I started kitesurfing in 2007 and took up riding hydrofoils in 2013. In recent years I’ve been kiting a bit less often as I’ve dedicated more time to writing, coaching, paragliding, running, and other pursuits, but I maintain my skills at a very high level and and enjoy making the most of some of the best days that the San Francisco Bay has to offer when I’m here in my home town. Two days in the water this past week came together in a deep learning experience for me, and one that provides a window into my athletic self.
Day 1: June 15, 2020
I woke up fresh and the day began well and with some writing, a morning bodyweight workout and a coaching session. I was energized and felt great driving to Crissy about 2pm, where I found the parking lot open again and solid wind filled in across the bay. I was early but not alone as I rigged my 3.7m Cloud kite with the usual group of afternoon kite, sailboard and now also wing sailors.
Once in the water I headed upwind to the Golden Gate bridge and straight outside. I’ve been sailing and kiting here for years now and one of my favorite places to be in the world is just outside the Gate there as it starts to open and give way to the Pacific. This is also often where the most interesting terrain is found—the aqueous terrain of the salty Bay and ocean water itself as it moves with the wind, the tides and the swell rolling in from the open sea. Especially as I’ve been riding hydrofoils more and more, I find myself outside the gate just about every day that I kite, and in recent years, enabled by the incredible speed and wind angles that we can achieve riding foils, I’ve been ranging farther outside more often.
In Brazil and the Philippines I’ve several done long-distance kite missions of 400-600km over a few days, including single days of up to 150km. For comparison, the distances involved in riding around the bay and out the gate are much less—on an average day for me in the bay I might cover 50km of overall distance.
Kiting from Crissy Field in San Francisco Bay, we are always alone and also not entirely alone. Inside the bay, there are always other sailors and all sorts of other watercraft around, and we all keep an eye on each other. At the same time, those of us that kite, windsurf or ride wings are all alone out there on own little ships. I’m happy to encounter and ride with others when it happens, but the way I’m wired, I often set off on my own course and find myself an a solo mission of some sort.
I tacked upwind outside the gate and was quickly and easily abreast of Mile Rocks, which lies just off of Lands End at the north-western corner of the city of San Francisco. On shore, Lands End is already rugged place—the weight of the wild ocean presses in from the west, and you can feel a threat in the air, as I once did camping on the southern shore of Lake Superior, a cold October wind pushing the huge mass of dark towards our little cabin. From the middle of the shipping channel in the mouth of the Golden Gate, Lands End looks like just that: the end of the earth. There are beaches here and there on the way out the gate: big wide Baker, and then much smaller China Beach, and some scraps of sand along the base of the cliffs, but by the time you get out to Point Lobos it’s mostly rocks and breaking waves.
Every time I have the the opportunity to be in such a place, and this specific place, I appreciate how very rare the moment is. Most bay sailors—by which I mean mostly boat sailors—haven’t ever been outside the Gate, and only a very few ever venture even a mile outside. Of the thousands of recreational sailors in the bay, certainly far fewer than one percent have ever seen Lands End from the water, and that’s in a boat! I know from experience; I grew up here and remember the thrill of crossing beneath the bridge for the first time in my father’s boat. To be able to be in this place by myself, on such a small, agile craft, is a feeling of freedom so full and powerful that I will remember doing this even once for the rest of my life, and I have done it quite a few times. These feelings and experiences aren’t just memories—they wire our brains in unique and powerful ways. Doing things that you want to do, especially powerful things, is a way to be a friend and provide fuel to your future self. I’m doing these things while I can, to help make the old man inside me a happy guy.
As I came around Point Lobos, now looking south down the coast along Ocean Beach towards Pacifica, one part of my brain spoke up, saying “this would probably be a good place to turn around,” and I took that bit of fear as a message to consider even more fully all the details of the moment. “Consider”, from the old Latin “to observe the stars,” and that’s exactly what I did, as any other navigator would. Over the course of the next several slow-motion seconds, in the moment captured in the photo above, I felt into my situation and my surroundings. The sky was clear and I had a good view down the coast. The swell was not particularly large. The wind was strong and consistent, and the tide was turning towards the flood (inbound towards the bay, as opposed to an ebb, rushing out from the bay into the ocean). I could see other kites out at Ocean Beach, just starting to be visible around the corner beyond Seal Rocks. I felt strong and everything was working well, my wetsuit a reassuring second skin. I asked the part of me that wanted to turn back, “why, exactly?” and it offered no specific reason, just a general desire for safety.
