The 1980s and early 90s were a heady time for racing in the Bay. Local talents like Bard Chrisman won national events on homemade gear and big names like Robby Naish came to play. Shops sprouted, sailors vied to be sponsored, and competition turned merciless: People thought there was money to be made and fame was just a win away. It was in this environment that Don Lester originally launched the Cal Cup.
Don’s Dream-How it all started Don Lester and Emily Dale took over running the popular, shop-sponsored Wednesday evening races in Berkeley’s south sailing basin in 1988. Starting on a shoe string, Lester and Dale stationed the race committee on the jetty. They painted Styrofoam balls, added chunks of concrete for anchors, and sailed out to set the course with these home-made marks strapped on the bows of their long-boards. After that, they’d race. “No one wanted to pick up the buoys afterward, the marks would be left out overnight, and the next day they’d be gone,” laughs Dale. [Eventually the group bought real buoys with proper anchors].
But Don’s dream was to prowl other ponds, as he did in his drag-racing, high school days. To expand the venue beyond the East Bay, Lester and Dale arranged for boats and race committees, Wednesday nights were abandoned in favor of weekends, and the first real Cal Cup, sponsored by Waddell Sails, was played out at Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz. It was 1991.
Volunteers run these informal races, organized in a series of six summer Saturdays. “It’s grass roots racing,” explains Zajicek, owner of Mike’s Lab and designer of the ML100 Formula race board. Indeed: On race mornings, sailors call a hot-line for the venue, which race organizers finalize at 9 AM—only after a thorough and last-minute check of the weather. The race committee is so inexperienced that Steve Sylvester, a fleet leader and national champion, must sail by their boat and bark orders. But no one complains if a horn is missed or a flag pops up late—Cal Cup’s lottery [a system for randomly assigning sailors to race committee] may put the protester on the boat to run the next regatta.
Putting on the races, Lester felt responsible that everyone have a good time. “I sweated bullets that the wind would blow, the sponsor would come through with the boat, and the race committee would show up,” he says. “Waddell Sails turned out to be the most reliable sponsor,” adds Dale. Trevor and Tina Baylis provided the boat and Trevor’s brother Will ran race committee.
Attitudes changed in the mid-1990s. An industry shake-out challenged the shops and manufacturers. Waddell Sails closed. Windwing abandoned Berkeley for the Gorge and lost their pre-eminence in the East Bay race market. Dealers, who didn’t see a payoff from racers, no longer wanted to be sponsors. What was left in The Bay was true amateur racing run by clubs. The St. Francis Yacht Club took over major races like the O’Neil Classic and Windwing’s Bay Challenge, the Pro-Ams left The Bay altogether, and the Cal Cup hit full stride.
Over the years, various volunteers came and went. Norm Horn, who had two kids racing, set up barbecue; Diane Younger, with nerves of steel and the guts to stick it out through any conditions, arranged entertainment and prizes. In the end, all of those things were less important to the racers than the racing itself and the Cal Cup evolved into a loosely organized, bare-bones club, still passing around the huge silver cups that are the perpetual trophies.
When sponsorship slid, Mike Percey stepped into the void and offered his family boat. “Percey was our savior,” concedes Dale. Lester and Dale ran the Cal Cup for ten years, and when it was time to pass the torch, Percey took it by default.
On a typical race day, Percey trailers his boat to the Emeryville Cafe« where, over breakfast, he and Sylvester instruct the two-person race committee. Percey then caravans to the marina, launches the boat, and skippers to the course site. While the boat bounds over steep Bay chop, Percey supervises mark setting and anchor hooking. He imparts careful instruction on driving through the waves without rolling the boat and on keeping the prop clear of the buoy anchor lines.
A somewhat nervous race committee then pilots Percey back to the marina. He zooms in his truck to the beach, rigs, and hops onto the water just in time for the first gun. After the race and he’s packed his gear, he meets the boat at the launch ramp, hauls it out, washes it, and drives home. Whew! Cal Cuppers cannot expect that level of commitment to continue unabated—it’s time to plan for Percey’s succession. As long-time racer Jim McGrath says, “We all owe him big time.”
