San Francisco has long been known for its tolerance and compassion for different peoples and viewpoints. And now we bring you the 9th annual US Surfski Championships, a festival for downwind surfski aficionados from distant continents, and home-grown paddling stars from across the USA. Surfski paddlers may not be hippies, but on August 13, dozens of talented and über-fit multi-national athletes will share their version of a Summer of Love on San Francisco Bay: a wild, blistering paddle race from Sausalito, out the Golden Gate, to the very edge of the North American shore beyond Point Bonita, and back into the wind-whipped Bay for a downwind rock & roll ride to Berkeley. Roll over Flower Power, here comes Paddle Power!
The start of the 2010 event
The best surfski racers originate from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand - countries where surfskis are hugely popular, with a history of professional competion. In Europe, flatwater kayak racing is still king, but big surfski races have sprouted up in the UK, Sweden, France, Spain and Italy, where scenic coastlines and the allure of potential downwind races attract growing numbers. Dubai, the tiny but opulent Arab Emirate on the Persian Gulf, annually hosts a massive surfski competition known as The Shamal – a hot desert wind – and throws in some serious coin for prize money.
Since its inception in 2003, the US Championships has drawn respectable worldwide participation, with surfskiers from Hawaii, Tahiti, Japan, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, and of course Dubai. European entries have picked up steam this year, but the Aussies, Kiwis, and Saffas are the foreign mainstays. American kayak racers converge on their country’s biggest surfski competition; they blow in from every corner of the land, the Pacific Northwest, southern California, the Southeast, Midwest, and New England. Coastal-dwelling and paddling-savvy Canadians cross the border in healthy numbers to help round out the North American field.
Among this cosmopolitan melting pot, one man has made a special mark as a semi-perennial winner of the US Championships: Dawid Mocke of Cape Town, South Africa. Dawid won the 2010 race, and since 2005, has won the event 3 times, and twice finished 2nd. Only one other Champion has pulled off a repeat win: Greg Barton, 2-time US Olympic Gold Medalist, in the first and second years of the US Championships. If Mocke wins again this year, the event organizers should consider renaming it “The Mocke Challenge”.
Jeremy Cotter (Aus) and Shannon Eckstein (Aus) trail Dawid Mocke (SA) to the finish of the 2010 event after a hard fought slugging match on the runners across the bay
Dawid Mocke is the 2010 Surfski World Series Champion. He is a charismatic guy, and fun to be around – unless you happen to be racing him. He is a motivated, and spectacularly successful surfski champion who earns a living from paddling through his world wide winnings, and his surfski school in Fish Hoek, a quaint coastal hamlet near Cape Town. He always paddles a smart race in San Francisco, scouting the course meticulously in advance, attempting to decipher the devilish tricks of the Bay currents. Perhaps through osmosis, or with the advice of a mystic in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, he has managed to learn the Bay’s secrets nearly as well as a seasoned crab fisherman from Fisherman’s Wharf.
Mocke on the venue
“The US Surfski Champs is always an exciting race. The dynamic of the Bay's currents, swells and the wind make for a course that keeps you guessing and thinking all the time… The most unique thing here is paddling under the Golden Gate for sure, and then secondly having to deal with all the currents is the other very unique and exciting feature… I must say though that the Northern California coastline has probably some of the best courses ever for downwind and I would love to see the Davenport to Santa Cruz run or even Rodeo Cove to Berkeley become the official US Champs course....you know, cut out that headwind bit...”
“I love travelling to the States because it's such a dynamic and varied country; you always have the feeling of unlimited opportunity. People are engaging, friendly and interesting. And then, of course what I probably love most...breakfast diners and Peet's Coffee.”
Mocke on his prospects for winning the 2011 US Championships:
“Every race and every year is different, so we'll have to see on the day. But I'm looking forward to some great runs again, like last year! Hopefully no run-ins with the Coast Guard...”
You can bet your surf rudder that the best surfski paddler in the world will show up on race day with a plan to win, and make the competition paddle the race of their lives to catch him.