This was a critical moment. My uppermost, most conscious self examined my fear with in-the-moment awareness and found that it carried a general, but not a specific message. This is part of why we often have conflicting impulses; a general desire for safety, contemporaneous with a more specific desire for rich experience.
My body continued around the corner. Once around Seal Rocks and the Cliff House I was past the serious danger zone, running south along Ocean Beach outside the surf. My tiny little kite provided plenty of power as I foil-surfed the offshore swells, passing the west-running Sunset streets one by one: Balboa, Fulton, Lincoln, Noriega, Pacheco, Sloat. I often go to fly my paraglider at Mussel Rock in Pacifica, and I’ve had a goal of connecting the two places by kiting there from Crissy. I was on my way.
At the southern end of Ocean Beach the sea cliffs begin to rise higher, creating the orographic lift that we fly in there. The same effect also pushes the wind outwards, and I expected the wind close to the beach to get lighter. I got as far as the hang glider launch at Fort Funston, a place that I’ve been able to fly north to from Mussel Rock several times. Connection made—and I was indeed feeling the wind begin to get lighter. This was the place to turn around.
I sailed easily back up along Ocean Beach, and then with full concentration again around Seal Rocks and Point Lobos, and then inside the Mile Rocks light, and, with joy and relief, back into the bay.
GPS track: https://www.strava.com/activities/3621347402 and a 3D visualization: https://ayvri.com/scene/ogklw7on5n/ckbnzx1sn00013c5rocakagvp
Day 2: June 17, 2020
Just two days later, I woke up way too early, bleary and shifting in my bed. I’ve been sleeping especially well these past couple of years with no alcohol in my system, but now and then I get into a cycle of a few days of 5am getups. I enjoy the altered state of odd hours when they come around—and I know from experience that this particular state of being is a bit dull. For that reason, I knew first thing in the morning that this would not be a flying day, but I allowed the possibility that I might still go kiting in the afternoon.
I had a coaching session and then drove to Sonoma to help my dad with some things, and then afterwards back from there to Crissy Field, feeling sleepy and looking forward to a parking-lot nap as I made my way down 101 south. When I got there it was around 3pm, and I didn’t quite feel a power nap coming on, plus a friend of mine pointed out that there was a container ship on the horizon, which gave me a push to get on the water. I knew without having to check the chart that the flood tide would be a couple of hours later than on Monday. I rigged my 4.8m Cloud and my usual kit, which these days includes a marine VHF radio, my iPhone in a waterproof case, and my Garmin InReachh Mini.
I headed upwind to the Gate as usual and was just in time to catch the inbound heavy for a bit of a wake surf before turning into the wind again. Riding a hydrofoil it’s incredibly easy to make tracks upwind and in minutes I was approaching Point Bonita, well outside the Gate. As I continued upwind on port tack towards the point, I noticed the wind getting lighter and lighter. There were still small whitecaps, but I was already at the lower limit of the 4.8m kite’s power, in a breeze of perhaps 12-13 knots. This should have been enough to turn me around right there.
The thought occurred—contrary to my prior experience and evidence at hand—that the wind might pick up again farther out to sea. I knew this would almost certainly not be case, but still, the thought occurred. As during my previous run outside, I noticed these opposing thoughts together, simultaneously, but a part of me that had played a key role on Monday was missing. The watcher was asleep.
I headed a bit farther out, thinking, hero that I am, that I might make a run up to Muir Beach. As I caught sight of the bell buoy west of Bonita, it became definitively clear to me that the wind was not increasing. Just the opposite: it was a becoming a calm late afternoon at sea. The lowering sun reflected off the glassy sections in between the small swells, and I could hear birds winging and feeding around me. I smelled the warm salt water as it washed over my bare feet, still planted on my little green foil board. I felt an uneasy feeling in my gut. Looking north to Bolinas and south toward Pedro Point, I finally turned back back towards the Gate.
