What are the Best Surf Spots?
Wave connoisseurs might say there are NO good spots to surf at Sunset. After all, the break is notorious for its mushy, slow and sectiony waves. It is also often populated by scads of newbie surfers who can barely manage to make a turn before collapsing in the white water. To make matters worse, Sunset is an extremely tide-dependent break. Even on days when a strong swell is running and it is hitting Sunset from a desirable angle, the quality of the wave can still be poor at higher tides. Add to this the fact that Sunset has a tendency to get blown out (with onshore winds) by early afternoon and that many strong swells never hit Sunset because of its compromised geographical position, and you can see that skeptics have good reasons for being dubious about the quality of its surf. Nonetheless, I for one will boldly proclaim that Sunset can get VERY GOOD (if only for a 15-minute window).
There are six distinct areas where surfing can be enjoyed at Sunset, depending on swell direction and size. As indicated on the Map of Sunset, the six spots are:
2) The Point
3) Inside the Point
4) Dos Banos, aka Sherman's (in honor of the storied longboarder who since moved to Hawaii)
5) In front of the wooden steps
6) In front of the lifeguard tower
Each of these spots can have their moments, and they are obviously interconnected. If you are lucky, you may catch a wave that takes you through two or more of these areas. Some surfers have claimed to have ridden a wave from Boneyards all the way to the Tower, passing through all six spots, but I have only witnessed and enjoyed rides from the Point to the Steps.
So which spot is best? The answer to this will depend primarily on three factors: the type of swell; the type of board you ride; and your experience level. Since there are millions of other factors to consider, I can only broadly generalize here. However, I think it is safe to say that most experienced short boarders feel that Boneyards and/or the Point are the best spots for them, since the waves tend to be fastest there, with the most face and the best shape. Experienced longboarders will typically favor the Point over Boneyards, because they usually can't make the sections on the fast-breaking waves at Boneyards, whereas if they crank their turns just right, they can pick off a nice peak from the Point and ride it quite a distance.
That being said, if you aren't an experienced surfer, I strongly urge you NOT to surf Boneyards, the Point, or even the inside Point. The waves peel fastest in these three areas, and the impact zone is most powerful. Experienced surfers can be charging down the line very quickly, and you might not even realize they are on the wave when you take off at one of these spots. You definitely do not want to drop in on somebody here, especially if there is a chance you might fall or if you have not mastered turning. This is NOT a joke. I have seen numerous people sustain injuries, both from being hit by a board as well as from being punched out by an angry surfer whose board a novice surfer has dinged by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
If you are a complete beginner, I recommend you surf in front of the Tower. This is usually the least crowded area with the fewest rocks and the softest waves. Plus, you have the added benefit of being closest to a lifeguard. If you are a little more experienced, you might try the Steps. Then after five or ten more sessions, maybe you can move on to Dos Banos. As a general rule, the wave gets faster and the skill level of the surfer gets higher as you move east to west. I would say you need at least 100 sessions under your belt before you should be venturing out to the Point. There is a good chance you will never want to surf Boneyards, at least not if you are a longboarder.
Of course, Sunset is a highly complex and elusive animal, as you will discover if you frequent it regularly. Very little, if anything, about the Sunset wave is predictable. A spot that might be breaking perfectly for two hours straight can suddenly turn to garbage. I've seen days where there were fifty surfers all huddled at the Point, getting only mediocre rides, while I plucked off wave after perfect wave rolling in at Dos Banos. To my glee, the surfers at the Point didn't even notice the head-high sets peeling off at Dos Banos because they were breaking outside their line of vision. Similarly, there are times when the Tower actually has some very clean shoulders with bigger faces than anywhere else, but usually no one thinks of surfing there because its waves tend to be usually close-outs.
In summary, though it is dangerous to lay down any concrete rules, I've observed the following sorts of patterns:
1) The Point is almost never good at high tide (anything above 4.0 feet). However, oddly enough, it works at its optimum at super-high-tide (5.0+) in the event of a major swell with significantly overhead waves. The reason is that when the waves get that big, they break on an outer reef, so the existence of the rock berm is not a problem.
2) Just before the Point starts to go off, when the tide is receding, the inner Point can start to get good (vice versa if the tide is rising). This is because of the shape of the bottom (sea floor), but the physics are too complex for me to go into detail here. In other words, the inner Point tends to work better at mid-tide, whereas the Point works better at mid- to low tide.
3) Boneyards is not really worth much unless the waves are at least head-high, and preferably overhead.
4) Dos Banos, the Steps, and the Tower can all work reasonably well at mid-tide and even somewhat higher. When there's absolutely nothing to surf at the Point, you can still sometimes catch a few fun rides at any of these three spots. The Steps are probably the most reliable place to find at least something that is surfable.
5) If you study the Map of Sunset, you will see that Dos Banos is a little mini-point of its own. This is why you can sometimes find the most shapely waves of all there, especially on a strong northwest swell.
6) It is worth mentioning the existence of a VERY SPECIAL ROCK, submerged under water at the Point, as indicated on the Map of Sunset. This rock, in my humble opinion, probably defines one of the best spots of all. It only really operates when the tide is between -1.5 and +1.5 feet. During that window, this submerged rock, which you can most easily see at minus tides, causes an incoming wave to abruptly uplift and produce a perfect take-off from which one can build up sufficient speed to project through whatever messy sections might present themselves ahead. As a result, you can enjoy a longer ride from there than most anywhere else. (Shhhh don't tell anybody else about this!)
These are just some basic points of reference to keep in mind when evaluating where to surf at Sunset. On any given day, none of these factors may actually be operating, or they may be swamped by some other factor. But hey, the uncertainty is what makes Sunset fun. (More on the magic of Sunset's uncertainty later.) So explore, enjoy, and celebrate the diversity of possibilities at our modest little break called Sunset.