But, as the wind storm dropped to a mere Small Craft Advisory by game time, Martinez got his wish, and the racers accepted the challenge befitting a championship. They were all rewarded with enough salt spray in their faces to give every paddler on San Francisco Bay a salted marguerita glass, on the rocks.
The Wavechaser Championship event is the culmination of a series of northern California paddle races for surfskis, outrigger canoes - and recently, SUPs have joined in the competitions. Beginning in October, races are held monthly in scenic, paddler-friendly locales between San Francisco Bay and Santa Cruz. The Grand Finale event, which covers some of the same tricky waters as the US Surfski Championships, often delivers extreme conditions fueled by oceanic wave-trains from the Gulf of Alaska colliding into the California coast. Mix in several million cubic feet per second of tidewater spewing out of Golden Gate narrows, and this effervescent cocktail makes life very exciting for any competitor able to withstand the hairball conditions. The competition is obviously for experts only, but you still need to be in the mood to take it on. The crux of the course skirts the edge of the infamous Potato Patch shoal – a vast, shallow bar formed by the literal end of the line for 40% of California’s rivers which flow into the Bay and out to sea, finally dumping their sediment load on the shoals. The Potato Patch is a mother lode of historic ship wrecks, and it’s no place to be on a stormy day if the Coast Guard is on vacation.
On shore, Martinez gave the competitors a short and sweet orientation prior to the start: we would paddle under the Golden Gate bridge and out towards the open ocean, possibly turn at a navigational buoy off Point Bonita, or maybe before that, or maybe farther up the coast. We should turn around when we felt we couldn’t take it anymore, Mike explained, and at some point we would all turn back – probably around Mike’s battle-tested Boston Whaler. How far into the malevolent maw of the Potato Patch we would make it, no one knew for sure. That is the mysterious Wavechaser style I know and love! We lined up on the water, paddles up…and after the usual blinding sprint off the blocks, we were ripping out to sea on a 4-knot ebb, into a fresh breeze, with a stiff chop rough enough to turn your guts into jellyfish.
Dave Jensen's eventual route for the long course
...finish with some dignity
A tradition dating back to the first Wavechaser Championships involves competing in a Short Course AND a Long Course race – on the same day, back-to-back, with competitors switching to a different paddle craft for the longer race. I’m not sure what masochist came up with this concept, or how I talked myself into it, but I entered my first ever Stand Up Paddleboard race for the 5-mile Short Course. It might have been just as easy to challenge someone to an ass-whipping contest on the beach, but Wavechaser doesn’t have a class for that event yet. I was pretending to be a “Waterman”, and looking for another way to cross-train - and an excuse to drink more beer after the races. It was also a case of the old saying, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!”. SUP is really cool, and some of my best friends do it. The goal was to finish with some dignity, in case anyone was watching. On the morning of the race, the sales rep from Starboard had offered me a super light 14’ carbon-fiber race board; I accepted, despite the specter of it creating an expectation to perform. If I had just stuck with paddling the inflatable air mattress, the pressure to win would have been much less.
When you’ve been competing on surfski for a few years, there is a huge mental adjustment required for the switch to a SUP. In the hands of a skilled paddler, a surfski is generally considered the fastest human-powered vessel on the water in downwind conditions. The difference between surfski and SUP is like going from speed skating to…snow shoeing. But, I did train for a few days on the SUP in the week leading up to the Wavechaser Championship, and figured the worst that could happen is that I would never want to do this again. The SUP race would stay in the Bay, and be over before you could say “Jamie Mitchell is my Daddy”.
About 20 minutes into the ordeal, I was sitting on 2nd place in the SUP division. I thought my paddle stroke was going to cause a stroke. That’s about when Ken Altman, a SUP wonder and flat-water specialist from Sacramento, gradually reeled me in with his 14’ Bark race board, and pulled ahead. I became eligible for the AARP last year, but Ken is approaching Elder Statesmen status. I started to think I might finally need to check into rehab, but at the turn buoy in Raccoon Strait, Ken slowed down in the swirling currents just enough to allow me to slip past him. Leading the SUP race from start to finish was the local board racing prodigy, David Wells. David was KILLING us, and doing it on a 12’ board. That’s like getting run over by a fat-tire mountain biker when you’re cruising down the highway on your Lance Armstrong road racer. Ken almost caught me again at Yellow Bluff Point where I took the shorter inside line, following Wells. It was a calculated risk, taking the shorter, yet slower path, due to the Big Eddy. A sea kayaker sitting in the eddy at Yellow Bluff, noting my bold move, said “What are you doing here, dude?”