Too late. As I turned around, my speed dropped, I came off the foil and my tiny board dipped into the surface of the water. This is the moment when things start to go wrong in light air. If you can stay on the foil by flying the kite, maintaining line tension, pumping the foil, whatever has to be done, you can keep moving in far less wind than is required to water-start again. The converse disadvantage is that if you come off the foil, it takes far more wind to get back out of the water and going again than it does to keep moving while up on the foil. Also, because of the efficiency of the foil, you can sail at a high angle upwind and in doing so, generate a large component of apparent wind. When you turn around, the (simplified) apparent wind equation goes from
real wind speed + boat speed to
real wind speed - boat speed. All of this means that on a foil it’s quite possible to sail yourself into a hole that you can’t sail yourself out of.
In another moment, I was in the water. I spent the next twenty minutes keeping the kite in the air while trying to move myself out of the shipping lane and southwards towards what additional wind I could see on the water in that direction. Writing this and looking back at my GPS track, for some time I was just countering the last of the ebb, not really making progress inbound. Still, I knew the tide was turning in my favor, and my plan was to aim for one of the small beaches at Lands End, or even just wrap myself onto Mile Rocks, a little island half-covered in the concrete of a disused helipad—not much of a place, but better than drifting out to sea.
Body dragging in light wind requires constant active kite flying. If you’re holding onto your board with one arm, then you’re flying the kite with the other remaining arm. I did have a line and carabiner in my waist pack, and I considered breaking that out so as to be able to tow my board and fly the kite with both hands, but I quickly skipped past that idea, not having practiced this maneuver with this particular board before. I continued body dragging, flying the kite with one arm, trying to water start whenever a puff came through, but the wind continued to decrease and before long, I allowed the kite to touch the water, and then it too was down.
My first rule of kitesurfing safety is: keep the kite flying. Keep the kite in the air! This is what I tell clients when I’m guiding in Brazil, and everywhere else. Your kite is your best friend. Once it’s in the water, the chances of additional complications rapidly multiply, the main reason being that in attempting to relaunch in light wind, it’s very easy to roll the kite on its back, inside out, or worse, and end up with twisted lines or a completely disabled kite. This is exactly what I allowed to happen: I rolled the kite. Now and then a stronger puff would come through, but with my kite in the water and the lines crossed, I didn’t manage to catch any of the very short gusts. Still, it could have been possible to get going again in one of those puffs if I had managed to keep my kite flying the entire time, or with just a little bit more wind. Instead, I was in the water, my kite was in the water. I was making progress, but only very slowly.
At this point, it was about 5:45pm. The flood tide was beginning to be more in my favor, and I was certain enough that I would make Land’s End if I ditched the kite and paddled. The tide was turning in my favor in another way. The watcher was beginning to wake up, having had his rest, and I started to make better decisions again. I knew it was time to call for help, before anything else went wrong.
I carry three communications devices, a Standard Horizon HX100 waterproof marine VHF radio, my iPhone in a waterproof bag, and a Garmin Inreach Mini. I carry all of these in a waist pack designed for use in the water. All of the devices are leashed to the inside of the pack. I had charged the radio on my way to the beach. Now I pulled out the radio and turned it on. The radio is pre-tuned to emergency channel 16. I keyed up and said “mayday mayday mayday, this is a kitesurfer calling Coast Guard Station Golden Gate. I am down in the water, outside the Golden Gate Bridge near Mile Rocks”. I repeated this transmission a couple of times. I didn’t hear any reply, which was disconcerting as the CG usually replies quickly to a distress call (or so I thought at the time).
Not hearing a reply, I went for my iPhone. I’ve been carrying it (inside and leashed to the inside of the waist pack) in a (cheap) transparent waterproof bag. The iPhone is itself already waterproof; I have it in the bag to protect it from abrasion, the salt water, and also to provide a leash point. I have used the phone in this bag before… but in this case I found that a little bit of moisture inside the bag was interfering with my ability to use the touch screen.
