Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Adventures outside the gate

Mother nature can be a cruel mistress- almost 2 weeks without wind- and the last month with only 5 days on the water after slowly closing in on 150+ sessions this season.
The thermals which had been running strong for the last 7 months shut down without a whimper at the end of October.
I tried but the northerly November AM winds were all too brief. By 1 PM it's all ready fizzled.
Never procrastinate a clearing breeze, I constantly reminded myself this fall
But the southerly storm winds were hardly any consolidation.
I watched one day- as the winds at Crissy went from 12-25k with an approaching front and veered from the north to east and then all the the way back around to the south- leaving a handful of kiters stranded offshore when it eventually died.
All the wiser- I waited and waited.
Eventfully the swell arrived in a big way but it was still too marginal to get out.
I finally broke out the big gear again and got up to the gate for 2 days of unsurpassed winter swell riding on Thursday December 10th and Big Friday where the wind and swell combined for the biggest rides of the season.
It was the biggest swell I had seen since the winter of 2012. The conditions are rare- only happening a few times a year at most. Big stacks of raw powerful sets stacked up neatly and perfectly timed for an afternoon ebb.

I'm one of just a handful of sailors lucky enough to enjoy it. There's about 10 of us - SF locals who are wind junkies- watching the forecast everyday for a chance to get out again and score the next session.  More so, I'm  just lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time with the right gear,
You'd hardly think a 89cm board and 10.0 would make a good wave riding kit but you do what you have to to get to the wave.
Leaving from Crissy Field it was 10-12k but with the ebb- you're at the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge in one quick tack. The 10m avanti rig is very powerful and gets going in 10k and with a 60cm fin. Combined with the custom 89cm mikes lab board- it exceeds in just about any condition from light wind slalom racing to high wind course racing and most importantly- pacific sleigh rides!

The first tack out the gate is terrifying with the huge mountains of swell surging in the gate and a strong ebb pulling you out. I still wasn't sure it would even work and Id be able to get back downwind in the marginal breeze and big ebb.  I took a few practice runs downwind just to know it was still possible and got my first taste of the big swell as it lined up near the Lime Point lighthouse and carried me down to Yellow Bluff at the base of the Marin headlands. I eventually worked my way over to the south tower where the red nun was was barely visible with a river of current bending it sideways in the incoming swell. I shot the eddy to the west of the tower and eventually slipped into the standing wave where for an instant- I was stuck in a perpetual motion machine- gliding back and forth down the face of the swell to the south of the tower as the ebb pulled me backwards. It's a surreal feeling as if trying to walk against a moving sidewalk. The rug is literally being pulled out from under you as you race down the face of a 10'-15' standing wave.
Eventually you get spit out and have to head up for some speed- catching the next set and carrying it towards Fort Point.
Every few minutes a really big 20'+ set would manage to break through- clearing out the whole line of surfers tucked in to the corner as the wave wrapped around the point.
I knew because it was breaking clear outside leaving me to drop in on 10' of whitewater. I got rick-rolled once and became separated from my gear but the ebb was strong enough and get me out of dangers way but quickly before I knew it, I was 1/2 mile out the gate.
This is where the ebb really surges. If its 5k inside the gate- it's got to be 8-10k here- raging like a river.  I caught some of the biggest swell I had seen trying to just get back to where I was 2 minutes previously. Massive walls of water barreled through lifting me up 20+ feel above the troughs below. At the bottom- there was no wind at all but I was still planing down the face of the wave with my foot firmly planted in the double footstrap just to cope.
I looked at my watch and although it had only been 30 min of riding at the gate, I knew to call it quits. My strategy is not to get to greedy in the winter. It took several long calculated runs to even make it through the gate as the ebb was building and the breeze was drying below 10k. Eventually I managed to shoot through and make it back to Crissy field just as the sky opened up and the next front passed through.
Derigging in the rain didn't seem so bad with a session like that in the books.

Big Friday came with the swell peaking at 16-23' and bigger 30' swell rolling through.
The wind was even better with 12-16k. I used the same set up and quickly found myself over my head as I worked my way out past Kirby Cove up to Point Diablo on the Marin shoreline. The experience is similar to being in the backcountry with nobody else around and nature in its finest glory.  
Otherworldly comes to mind as the swell quickly doubles and triples its size building, peaking and letting you ride for what seems like miles as as it works its way into a peak, crumbling beneath itself and eventually back to nothing  It is one of the most fantastic feelings being propelled by swell the size of large buildings and using the power of the wind to put you anywhere on the face. It's constantly changing and shifting beneath your feet.

The Potato patch is actually much further out just west of the headlands and Point Bonita but the swell continue to roll in the through the channel with amazing force. Some of the more recent maps released by NOAA paint an incredible picture of the seafloor beneath:

The ground swell was even glassier than it was previously with beautiful A frames forming and running into the San Francisco Bay from building thousands of miles away as the start of some tropical depression.
I again made my way south to where the waves were visible much bigger and breaking in a frothy white mess near the south tower of the bridge. The first swell I dropped in on stacked up so high and steep that it pitch poled me right over. Luckily I was able to water start out of it before the next set came barreling in. Heading back out the gate on port tack against the incoming waves really gets your heart pounding seeing a giant wall of water move in on you as you desperately try to get over it before it breaks. You really get a  heightened sense of awareness when sailing outside the gate as things can change quickly and you need to stay on your toes.
I rode what seemed like giants in a super short track gybing between the south tower and Ft. Point every 30-45 seconds. There's a fine line- a point of no return- near the San Francisco shore where the wind stops but the wave keeps going. Get too greedy and the next set will wipe you right out as you try to shlog back out. Time it right and you get the ride of your life.