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The SFBA's mission is protecting and enhancing recreational access to San Francisco Bay

Updated 4/11/2024, Version 1.  Contributors Andy Forquer & David Bloch

Release of Liability:  By reading and using this guide, you acknowledge and accept that there are risks associated with the activities described within, including but not limited to the risk of injury or death. You agree to assume all responsibility for these risks and to release the author and publisher of this guide from any liability resulting from injury or death caused by your participation in these activities.

Introduction:  Downwinding … in San Francisco Bay?!

It’s no surprise that downwind foiling has made it to the bay given the surge in global interest combined with our massive base of wing, kite, and windsurfers.  2023 was the first year there was downwind race held  in California, and a few riders have been quietly putting down 50+ mile runs at the coast for 2+ years.

Many expert-level riders describe the transition into dw-foil as their most difficult foiling pursuit yet.  Downwinding is incredibly unforgiving with regard to conditions, foil choice, and rider skill.  It’s also planning and time intensive - requiring car shuttles or wing packdowns, and relinquishes almost all of the navigational control you typically feel with a windsurfer, kite, or wing in your hands.  Taking it on in an area known for variable winds, strong currents and ship traffic makes downwinding even more challenging and dangerous. If you’re not already skeptical or regretful, those feelings will likely emerge on your first dw-run. 

And yet the lure of downwind foiling is undeniable - as it fully embraces the glides that attract many into winging - and subsequently depends on those glides for success.  You are doing a trust-fall into your own determination to develop this skill - and the rider that completes this firewalk will have a bit more grit than when they started.  It’s the final exam in a foiling curriculum, and will develop a greater sensitivity to ocean conditions for every discipline. 

Lastly, downwinding has an incredible built-in community and partnership - setting up these carpools provides an opportunity to make new connections and friends.  It is also bringing together the wind (kite, wing, windsurf) and paddling (OC1, OC6, stand-up) communities that have shared values and goals.

Prerequisites for your first downwind run:

  • Strong swimming ability and comfort with repeated cold-immersion
  • Paddling fundamentals - straight, turning, and bracing
  • Strong knowledge of tide charts, ebb, flood
  • How to use a VHF radio and call for help
  • Excellent foiling ability developed in Wing or Surf conditions - recommended
  • Flat-water practice or Wave SUP-foil experience - recommended 
  • Go with a buddy

Required Gear for Downwinding;

  • Board - Downwind specific long and narrow board.  The general rule of thumb is to convert your weight to kg and add 30-to-40-liters of volume for your first board.  
  • Foil - Ensure you have enough power to water-start in the wide range of your run. Most start in a ~1,700 sqcm foil (e.g. Axis 1300, Armstrong APF)  The length of the run could include both flat conditions and shoulder high swells, so rig accordingly.  If you are unsure about what size to rig, choose your largest foil so that you can get up on foil quickly and efficiently, and have a better chance of making your exit.  
  • Paddle - Most riders prefer a rigid 1-piece carbon paddle for its efficiency and strength.  A snapped paddle will make it nearly impossible to pop up on foil, so some riders may want to carry a backup set of webbed gloves or a “pocket wing.”
  • Leash - While this is implied, worth calling out just how critical it is to stay attached to your board, as this is your lift-support system.  Double check your leash before riding every time.
  • PFD's - At the minimum use a belt inflatable but do consider a real life jackets. Why not?

Currents, Tides, & Wind Direction

Ideal downwinding conditions in most parts of the world are sideshore winds along warm sandy beaches, with a straight road following the beach.  You paddle offshore, pop up and ride a mile, come back to the sand and walkback. (i.e. ‘shore-runner’).   In the idyllic Columbia River Gorge (Oregon), the dam-regulated river flows West towards Portland,  perfectly opposes the strong winds pushing East - manufacturing perfectly groomed and tightly spaced bumps for miles.  

However, the trade-wind direction in San Francisco Bay offers no favors or an obvious solution, as we have a collection of land masses, islands, and toll bridges to cross over the course of a given run.

While we have many of the ingredients for downwinding in the Bay (e.g. strong wind & ebb), the complexity of the Bay Area underwater topography also leads to swell in unexpected places at unexpected times, and is only reliable in select corridors like 3rd and Sherman. Our minimum viable conditions are:

  • Wind direction that connects a start and end point, 15kts+
  • Opposing current or shallow depth to build waves - optional
  • Minimal traffic, especially for beginners  to avoid collisions / hazards

 Note this is a great site for tide planning. 

