Last Chance Beach,” just below the St. Francis Yacht Club. The ebb tide can be scarier, as there is a chance you may get washed outside the Golden Gate Bridge into open ocean.
Your best option is to try make it inside the old lifeguard station pier below Fort Point, or hope the Coast Guard picks you up, which leads to the “drop-off of shame” at Crissy Field beach. Other hazards at Fort Point include big wind holes below the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and inside Fort Point, and surfers who are not very happy to see kitesufers riding “their” waves. Once winter really sets in, the winds at Crissy Field blow out of the north, offering a completely different riding experience. North winds typically blow steadily between 15 to 18 knots, and kiters ride up and down the city front from Crissy Field to the old lifeguard station, with their kites sweeping the beach.
Fall and winter kiting on the coast is also very exciting when big winter swells coincide with windy days. On northwest clearing winds, most of the Northern California beaches work, but the main spots are Ocean Beach in the city and Waddell on the coast. Winter wave kiting is not for the faint of heart where double overhead waves often hit. Ultimately, a good winter wave session in Northern California might offer one windy day a week for experienced kiters, while presenting a challenge for new kiters trying to find a safe and constructive learning session.
Remember that gear may be able to get beginner and intermediate kiters out into conditions well over their heads, and reliance on public rescue assets may ultimately affect both beach access and kiting privileges. Make sure your ability and equipment are up to the challenge as swimming in is not a pleasant option in big swell and you may find yourself swept downwind with no beach access.
San Francisco also offers two flat water winter kiting spots at the Half Moon Bay Harbor and Alameda. Both are storm weather spots, and can serve up great sessions but also a wild ride and erratic winds. Half Moon Bay harbor works great on a south wind but riders must be aware of moored boats and the jetty wind shadow. Riders should also stay on the Mavericks side of the harbor, as it is more spacious and there’s beach downwind. Alameda is another south wind spot, where south winds cross 13-miles of bay water generating three-foot chop combined with potentially strong and gusty onshore conditions, better suited for experienced riders. Here, riders need to kite with extreme caution and keep looking towards San Francisco, because the fronts sweep in from this direction and winds can go from a manageable 25 knots to a scary 40 knots or more in less than 5 minutes. Even experienced local kiters prefer to dump their small kites and swim in rather than navigate the beach with such erratic winds.
When kiting in fronts, know your weather, always err on the side of safety and come in as soon as you see bad weather approaching. IKitesurf.com, Surfline, Surfpulse, and NOAA are all great resources for winter wind and surf conditions for the Bay Area. Many times, kitesurfing in the winter is a mid-morning affair with a small window of opportunity. Waiting for the afternoon session like in the summer can often mean no session at all. Don’t discount the kitesurfing opportunities in San Francisco from October through March. One good session in the fall or winter can feel like ten in the summer.