“Those who can navigate chaos will win:” World Champion Casper Steinfath Tells His Heavy Water Story
When I went into Red Bull Heavy Water 2019, I was looking to defend my title. I had a greater desire to win as I knew how it felt the first time. This time, I stayed in California for the entire holding period. It feels uncomfortable to be on hold for Heavy Water because you don’t know exactly what is going to happen. Even two weeks before we could see the storm brewing across the Pacific, I knew that there was something big heading our way.
When we got the green light for the event, I could not be myself out of sheer anxiety and fear of what was about to happen. I’m nervous talking about it now, it gives me goose pumps. When the racers were at the start area before the race, it was like the calm before the storm. We were in this calm environment with nice, still water and we all just knew that in an hour we were going to be fighting for our lives.
"I reached a point where I felt like I didn’t even want to race. Psychologically, I couldn’t cope with knowing that I was about to go into something so massive."
The race kept getting postponed as we were waiting for final approval from the coastguard and in this time the fog rolled in and it was getting cold. There were all these factors that were making the experience so much more gnarlier and we hadn’t even set off yet. I reached a point where I felt like I didn’t even want to race. Psychologically, I couldn’t cope with knowing that I was about to go into something so massive.
We sat around for two hours which felt like torture and then the race finally began. We started paddling and it dawned on me that we were battling against the current. I knew it was going to take much longer to get to Ocean Beach than I anticipated.
All the men paddled as a group at first, but all of a sudden Connor Baxter tried to break the field. The pack split and it became every man for himself. My strategy going into the race was to conserve energy. The distance part of the race isn’t my strong suit, so I just wanted to find my own pace and save energy for the end with the big waves because I knew that would be the defining factor.
"I never viewed the Heavy Water as a competition between athletes, I saw it as a competition between us and mother nature… it was more of a survival race"
When we reached the Golden Gate Bridge, I could feel the raw energy of the Pacific Ocean. I could feel the swell coming at me and could see the fog roll in like a damp cloth. I felt so small compared to the huge element we were up against. I never viewed the Heavy Water as a competition between athletes, I saw it as a competition between us and mother nature… it was more of a survival race.
I reached Lands End, which is the final point before Ocean Beach. At this point, I was in 8th place. The current was still rushing in and there were eddies under the water. The ocean was like a soup at boiling point.
This is where it got weird for me, because this is where all the details slip away when I recount the story. The fog rolled in even more and we could not even see the beach. At that point I just stopped thinking. It went from being calculated to being instinctive. We entered the wave field and that’s when the fun began. We had to get into the beach three times and out to turn the buoy twice.
As I started paddling in for the first time the ocean started going flat. It made me nervous because it was too good to be true that I was going to have an easy entry to the beach. Instead of carrying on, I stopped, turned around and went back out to sea because I could feel that there was a set on its way. The sequence of photos where I’m going over the top of the wave, most people think that that was when I was fighting to get out to the buoy but no, that was a cowardly U-turn. I wanted to try and catch a wave all the way to the beach and not get beaten down by the set.
I ended up taking the wave behind it and catching it all the way to the beach. I remember that it was so foggy that I couldn’t even see the flag that I needed to turn around. As I got up on the beach, I felt like I had landed on a different planet. I see this person running towards me and it was my brother. He said, “you are in 9th place but everyone else is eating shit.” This made me get back into race mode.
"I could see everyone else just trying to get straight out to the buoy, that’s human instinct, but the shortest way out isn’t necessarily the fastest way out"
I was seeing the athletes that were in front of me; Connor was blue in the face. I couldn't believe I had caught up to everyone. Now I had to get out passed the waves. I could see everyone else just trying to get straight out, that’s human instinct, but the shortest way out isn’t necessarily the fastest. My brother spent a lot of time studying the currents and he noticed that if I ran 100 metres up the beach there was a rip current. I ran up the beach and entered the washing machine, away from everyone else.
Ocean Beach has three sectors when you go through the waves. The first sector is the inside shore break when you immediately go out. That can be head high, but that’s fairly easy to get through. You can get through the second sector if you are lucky and there’s no set, but the waves were pretty consistent. The third sector is where the big sets break. It is a lottery. You don’t know when the sets are going to break, you just have to get passed it.
I got through the first zone fine, but the second one was relentless. After about five minutes of trying, I felt the rip and I got sucked outwards. Then it got scary because I was in the third zone. When you are in danger, you have the human instinct to just get the hell out of there. But if you paddle as fast you can you’re going to burn a lot of oxygen and then if you’re unlucky and a big set does appear, you’re fucked because you have no oxygen left. So, I kept my pace down in the third zone and was just hoping I wasn’t going to get a set on my head. I barely scraped over a couple of waves.
I got to the buoy and there was a jet ski out there and the guy on it yells “you are in first place” and that’s where I lost it. I was so far behind everyone. I turned the buoy and sprinted back to the beach and caught a small wave in. There were even more racers stranded on the beach, some people had given up.
"Mentally, the Heavy Water it still affects me, it left a real psychological mark on me. When you survive something so extreme, it infests your brain"
I had to go out in the surf one more time and I decided to stick with my previous route. I saw
Arthur Arutkin and Christian Anderson ride a wave in on my second time out. That made me paddle harder and faster. At one point the waves stopped and I made a break for it. The fog was so thick, a wave could have broken 20 metres in front of me and I wouldn’t have seen it. Somehow, I made it out.
As I turned the buoy, I saw Arthur punch through the waves on the same route I had taken. I rode in on a critical wave. I knew if I made a mistake, Arthur could have caught me, but I was over it at that point. Finishing that race felt unreal and winning it was the icing on the cake. Everyone was just shocked we finished the race; I don’t think anyone thought it was possible.
For a month afterwards I could feel the physical effects. Mentally, it still affects me, it left a real psychological mark on me. When you survive something so extreme, it infests your brain. It scares me shitless but still attracts me to it every time and I can't wait to do it again.
By Casper Steinfath.