Safety and Responsibility

In San Francisco Bay, we count on each other to be responsible and support one another.  The continued access to the Bay is due in part to the continued advocacy from the SFBA as well as the stewardship and self-regulation of the community to make sure we are not over-utilizing the Coast Guard or otherwise abusing access. Reach out via Instagram or Messenger to people doing these runs to ask for advice.  Your actions are important to everyone, especially if they have to put themselves at risk to rescue you.  To provide even more emphasis on self-reliance, in downwinding scenarios your riding-buddy can do very little for you beyond call for help via VHF.  In most cases they need to finish the run before they can triage a rescue.

Safety & Self-Rescue Tips

  • Buddy System – Use the buddy system and stay within sight of the pack. 
  • When riding alone, consider sharing a ‘float plan’: inform someone about where you are launching from, what gear you’re riding that day, and when you intend to be back.
  • Come up with a game plan and talk with your riding partner about this during the shuttle ride.  Agree on a VHF channel and keep your radios on.  Share your location with each other via your cell phone before you start the run.

Safety Quiver

  • Wetsuit - It’s critical to be warm enough, and a good wetsuit will save your life if you end up on the water longer than expected. Most riders wear a 4/3mm or 5/4mm wetsuit.
  • VHF radio is a critical piece of safety equipment, as the speed of the current can reach a maximum of +/- 4.5 knots (5+ mph), which exceeds the speed of an Olympic swimmer!  Smart watches and cell phones often have no service offshore, so are not a true substitute.  A waterproof case is also necessary to protect the radio from corrosion and allow the microphone to be understood in windy conditions.   A guide to using your VHF is available here. Become familiar with the protocol and practice on the beach - before the need arises.
  • Phone with waterproof case - Aside from being able to take some photo / video on your runs, a phone is handy if you are out of range for radio or are having trouble communicating over that medium.  You can also transmit your GPS location to other parties in case of emergency.
  • Fluorescent High Visibility Jersey or PFD:  Without a wing, sail, or kite, it’s nearly impossible to see each other on the water.  The speed discrepancy between someone on foil (15-20mph), and someone slogging (3mph) means you can separate rapidly - making high visibility ORANGE/PINK/YELLOW jerseys a critical piece of equipment for keeping an eye on eachother.
  • Additional Safety & Rescue Equipment — Helmet, strobe, EPIRB, whistle, PFD all provide additional safety and visibility, while wrenches/tool, booties, some cash and your cell phone can help a lot if you get picked up somewhere and need to get a ride back.
  • Marking your gear helps the Coast Guard quickly correlate gear found adrift to search for specific people in emergencies.  TIP:  Sharpie comes off a board with an alcohol swab - so is non-permanent.
  • Foil tools / hardware – Extra screws, nuts, and tools can be handy in case of hardware failure or if you need to adjust your gear mid-run.  They can also be helpful at the end of your run if you need to break down your gear to conserve space for the shuttle ride back.
  • Handheld Satellite Communicators with GPS Navigation - For longer ocean runs, handheld satellite communicators with GPS navigation devices offer emergency communication capabilities, allowing distress signals and two-way messaging even in areas without cellular coverage. With integrated GPS functionality, they ensure accurate navigation, while weather updates and durable, waterproof designs enhance safety. Trusted brands like Garmin, SPOT, Iridium, ZOLEO, and Globalstar offer reliable options - Garmin inReach is the most popular.
  • Water and Nutrition - Under a few miles, Water/Food/etc. may add more complexity to a system than helpful and necessary.  As you go for longer runs however, consider bringing a camel-back fortified with electrolyte powder to prevent your legs from spasming (i.e.. ‘bonking’).

Commercial Ship Traffic

  • Always give commercial traffic the right-of-way. 
  • If you are stopped in the water with an equipment failure or for any other reason unable to move out of the way of an approaching ship, immediately transmit a message with your position on Channel 16 to alert the Coast Guard, and/or the approaching vessel.
  • Remember that commercial traffic includes ships, tug boats, fishing boats, ferries, tour boats, charter sail boats 

Emergency Services (Coast Guard & Fire)

If you think you should maybe call for help, do not wait to do so—CALL FOR HELP using VHF channel 16. Many of us also use Strava on a cell phone, or some other real-time GPS location reporting system so that friends on the beach can get a position on us. 

