Friday 20th November 2017 – Ocean Beach, San Francisco
Arguably the heaviest day ever witnessed in SUP Racing history, Red Bull Heavy Water is now undoubtedly the worlds toughest Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) race. Starboard Dream Team rider, Micheal Booth, was one of the world’s few elite SUP racers to have finished this insane event. Heavy Water lived up to it’s name – it was more survival than racing. Here is Boothy’s recollection of how he was a part of history…
What a day! What an experience! The APP/Redbull Heavy Water event just blew my mind. The event didn’t feel like a race, but more like a physical and mental challenge. The waves were 20ft, the currents were super strong, and we were in pure survival mode.
After a successful competition in Japan, I decided to cancel my flight home on Tuesday and rebook my flights to fly to San Francisco. The event was so different to anything I normally do and it was something I just couldn’t miss. With the forecast tipping at 18-20ft with 25ft sets I had a nervous excitement the few days before the event. Nothing can ever prepare you for an event like this, there is not enough training or amount of skill that could give you an advantage out there. It was going to be all based on luck and commitment! Like Travis said to me, ‘we are going to Vegas’.
Leading into it I purchased my first ever big wave leash and due to the cool temperatures I bought a long leg/short arm steamer. I also hunted around for some spare boards as I thought for sure my board would break. I even managed to put a hole in my board two days before the event, which wasn’t part of the plan.
Mentally, on the morning of the event, my plan was just to relax and enjoy the experience. The result really didn’t matter at all to me, my only goal was to finish without breaking too much equipment. We arrived at Ocean Beach for the briefing at 7am and through the fog and early morning light you could hear and see a bombing Ocean Beach ready to throw everything at us that morning. We got the full safety run down and then headed to Fishermans Wharf to take the boat out to the start line.
The whole experience felt like we were on a big wave mission. 21 participants loaded onto the boat for the ride out Ocean Beach, 20 got off the boat and only 14 finished the race. The ride out was insane itself, there was so much backwash coming off the cliffs and the currents were so strong we couldn’t event paddle to the start line. The boat driver refused to go further up past Seal Rocks and we tried to paddle against it for 15minutes, without going anywhere. After a jetski assist to the start we were away around 1030am.
The scariest part about the race was the unknown, we were paddling back to the beach without knowing out conditions. We didn’t know where the rips and banks were or where it was safe to get out. All we saw was 15ft waves rolling in under our boards and the spray of the crunching waves on shore. As the gun went I didn’t attack it at all, I paddled slowly waiting for the perfect time to paddle for a wave. My first wave was a 12ft right-hander that I took far to the South trying to avoid the impact zone as much as possible. It was all about keeping your board and your body safe and in check.
On the first paddle out we basically all had no idea where the gaps were to go back out. I chose a southern line as I thought there may be a passage there, but there definitely wasn’t. I got pounded into the beach twice before asking the Lifeguard ‘where is everybody getting out?’. On the third attempt I finally broke through the first bank and didn’t get hit on the outside to make it to the first turn. I tried to safety paddle in but I got caught inside and got punished and washed in by the sets. It was a brutal beating! The waves just had so much energy in them and they really made you hurt. There was so much movement out in the water as well that it was almost impossible to stand on your board. Popping was extremely difficult and it was very rare that you didn’t fall.
On the second lap out I spoke to Ryan Funks dad and he suggested I head to the South slightly and paddle at 45 degrees to get out. I successfully got out through the first break without too much of a beating however that wasn’t the end of it. Connor and I were in 2nd – 3rd at that stage as we both approached the outside sets. I was lucky to sneak around the first one but what was waiting for me behind it I could’ve never anticipated.
This wave had to be an easy 20ft and the largest wave I’ve ever paddled straight at, I exclaimed my favourite profanity before diving as deep as I could. I was basically at the start cans in green water, it didn’t event make sense that a wave was breaking there. It broke about 5m in front of me and absolutely smashed me toward the bottom and rag-dolled me for what felt like an eternity. The scary bit was I couldn’t come back to the surface, I did at least 20 angel wing strokes up to the surface, but I just couldn’t find the top. It was dark and I just stayed calm and relaxed. At this stage I though for sure my board had snapped as there was no way it could take that kind of impact.
I eventually came back up after taking the third wave of the set as well, it was my first two-wave hold down of my life. I must’ve been under for close to 30 seconds and was told after by the safety officer that my board was tombstoning the whole time I was under. I came up a little dazed and took a couple of minutes to regain composure before heading to lands end, but it wasn’t over yet. The currents were so insane coming through there that it felt like you were paddling through a washing machine. 3ft swells were coming from every direction making it almost impossible to stay on your board.
Finally I made it out to the middle of the bay and we were hooking at around 15miles per hour as the tide was still flooding into the bay. Coming under the Golden Gate Bridge I was in 6th with Kai Lenny not too far behind and Slater Trout just in front of me. I kicked in the last 2miles and was able to pass Slater about a mile before the end of the race.
Finishing I was filled with a extreme sense of accomplishment. It was honestly the best I’ve ever felt at the end of the race. It was all about the journey, the result was a bonus.