The sun is peeking over the black rock cliff of the Marin Headlands as Katharine Carter strokes through the chilly Northern California water. A “set” is approaching on the horizon, and she skillfully dips her board and duck-dives through first one wave, then another. When she makes it past the breaking waves, she finds familiar faces in an already full lineup. As all ages of men and women, from teenagers to retirees, bob along side by side, a sea lion pops its head up, nonchalantly eyeing the crowd.
Welcome to Marin County’s surfing scene.
The coast of Marin is a virtual postcard of dramatic cliffs, windswept beaches and forested headlands. It’s known for rugged scenic beauty, coastal hiking trails and sailing—but surfing? Not usually what comes to mind. Yet prime wave-riding spots abound, including point breaks (where breaking waves wrap around a bend in the coast) and beach breaks that rival other beaches anywhere in California and, some would argue, the world.
Unbeknownst to many, Marin is also home to a tight-knit, extremely dedicated community of surfers who range from stoked newbies to seasoned pros. Not to be confused with the tanned Gidgets of So Cal, Northern California surfers are a breed apart; the icy waters require a fortitude unnecessary in warmer climes. And within this world, Marin’s surf community has its own unique subculture—with events, contests and lessons that attract new generations of surfers young and old.
Carter began surfing in Marin eight years ago as a senior at Tamalpais High. While she now works as a model in Southern California, she returns to Marin several times a year to visit family, and, of course, to surf. Having ridden the waves all over the world, she still counts Marin as one of her favorite surf spots. “It can be harsh and challenging, but the surf here gets as good as anywhere, and the scenery and lack of crowds are definitely a positive,” she says.
Marin waves run the gamut from beginner (the gentle “peelers” off the Bolinas jetty) to the more demanding breakers at Cronkhite Beach. Unlike in San Francisco and San Mateo county waters, lineup overcrowding here is more threat than actuality, due to the sheer vastness of the Marin coast. But when the waves do appear, in late fall to early winter, locals migrate to particular breaks en masse.
For newcomers, surf lessons are definitely the way to start—they provide an introduction to the sport, its nuances and etiquette so you can decide if it’s right for you. Several local surf shops along the coast highway offer lessons. “There’s so much going on when you’re first learning to surf that if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re potentially putting yourself and others in danger,” notes 2 Mile Surf Shop co-owner Nick Krieger, who runs Bolinas Surf Lessons and grew up surfing the beaches of Marin. “We give lessons in Bolinas, where the [type of] wave is better for beginners and the change of depth in the ocean is more gradual [than elsewhere].”
An important piece of surfing protocol in Marin (or anywhere else in the world) is succinctly addressed by the popular website Surfline: “Be nice to everyone, and wait your turn, especially since most spots have a small take-off zone. Localism rears its head at many spots, so don’t bring a crowd [as in more than one or two friends] or a colorful wet suit.”
If you’re already a competent surfer or want a window into the world of competitive surfing, Marin is home to several annual contests like the Cron Rock, hosted by Mill Valley’s Proof Lab surf shop. Owners Nate McCarthy and Will Hutchinson, veteran Marin surfers who opened Proof Lab in the former Marin Surf Sport location, saw a niche for an eco-friendly shop catering to new and established surfers and launched the contest as a way of bringing them together. “We wanted to bridge the generations of surfers in the area,” says McCarthy. “And this isn’t just a contest geared toward the younger guys; we have female divisions and an over-50 division as well.” They also hold free events like surf and skateboard movie screenings and premieres.
It’s those types of homegrown touches that give the Marin surfing community its small-town charm. You can still stop by a shop like Proof Lab and chat with the owners about the forecasted swells rolling in from the north, check out some of the photos of Marin surfers and works by local artists on the wall, or pick up a bar of wax for your board on your way to the beach. For those who have honed their surfing skills in local waters, Katharine Carter says, “Marin will always be home.”
Are There Hazards Out There?
Unfortunately, shark attacks are a very real threat in Marin County; the bountiful sea life tends to attract predators looking for an easy meal. Marin falls within the fabled “red triangle,” which stretches from Santa Cruz to the Farallon Islands to Bodega Bay. The best advice is to avoid surfing solo and, above all else, trust your sixth sense. To stay informed, check the shark sighting page on the Surf Pulse website at surfpulse.com
Surfing Community Events
Protecting our Coast
When the San Francisco oil spill in late 2007 began washing ashore in Marin, concerned citizens teamed up to save affected sea life and beaches, but cleanup remains ongoing and effects still linger.
Here are some ways to help out:
A grassroots nonprofit dedicated to protection and enjoyment of oceans and beaches. Visit the Marin chapter at
This surf blog, about San Francisco and Marin community surfing events, covered the ’07 oil spill in conjunction with the Kill the Spill crew, which helped spearhead local volunteer cleanup efforts.
In tandem with Bolinas Surf Lessons (22 Brighton Ave., Bolinas, 415.868.0264), rents wet suits ($15 full day/$10 half day), booties and surfboards ($20 full day/$15 half day). For lessons, contact Nick Krieger at Bolinas Surf Lessons (415.847.5484). The shop offers a 90-minute private lesson Friday through Sunday for $100, not including the equipment rental. In warmer weather call ahead for group lessons, which are available seven days a week for $65, including equipment. Custom boards from Mystic Surfboards are also for sale.
(formerly Marin Surf Sport) 254 Shoreline Hwy., Mill Valley, 415.380.8900 (shop), 415.381.9283 (daily surf report). Rentals; good selection of environmentally friendly local surfboards and clothing; custom Judah surfboards available.
11101 Hwy. 1, Point Reyes Station, 415.663.8750. Great selection of boards and suits; fundraiser parties every December and May with raffles and live bands.
3450 Shoreline Hwy., Stinson Beach, 415.868.0333. Known for its logo silhouetting a great white shark inside a red circle bisected by a slash. Big selection of boards and wet suits.
1906 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Fairfax, 415.453.9167. Laid-back vibe; small but quality selection of boards and skates; host to movie screenings and concerts.
22 Brighton Ave., Bolinas, 415.868.0264. With rentals, lessons and sales, 2 Mile specializes in longboarding and beginning surfing needs.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Different Strokes”.