Dawid Mocke challenges the mighty US Coast Guard.
Tanker? What tanker? Machine Gun? What machine gun?!
The Women’s Race
Michele Eray could be the women’s surfski racing answer to Dawid Mocke. Like Dawid, she is South African, and has victories in most of the important surfski events around the world (no Molokai yet). Michele comes to San Francisco and the USA for her first time this year, fresh from a victory in the prestigious 244 km Berg River Marathon in South Africa – the 50th running of that event! She is clearly the favorite to win the ladies race in San Francisco. After the US Champs, Michele heads straight for Portugal and Ireland to continue her winning streak.
Eray is currently the dominant women's surfski paddler - worldwide
Eray on America and the US Surfski Champs course
“I have never been to the US, and have heard so much about the country. Obviously with most of our TV and movies being from the US, I have always been interested to actually get over there and see what it’s all about. I have also heard a lot about the race, the hectic tide/current and the amazing downwind course. I can’t wait to get on the water there!
“I have heard about the tide, and how you really need to know where to go. I’ve heard it’s tough. The guys who go over (from South Africa) also rave about the downwind conditions (something the last few races I have been to have been lacking) and also about the friendly hospitality the Americans put out.”
Prospects for winning the Surfski Champs
“I am not too sure who has entered, but usually I see every race entrant as competition! My race plan is to go as fast as possible from the start to the finish, and at the same time have an absolute blast!”
The Waterman Cometh
San Francisco, get ready for Matt Bouman. Matt is a big dude. So big that he requires a specially modified surfski cockpit to fit his 6’8” frame. Born and bred in Durban, South Africa, by the balmy shores of the Indian Ocean, he began competitive swimming at age 10, winning numerous national titles as a junior. Matt is the most successful athlete from his country in the sport of Surf Lifesaving (29 titles, including 7 Ocean Iron Man wins). He has represented South Africa in no less than 5 different water sports: Swimming, Waterpolo, Lifesaving, Sprint Kayaking and Surf Ski. After brief forays training for the South Africa Olympic K4 team leading up to the Beijing games, Matt returned to focus on racing in the ocean, and has a boat load of big wins to show for it. We are stoked that this tremendous athlete will make it to the US Surfski Champs this year.
Matt Bouman - risking all to take an early wave at the finish of the 2010 Durban World Cup. Dawid Mocke was ahead but waited for the next wave and the two men ended up sprinting up the beach together. Mocke won the race in one of the closest finishes ever.
Question: This will be your first trip to the US Surfski Championships. Have you been to San Francisco before? What makes you want to do this race?
Matt: I haven't been to San Francisco yet, it's part of the reason for wanting to go. The race has shown in recent years that it's attracting the best competitors in the sport. I enjoy racing the races that are a challenge.
Question: You’ve paddled in many tough races in many interesting venues. Do you expect anything especially new or exciting from the US Champs? What have you heard about the course?
Matt: I think it will be challenging from an experience point of view, or lack thereof. I have spoken to Dawid (Mocke) about it a bit and it sounds tricky with reading the currents and lines. At the end of the day, it's another race on moving water in an iconic destination….. I can do that.
Question: You will be competing against a solid field of your countrymen who have previous experience in the US Surfski Championships. What’s your race plan? Will you pace yourself off Dawid and Sean, or could you conceivably drop them and lead from the beginning?
Matt: I don't normally start too hard and the fact that I'm not even sure where I'm going on this one, means I'm probably going to be sitting and watching for a while. I don't usually have race plans, I like to just feel things out.
America’s Best Surfski Paddler?
No one in America could possibly train harder than Carter Johnson. For someone that holds a “real job” (albeit one that he takes on the road, along with his trusty laptop computer), it’s amazing to behold his accomplishments. Within a few short years of devoting himself to paddling, this human pain machine has broken enough distance records to make the people at the Guinness Book of World Records put Carter on their speed dial. He once paddled over 150 miles non-stop in 24 hours – on San Francisco’s Lake Merced, which is barely 1 mile across! A friend of mine commented at the time, “What kind of person would DO that?” Assuming he has fully recovered by race day from his latest distance-smashing record this month, 280 miles in 24 hours cruising down Alaska’s Yukon River, you have to wonder if he will break a sweat in the US Champs. We caught up to Carter in between downwind runs on the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.
