Surfing the Potato Patch - Wavechaser finals (USA)

Wednesday, 05 March 2008 16:36 | Written by  Kenneth Howell
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[Editor: Never let it be said that US paddlers are fair-weather racers - only 6 skis finished the final race of the Wavechaser winter series, held in San Francisco Bay on the course of the US Surfski Champs.  Kenny Howell sent us the story...]

Mike McNulty - Wavechaser champs
Mike McNulty surfs towards the finish (Pic: Jasmine Shahbandi)

San Francisco Bay, California

On March 1, 2008, 51 surfski and outrigger paddlers dug in for a smooth ride on a fast ebb tide flowing out the Golden Gate. The Wavechaser Championship long course, the sixth and final event of the winter series, started out in conditions typical for these waters.

Then a wall of wind and whitewater descended upon the field as we rounded the protection of Point Bonita, the western end of the entrance to San Francisco Bay. The full fury of a northerly spring blow in the Potato Patch shoal smacked us in the face. Then the real race was on for who could reach the turn buoy first in the 30 knot headwind and breaking seas, and tame the monstrous standing waves on the downwind run to finish.

The six finishers: wavechaser finals
The six skis that finished. (Pic: Jasmine Shahbandi)

Would it be the human fireplug from southern California, Thomas Gallagher - known for blowing away the competition in his local waters? Or could it be last year's Champion, Don Kiesling from Seattle - a rigorous tactician with plenty of muscle to keep Gallagher in sight, but nursing a sore back? For local racing icon and Wavechaser co-founder Dave Jensen, the conditions were not as daunting as the bad taste in his mouth that came with every pull on his hydration tube.

Dave and his girlfriend had stayed up late the night before prepping a post-race meal of chili con carne. The stinging odor from 3 gallons of chopped onions had permeated everything in his car, including his drinking water! Would the onion-breath help, or hinder his performance?

Waves in San Francisco: wavechaser finals
A hint of things to come. (Pic: Jasmine Shahbandi)

The Wavechaser Winter Series kicked off in November with an event held in balmy offshore conditions in Half Moon Bay, near the site of the big wave surf spot Mavericks. After the March 1 race, a season total of 633 paddlers had competed in the series, with races held in diverse locations: from the bumpy ocean waters off Santa Cruz, to technical courses on San Francisco Bay. Participant numbers this year remained steady compared with last year's winter series.

Wavechaser has discovered a winning formula for event formats, offering 3 levels of course difficulties at each winter event - Novice, Short, and Long. Paramount to the philosophy of Wavechaser organizers is promoting growth of the sport; they aim to attract and encourage new racers, while maintaining high standards for experienced racers on the challenging long courses. Combining the forces of surging surfski popularity in the region with the well- developed outrigger canoe clubs, these races are now considered the "industry standard" when it comes to putting on great races on the West Coast.

Loyal volunteers, strong sponsorship, cash and raffle prizes, and a great community vibe - these things keep people coming back for more.  It's no wonder that Wavechaser hosts the US Surfski Championships every September.

On a personal note, I've been training diligently all winter, and enjoyed 15 minutes of fame at the beginning of the Championship race by leading the pack out the Golden Gate. Sometimes I play the rabbit for a while, for better or worse. Mike McNulty, a perennial strong finisher and one of the few locals capable of handling the ocean conditions on this day as it turned out, told me afterwards, "I was a little worried about you pulling for so long up there, but definitely appreciative!"

Thomas Gallagher breaks away: Wavechaser finals
Thomas Gallagher breaks away. (Pic:Jasmine Shahbandi)

Before Point Bonita, the pack of 5 realized I was holding them back, and Gallagher bolted. His duds seemed like something he had scrounged together last minute; sweat shirt, wool hat, and May West PFD - improvisations for the chilly NorCal conditions. "Jensen and I tried to follow him briefly, but had to let him go," explained Kiesling.

"After clearing Point Bonita the wind and waves really started to build, and they were coming from our right. I decided to angle into it after getting swamped by a big whitecap, while Jensen stayed slightly wide. Gallagher rounded the Bonita buoy, and Jensen and I rendezvoused there a minute later."

Don Kiesling working upwind: Wavechaser finals
Don Kiesling working upwind. (Pic: Jasmine Shahbandi)

From the Point Bonita buoy, the course heads up the coast, traversing the edge of the infamous Potato Patch shoal, a huge shallow area where big swells often break. The sea has claimed many a large ship here.

