Outer Banks: The Bay

Powerful currents, thousand-mile swells, sharky waters, notoriously thick sea fog, and one of the busiest shipping inlets in the world… Wing foiling in San Francisco Bay is not for the faint-hearted. But for a brave few, it’s a goldmine of endless opportunity, as champion kitesurfer Johnny Heineken can testify…

Words: Johnny Heineken
Photos: Abner Kingman


Until recently, foiling for me was mostly about going fast, pointing high, trying to beat people around the course. Wing foiling hit the scene right as I was stepping back from kite racing. Though I’m still launching from Crissy Field in San Francisco Bay most days, winging has changed the way I view my local spot and allowed me to appreciate it in a new way.

Instead of looking for steady wind and flat water, the Crissy wingers now congregate in the sloppiest places we can find. A local favorite is the South Tower of the Golden Gate bridge. On a strong ebb tide, 6+ knots of current sucks out under the bridge in a glassy slick, uncharacteristic of a windy venue. The tower’s wake forms a series of standing waves under the bridge that morph into a washing machine of lumps behind the tower’s foundation. Combined with incoming wind swell, peaks and troughs appear seemingly at random, providing endless features to connect right along the barnacle-covered walls of the tower. With a well-timed hop over the shoulder and bank onto the next wave, you can hold your ground relative to the tower, doing this until your legs give out. Just watch out for the sea lions that glide along in the current relief next to the tower…

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Follow the bridge a few hundred yards south and Fort Point might be breaking. The wind swirls around the old fort, which often completely shadows the inside. On a kite we only tasted the shoulder of this wave, but the ability to drag a wing into the shadow, dodge the rocks, and pump (or paddle) back out has opened this place up for daily riding.

Some days we ride man-made waves. Ships, fishing boats, ferries, whatever throws a wake. A morning check of wind, tide, swell, and commercial vessel traffic has become the new norm. “Green” ships on AIS are the best, these are the freighters. “Reds”, tankers, are rarely fast enough to throw a good wake. Gybe on the starboard bow wave just outside the bridge and you can jump onto a line of lefts that will run all the way past Alcatraz. It’s common to see a ship heading downwind with a flock of what look like ducklings playing, all on their own endless wave. The best part is you can talk to your buddies on the adjacent waves. You might even get a holler and wave from the crew on the ship, who appear to like these escorts into the Bay.

On adventurous days, we’ll go well outside the Golden Gate. The typical thermal wind fades outside – it’s easy to be sucked out in an ebb, unable to get foiling. But the swell near mile rock can be tempting, and the risk adds to the fun. The goal is to be just cautious (lucky?) enough to make it home.

Earlier this spring, a friend and I got the rare offer of boat support outside the Gate. This provided an opportunity to push farther out than is safe to do alone. We took off from Crissy and met photographer Abner five miles upwind at Point Bonita. Days of wind swell jacked up on a shoal called the Potato Patch, creating an endless playground of rolling hills with steep double-ups sprinkled throughout. It’s a pretty surreal experience gliding full speed downwind for miles, connecting lump after lump that far offshore. Even on my quick Mike’s Lab foil it was easy to get maxed out on speed. Riding chop inside the Bay requires snappy turns and well-timed pumps to stay in the energy and avoid outrunning the waves. The open ocean is all about long, drawn out snowboarding turns, still staying on the steepest part of the wave but not cutting back too hard, and risking being outrun by the swell.

The evolution of the sport is what keeps many of us engaged, I’m no exception. I’d like to spend more time offshore, and also to figure out how to get out in bigger beach breaks. But, no matter what comes next, I’m sure it will continue to expand my understanding and appreciation of the Bay. 

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