  • If you experience an equipment failure, injury, or end up truly stuck—and especially if you are in a shipping channel, or if it’s late in the day, call for help immediately. This means if you think you should maybe call for help, do not wait to do so.
  • If you are on the beach and need to request on-water assistance for someone else or report an incident by phone, call the Coast Guard San Francisco Command Center at (415) 399-3451.
  • Fire Departments:  Certain corridors (Alameda) have a higher rate of concerned citizens contacting 9-1-1 - even when a run is ‘going well.’  Proactively reaching out to the Fire Dept (e.g. Fire Dept #4) can be a good way to prevent unnecessary rescue responses.
  • Body language plays a role in showing that you are OK.  If you see an approaching vessel, this is not a good time to be sitting on your board or adjusting gear  - get up and ride immediately so that they know you are okay - even if you are unfamiliar with this sport.
  • Paddle Signals: Waved vertically side to side - Emergency.  Horizontal, pat top of head -OK.

Beginner and Intermediate Runs inside the San Francisco Bay:

Opportunities abound when it comes to downwinding, so the most challenging expert runs in the open-ocean are out of scope for this primer.  The safest initial beginner runs are either boat or instructor support, and/or paddling one mile directly upwind at your local spot, and paddling back.  Each run carries a different level of risk due in terms of a) bail out points, b) traffic, and c) predominant wind directions.  There are other factors like currents and shifting wind directions in the bay that require a high level of fluency and the ability to quarter (make progress cross-wind).

Below are a few runs that can be done with car-shuttles:

Wind Dir

Name

Start

End

Length

Rating

-

Paddle and flatwater pop-up Practice

-

🟢

-

Paddle a mile offshore, downwind back.

1.0

🟢

W

Sherman

Sherman Isl

Levee Corner

4.0 miles

🟢+

W

TI-to-Berk or Emeryville

Treasure Island

Berkeley or Emeryville

4.5 miles

🟦

S

Bay Farm to Encinal (Alameda)

OAK

Encinal

4.5 miles

🟦

N/NW

Coyote-to-3rd

Coyote

3rd Ave

3.0 miles

🟦

N/NW

Oyster-to-3rd

Oyster Point

3rd Ave

9.5 miles

 

Bay Run Guidance- From Easy to Most challenging

Sherman island Levee Road / Sherman

  • Description - A popular destination for windsports, Sherman island can get some amazing swell if the current is ebbing and the wind is >15 kts.  You can hire a boat to take you upriver (or pack down a wing on an island), or shuttle cars from ‘The Pit” to the turn (as described below).  The ebb is key for creating swell.
  • Guidance and Considerations As the tide starts flooding, swell can disappear quickly.  Watch out for boats / barges in the channel and wear high visibility fluorescent clothing.  The ebb can move quickly so it’s advisable to stay close to the southern rock wall in case you are not able to get back on foil.   Keep an eye out for the windmill at the RV park if you need to exit the run prematurely.
  • Put in -  River Access Near the Pit - Right across from the pit there is parking and a small ramp for access.  You can park along the river for fast shuttling, but it fills up later in the afternoon (especially when the wind is good).
  • Take Out - Around the Bend- Parking is just around the bend, and there is a small trail from the water after you pass the pipe structure just around the turn.  Be careful walking out here as the rocks are slippery.

 Sherman Island downwind foiling run map

Bay Farm to Encinal Boat Launch (Alameda)

  • Description Typically only done in the winter or spring during Southerly Storms, this 4.5 mile run is Intermediate as the progression of the run will quickly put you 1.5 miles offshore as you leave Bay Farm Island, and the shifting wind direction can put you directly into Alameda beach, directly into the rock wall at Encinal, or out into the channel missing the exit.  The swell can be challenging as shifting currents can create cross-chop, so bump reading can be more difficult.
  • Guidance and Considerations - The swell is best in above 3ft tide, and you can run aground in several areas (including if you get blown to crown beach).  Actively manage your trajectory as you pass the jetty near Ballena Bay to ensure you do not get pushed onto the rocks.  Consider stopping at Fire Station No 4 to let them know the day’s activity before you start the run as they frequently field concerns from the public when this run has been done.
  • Put in - Harbor Bay Trail  Where the harbor bay trail meets the airport, there is a small ramp.  You can park anywhere on the street.  On lower tides you can walk out to the deeper and windier channel, or paddle close to the airport to stay out of the wind until you get closer to the channel.  Be mindful of the buoy’s that mark a security zone around the airport.