Question: You live on a houseboat on San Francisco Bay. Do you think your proximity to the race course gives you any advantage over other competitors? Do you have some “home field” advantage?
Carter: “I like to think so, but the reality is, even between half hour changes of tides, some of the eddies will be completely different than what one would expect. I’m not sure if I have ever paddled the channel and out to Point Bonita without a surprise or two thrown at me.”
Question: Do you like this course as is, or would you prefer something different for a surfski championships?
Carter: “I appreciate the necessity for easy logistics as well as spectators being an integral part of the course. These are what will grow the sport into the future and must be taken into consideration. The 2 miles into the wind is a small price to pay for such a world class location. Also, it does provide a very different type of ocean paddling skill, so it rounds out the course perfectly.”
Question: How many international paddlers are you hosting onboard your houseboat this year?
Carter: “In the past, there have been up to 14 people from different countries in my house. We have had some good times. This year I believe there will be 8 people at the floating house in Sausalito. Most of which will be there for two weeks.”
Sea Monsters outside Johnson's Sausalito paddling HQ
Monster Race Course
The Long Course for single surfskis is the premier event in the US Surfski Championships. (The weekend schedule of races includes a doubles race, and at times has offered a relay event). At 17 miles, the long course has been called a “monster”. It contains enough picture-perfect scenery to fill a coffee table book on San Francisco Bay. Competitors face a myriad of challenging conditions: 30 knot headwinds, swirling currents, tide rips, open ocean swells, fog, shipping, cold water, and fortunately, plenty of downwind surfing.
We asked the Championships founder, Patrick Hemmens, a South African ex-pat and now a California resident, why he chose San Francisco Bay for the race course.
“When DeAnne (Hemmens) and I first had the idea of running the USA surfski champs we wanted a paddling course that was challenging and would attract international paddlers as a vacation spot. San Francisco was a perfect match with the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island and the city skyline. There are very few places in the world that offer all the attractions of a big city, and have what I think are the most challenging surfski conditions in the world.
“Having various conditions in one race means the course is open to the best paddler overall to win. Most races in the USA are very flat. Paddlers get bored racing every weekend in flat glassy southern California conditions. Surfski racing is an extreme sport. Anyone can paddle in the flat. We wanted a race that was challenging and gave the paddler a sense of accomplishment. After the first ever USA surfski race in 2003 so many people were hooked on rough, challenging conditions, and just happy to finish we knew that the race would grow.”
The course - first half - out and back
The second half - downwind to Berkeley
Race Course Director Dave Jensen, a Wisconsin transplant to California, dedicated surfski racer, accomplished marathon canoeist, and co-founder of the Wavechaser Paddle Series, had this to say about the course that he had a hand in designing:
“The USSC course utilizes the Golden Gate (the body of water between SF Bay and the ocean), a bit of the ocean just outside of the Gate, and San Francisco Bay. These waters combine to make an awesome course for a world class surfski event that will test a surfski paddler’s skills and strength (you need both…one or the other isn’t good enough).Oddly, California’s Central Valley needs to be given partial credit for making this a great surfski course. In summer afternoons the sun’s energy causes Central Valley hot air to rise. The result is a pressure gradient that attempts to pull in the air from over the ocean. Much of the air gets funneled through a gap in the coastal mountains. This gap is the Golden Gate. As such, summer afternoon winds are reliable.”
