2007 Wavechaser Summer Downwind Series: San Francisco Bay

Thursday, 14 June 2007 17:20 | Written by  Kenny Howell
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[Editor: Part of Surfski.info's aim is to publish news of surfski all over the world and it gives us great pleasure to welcome Kenny Howell as a contributor from California. Last weekend he took part in the first of three summer downwind races held in San Francisco Bay - here's the story.  (We'll be developing the site in the coming weeks to offer regional news for surfski paddlers wherever they are.)]


Race #1 - Coyote Point to Redwood City 10 June 2007

Few places in North America have seasonal winds as strong and predictable as San Francisco Bay in the summer. The Wavechaser Summer Downwind Series takes full advantage of the wind with 3 rough water events spread out over June, July and August.

The route: Coyote Point to Redwood City

Surf skiers and outrigger canoeists will gather in ever-increasing numbers to take part in these special downwind races held around the Bay. The series kicked off on June 10 with the Coyote Point to Redwood City race. The July and August races follow different but also reliable downwind routes. The Coyote Point course, often used for training by local competitors, has developed something of a cult-like following, and with good reason. What could be better than a 12 mile (19km) mostly downwind run on your surf ski?

As good as it gets 

For Dave Jensen, Wavechaser Race Course Director, this might just be as good as it gets.

Launched in 2004 by Jensen and Wavechaser founder Mike Martinez, their summer races are consistently held in 20-30 knot conditions, with wind waves on the Bay typically reaching 4' - 6', and paddler speeds of 10 - 12 mph sustainable for long runs. Coyote Point is legendary among the kite surfing and board surfing aficionados in the area. As Jensen points out, "You don't need to check the forecast for the day if you're doing a Coyote Point downwind in summer. It's that reliable".

The wind recording for 10th June 2007

Like another California gold rush, the word is out about the golden summer conditions for surf skiers at Coyote Point. The Golden Gate - world famous entrance to San Francisco Bay - is the only sea level gap in the California Coastal Mountain Range for 400 miles, allowing cool marine air to flow towards the hot, dry central valley. Through this natural wind tunnel, the marine layer rushes like a 49er headed for the gold fields, often with near gale force velocity every afternoon from April through September. For surf skiers looking for downwind fun, this has to be ranked alongside the great downwind paddles on the planet. While it doesn't have the biggest surf when compared with Oahu's windward shore, you can bet your San Francisco sourdough bread on the wind coming up for a Wavechaser summer race.

Afternoon Starts 

The summer series races are scheduled for afternoon starts, when conditions typically prove optimal. At the racers' meeting, with jumbo jets screaming just 500 feet overhead on their descent to the nearby SFO International airport, Jensen announced to the assembled paddlers "We guarantee a downwind race for you today!" 62 competitors from across the Golden State had signed up with such a guarantee in mind. Forecasts (as if you needed one!) predicted afternoon NW winds of 25-30 knots for San Francisco Bay waters, which prevailed at race time. Looking out to the Bay from shore, white caps raged towards us from the northwest.

The course follows a wind-lashed shipping channel through the southern portion of San Francisco Bay. The last 2 miles are in a calm water channel called Redwood Creek, where side-winds are the norm, and endurance and strength become critical. Who in the field could best work the long downwind runs, and then hit the flats hard all the way to the finish?

Zsolt Szadovszki 

This wasn't a big mystery for the locals who have watched former Hungarian National Sprint Team member, Zsolt Szadovszki, now a Bay Area resident, win almost every race he entered in California over the past 2 years. Zsolt's 13 years racing on flat water turned him to a world-class paddler, but he had never seen a surf ski until moving to California in 2004. "I learned a lot from Dave Jensen, he knows how to surf, and understands the ocean" Szadovszki admitted to me. He cautiously added "Now that I've figured out how to surf swells, I am having fun. But I'm racing against myself right now unless the competition is international".

Zsolt, dropping CA locals (Photo: Jude Turzcynski)

Other than first place, the positions were not set in stone. However, this is Dave Jensen's training ground; with an average of two Coyote Point sessions per week during summer, he would be hard to drop given good surfing conditions. At race start time, the stiff breeze actually appeared to calm down a few knots. A 30 minute head start was offered to 13 paddlers who believed they needed it; most of the women competitors opted for the early start, as well as one co-ed double ski and a few men still cutting their teeth in rough water. The staggered start helped the event organizers to track progress of all paddlers from 3 chase boats. Staying on course by following the channel markers to Redwood Creek is essential; anyone trying to take a shorter route could end up on their own and off course - and in the event of trouble, difficult to locate or rescue. You want to feel confident that you can handle Coyote Point on a big day. Bailout sites are inconvenient; inaccessible mud flats and vast tidal marshes border the shoreline for most of the distance.

Chaotic and turbulent

About 2 miles from the start, the San Mateo Bridge spans the Bay; the course runs along deep water under the highest part of the bridge. The waves are usually biggest here - almost like ocean rollers sometimes - but today it was chaotic and turbulent due to rebounding chop off the bridge pylons. Tidal currents play a part, too; if the current is outgoing, with up to 3 knots ebb possible, the wind running against the tide causes steeper waves and better surfing - but overall slower race times. The current today was with the wind, so the waves were not as steep. With the wind still roaring and tearing at our paddles, we could surf for several more miles, milking the last of the good rides before entering the grueling flats of Redwood Creek.

About 70% [effort] 

Szadovszki took first place easily. I asked him later how hard he felt he was going. "About 70% I think. I just go my own pace with the swells. Something clicked this year in Hawaii for me. I learned how to surf better from Dawid Mocke before the Molokai race".

Zsolt with Dawid Mocke at Molo '07 (Photo: DeAnne Hemmens)

Zsolt's GPS & HR Monitor trace may be found here on MotionBased.com  Note the low heart rate!

So, Zsolt's domination over the locals continues. Jensen followed in 2nd place with a substantial lead over the 3rd and 4th place finishers. At the post-race party and BBQ, while Jensen helped flip burgers and grill bratwursts (Wisconsin traditions die hard!) I asked him what he thought of the race conditions. He estimated that 2/3rds of the times he paddles this route, the wind and waves are stronger and bigger than today. Not the nastiest blow for the first race of the summer series, but it was mostly blowing in the right direction!

This was my 3rd Coyote Pont race in 4 years, and I have come to look forward to the camaraderie and friendly competition at all the Wavechasers. One of the things I enjoy most about downwind racing is surfing alongside other skis, surging ahead, sometimes falling back, but then hanging tight with the pack for as long as I can. The Wavechaser Summer Series is about as good as it gets for surf ski racing in these parts, and the Coyote Point race is a guaranteed cult-classic.

Kenny Howell catching some wind waves off his City By The Bay

Summary Results

Position Paddler Time
1 Zsolt Szadovszki 01:18:37
2 Dave Jensen 01:23:51
3 Mike Long 01:25:20
4 Paul Martin 01:25:21
5 Martin Sundberg 01:25:58

Click here for full results 

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