 

Downwind Foiling Alameda Run Map

  • Take out -  Encinal Boat Launch Cove - Park on the street across from Pier 29 waterfront restaurant and bar.  There is a small trail that leads up from the beach to your right as you enter the cove.

Downwind Foiling Alameda Map 2

Coyote Point to 3rd Avenue in Foster City

  • Description - At just over 3 miles, this is an intermediate run because semi-offshore winds can expose riders to the channel.   A >3ft tide ensures that you won’t run aground on the inside if on a standard 75cm-85cm  mast.  Below 2.5’ and you will likely hit the sand somewhere across the big grass patch.
  • Guidance and Considerations - There is a paddle out from within the park to clear the point and the submerged obstacles from the marina (see actual run tracks below).  
  • Put in 1 - (In Coyote Pt. park) - Park in the lot near Boardsports and use one of the stairways to get onto the beach / into the water.  You will need to paddle out until you get a wind angle that goes past the point and Marina.
  • Put in 2 - (Anza fishermans) - Can be a bit slippery here getting down the rocks.  Exercise caution.  May need to quarter left.
  • Put in 3  (Marina)
  • Take Out- Third Avenue Lower Launch - Park in the parking lot, walk up the windsurf ramp.  Booties are recommended here because of the slippery mud and steps getting up the ramp.  

Coyote to 3rd Ave Downwind Foiling Run Map

Treasure Island to Berkeley Marina or Emeryville

  • Description - This is an intermediate run as it has low ferry/fishing traffic and multiple takeouts, but includes risk due to lack of any bailouts and minimal oversight.   
  •  Guidance and Considerations - 15+ kts from the West at both Treasure Island and the East Bay can provide consistent swell through the finish.  Berkeley is the preferred exit as there is less rebound off of the Emeryville Marina, and better amenities (parking, rinse, etc), but if the wind is NW, it may line up better with Emeryville.  
  • Put in - Treasure Island Launch Park in the empty lot near the boat ramp or the parking area on the other side of the grass if parking on the cement is full.
  • Take out 1  - Berkeley Marina Docks or His Lordship Restaurant - On high tide, it’s possible to get out at the dock next to the public parking lot (top right) or low tide near the restaurant.  Avoid dinging your foil on submerged rocks in the cove. Be careful climbing up the rocks to get up as they are slippery/unstable.  

Treasure Island Downwind Foiling Map

Treasure Island Downwind Foiling Map 2

Oyster Point to 3rd Avenue

  • Description - *Caution* - This is an advanced/expert run.  The long distance, and semi-offshore wind direction at the start can make this very challenging.  This run is one of the longest runs you can do inside the bay with the right conditions, and you should be confident/verifiably sending 4-or-5 mile runs in <1hr before attempting this distance.
  • Guidance and Considerations  - From the very start of the run you should be making your way right in order to make your exit, even when not on foil.  Relatively low boat traffic means you are reliant on cell and VHF reception for rescue, which if they fail, can be a life threatening situation.  The ideal depth is >3ft tide ensures that you won’t run aground on the inside if on a standard 75cm-85cm  mast.  Below 2.5 and you will likely hit the sand near Foster city.
  • Put in - Oyster Point Marina Windsurf Launch - Walk down the windsurf ramp and paddle out.  It gets deep quickly  but watch out for a couple of submerged rocks.  You will need to paddle further South / East in order to get into the bumps.  *Do not paddle too far East as you will need to quarter hard to make the turn to 3rd.*
  • Take Out- Third Avenue Lower Launch - Park in the parking lot and walk up the windsurf ramp.  Booties are recommended here because of the slippery mud and steps getting up the ramp.

Oyster Point Downwind Foiling Map

And remember when in doubt don't go out. For More Safety Information See the SFBA SAFETY GUIDES HERE