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Why Bay Area athletes are after container ships – Marin Independent Journal

Wingfoilers ride the waves of a cargo ship near Crissy Field in San Francisco Bay on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. The San Francisco Boardsailing Association has launched an education campaign about the dangers of getting too close to a cargo ship. (© Sharon Green/Ultimate Sailing)

Surfing the industrial-sized waves of a giant ship in San Francisco Bay is an exhilarating experience: smooth, silent, and incredibly fast.

It can also be extremely dangerous. And illegal.

“The boat can suck you in, pull you to the bottom and break you up like a Cuisinart,” says David Wells of the San Francisco Boardsailing Association, which has launched an education campaign to prevent tragedies that could happen to those who get too close to the boat.

Bay Area athletes have long loved extreme water sports, and for decades the cold, windy, wild waters of the Golden Gate have attracted kiteboarders and windsurfers looking to push their limits.

The new sport of “hydrofoil,” which uses boards that glide through the water at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour and float 2 feet above the waves, has turbocharged the excitement. Hydrofoils use the same principles as an airplane, using a wing to create lift.

If a hydrofoil catches the powerful waves of a commercial ship, it can experience a pleasant journey up to 3 miles long.

Most wingers who steer large vessels through one of the nation’s busiest sea channels take responsibility by staying out of the way of larger ships, according to the U.S. Coast Guard and the San Francisco Bar Pilots.

But not the others. They are nicknamed “splats” by irritated ship captains, like bugs on a windshield.

“It’s tempting to get up close to the waves of the ship. It’s human nature. But it creates a huge safety issue,” said Capt. Anne McIntyre of San Francisco Bar Pilots.

The foil became famous when Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison allowed foils on America’s Cup boats in 2013. The foil, a wing-shaped device, sits underneath the board and lifts it above the surface of the water, giving sailors the feeling of being suspended between the water and the sky.

The innovation was quickly embraced by surfers, kiteboarders and windsurfers, who were challenged by the new and different way of riding. Kite manufacturers took note, designing increasingly agile and high-tech equipment.

A wing foiler sails in the bay off Crissy Field East Beach in San Francisco, California, on Thursday, June 27, 2024. Some Bay Area boardsailers, excited by the adventure but potentially risking their lives, track cargo ships sailing in and out of the Golden Gate. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
A wing foiler sails in the bay off Crissy Field East Beach in San Francisco, California, on Thursday, June 27, 2024. Some Bay Area boardsailers, excited by the adventure but potentially risking their lives, track cargo ships sailing in and out of the Golden Gate. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

Foil interest has exploded during the COVID-19 lockdown, especially among tech-savvy players, as people look for ways to enjoy the great outdoors. Crissy Field, a beach at the foot of the Presidio in San Francisco, has emerged as a world-renowned foil course that draws pros and daring amateurs alike.

Just like the America’s Cup boats, the foil adds speed and grace to the board.

“It’s like a magic carpet ride. It’s an amazing sensory experience,” Wells said. “It’s very fluid — a ballet-like sport with incredible speed.”

Unlike kiteboarding or windsurfing, “you’re flying over the water, not hitting the water,” he said. “There’s less wear on the body because you’re not absorbing the waves.”

A hydrofoil needs less wind than a kiteboard or windsurfer. Some riders use kites, others just bounce the board up and down. It’s easier to launch and land. It doesn’t have as many tangled lines. It’s easier to turn.

Wing foilers and a windsurfer in the bay off Crissy Field East Beach in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, June 27, 2024. Some Bay Area boardsailers ride the waves of cargo ships sailing in and out of the Golden Gate, excited by the adventure but potentially risking their lives. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
Wing foilers and a windsurfer in the bay off Crissy Field East Beach in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, June 27, 2024. Some Bay Area boardsailers ride the waves of cargo ships sailing in and out of the Golden Gate, excited by the adventure but potentially risking their lives. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

These features increased the number of days people could sail; they also increased the number of people sailing.

On the best days, slicing turns under the Golden Gate Bridge feels like the nautical version of a fresh-snow day on a steep ski slope. Cold ocean air and water rush through the narrow portal, creating a “Venturi effect” that propels foilers to blistering speeds.

The worst days can be deadly. Last October, the crew of the PV Drake saved the life of a foilist who had fallen and been carried five miles out to sea. In the dark, they threw him two lifebuoys with water lamps, then helped him climb a ladder and over the ship’s rail to safety. Exhausted and suffering from severe shock and hypothermia, the man was taken to hospital by helicopter.

The biggest risk takers on the bay hunt boats. A boat’s wake creates a silky, smooth ride as it pushes against the bay’s waves. If the wake is long and strong enough, it can carry a rider all the way to Alcatraz.

“This is a growing problem,” warned Nathan Mendes, deputy chief of law enforcement for the U.S. Coast Guard’s San Francisco Sector, “and it’s something that can be met with enforcement actions, such as civil penalties costing thousands of dollars.”

But Dave DuPont, a veteran wave rider, said there were only a few experienced riders who could surf the tanker waves and that they were careful to keep their distance from moving vessels.

“We have a sophisticated understanding of the hazards and a sophisticated process for dealing with people who cannot conduct themselves properly on moving vessels,” he said.

“We educate ourselves, especially new people, so that they understand the inherent dangers of this sport,” DuPont said. “If there is a dangerous behavior with an individual and the way they move around the boats, we talk to that person.”

Last December, famed Hawaiian foil surfer Kai Lenny recorded video of himself riding alongside a massive cargo ship. The first person to foil surf Maui’s famous big-wave break, Jaws, Lenny looked like an ant on the side of an elephant.

“If I don’t get crushed or eaten by a shark, it’s going to be crazy!” Lenny said before jumping into the freezing bay water.

“I feel like we’re pirates, stealing people’s souls,” he said enthusiastically.

The problem, according to the U.S. Coast Guard and Bar Pilots, is that the giant ships can’t stop quickly. Ships traveling at 20 knots, carrying millions of dollars’ worth of cargo, can take 1.5 miles to stop. The ships are deceptively fast and can create a wind shadow that can stop a small foil. In an emergency, if tugboat crews need to get to the side of the ship quickly, the foils can block access.

The Port of Oakland is one of the four busiest gateways on the West Coast, handling 99% of all containerized goods passing through Northern California. As global trade has grown, cargo ships have steadily increased in size. One recent ship is nearly 1,000 feet long — about a fifth of a mile, taller than the Salesforce Tower.

An oil tanker and a wing foiler in the bay off Crissy Field East Beach as they pass under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, on Thursday, June 27, 2024. Some Bay Area boardsailers follow the tracks of cargo ships entering and exiting the Golden Gate, excited by the adventure but potentially risking their lives. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
An oil tanker and a wing foiler in the bay off Crissy Field East Beach as they pass under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, on Thursday, June 27, 2024. Some Bay Area boardsailers follow the tracks of cargo ships entering and exiting the Golden Gate, excited by the adventure but potentially risking their lives. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)