Is San Francisco Bay the world’s greatest sports arena? Come out and see

Looking for something to do this weekend? Get your mind off our collective troubles? A reason to celebrate our city and the bay? Come out to Crissy Field, where you can watch superhuman sailors crisscross the waves at mach speeds.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a land lubber by trade. Wouldn’t know a jib from a jab. But I know amazing when I see it. And watching the latest foiling technology propel these daredevils across the water is simply brilliant. The bright colored sails and wings would make Matisse blush.

It’s all part of the the West Marine US Open Sailing Series, a six-city tour that crosses the nation and winds up right here in one of the world’s greatest sports arenas: the San Francisco Bay.

That’s right. Our majestic and salty centerpiece provides among the best conditions, toughest tests and most beautiful backdrops of this magnificent water sport. Does anyone remember the America’s Cup back in 2013? I do, having been pressed into action to chronicle the event at that other paper in town. I got to know the sport, the players, the inventors and engineers. They put on an incredible show, culminating with Larry Ellison’s Oracle team coming from way behind to defeat New Zealand and capture the cup.

It was a magical comeback, sprinkled with a bit of controversy. And it showcased the bay on an international stage. In the process, the sailing world realized that this is the ultimate amphitheater. Using short courses — with individual legs going no more than a mile or two — and high-speed foil watercraft, race organizers created an exciting viewer experience far removed from previous stultifying images of the America’s Cup. (Remember the days of Dennis Connor winning the America’s Cup? We’d be stuck watching two ships somewhere off the coast of Australia, shot from a helicopter-mounted camera. I was often tempted to paint my TV screen and watch it dry instead.)

Nowadays, you can stand on the shoreline, or get out on your own boat, to watch the action up close. Bring a picnic and enjoy. It’s aquatic theater at its finest. And it’s free.

During this weekend’s regattas, competitors will compete in a number of different classes, including smaller sailboats, manned by one or two people. The real show will involve wind surfers and kite boarders, cutting through the water on boards lifted by hydrofoils, wing-like devices that lift a vessel into the air as it gathers momentum, decreasing drag and increasing speed. The kite foilers can hit up to 30-35 knots, which is about 40 miles per hour. 

I spent a few hours at the St. Francis Yacht Club the other day watching them practice, and it was inspiring. It’s amazing what we humans come up with to have fun.

Most of the participants will be Olympic aspirants, hoping to land a spot at the Paris 2024 or Los Angeles 2028 games. I spoke to one of their coaches, Olympic gold medalist Anna Tunnicliffe Tobias, to get her take on the upcoming races and the charms of San Francisco Bay.

“It’s a great domestic circuit,” said Tunnicliffe Tobias, who is holding a meet and greet for sailing enthusiasts at West Marine Sausalito Friday, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. “In the winter, it’s in the Florida region. Then, in the summer, we move out to the West Coast, and just basically move up the coast of California starting in San Diego, Long Beach and then finishing here in San Francisco. It’s a way for the upcoming Olympic hopefuls to get get some good sailing together and in really great sailing places, great venues that each offer their own set of specialties.”

So, what is it about San Francisco Bay that makes it great? The sailors I spoke to consistently name two things: You can count on the wind and the currents forced by the narrow Golden Gate make things tricky.

“There’s so much water going through, it’s wild,” said Tunnicliffe Tobias, of the changing currents. “You get it wrong and you get punished badly here.”

The regular wind is the good news.

“It’s so darned consistent,” said Zachary Grover, category manager for West Marine, the boating retail company sponsoring the series. “The wind is going to turn on in the early afternoon or late morning, especially in the spring and summer. It’s because you have the cold water coming in from the ocean and the warmth of the inland areas that sort of builds through the day. That gradient and pressure is essentially what creates wind.”

“It’s a protected bay, so it’s inland water with generally flat water and very exciting, physically demanding sailing. Besides that, it’s incredibly beautiful with the bridge and mountains all around you,” he said.

And so there you have it. I’m all for talking winds and currents and foils and gradients. But unless you have an anchor tattooed on your forearm, the nuance is generally lost. For the rest of us, it’s all about the bay.

“San Francisco is definitely one of the best venues,” said Tunnicliffe Tobias. “The background is so pretty here. It’s awesome.”

“I mean, being right on the shore? You can watch the foilers whip up and down,” she said. “It’s amazing. If you know nothing about sailing, it’s cool to see how fast they go. It’s really fantastic for the sport. And the fact that they go at these high speeds now, it just makes it that much more exciting.”

Ahoy, polloi! Go check it out.

IF YOU WANNA GO:

What: West Marine US Open Sailing Series

Where: Crissy Field, St. Francis Yacht Club

When: Friday-Sunday, 12 p.m. — 4 p.m.

IF YOU WANNA HELP:

US Sailing is organizing a beach cleanup at Crissy Field (1199 E Beach, San Francisco) 10 a.m.-12 p.m Saturday, Aug. 13. Volunteer RSVP: https://volunteer.surfrider.org/opportunities/gjiLMxLvXi

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