Monday, May 15, 2017

San Francisco Slalom Season opener in 2 acts


Act 1
When it rains, it pours and when it blows, it blows the dogs off their chains in San Francisco.

Things started off pretty heady for the first St. Francis Yacht Club Friday night slalom race of the season on May 12th as the puffs hit 30 knots & 4-6' breaking swell buried the 2nd downwind slalom mark, set a few hundred feet of Crissy Field.  A dedicated group of wind junkies, half of which were on extra small bump and jump or wave gear, braved the conditions to carry on a tradition that has been going strong since the early days of windsurfing in California.
Downwind slalom racing, especially in a big breeze is one of the most spectacular to watch & one of the most exciting disciplines to compete in. 
At 1 min before the start, its a chaotic symphony of windsurfers jockeying for position as they scream towards the starting line set just off Anita Rock on the San Francisco city front. Like clockwork, the fleet blast across the starting line in an all out sprint towards the 1st gybe mark, hitting speeds of 25 knots and flying across the chop all within a few feet of each. The first to arrive quickly lay down their sails to de-power while carving around the mark. In an instant, they are back on the new gybe going deep across the troughs of breaking swell. A few get knocked down, while the rest hold it together. 
Its an all out obstacle course as several fleets of inbound ocean racers cross at the exact time the fleet gets ready to round mark 2. Chaos erupts as the yachts broach in a hellish 30 knot+ westerly puff and the mark is buried in the breaking rollers coming in the San Francisco Bay.  A few boards go down, just to save themselves from what would otherwise be an impending death sandwich between the fiberglass hulls. Those that emerge, do so by the skins of their teeth, threading the fine needle of control and all out balls to the wall, hold it together for your life windsurfing.


2 more gybes to go and its all over.
The fleet rips back towards the east end of Crissy Field where there's a slight relief from the 4k flood tide ripping across the course. Even the racers on 4.5 m wave sails effortlessly carve around the mark in stiff 25 knot breeze and quickly make their way towards the last gybe mark set in an all out furry of wind and waves. Positions change as rapidly as the wind but the top racers are able to maintain control and consistency in their maneuvers around the course. 
1 more 'OMFG reach' and the 2-1/2 minute race will be over. 
If you can avoid stuffing the nose of your board in the breaking swell and round the StFYC B buoy- set just in front of the club, the race is over. If not, you'll have to watch the rest of the fleet fly by as you try to muster the energy water start to make it across the finish line in dead fucking last (DFL.)
When its all over, everyone heads back upwind for another shot at redemption. 
You're only as good as your last race and for the rest of the fleet who didn't score a bullet, there's victory to be had or lost once again. 
4 more races are run as the breeze settles down to a reasonable 20k and the flood builds and flattens out the course.

I have the duty of race committee this evening with 2 other racers as the only way this series works is by volunteering 1 of the 4 race nights towards race management. You get to see how and why the series works by actually taking part and running it. The marks don't set themselves, nor does the start or finish go off without the help of 4-5 person team. A huge thanks to the kite racers who showed up and maned the race deck for finishes. 

By the time its over, the fleet looks like its returned from a naval battle with broken sails & twisted carbon but there's a slight twinkle in the eyes of these wind junkies- ready to do it all over again tomorrow.

Act 2
18 hours pass and the fleet is back where they stood the day before.  This time, the Crissy Field Slalom Series breaks ground for their 3rd season.Its a grass roots effort to get out the fleet and encourage new racers to join in the party  It's 2 pm and already blowing their dogs off their chains for the 3rd day straight day in a row.  The San Francisco Bay is a sea of white caps, frothing in a wind blown seascape. The marks get set & 18 racers get consolidated into 1 fleet for a winner take all 10 race series. 
photo credit: @lyrahcolvin

I'm not sure if I was just stubborn or stupid but it took me the better half of the day to get my shit together. I was a hot mess trying to keep down a 7.6 rig and 105l slalom board with a 42cm fin in the 25k+ of breeze. 
It's definitely doable but not advisable.

I'm smart enough to know that if you hold out long enough you can pick a few racers off at each rounding but being overpowered- I was not doing myself any favors in pushing the top of the fleet. I go down hard the 4th race breaking a foot strap and retire before swallowing my pride and switching down to my smaller gear. I haven't sailed the 85l board & 6.3 m rig in what seems like years but its rigged and ready on the beach. It takes me a few runs between races to adjust the harness lines and get things settled but before I know it, race 5 has started and Im in the lead at mark 1 just in front of Xavier who is breathing down my neck. I put everything I have into the next reach, closing the gap on the 6.3 m rig and sending it faster than I ever have before. The 59cm board just flies right over the top of the water until it doesn't & I charge right into the backside of the breaking swell and get catapulted over the handlebars spinning like a rag dog in the spin cycle of a washing machine. I emerge and try to water start as the fleet goes wizzing by but realize my boom head has disintegrated in the chaos. A few more rollers wash over me for good measure sending my gear tumbling and me swimming after it. I finally manage to jury rig the boom back together with some spare line and drift back to shore in a water start position.
photo credit: @lyrahcolvin
As luck would have it, we have a 30 min break after 5 races and I regroup on the beach derigging the 7.6 and switching the boom to the 6.3. I fine tune the mast position back 1/2" and go out for practice run. The board & rig feel dialed and Im off like a race horse leading the entire 6th race and taking the bullet! 
It's all about the come back I remind myself.
I stay in the top 3 for the rest of the races except when I get taken out at the 1st mark in race 8 as Jean is squeezed out of a tight rounding and drops his rig in front of me. 
In years past, I would have been furious, yelling, screaring & protesting but now, just let that shit go. 
You've got to take the good with the bad.
No reason to get upset, just move on.
Going into the last race I know its tight for points between 3rd and 6th and need to finish strong as I've already used my share of throw outs and then some for the day. Its already starting to lighten up to 18-24 knots but have no choice but to stick with the small gear. I send it and get a flying start near the pin end neck  neck with Xavier. We go into the 1st mark overlapped but he squeaks out with just a bit more speed and finesse and gets a jump on the next reach. I follow suit and am able to hold off the rest of the fleet for a strong 2nd place finish on the last race. This puts me tied for 3rd with Vincent who's been sailing very consistent all day in the top 5. I lose the tie breaker as windsurfers go by who ever has the better throughout to determine the tie. 
Back at the beach, every racer recaps his day with postmortems and 'what should have beens' but its always the racer who sails the most consistent  and makes the fewest mistakes that ends up on top.
As with most races here, it's Xavier Ferlet who takes 6 bullets for the day and walks away with a nearly flawless afternoon of racing. In 2nd, local board head, Soheil Zahedi shines with his best performance to date; however, the awards work a bit differently in this series than most. 

We gather our prizes and in kind gifts from sponsors and first let the volunteers come up and choose the best items because without them, none of this would be possible. Next up is the B fleet who aren't even expecting to be recognized, nonetheless get a prize. From the back of the fleet up, we call off the racers names to come pick a prize. The racers in the back and middle of the fleet are stoked. They never get prizes but will sure to be back again for the next race.
This is how you build and maintain a fleet- from the bottom up. 
Beer and pizza slowly bring back the fleet to life and if they could, these wind junkies would be back tomorrow for another race.

Luckily for my recovery time, the next race is a month away on June 9th & 10th with the Friday Night Slalom & Crissy Field slalom Series. Until then, I've got plenty of kite racing to keep me occupied and humble again in the back of the fleet. 

A huge thanks to the Crissy Field Slalom Series sponsors for making it possible. Without you guys, we'd just be sailing back & forth!


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