Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"I was there...": Chris Koerner's First Hand Account of a Nasty Paddle

Last Saturday's 20 mile Bay-to-Bay race was held in ridiculously demanding conditions. The race's route takes you from Mission Bay and runs you along Sunset Cliffs, around Point Loma and into San Diego Bay. This year the south wind blew like a pirate on rancid rum and forced all but one of the stand up paddlers on the 20 mile route to quit. Here's the lone SUP finisher's account of one hell of a paddle:

All the way in the Bay2Bay
by Chris Koerner

I really like point-to-point races. It’s always nice to see a new part of the coast and going from point A to point B almost always beats a run back to point A again. Also, I’m not the fastest person on the water and I don’t like the prospect of getting lapped on a paddle around a set course.

I’d thought about paddling the Bay to Bay race for a long time. It’s been around for 25 years, and paddle boards have been doing it since at least the mid-90’s. Because of the modest entry fee and the fact that an escort boat is not required a lot of paddleboarders have used it as a tune-up for the Catalina Classic. It’s definitely not your typical paddleboard or even outrigger club-run event in that it is open to any kind of human-powered watercraft. In fact there’s more kayak divisions than anything else.

The week leading up to the race we had a southerly blow, but by Friday it warmed up and it was like a summer day. Some of the stand-up paddle distance boards I’ve tried actually surf pretty good, and I had envisioned a paddling a course well inside the kelp and riding a few clean righthanders from OB all the way to Pt. Loma.

Saturday morning rolled around and I was up at 4:30:am and on the road to to Santa Clara Point. Unfortunately, by the time I made it to the beach I’d already missed the 6:45 paddleboard start. I was able to get a race number and hit the water just as a group of kayakers took off at 7. Right from the start there was a pretty good headwind inside Mission Bay, and when I caught up with a couple SUPs who were alternating stand-up and knee paddling I knew it was going to be a long haul.

I could barely see the kayakers in front of me but found a good line to the inlet. At this point I figured I’d see how bad it was outside and decide then if I wanted to turn and do a downwind run back to my car. I’d read theories on how fast a stand-up paddler can go downwind at various wind speeds against other craft. I think the idea was that at above 25 knots of wind with your body mass acting as a sail your speed could be even faster than an OC1 or surfski. I saw the opposite side of that theory in full effect when the guy in the tupperware kayak with the fish-hook hat and pipe blew by me like I was standing still.

I’d never been to the inlet to Mission Bay before but who would’ve thought there would be good waves there? There was a very fat left hander breaking along the inside of the south jetty a la Newport Wedge. I watched a couple nice waves roll by visualizing myself making a drop and trimming out as a big sportfisher came up behind me and it’s chest-high wake knocked me in the water. After dodging a couple more fish-hunters I made it outside the jetty and follwed a pack of ‘yakkers out to red buoy.

I’d just rounded the buoy and was heading south when I spotted a couple thigh-high dorsal fins about 50 yds away. They weren’t the friendly stubby kind but the big scary pointy variety. The seals on the buoy didn’t look too stoked about them either. I made a straight shot to the OB pier then veered off to a group of guys paddlesurfing a break to the south.

The stand up surfers were getting some good rides and from the backs the set waves looked to be about head-high. I asked one of the guys about the paddle to Pt. Loma and he figured it was 5 or 6 miles. At this point the wind was still building but you could keep a good pace between gusts and just try to hold your own when it was blowing hard. I kept moving up to the next couple packs of surfers keeping my eye out for the sneaker sets.

By about mile seven I caught up with three kayakers and kept pace with them for awhile. A couple big waves rolled under us around DTs that brought back memories of a pretty heavy session I’d had there a few years ago involving a shifty peak, a long hold-down, a close-up of the cliffs, a fast approaching marine layer and an even faster very large container ship.

Pretty soon we could make out the light at Pt. Loma and we all picked up the pace. One of the race escort boats came by to tell us to head for the boat off the point before turning into the bay. Talk about delayed gratification: that meant another mile of upwind hell, but at least there was some kelp to to keep the chop down. Once around the boat, the run started to turn downwind and the fun began.

Just off the point the big yellow RIB escort boat motored in front of me and caught a little runner into the bay. I turned around to see a chest-high wave starting to feather behind me and took step back and rode it up the channel. After the wave backed off there was a bit of chop and current for a couple hundred yards, but when I hit the calmer waters of the San Diego Bay it was straight downwind and fun little runs from the waves and boat wakes for about three miles. At this point there was about five miles to go, and the closer I got to the finish the more in-your-face the wind was again and it was back to dodging boats and crossing wakes. Pretty soon Coronado Bridge was in plain view and that was enough motivation to keep moving.

When I got to the beach I found out the other SUPs had all dropped out and I was the only one to finish. I had stopped looking at my watch at about 11:30 and I’m sure my time was over 5 ½ hrs. I know next year all the fast guys will be there and with the right conditions they will probably cut my time in half. Just watch out for the the guy in the tupperware kayak with the fish-hook hat and pipe.

Chris left out a couple of items that I'll add now:

1. Chris paddled the race on a 15' ULI inflatable board that was assembled the night before- kind of a testament to the functionality of the inflatable board I'd say!

2. I'm sure the beers tasted pretty damn good on the beach that afternoon.

Thanks for an awesome first hand account Chris!


srfnff said...

Great story. Thanks for writing it and posting it Chris and John! It's about as close as I'll ever get to that race.

Gregoire said...

I was one of the stand up guys just south of the OB pier. The wind was horrible, but we stuck around and caught a few really good waves. I am glad you went for it and finished. After I talked to you 2 other guys came by on the same boards you had. I guess they never finished. They were not in a hurry, they were catching waves as they made ways south.
Again congrats on finishing the race!!!

Martin said...

Great Story! No that much excitement here in Switzerland but I can confirm the durability and usability of those ULI surfboards! Some pics of an ULI and some text on my blog if you're interested.