Kenny Howell invents a new SUP style...
With the S&M SUP race completed, we now had about 10 minutes to prep for the Main Event, the Championship Long Course. I wolfed down a sandwich without chewing, and mumbled some strategy with my racing partner (AKA secret weapon), Kristen Podolak. Kristen and I had acquired a V10 Double surfski for this event, and we intended to put the hurt on some bad-ass single surfskis. They would know our names, and beg for mercy! If you want to have a real good time, invite Kristen to paddle in the back seat of a double with you. She is technically a brilliant paddler, had trained for the US Olympic Slalom Kayak team, and now races K1 and surfkskis with admirable skill and tenacity. The fun part about racing with Kristen is that when she isn’t making suggestions on the best line to take through the current, or how to avoid a collision with another vessel, she screams like a girl. It’s part of her charm, and I found it reassuring when the going got tough.
My strategy for the day had been to hurt myself in the SUP race, then use Kristen’s youth and endurance to help us win the Long Course. With the great speed and stability of the double surfski, we easily slipped up to the front of the pack – for 2 minutes. I maneuvered us right out of the lead by missing the fastest water outside the Gate, and we watched 4 single skis drift past in the roiling ebb tide. Finding good water again and cruising over 10 mph, we picked off our prey one by one. Robin Graham, a freakishly talented downwind surfski paddler (due in part, evidently, to his life-long passion for surfing, and a disdain for flat water), charged into the building seas, and showed the field that he was in no mood to talk about his day job as a equity manager.
The lead changed a few times as we approached Point Bonita. Wavechaser co-founder and racer extraordinaire Dave Jensen had fallen behind by dropping into slower current towards shore, but was hanging close to his nemesis Don Kiesling, a multi-disciplined paddling champion from the Pacific Northwest. Patrick Hemmens, another South African ex-patriot with more surfski time than any paddler in California not named Carter Johnson, was hot on our stern and diplomatically asked if it was OK to draft the double. “If you can, you can!” I shouted back. He took that as a yes, and hung tight with us through the mashed-up chop.
Maintaining 10 mph for the first 20 minutes with the aid of the current, the lead paddlers all reached the Point Bonita buoy at the same time. Mike Martinez had zipped out ahead on the Whaler, and as the seas began to explode around us, I assumed he would turn us back here. That’s when we spotted the first massive, oceanic swells steam rolling into the Bonita Channel, between the Potato Patch and Marin Headlands. The swells were jacking up against the current, straining like some kind of mythical deep sea ogre chaffing against his chains, threatening to mow us down like little hobbits in Mordor. Kristen had been chirping away cheerfully up to this point, but she suddenly expressed some concern for our survival. We had a brief conversation about the situation that included the words “turn back now”. The single skis skidded past us like lemmings about to head over a cliff, and the Whaler continued to plow onward in the hectic 10’ seas, on towards some unknown turning point in the midst of the Devil’s Triangle. Ignoring the warning bells and sirens going off in our heads, we listened to our competitive instincts, and quickly got back into the race.
As we scratched and clawed our way up the coast, a deep sense of awesomeness settled in. We bobbed and weaved around the Sea Ogres. How far was Mike leading us into this craziness, and did he know this would be a good time to turn around? How about now? Now would be a good time to stop and go back!!! Mike must have fallen asleep at the wheel, and was leading us towards a natural disaster. Kristen thanked me for introducing her to surfski paddling; I think it was her way of saying farewell. It looked like we were being led into the abyss when finally, in the vicinity of Tennessee Cove, Mike idled the motor. The singles whipped around him, and it was a sight to behold as they immediately started catching runs. Patrick surfed right at us, grinning like a birthday boy, and you could see he was in for a magic carpet ride. I steered the double gingerly in the funky beam seas, and brought us around to catch us some bumps! Before we got up to speed, Kristen had one last request: “Go easy on me with the surfing.”
