What scares you (shitless)?

I would be lying if I said I was comfortable standing on that startline. The sun was shining and it was one of those last warm October days in San Francisco. However, the atmosphere was eerie and an anxiety trickled like electricity between us competitors. This was more than just a race and we knew it. For me, the Red Bull Heavy Water is more about survival than stand up paddle racing. For me, it was a full circle and the next chapter in the battle between my biggest dreams and greatest nightmares.

I fear water. I especially fear big waves! Yet, for some reason my life has come to revolve around this very fluctus and wild element. As a kid I had a lot of anxiety around surfing because I feared the ocean would kill me, and to this day I still carry a strong anxiety and respect for the ocean. My dad thought I would never become a surfer and instead my life would go in a different direction.

Twenty years or so later, I will admit I was extremely nervous going into Red Bull Heavy Water 2019. This race is - hands down - the wildest SUP race in the world. Paddling through 10-15 feet high raging surf with the iconic city of San Francisco as backdrop is something I truly will never ever forget. After winning the race last time in 2017 (the last time it was held), I also felt the added pressure of being a defending event champion.

When the starter blew the horn 21 of the World’s elite SUP racers, men and women, flew out of the gates at full speed in the San Francisco Aquatic Park. The infamous Red Bull Heavy Water chase was ON! The water was dead calm at the start, but we knew it would be very different when we crossed the finish line 18 km later at Ocean Beach. In fact, things quickly took a turn for the wilder.

Raging Current at the Golden Gate Bridge

The first point of adversity hit us racers immediately after the first 200 meters when we rounded the corner of the pier and set course for the Golden Gate Bridge. A fresh wind blew into our faces and the intensity of paddling went up a notch.Some guys sighed quietly. It was going to be a loooong grind. As we neared the Gate, which is known for some of the strongest and most treacherous currents in the world, our lead group separated. Connor Baxter and Mo Freites led a break out group that used some wave refractions off the bridge to slide ahead and create a small gap between the rest of us. Their tactic was clear, to create a gap at the beginning of the race that would give them a better chance and more time to clear the waves at the finish line. It was a risk for them, because conserving needed energy was where it would all come down to at the end.

When I won the event in 2017, I had learned many valuable lessons. The main one being that I am not stronger than this relentless ocean and that I should not aim to overpower the conditions. Instead, I should seek to humbly navigate through the chaos and sometimes even take the longer route. Especially with the course being reversed this year, I had planned to keep my explosive energy in reserve and only use it for the final push. That too was a competitive gamble. Time would tell which tactic would prove the better.

As we cleared the Gate the current only got worse and worse. With a speed of nearly 5 knots, the flooding tide nearly brought us to a complete standstill. It felt like we were climbing a never ending mountain. It was super frustrating, but together with James Casey and young Christian Andersen we navigated through it. One stroke at a time. Thanks to the expert ocean modelling of my Danish friend Simon Mortensen, I forged a path through the strong currents which was very helpful.

Then came the corner at Land’s End. After paddling hard for nearly two hours, we could now see our destination at Ocean Beach. Well… we couldn’t see it, but we could definitely hear the roar of the huge Pacific swell crashing onto the beach! The fog unexpectedly rolled in and added a new challenging element to this already crazy race course. Some would say this was the fun part coming up. They’ve never lived it.

Red Bull Heavy Water Finish at Ocean Beach’s Pounding Shore Break

In the final challenge of the race, we were expected to paddle an M-course and complete three laps through the massive surf. I think we were all pretty tanked at this point. I remember approaching my first landing on the beach next to James Casey when the set of the day came crashing down next to us. I was scared and completely out of breath. I opted to paddle back out to deeper water and caught one of the smaller waves in instead. I was scared. James went for it. The pictures of the situation looked quite heroic but I think James got a pretty solid washing there!

On the beach my whole team, including my brother Peter, would end up playing a very critical role for me. As I washed up on shore completely out of breath, my brother helped calm me and explained to me what course he suggested for me to take back out through the blinding surf to the outside buoy. Peter was like my air traffic control tower and I was the plane navigating blindly in the fog. I was sitting in 9th place at this point.

