hen my abdominals started to cramp, I knew I was finished. My legs felt like overcooked, mushy noodles, I’d long ago digested any calories that may have fueled me and I was out of water¬— had been for some time. The salty brine slapping at my board and paddle mocked me and knocked me, threatening to destroy any dignity I still had.
Luckily I was 100 yards from the beach. 100 yards left in a 13.5-mile paddle. And—though it wasn’t technically a race—I was finishing dead last. Several 50-year-old men, one of the best female paddlers in the world and luckily (for my pride), no children, had beaten me in the downwind run from under the Golden Gate Bridge past Alcatraz Island and across the San Francisco Bay to Berkeley. All I wanted to do was collapse in a pile of salt-worn muscles. Maybe add a tear or two to the great expanse of water. But that wouldn’t do. I had to hold up the tail end. Sand had never felt so good.
"And the wind, that ferocious Pacific northwest wind, whips all the fog away. At times it feels ceaseless."
The Bay Area is a place of mystery. No matter how many times you go, it seems like secrets hide behind everything. Fog creeps over rich green hillsides as if released from a dragon’s weary sigh while buildings, like the Transamerica Tower, and islands, like Alcatraz, poke their heads through the mist. Redwoods in Golden Gate Park suck that same fog through their needles. And the wind, that ferocious Pacific Northwest wind, whips all that fog away. At times it feels ceaseless.
We were there to take advantage of that endless wind. Talia Gangini Decoite, world record setter during her 2012 Molokai-2-Oahu run and her new husband Nakoa Decoite, a pro surfer known for prone paddling into Jaws, joined a handful of the Bay area’s finest (and only) downwind paddlers, such as Jimmy Spithill, the helmsman for the Oracle racing sail boat and Joel Comer, an investment banker that is at the roots of the local downwind scene with hardcore paddling buddy Igor Krtolica. To round out the crew, there was a posse from downwind board builders Sandwich Island Composites.
“They don’t want to bring the boat out here,” Krtolica, a squat, powerful man of Croatian descent, told us. “They say it’s too windy. They’re being pussies.”
Krtolica and Comer were our guides and our key to deciphering the logistics that is downwinding in the Bay Area. We were trying for a bump run from Bolinas, near where we were staying, in through the mouth of the San Francisco Bay under the most iconic bridge in the United States. But things weren’t working out.
While we discussed logistics for the day, the group basked in the sun on the southern, leeward side of the vacation rental in Stinson Beach, on the Marin Headlands, 45 minutes from San Francisco, but worlds away in terms of pace and rural beauty. Mount Tamalpais rose up behind us, dotted with groves of redwoods and hidden waterfalls. Marshes stretched northward along the wind-scoured coastline, housing mud flats, egrets and counter-culture abodes tucked into cedar groves.
The vacation rental fit the place’s otherworldly feel. Designed by renowned Marin, Calif.-architect James Marsh Davis, it was an open wooden skeleton of a house, rising up to an A-frame that peered out over the dark sand at its base, and the cold Pacific just beyond it. All the beds lay in the open so you could talk to anyone in the crew from the comfort of your plush mattress—minus the newlyweds, who were appropriately tucked into the private master bedroom. “Change of plans,” Krtolica said as he hung up his cell phone. “Even though the wind is perfect out here, we can’t get a support boat. We’re going to have to beat into the wind under the Golden Gate.”