Coastal Safety Tips

Along the California coast, there are dangerous rip currents which can lead to dire circumstances if you aren’t informed. The National Park Service (NPS), the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Weather Service (NOAA), San Francisco Police Department Marine Unit, and the San Francisco Fire Department are teaming up to help educate beach goers about the common hazards on Northern California beaches. These agencies are charged with protecting the people and resources of this coastline and are coming together to give the public information to help them stay safe while on the coast.

There have been several close calls in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) this past year, primarily due to rip currents. Although San Francisco open shorelines do not have traditional lifeguards, GGNRA does provide Ocean Rescue personnel who patrol Ocean Beach with the primary mission of informing and educating visitors about ocean risks. Swimming and wading are discouraged activities at non-life guarded beaches.

Visitors who desire to swim are encouraged to go to Stinson Beach where GGNRA provides on duty lifeguards between Memorial Day to Labor Day, seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The warning signs posted at the entrances to our beaches are a constant reminder of the dangers our beaches present.

If you see something that you believe is an emergency, even if you’re not sure, call 911 and let us make the determination.


Coastal Safety Message:


Safety Tips:

1. Swimming is strongly discouraged at Ocean Beach due to the dangerous rip currents. Wading to your knees is allowed, but please use extreme caution, as people have been swept out to sea in 3 feet of water, disappearing in seconds.

2. Rip currents are the number one risk at most beaches. If you find yourself in a rip current, remain calm; do not fight the current, swim parallel to shore and then in towards the beach. Also, even though it may be warm out on the shore, the water can be cold, which can cause hypothermia.

3. Stinson Beach is safe for swimming as it has lifeguards.

4. Keep pets on a leash and do not swim in after them if they get swept into the sea. Most dogs will get out of the water, only to watch their handler get rescued.

5. Stay off of rocks in and around the shore.

6. While boating, ensure your safety gear is in working order and that every person onboard has a life jacket that fits. Carry a VHF radio, know the waters and expected weather, and file a float plan with a friend.

7. Educate yourself on rip currents, local demographics, and sneaker waves.


What is a “sneaker wave”?

While no technical definition exists of what a Sneaker Wave is, we can attempt to describe the phenomena by what has been observed over several years.

Sneaker waves are waves that run much farther up a beach than the ambient wave environment normally would during a given period of time. Sneaker waves can seem to come out of nowhere, catching beachgoers by surprise, sometimes pulling them into the ocean. Sneaker waves appear to be associated with strong set behavior which generally occurs when wave systems have periods of about 15 seconds or greater. Set behavior, and thus sneaker wave behavior, is observed to be diminished when significant wave action exists within periods of less than about 10 seconds.


Safety Precautions

Stay much farther back from the waters edge than you typically would. Keep kids in well fitted and approved life jackets.


Recognition of sneaker waves

Observation. Patience. Knowledge.

Since sneaker waves are, as the name implies, sneaky, they can be difficult to detect for the average beach goer. If people want to rely on their own assessment of sneaker wave potential you'll need to know the open ocean conditions, meaning the various wave components that make up the overall sea state, specifically all of their directions, heights, and periods. From there you'll need to have the patience to sit and watch the waves for 15-30 minutes, depending upon the wave component with the longest period. An easy way to see if there are sneaker waves is to see where surfers are "lined up", if it's a surfing beach. Another factor will be the beach slope. Steep beaches are deadly for sneaker waves. Shallow sloped beaches are not as bad, but can still have significant issues. So knowledge of the data needed to make a hypothesis, viewing the conditions to make your hypothesis into a theory, and patience to go through the process.

All this to say, sneaker waves are insidious in nature. They do not present themselves easily like high surf days. This is what makes them so deadly.


Here are the TOP 10 TIPS from our park rangers to plan your next visit:

1.    All of us here want you to get back home safely after a fun weekend- its our #1 priority!

2.    Be Patient And Flexible

  • The North Coast is a big place, with a major city: roads and parking lots are going to be jammed packed- plan extra time and extra patience! 

3.    If you see something, say something

  • You can help others by reporting unsafe situations to first responders

4.    Stay On Trails and Shores

  • Rip currents, rock scaling, and walking off trail can be dangerous: injuring more visitors than any other natural feature each year. Avoid tragedy by recreating in the park responsibly. 

5.     Swimming is strongly discouraged at Ocean Beach due to the dangerous rip currents.  Even shallow water can be dangerous.

6.     Take Safe Selfies- watch your picture and your back!

7.     Be An Early (or late) Bird 

  • Avoid crowds and traffic: visit the park during non-peak hours—before 9 am and after 3 pm. 

8.     Warning signs posted at the entrances to our beaches are there to help you make safe decisions on the coast.

9.     Appreciate the urban landscape

  • Use your best judgement with personal belongings; avoid leaving significant valuables in unattended vehicles.

10.    Recreate responsibly  The health and safety of people visiting and working in the park is our number one priority.