Windy Waters

San Francisco Is A Bump Run ShangriLa
When 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.”

Into the wind?

The posse took off like plastic bags in the wind, perfect bumps propelling them away from me in exponential heaves.

"S o you’re in shape for this?” a friend asked me when I told him about the trip.

I’d answered that, yes, I’d been prone surfing, SUP surfing, rock climbing and running. Surely this was enough for a long downwind paddle. Even if I hadn’t done a downwind paddle in winds over 15 knots. Or paddled over five or six miles at a time.

The day was perfect for it, though. The sun shone and the wind built. We went to grab lunch at Whole Foods—coconut waters, kale-carrot-apple smoothies, pesto-brie sandwiches and salads—and made our way to the rendezvous point. I had a hard time eating. The reality of the paddle and the experience of the others in the group grew more daunting as we chatted.

Spithill was, at 30, the youngest skipper to ever win the America’s Cup, the oldest active trophy in sports. Comer at 50, look 40, and had a recent Hawaiian tan, sun-streaked hair and a body that would make a teenage girl blush. Talia and Nakoa are a hardcore Hawaiian couple who don’t balk at traveling between their home state’s islands under their own power. And me? I’m a desk jockey.

As soon as we hit the water in Horseshoe Bay, less than a half-mile from the Golden Gate, I felt better. The group wanted to hook into the sizeable bumps under the bridge, which meant we had to get upwind first. The Golden Gate yawns out across the Bay, a big red expanse 746 feet above the water. Paddle strokes eased my mind and loosened my muscles. Plus, we were about to paddle under the most iconic bridge in the world, not once but twice.

We were all quickly stymied. As soon as we turned the southern corner of the point underneath the bridge, the westerly wind hit us. Everyone dropped their heads and started taking hard power strokes into the gusts and the nearly head-high windswell. After a mile or so of grunting and spitting a gust hit us and dumped a few of us in the drink. Krtolica called it: Time to turn and burn.

If you knew how to actually catch bumps. Talia, Nakoa, Krtolica, Comer and Spithill and the rest of the posse took off like plastic bags in the wind, perfect bumps propelling them away from me in exponential heaves, while I held up the rear, falling, cursing, ranting, hurting, praying and then—catching a few shoulder-high bumps as I passed through the shadow of the bridge, looking up as cars cruised by overhead, oblivious to my small victory. Only 10 miles to go. By the time I passed the infamous Alcatraz, the former prison looked damned inviting.

By the time I passed the infamous Alcatraz, the former prison looked damned inviting.

Marine County is not a low rent district. As of 2010, the county had the third highest per capita personal income in the country. It’s where hippies go to retire once their granola bar gets famous, where George Lucas tends Skywalker Ranch, where mountain biking was invented and where the Grateful Dead are an integral part of local culture.

Bar Bocce, a waterfront eatery and bar in Sausalito, was a fitting end to our Bay-crossing downwinder. We tried to squeeze in with the patronage, most of which looked as if they’d just finished modeling for a Banana Republic photo shoot. We had salt in our hair, sand in our toes, lactic acid in our muscles and serious hunger pangs. Talia’s look said it all: “I’m hungry and if I don’t get food soon, I’m going to lose it.” Nakoa apparently knows this look well and, with a sense of urgency, waved down the hustling waitresses.

We finally got the group in on the covered patio around the faux-fire pit overlooking the water and ordered an obscene amount of pizza, beer, salmon and salad. Talia relaxed.

We toasted to the day’s run: Krtolica and Comer informed us that was easily the biggest downwind Bay crossing on SUPs. Ever. They were the first to take up downwinding in the area and know most everyone that does Bay runs. They were happy for the company.

Some of the older female Banana Republic models took note of our joviality and our mostly male crew around the fire and snuggled in for closer inspection.

“Ohmigod, I’m totally from Maui too,” a blonde, Barbie-esque-looking Cougar told Nakoa and Talia. The two Hawaiians questioned her thoroughly before Nakoa leaned over to me and whispered, “I know everyone from there. There’s no way she’s from Maui.”

But, being the exceedingly nice couple that they are, they politely feigned interest in Barbie’s stories of learning how to surf and traveling the world.

Things continued to get weird. Barbie showed off some half-naked photos of herself on her phone before seriously considering inviting 12 guys and one girl back to her place for a pool party—where her two kids were sleeping.

We passed. There was paddling to be done the next day. When we were leaving, we saw Barbie and her friend climb into their Range Rover parked in the handicap spot right in front of the restaurant—wine glasses in hand—and turn off the light. Restaurant employees gazed out at them from the restaurant entrance disapprovingly. “Oh this again,” their faces said. The powder wasn’t just going on their noses. Marin indeed.

Of course we’d skipped the cocaine, but everyone was moving slowly the next day. Coffee took a half an hour to make, impromptu yoga manifested in the living room and breakfast became brunch. But we were still going downwind again. At some point. The wind howled out front. Kite surfers were filtering past the house to take advantage before the wind started cranking too hard. The downwind menu that day consisted of a kid’s course run, from Bolinas back to the house in Stinson, about three miles, and the full meal, Bolinas to Muir Beach to the tune of about nine. The kid’s course was for me. Krtolica and Comer were afraid that I—in my newbiness, so apparent the day before—might get blown past the entry of the cove for Muir Beach and have to continue all the way into the Bay. Which would, in all fairness, destroy me. The relief I felt was immense. A third of the distance in some nice 25-30 knot winds? Yes, please. Myself and two of the senior members of the crew went out to test the waters before the long-form posse paddled out and picked their line down the coast. We found perfect bumps. The wind aligned just right and pushed us toward our beachfront abode. When things are going smoothly, the rhythm of downwinding is a fantastic melody. You paddle, paddle, paddle, and then rest as you ride a bump. Then you do it again, trying to link up the swells. And again and again. If not—like myself the day before—you slog it out without getting any of the free ride.
They were black ants in a field of whitecaps dancing south down the coast.

B ut today was a fresh experience. I felt the cadence of the ocean. I pushed hard catching bump run after bump run, stepping back on the tail, adjusting my line, smiling and hooting for my partners.

Three miles was enough. It was over fast and we were sharing fist bumps and Tecates while still dripping salt. Our muscles were thankful. Over our Mexican nectar we could see the hardcore downwinders out in the smoke-on-the-water conditions; they were black ants in a field of whitecaps dancing south down the coast. They fit into the conditions like pelicans over a wave. We discussed going up for another round but the idea was quickly squelched. The only gliding to be done now was into the jacuzzi. Our muscles couldn’t argue with that.

This feature originally ran in our Fall 2013 magazine
Digital Feature Designed by Annie Maize, Will Taylor, Shari Coble

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