US Surf Ski Championships – San Francisco
Cold, windy, unpredictable currents and tough! That’s the way I would describe the US Surf ski championships this year in San Francisco.
But what a race and what a great location for ocean ski racing (although technically the majority of the race is in a bay). For those not familiar with the USSSC race course, the race starts at Fort Baker on the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge in a town called Sausalito, heads out under the Golden Gate to a shipping marker off Point Bonita (about 6km from the start) before turning and heading home on a 22km downwind stretch to Berkeley (passing back under the Golden Gate on to and past Angel Island and Alcatraz).
This year there was an ebbing tide (moving from high to low) meaning that for the last 22km of the race we would be paddling into a current flowing anywhere up to 4 knots. Luckily for us I think at the time of the race the current only peaked at about 2 knots but that was enough to cause some confusion as to where to go.
The start to the race was quite fast with Sean Rice flying off the start line and jumping straight on to the boat wash of a safety vessel that decided to take off in front of us. Sean’s advantage was only a small one with the rest of the contenders (myself included) jumping onto the second wash of the boat and in any case the wash ride only last a couple of hundred metres before we all turned into the howling 20 knot wind funneling through the Golden Gate Bridge.
At this point Sean simply stopped and let other paddlers go past looking instead for the easier and tactically smarter option of following the wash of other skis. Lucky for Sean and the rest of us 7 paddlers in the lead pack that two of the best grinders in the world were prepared to do a lot of the work. Ben Allen and Jeremy Cotter (both from Australia) were more then happy to head butt the head wind for the next 5km to the Point Bonita turning marker.
Remarkably every time I looked down at my GPS those two guys up front were pulling at just less than 15km per hour (or as I have it set on my GPS, to be exact, 4 minute and 5 second pace per km). I on the other hand had no interest in doing any of the leading and like Sean found myself a nice sit three paddlers back behind Jeremy. I was actually sitting on Sean’s wash. Next to me was Shannon Eckstein with Dawid Mocke in front of him being pulled by Ben Allen. Mark Anderson was following Shannon.
By the time we made it to the turning marker Ando had dropped behind slightly and there were now 6 of us left to race home. At this point Ben Allen decided to head south a little back into the main channel where the remaining 5 of us headed straight back in towards Point Bonita. Actually we ended up cutting inside the point between the head land and a large rock. A move that almost proved costly for all of us! All of a sudden as we were pushing through the gap, the water sucked out and there was exposed rock everywhere. At one stage I thought I was going to be stranded sitting on top of dry rock waiting to be swamped but a wave from behind but fortunately we all managed to avoid a catastrophe and made it through the gap without any injuries or damage to skis.
From here, the currents really didn’t make sense to me! Jeremy, Shannon and Dawid began to follow the foreshore trying to keep out of the outgoing current but Sean opted to stay about 70m to their left. At this time both Sean and I were about 30 – 40m back from front group of 3. I also opted to take an inside line following the other three. As it turned out this line was not as good as it appeared it should be. Over the next 3km back to the Golden Gate, Sean was able to recover the lost ground and once again rejoin the leading group of Jeremy, Shannon and Dawid making then a strong group of 4. Unfortunately for me I was now left to paddle on my own, stranded now about 100m behind.
As the front group rounded past under the Golden Gate, I could see their tempo noticeably pick up as they all began to surge towards the hotspot buoy. (This buoy was about 12km in to the race and worth $1000USD for the first paddler past). This increase in tempo soon blew out their lead over me to about 150m by the time I got to the hot spot. At this point I looked over my shoulder and noticed I had a bout 200m lead over Ben Allen.
But if I thought the last 16km to finish line at Berkeley was going to be straight forward, then I was completely mislead. After leaving the hot spot you begin heading towards Angel Island. As far as I could see there were 3 options to take. The first option was to head straight to the island, the second was to angle in to the left (north) a little or the other was to angle south and work your way back to the Angel Island from the middle of the channel.
I immediately noticed that the 4 guys in front had two different ideas. The South African’s Sean and Dawid headed back into the channel on a southern line and the two Aussies Jeremy and Shannon angled on the northern line. I opted to follow the two Aussies because I couldn’t see how heading back into the main channel into a current could be the best move. I actually went a little deeper then Jeremy and Shannon in hope that I could find better water then them and gain some of the ground I had lost.
The deeper I went the slower I went. My GPS speed went from 4 minutes per km down to 6 minute 20 pace. Obviously I was in trouble and instead of gaining time on the leaders I was rapidly losing time. I reckon I lost about 300m on Jeremy and Shannon in the space of about a km. Desperate to get out of this ridiculous situation I found myself in, I looked behind me to see what Ben Allen was doing. What I saw was that he too had taken a more southern line and had narrowed the gap down to about 50m but about 300m to my left and out in the middle of the channel. Obviously the South African’s and team Think spoke to the same locals!
My race with the other guys was now well and truly over and my main focus was to stay in front of Ben. I immediately moved over to his line to cover him. It was quite unbelievable but my speed once again picked up and I was able to do things a lot easier with the assistance of some wind chop again. The only drama I had now was to avoid being run over by a huge tanker that was barring down on me. For a long time I didn’t think myself or Ben was going to get out of its way but about 400m before we collided with it, it changed course and we run down the side of it. The US coast guard weren’t too pleased either as they pointed their 40 cal machine guns at us.
The runners from here on actually picked up quite nicely and the ride from Angel Island to the finish at Berkeley was quite good fun. As fun as you can get when both your elbows are cramping from fatigue for the last 8 or so kilometers that is! Yeah don’t let anyone tell you that San Francisco is an easy down wind paddle because I can tell you its not. It’s challenging on all fronts and if you haven’t done the work in training, or done the required homework on the course with the currents, the race can be a real struggle…. But in saying that, I love the race and the challenges it brings and I will definitely be back next year to try and better my result.
By the way getting back to the results, I managed to out surf Ben into 5th place behind Dawid, Shannon, Jeremy and Sean in that order. I have no doubts all those paddlers have their own perspectives on the race and their own hard luck stories but at the end of the day we all raced the same course and had the same opportunities and the best and most conditions paddlers prevailed.
Congratulations to all the paddlers who raced in the USSSC and thank you to the organizers who looked after us international paddlers so well, especially Helen Workman. I would also like to thanks Epic Kayaks for giving me the opportunity to race the USSSC.
1st Dawid Mocke South Africa
2nd Shannon Eckstein Australia
3rd Jeremy Cotter Australia
4th Sean Rice South Africa
5th Tony Schumacher Australia
6th Ben Allen Australia
7th Mark Anderson Australia
8th Greg Barton USA