I had always had the Coast Guard in my favorites—at least I did at one time—but when I went to look there today, no dice. Unable to use the touchscreen well enough to search for the number, I was able to use Siri to call the USCG number, but again, the moisture inside the waterproof bag interfered with the capacitance enough to do all sorts of randomness and then hang up the call. I tried voice dialing again and managed to get 911 on the line and to tell them quickly that I was in the water near Mile Rocks and needed the Coast Guard. They tried to transfer the call, but I ended up with a fax machine. Still, I knew I had gotten through to 911. I considered taking my phone out of the case, but without any sort of leash on the phone itself, that would have been a desperate move. Watch the little video below and try to imagine fiddling with your iPhone to make a call in that situation.
At this point I had issued a Mayday via radio (which, as I learned from Kuki Gallmann’s great book I Dreamed of Africa, comes from the French “M’aidez!”, meaning “Help me!”) and gotten through to 911, and although both calls had been incomplete, at this point I was pretty confident that help would be on the way. I continued trying to relaunch my downed kite, now slowing making real progress inbound towards Mile Rocks. Before long I was pretty sure that I could hear the thrumming twin engines of the Coast Guard rollover launch—I know what they sound like from quite a distance—but of course I still kept up my efforts. I had to be prepared for no rescue, and I remained calm and confident that I could have reached shore if need be.
After another ten minutes or so I saw a boat approaching and was aboard shortly thereafter. This turned out to be a local amateur crab boat, just some guys out for the afternoon who had heard my Mayday (or perhaps heard the Coast Guard relay a broader call for assistance) and made for my approximate location. The CG were on scene a minute later, but I was already aboard FV Phoenix.
Twenty minutes later I was back on the beach at Crissy, where I sat for several hours enjoying the evening light.
My GPS track for the day: https://www.strava.com/activities/3631808438 and a 3D visualization: https://ayvri.com/scene/ogklw7on5n/ckbo01dyz00013c5rzd5tx032
The NOAA marine chart for the Golden Gate: https://charts.noaa.gov/OnLineViewer/18649.shtml
- Don’t go big unless you’re 100%. Lack of sleep can be the subtle cause of a cascade of errors. I knew that I wasn’t well enough rested to fly, so why would I be well enough rested to make a kite mission far outside the Gate? I wasn’t. I didn’t plan on doing that, but my excitement and my habit of going deep won the moment.
- Assume that one warning is all you will get, especially in a place like San Francisco Bay (and beyond). If you get a warning, pay attention and act on it. If the wind is getting light, do not head farther out. This is an example of two types of cognition happening at once. I knew this in the moment and, AND I the other illogical thought at the same time. I knew the light wind was a solid message to turn back, and I also thought that there could be more wind father out to sea. I think this shows quite clearly how this kind of mistake happens. Quite literally, I wasn’t thinking straight.
- Your equipment is only useful if you know how to use it, and you have practice using it. And, while there is no substitute for practicing emergency procedures, this is also a part of the reason to have backup methods, like the three different communication devices that I carry. Even though I have used all of these devices before, I must again test my emergency equipment (radio, phone, tow line, etc) in safe water to be sure I am current on how it all works.
- Don’t wait to act until there is no other option. In this case, by “act” I mean call for help, but also anything else that increases my options. You never know if the call will be answered. Call while you still have some other possibilities. Made at the right time, that call (or other action) increases your options. If you wait until you have zero options (in this case: already tired, getting cold, getting dark, farther out to sea, already ditched your kite or board, etc.), making the call then only gives you a chance of getting back to one option: rescue. If that fails, you’re done. Don’t call unless it’s necessary, but do call before it’s your last resort.
- Describe and repeat your position with every transmission, and continue to transmit even if you don’t hear a reply. You may not receive or hear a reply, so don’t expect a reply and don’t base subsequent actions on whether you receive one. I could and should have indicated my position more precisely, but I was waiting for a reply. Carry a backup method of communication and assume that at least one will fail. Test both methods in the water.
- Put the number for your local USCG station in your phone favorites. Make sure you can actually operate your phone in whatever carrying configuration you have it in, in the water. Test it.
- A “waterproof” iPhone bag is inadequate. Even though I have used it before, it’s not good enough, and I need a better waterproof, leashable case that allows the touchscreen to be used in the water.
