The West Coast is famous for its legendary downwind races. Most of them, like the Transpac, are hundreds or thousands of miles long, and are raced with large crews over many days. One of the other epic downwind races in the West takes about 10 minutes to complete and is raced by single sailors on boards less than two meters long. The Ronstan Bridge to Bridge was started in 1998 to see who was the fastest on a downwind burn from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge. One way, on whatever you had, and go for it. The first year it was won by Jonathan and Charlie McKee on a 49er in 27 minutes and 18 seconds. Since then it’s been won by windsurfers, kiteboards and Australian 18s, and since 2016 by kite foilers, with the record now set at 9 min 32 sec. Fast!
While foiling kites seem to have a lock on being first to finish forever into the future, that doesn’t mean others don’t want to come out for the challenge. The event is usually held Thursday evenings at 5 p.m. at the end of August, generally guaranteeing a stiff breeze and raucous conditions. Ebbs, floods, ship traffic, and 40 or 50 competitors traveling at 20 to 30 knots on fine-edged foils, some with strings attached, make for a complicated starting scenario. Do you wonder why people do all that shouting on a five- to seven-knot wind at the starting line?
Kudos to the St Francis Yacht Club race committee, which fields a fleet of about five RIBs to launch the start and sweep the course of a quickly-scattered fleet of foiling wings. It’s a three-minute start sequence, then they all compress for that final horn. Moments later the committee and crash boats are left behind in the spray as the fleet fans out across the Bay. It’s a spine-compressing ride to keep up and keep an eye on it all.
It was a fading ebb at the start this year when windsurfers, kiteboards, and wings put the pedal down and headed east for the Bay Bridge, hoping to stay low and fast to make it without jibing in one long, downwind run. That means start close to the committee boat by the North Tower and somehow go low and go fast. The record-setting year had a more southerly wind, making the one long reach easier to hit. It also had a flat-water flood.
The MOD 70 Orion raced in the past, and numerous other speedsters have joined in, but for the past couple of years it’s only a board game with three classes, including windsurfers, wings and kites. This year Xavier Ferlet was a repeat winner of the windsurfing division. He was a little off his last year’s pace, but his time of 17 minutes and 32 seconds was still 10 minutes and 30% faster than the first-year winners in the 49er. Demonstrating shifts in the wind toys, the rapidly growing class of wing sailors was the largest, with 22 competitors signed up and 18 hitting the line.
The actual first part of the race is rigging up the perfect kite, sail or wing at Crissy Field for the fastest possible downwind ride from the Gate to the Bay Bridge. The only problem is the fastest downwind sail is less than ideal for getting from Crissy Field to the start line. On the winner’s podium, wing-sailing fleet winner Joey Pasquali described getting a perfect 8.5-meter wing ready for a great downwind ride with one of his biggest challenges of the evening getting from Crissy to the starting line, which, naturally, crosses the windiest part of the Bay. The perfect sail downwind is not the perfect sail upwind, and the perfect sail at the Golden Gate is not the ideal sail as the wind fades toward the Bay Bridge. There are no sail changes in a 10-minute race. Joey’s time of 17 min and 30 sec was just 12 seconds faster than Xavier’s windsurfing time.
Foiling kites again showed their dominance, with nine foiling kites quickly leaving the rest in their vapor trail. The start is always important, and Markus Edegran nailed it, crossing with the horn at the committee boat at full speed. Xantos Villegas was just behind him at the start, and they each had just over 10 minutes to the finish to figure out the tactics, strategy and sail trim, and avoid all the potholes on the course.
Markus was higher, Xantos lower and going for the no-jibe straight shot from start to finish. Markus eventually decided he had to jibe to get low while Xantos carried on his “straight-line” course. At 25-30 knots you don’t do a lot of looking around for competitors, so they separated, with Markus finally jibing back to head for the line. He was low and fast while Xantos was a bit slower and higher, but on the shorter course. Markus crossed the line, heard the horn, and seconds later heard a voice over his shoulder wondering who was so close and who’d crossed first. It was first-time participant Markus, nipping Xantos at the finish by seconds. It was a photo finish, captured on Xantos’s GoPro.
Over time, records get harder to beat. Technology advances get smaller, and the right weather windows are rare. Regardless, the challenge to beat your competitors and have a shot at a record always remains. It may be the shortest, fastest one-way race in the world, but it remains one of the West Coast’s legendary downwind rides.
Thanks to Xantos Villegas for capturing both the start and finish of this year’s Bridge to Bridge run. In the midst of all this action he was also filming.
The start was cold, windy, foggy and fast.
The finish was slightly warmer, a little less windy and foggy, but still pretty fast.