The Berkeley Co-Op
Almost every afternoon, March through October, Cal Cup’s core sailors gather in Berkeley on “the carpet,” a patch of Astro-turf set up for rigging. Intent on perfecting the racing machine, they work with each other—adjusting rigging, trading fins, testing board designs. “There is always someone to borrow a fin from or get advice on how to sail faster upwind,” says Olympic hopeful Steve Bodner.
All the major sail brands are represented here—racers who can’t stay with the pack can whip out measuring tapes and check winner’s sail draft. Downhaul and outhaul tension, mast bend characteristics, boom height—all are discussed; stance and sail trim are perennial topics. “The better sailors will always give advice until you beat them,” laments Bob Kudrna, a ten-year veteran of the Cal Cup. “In that case,” quips Percey, “what’s there to say?”
These boys are confident. They think the better and more numerous the training partners, the more fun the sailing. Everyone is invited to join and encouraged to learn. In pre-race seminars, Hartman doles out tips even non-racers can use. Visiting pros Micah Buzianis and Devon Boulon raise the bar and the Pritchard brothers, who once worked with Zajicek, had a great influence on his board shapes at the time. All this interaction puts the Cal Cup crowd on the cutting edge of technology and technique, and on a par with any amateur racing in the world.
To be in the top echelon of any sport is a lucky circumstance that is any amateur’s dream. Sylvester, for one, feels charmed to sail with the sport’s best riders on equal equipment. It might be noted that Sylvester has considerable perseverance. He puts in abnormal time on the water, which paid off with a minute-long victory in the grueling 2003 Bay Classic. “There’s usually not too much going on between 3 and 5 PM,” he smiles, “so I can sneak out for a couple of hours.” There is also that happy fortuity of living in The Bay Area, where a decent job is just minutes away from wide-open windy water.
San Francisco Bay Area Cal Cup
The race committee whips down the blue flag—one minute to start. Moments ago they were bobbing and weaving and waiting. Now twenty-five sailors pump furiously at their rigs, big rigs, rigs big enough to shade Hummers. The racers bear down on the starting line and each other, leaving a washing-machine wake. The A Fleet is off and gone to the weather mark, at angles many boats can’t make. They disappear in the Bay fog, and the breeze, already fresh, stiffens. This is San Francisco Bay’s Cal Cup—elite windsurf racing with the best amateurs in the world.
Locked and Loaded
Pack leaders like Dale Cook, who has dropped in from the Gorge for this race, seem to sail straight up the chop, their bodies locked straight and sails loaded. In five minutes the pack is nearly a mile upwind. They round the weather mark then they fly off the breeze on a reach, their platter-shaped boards skipping over the wave tops. They jockey through a gate of two buoys set twenty-yards apart, fly past the starting pin, and round the leeward mark. One tack and they’re up to the finish, so close together the race committee can’t predict their places until they actually cross the line.
Ten minutes after the start, half the fleet is finished and waiting for the next race, sitting on their boards just past the pin-end of the line. Racers who fell during their heat may still be trying to wrest their sails from the water, and anyone in a collision may be headed for the hospital. Bad things happen to the best. In the third race of the July 2003 regatta, race organizer Mike Percey was T-boned by another sailor and never finished even the first race—he was off to the emergency room for thirteen stitches in his ankle.In the same regatta, board maker Mike Zajicek lost eleven places just yards from the finish—he blew a tack and couldn’t get up.
That was Lester’s first meet against “The Coach” Rob Hartman. Lester was a top gun in Berkeley and thought he was dialed, but in Santa Cruz, Hartman dogged him constantly and Don had to rethink who had the hot shoes. For his part, Hartman had been doing well in sailing at Coyote Point, but at this race he waxed some big names of the day, like Trevor Baylis, owner of Waddell Sails. Carrying a “big” 6.2 square meter Waddell Race sail and a “big” 13 inch Tuttle fin on his “short-board,” Rob won the day by carefully picking his lay lines and getting decent starts. “The experience,” admits Rob, “left me completely psycho.” He still is. His go-for-it drive makes him arguably the only amateur Bay sailor with speed to match the pros.
That first Cal Cup fueled the rivalry between The Bay’s two main sail designers, now-defunct Waddell Sails based in Santa Cruz, and Windwing, then of Berkeley. These rival manufacturers sponsored races in their respective backyards, with the Waddell and Windwing fleets pretty much divided on geographic lines. The big Euro manufacturers couldn’t penetrate this local market and once in a while a fast sailor like Zajicek could really stir up a buzz just by switching camps.
