Breaking down the walls: Sup Surfing the tribal zone – Fort Point, San Francisco

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Jean Rathle Fort Point San Francisco Golden Gate bridge
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Jean Rathle has been windsurfing, surfing and standup paddling a special spot since he arrived in San Francisco in 1997.  The spot has history, little camaraderie, serious hold downs and an oftentimes violent territorial attitudes between surfers and standup paddlers.  The friction is heavy but the pay-offs very real.

Check out Fort Point, San Francisco right underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, a spot where many come together, not always in friendship, to surf, purportedly, the only inland point break in the world.

Jean Rathle Fort Point San Francisco chain link landscape
Fort Point: the wave starts around the point, directly under the bridge and wraps ninety degrees into the cove on the inside. Photo by: Brian Pollock

Fort Point:  Friction between Surfers and Standup Paddlers

I battle to gain their “respect” … but it will never happen. It can really get nasty there.

There is a whole story that could be done about standup paddling at Fort Point. I like to call it the Secret Spot, as a joke, ever since I got totally berated and threatened by some surfers for trying to enjoy “their” spot starting back in 2007.  I battle to gain their “respect” ever since but it will never happen. It can really get nasty there.

I would love to see a kid like Kai Lenny sup that spot on a crowded day.

Jean Rathle Fort Point SUP Surf San Francisco
Jean Rathle is often the sole man standing at Fort Point, navigating a sea of – not always friendly – surfers to try his hand at this inland point break.

Inland Point Break under the Golden Gate Bridge

The break is called Fort Point because of the fort that sits under the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge back in the 1800’s. The history of this fort is quite interesting.  Fort Point was build between 1853 and 1861 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of a defense system planned for the protection of San Francisco Bay.  Known as “the Gibralter of the West Coast”, Fort Point is considered one of the most perfect models of masonry in America.  Built during the height of the Gold Rush era in California, the Fort was designed to be a formidable deterrence against any foreign naval attack on the Bay’s important commercial and military installations.

No gun was ever fired at Fort Point; however, it’s significance and cultural history has been recognized and it was named as a National Historic site in 1970.

The wave that wraps around the Point is the only inland point break in the world.  It’s a left hand break and it’s size can vary from ankle high to triple overhead perfection.

Sup Surf Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco
Everything is out of proportion here as the Golden Gate Bridge towers above the surf, the rocks are in and under the break, the crowds hostile but every ride is so worth it.

Catching Waves at Your Own Risk

There is little to no camaraderie at Fort Point between standup paddlers and surfers.  In fact, there is little camaraderie at all as localism reigns supreme at Fort Point.  Altercations often break out.  Violence is common.  Many people don’t surf there (including a lot of women) because of the intensity of friction in and out of the water.

The surfers don’t want paddlers there so you have to catch waves at your own risk.

It can be quite stressful because we are usually outnumbered.  Nevertheless, standup paddling has an advantage in that we can almost enjoy the spot at any point of the tidal cycle. The surfers don’t have that luxury. The sweep of the current at Fort Point can – at certain times – become too strong for most lay-down surfers to paddle against.  At that point, a standup paddler can have the whole place to himself as you can see in some of these photos. The bigger, the better as the waves get glassier and faster.  Hard to catch that on a short board.

Jean Rathle Fort Point San Francisco Daniel Won
“Localism”, surfing’s territorialism is a real and present danger at Fort Point where outsiders are often invited to leave and altercations have been known to get violent. Photo by; Daniel Won

California’s Recent Swell wraps in to Fort Point

Most of these photos were taken on a big and rare ocean swell when spots like Mavericks were going off.  The one of me riding the glassy wave under the bridge was happening at the same time that Mavericks was crowded with over 40 big wave surfers. I had this spot all to myself.

One of the added benefits of this inland point break is when the ocean is closed out, the wave that bends around the point here can be head high or better and glassy.

Jean Rathle SUP Surf Fort Point San Francisco
When the ocean is a closed out washing machine of a mess, the waves at Fort Point can be head high or better, glassy goodness wrapping into the cove and every surfer’s dream come true. Photo by: Daniel Won

Hold Down’s are No Joke

Aside from the harassment from the surfers, there is another price to pay at Fort Point. The hold downs can be quite long as the massive and powerful whitewater can push you down until you hit the rocky bottom. Tidal flows are extremely dangerous.  Other hazards include large foot-slicing and head-cracking boulders in the break (many surfers wear helmets here),  container ships that are mammoth on the horizon and throw a huge wake as well as getting sucked out to Potato Patch with the outgoing tide.

sup surf fort point san francisco jean
Multiple dangers abound at the Point including heavy hold downs, submerged rocks in the break, hostile attitudes and a current that, in certain tides, can’t be paddled against. Still … it’s risks v. rewards here as in so many other spectacular surf breaks. Photo by: Daniel Won

Video Footage from Fort Point

Check out this video from the latest swell in January.  The combination of the massive waves with the Unity demonstration on the Golden Gate Bridge made it a special day.

— Jean Rathle



Jean Rathle is a Exocet Boards and Werner Paddles team rider from the San Francisco Bay area. He began sup surfing Fort Point in 2007 on a Kona One windsurfer.  He has been windsurfing, surfing and standup paddling Fort Point since he arrived in San Francisco in 1991. Ride on, Jean!

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Evelyn O'Doherty, editor & publisher of the new Standup Journal 2.0 is a former school teacher gone rogue. She left her career as a teacher in order to spend more time near or on the water after learning to surf turned her life around (upsidedown?). She is a year-round surfer and paddler living on the eastern tip of Long Island in NY who is a certified SUP instructor, seasoned SUP racer and avid longboard surfer. Evelyn was hired as Online Editor to Standup Journal in 2016. Her passion for the project quickly led to her success and eventually taking over the mag herself in Oct. 2018. Today, as editor, publisher and chief bottle washer at Standup Journal, Evelyn keeps her toes wet writing, traveling, paddling, surfing, and learning to foil. You can find her most days paddling out on Gardiner's Bay or surfing Ditch Plains in Montauk, NY.