Last night’s Ronstan Bridge to Bridge added the return of another spectacular Bay favorite after its cancellation in 2020. Run annually since 1998, this downwind drag race takes competitors just over six miles from a startline off the Marin shoreline a little west of the Golden Gate Bridge to a finish line off Yerba Buena Island by the Bay Bridge. It’s been a traditional Western shootout where competitors bring whatever they have to see who’s got the fastest weapon on the Bay.
Over the years the race has included 49ers, Australian 18s, MOD70s, windsurfers, foiling and non-foiling multihulls, and all sorts of kite-powered boards. The plaques on the front and back sides of the perpetual trophy show winners from all those classes, but, in the last few years, it’s been clear that the winners, led by Johnny Heineken, are always going to be kites. Knowing it was a foregone conclusion that the winner would be a kite, the event has evolved to offer three classes: kites, windsurfers and, for the first time, wing sailing. This was also the first year that all entries were sailing on foils. Some might even think it was a foregone conclusion that Johnny Heineken would be the winner but, as the Olympics remind us, even world champions can have a bad day.
After a foggy, gray, smoke-filled month, the evening emerged as one of the best, though outside the Gate the wind hinted at being lighter than the usual summer blast. Colorful kites, wings and sails, along with fluorescent green and orange race jerseys (visible only when competitors weren’t up to their necks in water) combined with a frothy ebb current, bright blue sky and the Golden Gate Bridge towering overhead to leave the rest of the world’s dramas far behind.
A three-minute starting sequence to the downwind start catapulted the eclectic, mixed fleet of 38 kites, wings and windsurfers off toward the Bay Bridge, and in minutes they were a dispersed group of fading fluorescent specks on the horizon. The favored strategy is to start near the committee boat on the Marin shore, as you’re going to be finishing on a starboard reach as you near the Bay Bridge. By starting to the north you hope to minimize the jibes on your way south — maneuvers in the choppy ebb are difficult, and foils are only fast when they’re upright above the water. Finishing first requires not falling.
The St. Francis Yacht Club fleet of RIBs and committee boats dispersed like sheepdogs, trying to keep an eye out for wayward foils or lonesome heads as the Bay suddenly swallowed the once-dense fleet. We were aboard the pin end of the startline with Mike Mahoney and Richard Banthin charged with covering the western flank to make sure no one was swept out the Gate. After finishing off the Bay Bridge, the fleets head back toward the Crissy Field launch site, which is a long beat upwind, though most make pretty quick work of it. Kiters and windsurfers get to come back with the aid of a harness to take some of the load. For the wingers it’s all arms to keep your wing sailing.
Racers gathered back at the St. Francis in the outdoor courtyard to await the final results, times and awards. Despite the ebb and choppy conditions, the times were fast. Olympic bronze medalist Jonathan McKee won the first Ronstan Bridge to Bridge in a 49er with a time of 27 minutes and 18 seconds. Nico Parlier set the overall record in 2019 on a foiling kite, with a time of 9 minutes, 32 seconds.
As Mike Martin explained, “The 2019 record was helped by a flood, but it’s not so much the current that helps but the flatter water. While foilers ride above the water, when you have a choppy ebb you have a better chance of your foil leaving the water, causing a crash. Floods help you focus on pure speed.”
As the finish names and times were read off, it was apparent that kites still rule, windsurfers are fast and close, and wings are still evolving. This was the first year for wings to be part of the race, and they were fast and competitive. As StFYC commodore Bill Dana said, “Whatever you come up with next, we’ll figure out how to race them.”
The winners of the three classes were Stefaans Viljoen in the wing class with a time of 19 minutes, 20 seconds; Xavier Ferlet in windsurfers with a time of 16 minutes, 10 seconds; and, in first place in the foiling kiteboards was Johnny Heineken, adding his name to the trophy for the seventh time with a blistering 10 minute, 32 second rocket ride in an ebb. 5O5 world champion Mike Martin was close behind in second, with Geoff Headington in third. The first female finisher was Johnny’s sister Erika in fifth.
It was a spectacular night for this Bay classic. It’s fun to watch, though it’s a bit like standing on the side of the road for the Tour de France. They zip past and they’re gone, and you’re suddenly left in a quiet patch of empty water. Full Results Here.