The fog thickened. Imagine running the equivalent of a marathon and then having to jump hurdles for another hour or so blindfolded. This was what was happening, but the hurdles had been replaced with 10 foot waves. We could not really see the swell coming in through the fog, so it came down to reacting by feeling and instinct; thereby, anticipating the time of impact. Everyone was struggling. No one had made it back out past the waves yet. Everyone was getting beat up!

I remember standing on the beach for a minute looking at the battlefield. Part of me was scared and just wanted to call it quits and go home. But another part of me had different plans. With adrenaline coursing through my veins, I jumped on my trusty Naish Maliko and darted towards the endless mountains of white water. Was I reckless? I don’t feel so. I had a plan and saw patterns in the water moving. I believed I had the skills to navigate this beast.

Minutes went by like seconds. I fought. I went over waves and I went under waves. I considered giving up but tried to keep my head calm. I kept paddling and waiting. Waiting for that moment where the ocean would calm down just enough for me to squeak passed the 10-15 foot crushing waves that were denying us access to the great Pacific Ocean. Then it happened.

A flash rip current flared up to my left and suddenly it was like a river sucked me outwards. I was scared. It felt out of control. But I went with it, knowing that this was my ticket out. I paddle sprinted like I had never sprinted before knowing that this could either end in glory or complete disaster… I made it.

As I rounded the outside buoy and returned to the beach I was euphoric. I caught a solid wave on my Naish Maliko 14 x 23’’ and rode it all the way up the beach. I had no idea what place I was in, but it already felt like a victory just having survived a lap through the surf. My brother screamed “YOU ARE IN FIRST PLACE”. It was surreal, but in that moment I knew that I had a shot at winning the event and defending my title. I had come to terms with my fear and now realized it no longer was a hindrance. It was a strength. It was the fear that allowed me to make the right decisions and I could use it to my advantage. Game On!!

The dance continued. As I went out for my last lap, I saw Arthur Arutkin coming back to the beach just behind me. The struggle in the water was immense. I tried to not waste my power and again just wait for that moment when the water flushed back out. I knew I was not the king of the ocean and was at the mercy of some natural powers greater than me. Breathe in, breathe out. Patiently waiting. Hoping. Then it happened again. I darted through the fog towards what I assumed was the horizon. I climbed over that first wave, then had to dive under the second one. I jumped back up and clawed my paddle through the water frantically to barely squeak over a third monster wave. The last wave. Heart racing. I was free.

As I reached the beach again I was crying with joy. My team was screaming and my brother was jumping up and down. We had done it. I had defended my title and become the only person ever to twice win the Red Bull Heavy Water.

Leaning Into the Fear: Riddles of Success

How did I overcome my fear of water and why did I do it? I really wanted to surf with my friends as a kid, so it forced me to face my fear. It was not easy, but it allowed me to open new doors and become a water expert.

I‘m not sure that anxiety is ever a good thing, but I know for sure that fear can be beneficial.

We all have anxiety and fear. I think success depends on how we use them. On the one hand, we can become paralyzed and choose to steer clear of anything adverse that seems dangerous.

Or, we can instead choose to steer towards it and learn to embrace our anxiety and fear to grow as humans. Sometimes it hurts, but being afraid and facing something scary also makes us feel even more alive. I don’t think it was despite my hydrophobia as a kid that I won Red Bull Heavy Water. I think it was because of it.

Editor’s Note:

The 2019 Red Bull Heavy Water only saw 5 finishers to the race course that day, all of them men. Out of 21 of the world’s best stand up paddlers, five completed this dangerous and technical race course which included fighting a 5 knot current under the Golden Gate Bridge for two hours, navigating through the wind & dense fog and challenging the relentless 14-18 foot surf at Ocean Beach, California 3X. Every racer in that water fought bravely to complete the course and each were pushed to their athletic limits as well as facing fear of the unknown and terrifying surf. At Standup Journal, we believe that each of these tenacious men and women deserve a medal for their efforts that day. The Red Bull Heavy Water teaches more than it triumphs and every paddler has their story. From all of us here, we salute you! Best of luck to competitors in 2020. Stay tuned…

Men's Results:

1st Place: Casper Steinfath (Denmark)

2nd Place: Arthur Arutkin (France)

3rd Place: Mo Freitas (Hawaii)

4th Place: Christian Anderson (Denmark)

5th Place: Zane Schweitzer (Hawaii)