For more on the course: http://ussurfski.com/event-info/course-info/
Jensen on the water conditions
“On the USSC course, you never paddle a mile without the conditions changing. It has a bit of everything. While a part of the course may be upwind, often times there are some downwind-like characteristics to the upwind section. The wind waves and ocean swells bounce off the cliffs of the Marin Headlands and do some funny things. The ever changing tide-driven current takes a wave that is moving one direction and bends it to make it go in another direction. What this all means is that for the skillful paddler, there is often a wave to catch and ride regardless of what direction you are going. This is most true out in the ocean on the edge of the Potato Patch Shoal, just beyond Point Bonita.”
New and Improved Short Course
Since the first US Championships, a Short Course option was available on the same day as the prestigious Long Course. New and aspiring racers, not yet ready to face the full fury of the Golden Gate and the extreme conditions of the Long Course, were offered a safe, but relatively dull 10 kilometer race within more protected waters of the Bay. It was a triangular course (as the Long Course was until 2009), with nearly nonexistent downwind conditions. As the sport has matured in the US in recent years, perhaps enough paddlers have gained enough experience to warrant a more exciting short course. So, race organizers created a point-to-point downwind race for this year, from Sausalito to Berkeley, following the same route as much of the downwind leg of the Long Course.
Patrick Hemmens on the New Short Course
“I think the change is great. The short course is now a challenge. It used to be a flat race. Now it prepares paddlers for their next adventure in paddling, doing the long course next year. I advise these paddlers to use a more stable ski than they would normally use. This course is challenging. If you have never paddled in San Francisco bay trust me on this you will not regret it. Also wear a PFD, leash, take a cell phone or VHR radio and dress warm.”
Dave Jensen on the New Short Course
“While the total distance is not much different compared to previous USSC short courses, the conditions will be much different. Prior USSC short courses were run on mostly calm conditions, but expect some good waves for 2011. The 2011 short course isn’t as hard-core as the long course, but for those with the skills, it is top notch on the fun factor. Advice for first time short course racers….if you don’t have downwind and/or rough water experience, get some in before the race!”
Ian Rambo of Mooloolaba, Queensland Australia is without doubt the most prolific paddlesports videographer of all time. He is in a class of his own. Rambo’s blog site “Rambo’s Locker” is a virtual online treasure trove of outrigger canoe racing videos from across Oceania. His videos have received nearly 2 million downloads in some 20 odd countries. In 2009, while seated on the rear seat of a jetski, he shot a phenomenal scene of Australian kayaking legend Clint Robinson surfing downwind bumps towards the finish in The Doctor race off Perth (which Robinson won handily). That video served notice that Rambo was a technically adept cameraman, and capable of real artistry. “I bawled my eyes out videoing the last 4 minutes of that race, so awesome to see and inspirational to watch time and time again,” Rambo confessed. We asked him about his approach to capturing the US Surfski Champs this year:
Rambo's 2010 video
Question: In 2010 on San Francisco Bay, you witnessed an incredibly dramatic dogfight between 3 of the best surfski paddlers in the world – Dawid Mocke, Jeremy Cotter, and Shannon Eckstein. Could you have scripted that any better, with the 3 of them surfing side by side from Angel Island to Berkeley? Was that easy to shoot, or did you have to work to get the camera angles?
Rambo: “Knowing that it was always going to be a close race between 5 paddlers, we planned to be up with them after Angel Island. I script a plan before the race to nail the most important aspects of the race, start, buoy turns, iconic backgrounds and finish, all the extra battles in between is cream. As I'm a single camera event shooter, I can't afford to miss anything, so having a good responsive boat/jet ski driver is key, one who picks up the routines quickly and listens to what I want. Mike Martinez (US Championships Race Director) is that man, we made for a good team last year. This and great support from the organizers, is what enables and inspires me to capture worthy video. Also having been an ocean paddler and racer for 20years, I instinctively know how a race is likely to pan out. This is a huge advantage over just a cameraman with no on-water race experience.”
Question: What went through your mind when the Coast Guard gun boat came after Dawid Moke as he surfed alongside the freighter in the shipping channel? Did you fear for Dawid’s safety?