The V10 Double surfski is a solid little ship. Neither of us would have done so well in single surfskis. We never felt tippy in this boat. Now we would find out how it handled the ultimate challenge – surfing big swells. It didn’t take long. We built up some steam, and then a gaping hole opened up in the ocean under the bow. The 24’ x 19” spear rocketed across the water like a rogue missile. A fuse had been lit, and she was launched! Only a moment before that, we were laughing nervously about our plight, but then we grew very quiet as mass and inertia seemed to warp time and space into a perfect moment of sheer terror and delight. I felt the g-forces as we began to free fall down a behemoth swell at a fantastic speed. The boat steered itself – I didn’t touch the rudder pedals – and we rode that mother for an exquisitely long time. I looked around to make sure we were still in one piece, and howled with delight that we had come out alive.
After that, we never caught another big bomb. The seas were too chaotic and disorganized. The rides were short, but plentiful. Navigating back to the Point Bonita buoy required nerves of steel. The Sea Ogre was still out there, trying to break his chains. I wallowed the ski so badly once on the back of a wave that we were totally swamped. It seemed for a moment that we were sinking, but instead of abandoning ship like one Italian cruise ship captain, we just kept paddling and the Venturi drains did their work. The next crux involved getting around Point Bonita itself without running into the treadmill; max ebb at the Golden Gate hadn’t even occurred yet! Nothing to it really, just ride the overhead bumps close to the rocks, and not so close that the swell breaks your neck. Robin Graham admitted later that in the heat of the moment, some human excrement had been deposited on Egg Rock by an anonymous donor.
Dave Jensen's Speed Graph
You can feel some tension release upon reaching the relative tranquility of Bonita Cove The singles had disappeared ahead of us like quicksilver, so we settled into a smooth rhythm in the calmer water, finding the counter-current that would take us all the way back to the bridge. Point Diablo sticks out from the Marin shore into the Narrows just enough to make you gnash your teeth while getting around it. Every racer had been warned about the challenge of getting past Lime Point, just under the North Tower of the Golden Gate bridge. With today’s maximum ebb predicted to be 4.5 knots, a whole lot of shit would hit the fan – all of the North Bay pouring past this one point in a magnificent spectacle of nature. As we approached the bridge, within spitting distance of the North Tower, Kristen and I discussed our strategy for busting across the eddy line. An unexpected challenge would be to avoid the two surfskis stuck in the current, and blocking our way through!
Robin, in a fever of downwind ecstasy, had forgotten about the turn buoy back at Point Bonita, and eventually he realized the error, DQing himself. Don Kiesling had just rolled off his ski for the first time since the California Gold Rush, but he remounted quickly in water bumpy enough to rattle your kidney stones. Don was now paddling as fast as he could - and going about 1 mph BACKWARDS. He nailed a win in the Wavechaser Championship in a previous effort, but the day before this race he had gone for a long downwind session on the South Bay and ended up in a stinking mudflat, hauling himself out of waist-deep slimy muck for 30 minutes just to get to tierra firma. This must have taken the wind out of his sails. We were all on the edge of bonking. I dropped the nose of the double into the current without enough angle, and we nearly did a 180 degree turn back out to sea. The superior training and intelligence of my paddle partner (the secret weapon!) turned on like a switch. The only way out of this mess was to paddle your ass off. I was fading fast, slouching down in the seat, and my forearms cramped up so severely I wasn’t sure I could hold the paddle. “SIT UP! PADDLE HARD! LET’S GO! C’MON SOLDIER, MOVE!” Kristen got us through it wither her tender motivational speech. I nearly T-boned Don in our final desperate attempt to reach the eddy, but tragedy was narrowly averted, once again.
With Robin out of the hunt, and Don cautiously making headway, we galloped off for the finish inside the cove. Patrick Hemmens had floored it on the downwind leg and edged out the hometown boy Dave Jensen by 45 seconds for the winning time of 1:29:34. We came sailing into 3rd place, nearly 5 minutes behind Patrick, but still stoked about catching the wave of the day!
