Local knowledge goes a long way after you've been sailing the same course since 1978.
"It was a good advantage to be screwed before," noted Chip Wasson who's the only sailor to have won the event on a windsurfer and also a kite board. Chip took both the SF Classic & Ultra Nectar Challenge this year beating the rest of the 35 board fleet of kite boards & formula windsurfers with an elapsed time of just over 2 hours on the 50 mile + tour of the San Francisco Bay.
The legend begins not with Mr. Wasson but within the annals of windsurfing history.
The San Francisco Classic dates itself as one of the oldest continuing running long distance windsurfing races in the world.
The start is off Crissy Field with the first leg to windward around a huge nun buoy beyond the south tower of the golden gate bridge where a washing machine of eddies and waves churn. Next the reaching begins- off to starboard to a stationed boat near the north tower and then back to the city front. (In 1982 a second triangle around the above course was added.) The course crosses the Bay 8 more times. Racers must sail either below Alcatraz to Blossom Rock and then close reach back to the nastiest mark on the course- Point Blunt on the southern tip of Angel Island. There the wind accelerates to 40k amidst swirling currents and standing waves. After Blunt, it's all down hill broader reaches and easing winds, except that the racers are usually too spend to appreciate it. The final insult comes when the wind lightens so much that pumping is required for the last 1/2 mile reach to the finish at the eastern most gap in the Berkeley Pier.
The story goes, that after winning year after year and waiting for the rest of the fleet to finish at the bottom of the Berkeley Pier, Robbie Naish casually sailed back upwind to the St, Francis Yacht Club while the rest of the fleet hopped in their waiting cars with their boards strapped to their roofs crossing the Bay bridge back to city and the prize giving.
There lies the start of the next challenge or aptly named- "The Ultra Nectar Challenge."
Racer's finishing time for the SF Classic is their starting time for the UN Challenge. The course is a free upwind leg with no marks except for the finish line set in front of the St.FYC on the San Francisco city front.
Its the only race I know of that requires you to sail a 22 mile downwind slalom course in order to start the next race.
An epic feat of proportions any way you look at it!
This years race was no exception. With a full moon just days before the flood tide was raging at almost 4 knots under the Golden Gate Bridge. The Red Nun looked like it was being towed upwind with waves stacked up on its windward side.
Any experienced racer of the SF Classic will tell you its equally about playing the wind and the currents and this is how the race was won- just 5 minutes into the 2 hour + journey.
At the start of the race, it was only 8-12k and a glassy smooth up swelling but that would change just 10 min into the race when racers had to gybe around a hellish field of voodoo chop at the north tower with puffs already into the high 20's
Both Chip and Tom Purcell lead the charge and sailed up through the gap between the South Tower and Fort Point getting some relief from the 4k flood pouring in through the gate while the rest of the fleet (myself included- d'oh) sailed almost twice the distance under the mid span in the hardest part of the flood tide. By the time they rounded the first mark they had practically already won the race as they had a 4-5 min lead coming into Anita Rock for the downwind reaching trip to Berkeley.
Thanks to Arnaud for the photos from Crissy from the start, the bottom of the triangle and the Anita rounding
I lead the rest of the port tack fleet up and under the gate getting to the lay line then sailing another 30 seconds past to account for the flood. I came in strong and was 3 or 4th at the top mark battling with Soheil just on my tail.
I ate it at the north tower gybing in what looked like the largest mogul field you've ever seen on a 45 degree double black diamond icy mountain slope. The rest of the fleet however was still struggling to get around the top mark fumbling in the flood tide. I caught up again with Soheil after rounding Anita and off to Harding as I had a bit more power with starboard 167 in the lighter patch just off Anita. Once we got close to Harding Rock things began to heat up again with the puffs in mid to high 20's and a decent amount of voodoo chop to contend with. We both sailed below Alcatraz getting as close to the island as possible without losing the wind.
Blossom Rock was another mine field. The wind was gusting to 30k+ and the race wasn't even at it hardest point yet.
Gybing was not really an option but more so just turning the board and flipping the sail over to the other side as to avoid falling in and being sucked up by a black hole of churning voodoo chop.
I wasnt so much sailing but surviving. There was no way to put the pedal to the medal even with a 64cm fin a 9.5 rig but falling would require even more effort to get going again. I kept charging even with Xavier sailing through my lee and passing me at Point Blunt. I really didnt care that I was getting passed I just wanted to finish this race and be done.
Another harrowing reach back to R2 and back to R4.
This is where I made my mistake and let Soheil get past me. I carried on further on port tack past R4 while Soheil gybed right away. As I came into the top of the Pier I could see he had a good lead but the one rule of thumb Ive learned over the years is to never ever give up. Anything can happen.
Sure enough he went down on his last gybe at the X buoy on the Olympic circle.
A charge went off inside me telling me to push a little bit harder.
But alas not enough time to real him in as I finished in 6th place letting Headington sneak past me on his kite somewhere along the ride.
I was spend. I mean really gone. I had no energy for the upwind ride back home so I decided just to sail back conserving as much effort and not really focusing on the race. I tacked when by back start hurting, Stopped again to lower my boom. Stopped again to lower my booms again. The wind was gusting into the mid 30's with no relief in sight.
I had a brief moment of adrenalin as I saw Tom down with his second broken mast of the week.
There's one more spot I thought to myself but I really couldnt keep in going after getting knocked down several times upwind
10 min back behind the leaders I finished but nearly collapsed in the parking lot from exhaustion.
Thanks to Arnaud for the photos from the race deck at the finish of the UN Challenge
That was the toughest race Ive ever done but I didnt even have a decent story to tell compared to waht happened behind me.
Jean nearly collided with a container ship on the way downwind as he was sailing directly across its path. The safety boat reached him at the last second and they made a effort to flag him away. He made a effort to gybe but looked over his shoulder and saw the bow of the freighter coming down on him. That's when he decided to jump off his board and swim away- which probably saved him as his gear was tossed like a rag doll form the bow wake.
Soheil had a equally harrowing experience as his board and rig got away from him in one of the 40k puffs and went cartwheeling down wind end over end. He swam for 5 min to catch up and just barely made it before his gear crashed onto the rocky shores of Alcatraz.
The kitemare stories coming in were pretty harrowing as well with one kiter wrapping his lines up on the south tower and having to climb up the base tower on the small ladder to get rescued sans kite.
A huge congratulations to the 22 sailors who finished the race and for Tom for showing that Xavier is indeed beatable.
Also a huge thanks for all the RC, volunteers and chase boats form the St,FYC .
SF classic results
UN Challenge results