The water was white with foam and as I paddled over the bigger sets, my ski would get jerked to the side by the stiffening gale. This was a gnarly situation, and it became difficult to paddle with any sort of good form or speed. "We were getting launched off the top of steep 6-8' waves," Kiesling noted.

"Jensen dropped behind me as I ground forward at speeds approaching 4 mph and tried to keep my eye on Gallagher. I could barely see the half way buoy, but fortunately one of the chase boats was near it getting pitched to and fro."

Dave Jensen hot on the trail. Wavechaser finals
Dave Jensen hot on the trail. (Pic: Jasmine Shahbandi)

The current was running with us, which made the water rougher - the swells behave like river waves. Several skis turned back before reaching the final turn buoy - a tough call maybe, but good judgment used by some competitors, given that we don't often hold races in conditions like this. Three chase boats patrolled the course to provide assistance, and several Coast Guard boats lurked in the area, seemingly hungry for victims.

Kiesling continued his riveting account: "It was hard to round the last buoy, but I was anxious to do so in order to start surfing home.

Oh boy, the surfing was good!! The waves were easy to catch with the help of the strong tailwind, and there were some bombs. The ride back to the Bonita buoy was a screamer, frequently over 13 mph despite the opposing current. Gallagher rounded it about a minute up - I was holding my ground - and I couldn't see anyone else. I angled directly toward Point Bonita to get out of the ebb current as quickly as possible. This stretch was tough because there were excellent rides heading south, but I didn't want to go that way. I turned and took a few drops just to keep it interesting. In this stretch I lost sight of everyone - not good. On this course you must keep tabs on others to make sure you're choosing a good line."

Gallagher surfing home. Wavechaser finals
Gallagher surfing home, and towards one of the rescues in progress. (Pic: Jasmine Shahbandi)

Where was Gallagher? Having a wonderful time - running on a treadmill in the main current! From the Bonita buoy, he took a direct line out towards the Golden Gate - the kiss of death. He realized the mistake too late; he said later he was surfing some good waves, but looked down and saw 2 mph on his GPS. The price we pay for great surfing!

Gallagher headed south - and off course in a hurry. Wavechaser finals
Gallagher headed south - and off course in a hurry. (Pic: Jasmine Shahbandi)

Kiesling, still on a good line: "At Point Bonita a biggie reared up behind me, but settled back down instead of wiping me out. Whew. The next stretch to Point Diablo was tough because there's a counter current somewhere - but where? I took a direct line and hoped for the best. A few hundred yards out, it appeared that two Coast Guard vessels were affecting some sort of sea kayaker rescue (unrelated to the race). We learned later that they were also trying to get Wavechaser to abort the race!"

Kiesling and the Bonita buoy. Wavechaser finals
Kiesling and the Bonita buoy. (Pic: Jasmine Shahbandi)

He tried to focus on a good route: "About 100 meters before Point Diablo, I looked left, and there was Jensen stealthily snaking me on the inside, as he's done several times before. Classic. I cut over to tuck behind him, and we caught some wild surges around the shallow rocks there."

Kiesling and Jensen had unknowingly passed Gallagher on the inside track. They began to battle for what they thought would be second and third place. Meanwhile, (for those that wonder what I was doing during this phase of the competition) I decided that I couldn't safely surf at such a severe angle across the standing waves back to Point Bonita, but knowing it would cost dearly in time, took a more "forgiving" line (for this humbled paddler) directly downwind; gradually I angled back towards shore and out of the current. The only other two skis still in the race, Mike McNulty and Chris Stout, worked the waves well, but followed the smart course. McNulty came off his ski once, and remounted quickly. He explained what happened from there. "I waited too long after my swim to really go after Chris - I still had a lot for the final sprint but wasn't close enough. Of course swimming is a bit of a tactical error too!" Stout, the best surfski paddler from Monterey California, chimed in: "The problem is, this course is so different each time you race it, it is a gamble each time you choose your line. What a great surfing race to end the series though!"

Banfield Family (and friend): Wavechaser finals
Justin Banfield would finish 6th overall on OC1, and his mother Linda placed 7th overall on a coed OC2 with paddle partner BillyBates. (Pic: Jasmine Shahbandi)

Wavechaser races always get a huge turnout for outrigger canoes (OC1 and OC2) competing alongside surfskis. Some of the outrigger paddlers also race skis. Justin Banfield, probably the best OC1 paddler in northern California, entered the short course earlier in the day and WON handily - barely breathing it seemed as he crossed the finish line. His father Charlie was second! In the long course, Justin and a posse of canoes bashed their way upwind and made great time surfing home. Like a royal family of rigger paddlers, Justin's mother completed the course with her OC2 partner Billy Bates, finishing in just 17 seconds behind Justin, and Papa Charlie came in 16th overall.

From Point Diablo to the Golden Gate, Kiesling and Jensen traded leads a few times, testing the other. Kiesling: "I felt pretty good, but was tentative of making a move because of my sore back. Just before the harbor entrance at Fort Baker Jensen surged into the lead and I slipped behind. I thought we'd be duking it out for 2nd, and figured I'd make a last minute decision on trying to sprint for the finish. We rounded a big orange marker with about 30 meters to go and the crowd was cheering for us.  What the heck, I came all the way down here...

So I jacked it up and managed to sprint even or slightly ahead. We congratulated each other, not certain who would be awarded the silver.

But Gallagher was nowhere to be seen. Did he already cool down, load his boat, take a shower and leave?"

Stout and McNulty soon came into the bay, sprinting for the finish just as Jensen and Kiesling had. A minute or two later, Gallagher came paddling in...Kiesling had won it in a photo finish with Jensen - by 0.37 seconds! In the end, maybe Dave's onion breath didn't hurt him, but if he had turned his head and just breathed on Don, it might have changed the outcome, who knows?

Jensen and Kiesling: Wavechaser finals
Jensen and Kiesling: 1st, 2nd - or 2nd and 3rd? (Pic: Patrick Campbell)

ensen and Kiesling: Wavechaser finals
Jensen and Kiesling: 1st, 2nd - or 2nd and 3rd? (Pic: Patrick Campbell)

Kiesling: "Awesome race, and huge kudos to the Wavechaser crew for putting on one of the best races around!"

Bonus photos courtesy of Jasmine Shahbandi




LONG COURSE: (Total paddlers: 48)

  • 1. Don Kiesling 1:32:17:43; 1st Surfski Open Men
  • 2. Dave Jensen 1:32:17:80; 1st Surfski Master Men
  • 3. Chris Stout 1:34:48; 2nd Surfski Master Men
  • 4. Mike McNulty 1:34:55; 3rd Surfski Master Men
  • 5. Tom Gallagher 1:35:35 (surfski Master Men)
  • 6. Justin Banfield 1:43:45; 1st OC1 Open Men
  • 7. Linda Banfield 1:44:02; 1st OC2 Coed
  • 7. Billy Bates 1:44:02; 1st OC2 Coed
  • 8. Ben Mellott JM 1:46:23; 1st OC1 Jr Master Men
  • 9. Dave Henderson 1:47:18; 2nd OC1 Jr Master Men
  • 10. Bryan Mack 1:49:49; 3rd OC1 Jr Master Men

SHORT COURSE (Total paddlers: 52)

  • 1. Justin Banfield 0:41:03 1st Surfski Men
  • 2. Charlie Banfield 0:41:06 1st OC2 Men
  • 2. Bryan Mack 0:41:06 1st OC2 Men
  • 3. John Dixon 0:42:00 2nd Surfski Men
  • 4. John Kinn 0:42:11:20 1st Dbl Surfski
  • 4. Roger Dunn 0:42:11:20 1st Dbl Surfski
  • 5. Dan Coupland 0:42:11:87 3rd Surfski Men
  • 6. Connie Altman 0:42:58 1st OC2 Coed
  • 6. Ken Altman 0:42:58 1st OC2 Coed
  • 7. Josh Luria 0:43:40 (surfski masters )
  • 8. Linda Martinez 0:43:42 2nd OC2 Coed
  • 8. Rich Ignacio 0:43:42 2nd OC2 Coed
  • 9. Scott Kelly 0:43:52 (surfski masters )
  • 10. Junior Wright 0:44:04 3rd OC2 Coed
  • 10. Margaret Caudle 0:44:04 3rd OC2 Coed

NOVICE COURSE (Total paddlers: 3)

  • 1. Nick Sanders 0:26:32 1st OC1 Men
  • 2. Kyle Ly 0:26:43 2nd OC1 Men
  • 3. Lesley Brown 0:31:26 1st Surfski


  • April 19, Relay Race, Berkeley To Redwood City (38 miles)
  • June 1, Summer Downwind #1, Coyote Point to Redwood City
  • July 27, Summer Downwind #2, San Francisco to Berkeley
  • August 17, Summer Downwind #3, Oyster Point to Redwood City
  • September 20-21 US Surfski Championships

For more info on the Wavechaser Series, go to

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