- When you decide to call for help, it’s an emergency, and there’s no halfway to 911, no “sort of” an emergency. It is or it isn’t. Use the simplest, most reliable method to call for help. If you have an InReach, just use that. Calling the CG on the radio, calling 911, pushing SOS on the InReach are all effectively the same. Using the InReach would have been more reliable than trying to use a radio or my phone. I didn’t use the InReach first because I’m not that accustomed to carrying it while kiting, and so my mind went to radio first, then phone… and my InReach was sitting right there. The “Save Our Souls” button on the InReach transmits a message to their GEOS service, which then routes the SOS to local emergency responders, based on your location (which is transmitted constantly by the InReach device). Since I do have the InReach, it would have been better to simply hit the SOS on that device to begin with, since it doesn’t require operating a radio or an phone while in the water.
- I would be well served to apply more of my pilot’s mindset to my kiting. As a pilot, I take kitesurfing as a bit less seriously than flying, and for the most part it is less serious—but not if you go down far from shore in light wind. This is analogous to what we’d call “landing out” in paragliding. In fact, as I was out there struggling with the light wind, I was literally hoping for a “low save,” as we call it when flying—when you get low and manage to find lift and continue on. The thing is, if you’re flying and you don’t make the low save, you just land on the ground. If you’re kiting a mile or more from shore and you don’t make the low save, you’ll be stranded in the Pacific, and perhaps with a ship inbound right over the horizon. Learning to fly, I have learned the pilot’s mindset, which, for the vast majority of even casual pilots, is fairly conservative. The kitesurfer’s mindset (even within my same mind!) is different, and nowhere near as conservative.
- Do remain calm. Easier said than done, and very important. I took in the scene where I was: truly a beautiful and unique place, and I was confident that between my own abilities, my equipment, and three independent methods of calling for help if necessary, that I would be OK. In the meantime, I did feel fear and anxiety, mostly about the possibility of an ship coming in over the horizon. In fact, it was when I spotted an outbound ship making its way up towards the gate and starting out towards me that I decided it was time to call, so that (hopefully) they would get the message that I was in the water and possibly in their path. Even with the possibility of ship traffic, overall, I felt calm and confident. Sharks? Not really on my mind. A tiny tiny bit, but not really. Aside from that, the wind was very light, waves not significant, current in my favor (at least for the coming couple of hours), sunset still three hours off, energy level good. How was I able to “remain calm”? Training, practice, practice, practice. I have kited thousands of miles (literally), and at least at one point, swam the span of the Golden Gate and a bit more (2 miles) with no wetsuit. I feel comfortable in the water, at sea. I was familiar with my gear. I suppose there may be a way to force yourself to remain calm, but I didn’t have to try to do that. I was calm, as calm as I could be, because of how I got there—not in the moment, but over the long term.
- The root cause of my initial error was lack of sleep. I knew I was tired, and I knew that it would not be safe to go flying. As pilots we are trained to tell ourselves that if one major thing is off, if, for example, we are tired, we don’t fly. Simple rule, works well. I had this in my mind, but because I have trained myself differently in the context of kitesurfing, that wasn’t a reason not to kite. Once the water, and especially when faced with the evidence of the wind getting light out off Point Bonita, my uppermost cognition was so tired that it was effectively asleep. I knew better, but I wasn’t awake enough to make use of that knowledge. If I had pain attention to my lack of sleep, I would have simply chosen not to kite, or to stay within the bay.
- Second Sight is always right. Intuition never lies—but we have to learn how to hear its message. Only back on the beach after all of this went down did I remember that I had had an early morning liminal premonition that I would be kiting outside the gate today and using my 6.2m kite, slightly larger than usual, because the wind would be lighter than usual.
My intuition knew precisely what the conditions were going to be for the day, and the correct response (bigger kite). Just as with dreams: if you want to remember them more, set the intention, pay attention, and write down anything that you do remember immediately. I should’ve taken better notes—I should have written that big “6” down, because when I got to the beach, I did not remember then that I had already chosen my kite for the day while still in bed at 5 AM. You know why I didn’t “remember” then? Because I had already had that thought. As Robert Johnson writes in Inner Work, “Dreams never waste our time” — and in return your unconscious expects you to pay attention when it speaks up. It won’t necessarily repeat the same message twice. Just as much or perhaps more than otherwise, your head is not for thinking—it’s for keeping your body operating properly.