The (adjusted) course map
For all the racers that completed this unforgettable race, congratulations – you are all champions. Just ask Mike Martinez. He knows how to pick a Championship. Thank you Wavechaser for another outstanding season of racing.
|2||John||Kinn||DSK||DSK||0:47:01||1st Double Surfski|
|2||Roger||Dunn||DSK||DSK||00:47:01||1st Double Surfski|
|9||Leif||Calvin||DSK||DSK||0:49:28||2nd Double Surfski|
|9||Gabriel||Calvin*||DSK||DSK||0:49:28||2nd Double Surfski|
|10||Andy||Toro||OC2||Coed||0:49:52||1st OC2 Coed|
|10||Sue||Porter||OC2||Coed||0:49:52||1st OC2 Coed|
|11||Warren||Chan||OC2||M||0:50:23||1st OC2 Men|
|11||Jeffrey||Kay||OC2||M||0:50:23||1st OC2 Men|
|13||Alison||Wu||OC2||Coed||0:50:59||2nd OC2 Coed|
|13||Will||Lin||OC2||Coed||0:50:59||2nd OC2 Coed|
|14||Doug||Kidder||OC1||M||0:51:16||1st OC1 Men|
|17||Richard||Ongerth||OC2||Coed||0:53:23||3rd OC2 Coed|
|17||Jennifer||Faukner||OC2||Coed||0:53:23||3rd OC2 Coed|
|19||Dawn||Price||OC2||W||0:53:55||1st OC2 Women|
|19||Pamela||Adams||OC2||W||0:53:55||1st OC2 Women|
|20||Kim||Green||OC2||W||0:54:48||2nd OC2 Women|
|20||Helen||Gallagher||OC2||W||0:54:48||2nd OC2 Women|
|21||Morris||Chan||OC1||M||0:55:24||2nd OC1 Men|
|22||David||Guertin||OC1||M||0:55:29||3rd OC1 Men|
|25||Theresa||Liu||OC1||W||0:58:59||1st OC1 Women|
|27||Debbie||Green||OC1||W||0:59:58||2nd OC1 Women|
|35||Valerie||Khachadourian||SUP||SUP-12 W||1:21:40||1st SUP Women|
Long Course (11.7mi)
|1||Patrick||Hemmens||SK||MS||01:29:34||1st Master Surfski|
|2||Dave||Jensen||SK||MS||01:30:18||2nd Master Surfski|
|3||Kenny||Howell||DSK||DSK||01:33:54||1st Double Surfski|
|3||Kristen||Podolak||DSK||DSK||01:33:54||1st Double Surfski|
|4||Don||Kiesling||SK||OP||01:35:04||1st Open Surfski|
|5||Mike||McNulty||SK||MS||01:37:33||3rd Master Surfski|
|6||Leif||Calvin||OC1||MS||01:42:47||1st OC1 Master Men|
|7||Dan||Hammer||OC1||OP||01:43:11||1st OC1 Open Men|
|8||Steve||Kaspar||SK||GM||01:43:33||1st Surfski Golden Master Men|
|9||Jim||Gannon||OC1||GM||01:46:10||1st OC1 Golden Master Men|
|10||Daphne||Hougard||OC2||W||01:51:01||1st OC2 Women|
|10||Nina||Oakley||OC2||W||01:51:01||1st OC2 Women|
|11||Joe||Naholawa'a||OC1||OP||01:51:50||2nd OC1 Open Men|
|12||Roman||Kristl||OC1||MS||01:52:52||2nd OC1 Master Men|
|13||Junior||Wright||OC1||GM||01:53:49||2nd OC1 Golden Master Men|
|14||George||Marshall||OC2||M||01:54:08||1st OC2 Men|
|14||Clarence||Peralta||OC2||M||01:54:08||1st OC2 Men|
|15||Kate||MacDonald||OC2||W||01:56:49||2nd OC2 Women|
|15||Emerald||Canary||OC2||W||01:56:49||2nd OC2 Women|
|16||Mike||Gregory||SK||GM||01:57:06||2nd Surfski Golden Master|
|18||Joel||Leker||DK||DK||02:00:23||1st Double Kayak|
|18||Isaac||Leker*||DK||DK||02:00:23||1st Double Kayak|
|19||Mike||Vivas||OC1||GM||02:01:10||3rd OC1 Golden Master Men|
US Surfski Champs - Aug 4th and 5th
Wavechaser sponsors the US Surfski Championships, scheduled for August 4th and 5th 2012 on San Francisco Bay. The Surfski Championship course includes portions of the race described in this article. Check out their websites here for more info: