Monday, December 3, 2007

FW Worlds - lessons from Antoine's Domination

The FW Worlds just concluded in Brazil, and the results speak for themselves. I think it's fair to say that Antoine Albeau pretty much dominated the event. If you look through the reports linked from the Formula Windsurfing website, and you watch some of the videos available through those links, or read some of Dennis Littel's or Steve Bodner's commentary, you'll again and again find comments to the extent that Antoine was just flying - comments made even by people like Gonzalo and Wojtek.

So what happened here? I think the short version is that Antoine is just a force. I raced the 2003 Midwinters in Florida, where he was using a crappy board (an outdated AHD design) in super light air (I was barely powered most of the time on my 12.5, and he was probably at least 20 pounds heavier than me at the time). He won that event, in front of people like Kevin Pritchard and Wojtek B. (who, if I remember correctly, was the reigning world champ at the time). He's been doing great in formula racing even in light air events like the 2006 Europeans and 2006 Worlds - both events extremely sketchy windwise, putting a heavy sailor at a severe disadvantage.

So Brazil served up some conditions you'd consider to be more to his liking - but it wasn't San Francisco style survival FW sailing. If you read Steve Bodner's reports, he rarely got into powered up 9.9 territory. Antoine was still using the 12.5 for most of the regatta. And he just took off on the fleet. He threw out a third, and his next throwout would have been a second. If he hadn't raced at all the last day, he still would have won - yet he came out and competed fiercely that day.

Prior to the Worlds, Windsurf Journal had an article that mentioned they witnessed Antoine testing a stack of something like 30 Deboichet formula fins in preparation for the event (not archived, it seems, so I can't provide a direct link). Is that's what's going on? Did the guy just out-fin everyone? Doubtful - for sure, he probably was the most tuned up, and he probably had some very fast fins that no one else had (that's the perk when you do fin development with the maker). But the top 10 were all on Deboichet or Kashy custom fins, most of which are truly custom and would be hard to come by for any of us (consistency and reproducibility of wet lay up-molded fins is a whole other topic, and one of the reasons I'm so stoked about working with Dave Lassila of Finworks...).

And sure, as the lead racer guy for NP, his NP's were probably more tweaked than anyone else's - but again, none of the top guys would have a hard time getting support from their sailmakers to get their sails to be exactly what they want them to be. That's certainly true of Steve Allen (a former world champ himself, and leading the pack charging after Antoine in this championship).

So some long-distance analysis can't really get stuck on gear - that's part of it, but it's a tuning thing more than the availability of magic silver bullets. And it can't get stuck on his size - as it wasn't THAT windy (Wilhelm Schurman, winner of the lightweight division, can be seen in some pics and videos using an 11.8 on one of the days - a day when Antoine got three bullets). And then you look at the fact that the guy fully dominated PWA slalom racing this year. And you have to take note that, on his first day ever on the Masters' of Speed canal in Southern France, he went over 46 knots in suboptimal conditions - and then goes on to say in the interview that he likes the speed 'racing' format better b/c it's more intense - I think we're starting to understand what's happening here.

Antoine has a lot of stuff going for him (or is making a lot of stuff happening for himself, more likely...). He's clearly incredibly talented. He's physically strong. He's well prepared and tuned. He's got a ton of experience. And, as can be seen from that comment about intensity after the speed thing (as if going 46+ knots wasn't intense in and of itself...), he's very much a competitor at heart (hey, the guy didn't sit out heats or events he didn't need to sail to keep his overall wins - why risk injury or equipment damage unless you're in it to compete, rather than "just" to win?).

But there's something else here - most competitors play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Few seem to be able to convert weaknesses to strengths. There's nothing more logical than for a big sailor like Antoine to always sail larger gear than his opponents - reduce your weakness (that whole light air/heavy sailor physics handicap), and maximize your strength (take advantage of your ability to control big stuff when the breeze picks up). And most of them do it. But it seems like he's managed to do it to an extent that's truly astonishing - check out the gear registration for the event. This place is known to be windy. Like Albeau, Wojtek registered a 12.5. Unlike Albeau, he then went to 10.7 and 9.0 from there. Albeau went to 11.8 and registered 10.7 as his smallest sail.