- My prior experience did not prevent me from making an error—and that same prior experience saved my life. My years of experience with kitesurfing, both in general and specifically in San Francisco Bay, with my equipment, with the area, and with other water sports (windsurfing, sailing, swimming, surfing, etc.) got me there, but all of that was thwarted by lack of sleep and adrenaline. I’m 50 years old, so lack of sleep is definitely the more powerful of the two! Still, at some point, perhaps once the adrenaline wore off, my experience and deep athletic embodiment were able to come to the fore again, I started thinking a bit straighter again, I drew upon all of those resources, and resolved the situation relatively quickly, without major drama and without injury.
A message for you Crissy kiters out there: First of all: don’t do this. Second: do what you feel: and try to take into account that you will make mistakes, that you will need more than one backup plan, that (of course) calling 911 is not part of your plan.
Why I love doing this
I showed the short video above to a several friends, and their responses were all essentially something like “That looks terrifying, and not fun at all.”
The thing is, we get good at what we do, and your normal is not my normal. I don’t mean that as a comparison, only to say that our own experience of normal seems just that, but may seem completely out of order to someone else. The view from the inside always seems normal. I love sailing, being on and in the water, and I’ve been doing that all life in various ways. I’ve been kitesurfing at an expert level for more than a decade. I’m comfortable in this environment—and I enjoy the challenge.
The challenge, to be clear, is not in general a life-or-death challenge. That is not the real nature of sport, not even of adventure. Adventure doesn’t happen by accident: adventure is mostly planned, and it is planned so as to push the boundaries—a bit, but not into extreme risk. Day 1 above was a challenging-but-doable adventure, and I was in flow the entire time. Day 2 was a series of errors. I was never in flow on Day 2; first I was too tired, and then I was in an emergency. Adventure leads to flow, and vice versa: flow leads us to and through adventure.
Both of these experiences are incredibly enlivening. The first for being a complete and successful adventure, a full flow experience with a return to safety. The second for being a misadventure that I survived unhurt and with several lessons. What’s enlivening is not the adrenaline in the moment but the entire breadth and depth of these embodied athletic experiences. Risk is relative to skill and experience. Most people, even very experienced sailors and kiters, would not choose to go where I went. You might think that I made a mistake in going there at all, but I did not. I made a mistake on day 2 in going there being who I was that day.
There’s a lot of shadow hanging over “sports.” There’s still a part of me that sees physical activity like this as a simplistic, macho way to be strong and show off. That story is not grounded in my own experience; it’s an idea that I acquired back in high school, and how I still imagine some people think of these things that many of us do (who? I’d be interested to hear). Even back when I was a teenager though, these ideas weren’t based in my own experience—they were my imagination. It was more the rebel, the punk in me—the same punk that said “fuck that” to a lot of other things.
My actual experience, starting with the skateboarding, sailing, backpacking and rock climbing that I was already doing at that age, and now much moreso as a passionate and expert kitesurfer, a highly engaged intermediate paraglider pilot, and a middle-aged 8-10 mile trail runner, is that my athleticism feels like embodied spirituality, and like one of the most direct ways of being a man and of being my self. To draw upon how Robert Bly writes about “display”, I would say that an athlete transmutes warrior power into a beautiful display of skillful movement. It’s not a display for anyone else necessarily: it’s for my self and my Gods, and this is as creative an act as any other form of art.
Being physical has always felt right to me. I still remember how much I loved flowing down the hills of San Francisco on my skateboard, throwing Ty slides both ways. These experiences are part of who I am, part of my body, part of how my mind is wired, part of how I think and feel, as they should be.
I’ve heard both Traver Boehm and John Wineland say “how you fuck your woman is how you fuck the world,” and I agree—and of course it works in both directions. My first day above was a complete journey of transcendental lovemaking with Nature, the original Woman. On day two, I was too tired to be present but showed up anyhow, and I got slapped and sent home. I should be known better than to ask for something that I wasn’t capable of receiving, but I was in habit, I wasn’t fully conscious, and the world told me what’s what.
Am I going to stop going deep out the Gate? Certainly not, not now, although at some point I will of course, as I continue to get older and wiser. Will my behavior change in some ways? Will I continue to evolve? I will. Most of all: I will continue to pay more and more attention to my intuition and to honor what it tells me, whenever I become aware of that.