Cal Cuppers ply three main training sites, each fundamentally different. Berkeley, with its long reaches, lends itself to perfecting stance, trim, and equipment. At Crissy the reaches are short, so transitions must be perfect, and, to be competitive, the racer must be quick and can’t make a mistake. Coyote Point has its own characteristics that winners learn to handle: steep, tide-induced chop and wind vortices from the planes landing at San Francisco’s airport.
Striving racer Brian MacDougall, who puts in time at each site, relishes his chance to train with fleet-leaders. This is possible on a normal practice day, but like professional athletes, when the real game begins, the big boys turn it on and move it up another level. “It’s one thing to keep up with them in an afternoon practice session,” laughs MacDougall, “and quite another to keep up with them in a real race.”
This group pushes it to the limit. For most sailors, learning how to reach includes learning not to crash. But this crew runs so powered that if they don’t fly over the handlebars every now and then, it can only mean they’ve under-rigged. On a regular basis, they sail the eight nautical miles upwind from Berkeley to Crissy and then back down. Newbies who can’t quite hack the intense currents and winds in the middle of The Bay have no worries—they can practice in the relatively protected sailing basin. Racers will still offer advice and encouragement. But, cautions Ben Bamer, a recent addition to the fleet who now manages Berkeley Board Sports, “Moving at a snail’s pace in this fleet is like moving leaps and bounds anywhere else. Just be patient, utilize the resources that are available when you have problems, and you’ll have a good time.”
What makes these boys so open with their success secrets? It goes beyond the fact that most are middle-aged and resigned to their day jobs, that the racing is purely yacht-club-style amateur, and that the sailors who dreamed of making money on the water left for Maui long ago. Steve Sylvester thinks that a primary influence on the group is Mike Zajicek himself. While Zajicek has economic incentive for people riding his boards to do well, he also has the confidence to give others what they need for success, even if it means he’ll be beaten. Just weeks before the 1997 U.S. Nationals, Zajicek made a new shape specified by Matt Pritchard; it was a whopping 23.6 inches wide. Sylvester demoed the board before it was shipped and found it incredibly better than his current ride. He told Zajicek that they all may as well sell their airplane tickets [to the Virgin Islands]—there was no point going to the Nationals with an old shape. Zajicek worked around the clock to supply the Bay team with the latest shape [and they all still got whupped by Ken Winner on his own secret weapon — the first AVS board – Ed].
At Cal Cup’s inception, sailors rode long-boards, which were long, narrow, and had centerboards. In addition to shapes made by major manufactures, Bay sailors rode local brands like Bard Chrisman Designs and Larry Tuttle’s Water Rat. Short-boards of that day were strictly slalom—without centerboards they did not sail upwind well enough to compete in a course race. All that changed as the 1990s rolled in.
One afternoon, Zajicek cruised out on a short-board to watch two professional World Cup racers test his new long-board design. While the pros conferenced on the water, Zajicek caught them handily. “At that moment, I saw that my short-board was in range,” he says, “and I knew I could make one go upwind just as well as the long-boards.” Zajicek was the first to race this venue on a short-board, and the boards began appearing in World Cup course races. The debate began over the velocity made good [VMG] of the two board types: whether sailing faster on a longer and lower course with a short-board would get the sailor to the weather mark quicker than sailing slower on a higher and shorter course with a long-board.
As short-boards developed into course-slalom shapes, they began beating the long-boards upwind, at least when it was windy. The new boards sailed scary fast, were more fun, and could get around the buoys. Everyone had to have one. Within two years, most racers abandoned their long-boards. The bigger, slower, and more controllable long-boards served a wide wind range, while the course-slalom boards needed a fresh breeze. This pressured race organizers to provide windy venues and encouraged designers to produce effective equipment for days the wind doesn’t kick in. It was a decade coming, but centimeter-by-centimeter as the boards got wider and provided a platform for bigger sails and lighter winds, the long-board’s wind-range has been regained: Today’s wide-style designs plane up in gentle winds but are controllable in a strong breeze.