That was more pronounced in the 2007 PWA slalom events (unfortunately, they don't seem to archive the gear registration pages for those events, so I'm going from memory here) - throughout the season, Albeau would register bigger sails and boards than both Dunkerbeck and Micah Buzianis in pretty much each and every event. Both of those guys are first rate slalom contenders, and the same size as Antoine. Yet they consistently chose smaller gear - probably to "insure" against epic conditions that would enable them to get on smaller gear when things picked up, and then use their size and leverage for out-of-this-world straight line speed. That used to clearly be Dunkerbeck's game plan (and if memory serves, he dominated the World Cup that way for a long time). Antoine has found a way to tweak control over his big gear when it gets gnarly to where he doesn't have a speed disadvantage, while also having ample power in the holes - and he dominates with it.

What's all that got to do with the average sailor, you ask? Nothing really - after all, these are racers, and we all know that racers are a different breed, right? Except, how many people do you see in your spot who always seem to be rigged for their strengths? If you look at big sailors vs. small sailors, you often find that the smaller guys are on relatively big gear, while the big guys are on relatively small gear - meaning the gear-size-gap between people of different size isn't nearly as big as you'd expect (and is it would need to be to equalize planing and control thresholds).

It's almost as if the big guys are so ecstatic when things go ballistic and they're the only ones able to hang on, they live for those moments and generally discount the misery that comes from too-small gear during the rest of their sessions. Conversely, you've got all those light sailors who are always the first to plane, and who seem to be using relatively large gear - as though they're so hooked to planing by a bunch of people slogging that they couldn't care less about getting blown off the water when it picks up.

In many ways, that kind of behavior is pretty natural - we all have our identity, and whatever confirms us in that seems to be accepted. If you're a big guy and you get blown off the water because you rig big, maybe it's not that conducive to your self image. Maybe a little guy can't stand the thought of some heavy sailor planing just as early. So you go out and play to your strength, and just completely write off the other side of the spectrum - after all, a negative outcome on that end is easily explained and involves no loss of self-esteem ("sure, I was bobbing while everyone else was planing, but hey, they're all pencil-necks...").

I've succumbed to this, as well. Check out this race report I did after the US Nationals long-distance day. You'll note that I seem to just accept the fact that I was under-powered, anticipating big breeze at the bottom of the course. Well, the other guys (especially the lighter ones) clearly were more appropriately rigged. But for a big guy, saying "I was under-powered" is pretty painless (hey, it's the wind after all). Admitting that I chickened out on rigging big (a risk a bunch of lighter competitors who were on the same size gear as me were willing to take) apparently didn't come to mind.

If that all seems like a bunch of psycho-babble, think again. Game theory has confirmed people's tendency to err towards things that confirm their bias, even if "objectively" they are creating suboptimal outcomes for themselves. Antoine seems to have broken through that - he's apparently confident that he won't get blown off the water even with bigger gear unless the whole fleet suffers the same fate. And in return, he's denying the lighter guys their light-air advantage.

So put that on the to-do list for maximizing your racing outcomes (or just having more fun on the water) - along with skill, determination, training, tuning, ....


Catapulting Aaron said...

Brilliant analysis of the size question. Great read. I'm not a racer, but I can definitely appreciate what you are saying...

Anonymous said...

Great post.

I think Wojtek is probably the only guy who has ever done this before. If you remember back a few years on the RS3's, Wojtek won an event at Lake Garda (+100 in the fleet) whereby he won about 12 out of 15 races, or something like that. That's TOTAL domination!

I asked Steve Allen what he thought about Brazil. He suggested there were some tricky shifts on the course despite what the 'consistent winds' made it look like in the photos and many times he lost the lead in the final downwind to Antoine. Closer than it looks on paper I guess.

My own comments were just the shear size of Antoine. That's an incredible power-to-weight ratio and the last World Championships didn't had consistent enough (whether its consistently light, or heavy) wind for him to take advantage of this I would think...

But in Brazil, wow, imagine what kind of pressure he would apply to his fins through those big legs. That HAS to be fast. I imagine the Brazillian who did well is also a big guy looking through the photos?

Ps. Thanks USA-4 for pointing out this blog to me ;)

G-42 said...

I agree - pure physics are a pretty compelling factor here. But the way AA has been using his advantages is extraordinary. And then zero in on your conversation with Steve Allen for a minute - Antoine caught him on the downwinds. That suggests good tactics and excellent speed downwind - not necessarily something where huge size gives you a decisive advantage. That's what impresses me about the guy's approach - he puts together a complete package and makes it stick. Good on him!

Same is true for Steve, by the way. He maximizes his strengths, and he's consistent. That's why he's won in the past, and that's why he was a real threat to Antoine on this one.