The Red Bull Heavy Water event that is part of the APP World Tour was a test of resilience that demanded every bit of skill, determination for all the competitors.
We all had been looking forward to this event with great anticipation after last year‘s event was cancelled because the swell did not meet the max height standards. Early in the holding period the green light (GO!) was called. It was time for athletes from all corners of the world to make their way to San Francisco for the world’s most dangerous and most diverse SUP Race. With 3 days to make it to SF, Connor and I got on a plane together from Maui to settle in and get some prep time. We had over 2 weeks training together every day at Ocean Beach last year in preparation for this event, so we were still feeling confident in our comfort and preparation in this wild event through San Francisco’s heavy water and Ocean Beaches pounding surf.
On race day Connor Baxter, Kody Kerbox, Riggs Napoleon and I made our way from Cort Larned’s house to the event site. The weather was looking really nice, too nice. it was flat with not a breath of wind. We didn’t get to take a look at Ocean Beach, but there at the start it was calm and starting to look like another flat water distance grind. The event started quite a bit late as we had to wait for Coast Guard approval to start. By this time the fog rolled in thick, the temperature dropped, the wind filled in and the currents were starting to get wild! Now it was starting to look a bit more like “Heavy Water” conditions! Ironically, once it got really ugly and rough, The Coast Guard gave us the thumbs up and we were off.
Starting from Crissy Field in the heart of SF on the coast, we paddled towards the Golden Gate Bridge. Navigating the currents played a role immediately, and the packs of racers split into 3 trains. the leading train took the straight line on the outside and the 2nd train, which I was leading, along with the 3rd train, were hugging the coast and riding the ebbing tide. We gained ground on the leading pack despite potentially covering more ground. By the time we approached Fort Point, the wave that breaks under the Golden Gate Bridge, we were closing the gap!
At this point we caught our first glimpse of the surf and swell. Breaking from around the corner of Fort Point the waves were over head on the sets and wrapping around the corner of the pier. This was just alongside our course to the next buoy. Many athletes took the safe route and played it wide. But I knew after my training with Connor and David Wells that the current flushed parallel to the bridge and would push athletes away from the next mark. I hugged it right despite having to go straight up and over a steep set. I broke away from my train at this point and started pulling ahead on my own, especially after I turned that mark and caught a nice wave under the bridge and back through Fort Point to our last turn exiting the bay.
From here it was back to a grind, but the water was much rougher from here on to Ocean Beach. I was fortunate enough to read the water appropriately and take the local knowledge from David Wells and continued to hug the next bay before rounding our last point and turning into our surf race section to finish it off at Ocean Beach. I gained over 200 yards on the pack and felt a lot more confident the closer I got to the surf. For most of these racers the surf was what was getting them nervous and on edge. For me, it was the long distance flat water grind!
Coming around that last point the fog got so thick for a bit that I couldn’t even see any of the competitors, any land formation or any boat. It was more than eerie. Just as confusion and slight anxiety started to hit me, one of the water safety guys came up on jet ski. Coincidentally, it was Matt Becker, one of our best friends and big wave chargers from California. I was so grateful to see him and get advice on which direction I should head. He said, “keep going that way, eventually you’ll see rocks and waves pop out of the fog, you’ll be close to an area you don’t want to be in at that point and then turn out to sea to your right!” Well, I guess that’s encouraging!
Making it to the last left turn outside OB was such a relief. I was so grateful to end up where I was after such a long and brutal flat water paddle which is not necessarily my expertise
But now it was time to turn on the warrior in me and conquer the surf, which was at the least, intimidating. With the thick fog, I had no visual of the beach or my next mark to turn. There were sounds of bombs breaking on the outer sand bar and the sound the left were my greatest hints I was on the right track.
I rode a nice sized wave in and on the reform it doubled up and slammed me. I hugged the board and held it upside down till I hit the beach! With help from the spectators on the beach who pointed me to the right mark to turn on, I ran up current and gave it a go with many other of my competitors around me looking discouraged and defeated. I navigated side to side, left to right and was able to make it to the outside and at this point jumped from top eight to top five.
My body was starting to cramp on the sprint out navigating through the shore break. I was glad to head in and catch a ride to the beach again, but nervous for that last run out as I had expended a lot of energy on the flat stretch before the surf.
When I hit the beach and took my last beach mark back out I remember thinking anything can happen, I can still win this. At this point no one had yet finished, and the fog was so thick I couldn’t tell where anyone was. I kept grinding until I came across Casper Steinfath, the polar bear from Denmark, and we both were just making it out past the surf and heading towards the last turn on the ocean back to the beach for the finish. He was just ahead of me a few board lengths and he made the turn before me catching a wave in just ahead of me.
That got me heated! I kept fighting towards him and towards where I thought the beach finish was. As I continued to ride my way, it was only then I realized we had drifted down the beach pretty far past the finish. I shouldn’t have followed him, and I should have veered in the opposite direction. It was too late. He had already hit the beach and was running to the finish and I was down current and still riding in. That last run of the beach was rewarding and painful!
When I crossed the finish line I was welcomed by my friends and supporters including Michael Stewart and his family from Sustainable Surf, it felt great to come across that line, especially knowing that so many athletes were still struggling on their first lap.
This is a unique race that definitely fits into the category of the most diverse and most dangerous stand up paddle race in the world, I am grateful to finish, just wish I made that top position in 1st!!
So much respect for the five women who battled their way through the enormous challenges we were all facing. Officials were forced to call the event due to deteriorating conditions prior to them completing the course. Each woman who started was absolutely a winner! Terrene Black was deemed victor because of how far she had gotten on the course.
Huge congratulations to the seven finishers who finished the race, everyone else congratulations on your efforts! If you started this race, especially if you gave it a go through the shore break, you deserve a big congratulations!!
Big thanks to Sustainable Surf and Sea Trees for making this an ocean positive event and neutralizing our carbon footprint from all the athletes travels in and the events running!
Men’s Top 5
1) Casper Steinfath (Denmark)
2) Arthur Arutkin (France)
3) Mo Freitas (Hawaii)
4) Christian Anderson (Denmark)
5) Zane Schweitzer (Hawaii)
Women’s Top 5
1) Terrene Black (Australia)
2) April Zilg (USA) / Annie Reickert (HI) / Fiona Wylde (US) / Shakira Westdorp (AUS)