Rambo: “No not for Dawid, we knew they could see him, we knew others were going to be following behind him and that the Coast Guard and freighter were probably not aware of this. So we ignored their instructions to "beat it" to protect and lead the other paddlers behind us as it's difficult to see them in white cap conditions. It was actually quite a tense situation having a manned gunner pointing a weapon, but he eventually saw what we were doing and buzzed off. And there was no stopping Dawid.”
Question: Compared to other venues that you have covered, how does the US Surfski Championships course stack up? What do you think of the varied conditions? Is that good for the sport, or should it be all downwind?
Rambo: “From a videographers perspective the course is awesome. I love the way it doubles back to the start line and reveals fantastic background scenery and iconic places of interest for me to feature in the video. As a race organizer, how could you not utilize a duel pass under the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Baker, Angel Island, Alcatraz etc? This is a huge attraction for international paddlers. Combine this with fantastic organization and volunteers and you have a large portion of the formula that makes the US Surf ski Championships so successful and why it is on everyone's "To Do" list. Simply put, the course is killer.”
(It should be noted that Rambo’s travel expenses to the US from Australia are paid in part by the generous contributions of Vineet Buch, a sponsor of the US Surfski Championships.)
The Wind Guru
Vineet Buch, a Surfski Champs contestant since 2008, is quite possibly the most fanatic downwind paddler on the West Coast. He is also the only surfski paddler to come out of Bhopal, India. Vineet’s motto for paddling could be “If the wind ain’t blowin’, I ain’t goin!” Everyone that has ever done a downwind with Vineet has received his emails predicting either gloom and doom (“wind will suck today”), or passionate glee (“look at this forecast!”). He lives and dies by forecasts provided by a private meteorologist from iWindsurf.com, which provides twice daily updates to subscribers for key locations around San Francisco Bay. Vineet likes to put his own spin on the professional forecasts, often inserting his local knowledge and bias into the picture. For his religious devotion to pursue the perfect downwind conditions, his friends have nicknamed him The Wind Guru.
Vineet Buch Predicts Wind for the Surfski Champs
“The extreme heat over the center of the US has dropped periodic unseasonal low pressure troughs off the California coast, dampening our typical NW summer winds. The Champs course had suffered some, but is the most resilient to this pattern, and has fared better than the (San Francisco) Peninsula. I'm optimistic that we will have cranking winds unless we get hit by a local heatwave that kills the pressure gradient between the Golden Gate and the Central Valley.
“I plan to race in any conditions - there's always good stuff going on along this course.”
Golden Gate Currents - on race day
Sail Power: The America’s Cup, 2012 - 2013
The 34th America’s Cup, sailings most coveted prize, is coming to San Francisco. In 2012, two America’s Cup World Series events will take place on the Bay, but they are not expected to impact the US Surfski Championships. The finals take place in 2013, when the San Francisco Bay Area will host one of the largest, most complicated sporting events in the world, akin to the Olympics, or a World Cup football tournament. Depending on the actual regatta course, a change in courses for the Surfski Champs could be necessary. Mike Martinez, Race Director for the USSC met recently with America’s Cup organizers for an early planning session with locals.
Mike Martinez on the America’s Cup
“It should not impact our race. There was a meeting with local groups a couple of months ago and we got a pretty good idea on the course they are looking to race on. Though their permit blocks out a lot of the Bay….almost up to Angel Island, the actual course will most likely be limited to just north of Alcatraz. It’s all prelim for right now, but the organizers know about our race and course and feel there should not be a problem…Their goal is to limit the impact on local groups and will try to work with us. I have a prelim schedule and early August should be alright for us.”
The America’s Cup has never been contested in San Francisco, and has not been hosted in the US since 1995. We’re glad to have her back, it will be a spectacle of wind power! In the meantime, go paddle power!
Prize Money and Sponsors
Prize money for the top finishers totals at least $15,000 as of this posting, thanks to the generous sponsors of the 2011 Surfski Championships. The Premier Sponsors list can be viewed on the USSC website here: http://ussurfski.com/2011/06/15000-in-prize-money/