Throughout the 1990s, sails held back board design. Early in the decade, sails bigger than 6.2 square meters lost too much efficiency to drive a short-board to weather. Booms needed to be stiffer, so to keep them from flexing, innovators like Baylis tied them together with a string through the sail. Masts needed to be more responsive, so manufacturers experimented with carbon and it took a while to get it right-the prototypes snapped on the beach! Components we take for granted today failed regularly—foot straps pulled up in a tight jibe and fin boxes ripped out under upwind loads.
Fin refinement was next. Rainbow introduced the high-aspect pointer fin, which was half as thick and so much faster. Board makers experimented with a finbox that retracted an adjustable-length fin, much like a dagger board. Fins remain a primary topic of discussion complete with its own argot: “jacking,” when the fin threatens to spin out; “squaring off,” a stance with the hips parallel to the booms; and “footing to the corner,” sailing a lower and faster course, which keeps the fin working when stance and sail trim fail.
The boards, sails, and fins continuously evolved and designs grew progressively faster and easier to ride. Those who could kept their kits up-to-date. But many racers groused about the sport being an equipment war. By the end of the 90s, debate raged about whether equipment or skill was more important.
One-design classes try to answer that question. Rob Hartman was one who welcomed the chance to prove that skill wins, so he put away his ASD [Advanced Surf Designs board shapers of Burlingame, California] and joined the Techno fleet. Experienced Cal Cuppers who were tired of the equipment war also went Techno, but the results were the same. “The sailors who trained hard, tuned their gear, and had or developed good racing skills still got the best results in the races,” says Hartman, who kicks butt no matter what he rides.
Going for the Bic hull, three rigs, and three fins reduced the equipment cost and made the choices easier. The Cal Cup roster swelled with newbie racers. Conceived, organized and promoted by then local shop owner and Cal Cup racer Will Harper, this fleet garnered its own class in the 1999-2001 U.S. Nationals. But the Techno design was frozen in time, while hull shapes continued to evolve. Race boards got even wider and easier to ride and could be comfortable in a wide range of wind. Naturally, the sport moved on to Formula.
The Winning Formula
The Cal Cup sanctions a version of Formula dubbed “West Coast” in which the racer’s board choice does not have to be an internationally registered shape. Each season the racer is allowed any three sails, three fins no more than 70 centimeters long, and one board no wider than 100 centimeters nor lighter than 18.5 pounds. [The board weight minimum discourages manufacturers from making throw-aways.]
Formula racers choose sails between 9.0 and 12.5. Some sailors opt out to Open Class so they can use smaller sails—8.0’s—for winds over 30 miles per hour. In a near gale, such as at the Rio Vista Cal Cup in 2002, the smaller sails win. Bigger rigs became a handicap when Percey sent the fleet up the gusty channel behind Decker Island—forces on the sails were so great that one racer broke his mast merely by dipping its tip during a waterstart.
Most Cal Cuppers ride ML100’s, which are short, fat, and slow compared to a slalom board, but their purpose is to sail extreme angles, upwind and down, with maximum VMG. “The wide platform eases transitions and levels the playing field,” explains Sylvester; “Only a handful of racers could make the course-slalom boards work, but, riding the new boards, there are many more competitive sailors.” With Cal Cup now running a C fleet, it’s even more fun for newbies to get started. Hartman sums it up: “Racing on today’s Formula gear is easier than ever and more thrilling.”
SIDE BAR— GET STARTED RACING
Here are some make-or-breaks for your racing career.
1] Sail around the course and finish. Even if the next race is started already, you’ll feel as if you’ve won a prize.
2] Discard the humiliation. No one who matters is laughing at you flounder.
3] Get past the nerves. Relax. It is not productive to be so puking nervous that you fumble your equipment.
4] Know your capabilities. Practice. Know when you can sail faster and do it.
5] Discover racing tactics. Learn how to start and pick an efficient path around the course. The only place to do this is in a real race, so get out there.
6] Move to the next level. Speed up your transitions. Perfect your trim. Nail your tactics. Win!
7] Hang on to every victory. As well as things go one race, prepare yourself to be shot out of the sky the next.
The author thanks contributors to this article for their time and interest: Emily Dale, Rob Hartman, Bob Kudrna, Don Lester, Brian MacDougall, Mike Percey, and Steve Sylvester.