Thursday, June 2, 2011

Full on

Day 2 of the Costa Brava PWA slalom event. When you hear people like Dunkerbeck and Albeau mention that it was crazy, you can pretty much figure it was. Crazy, in fact, might be a charitable description. And yet these guys are charging. Well, some of them. It's nice to see pros getting bounced out of jibes like the rest of us when things go ballistic.

Albeau killed it, by the way, just like he did the day before (when it was merely blowing really hard). I like his understated commentary at the end, where he nonchalantly explains that he "managed some good starts, good control, and good jibing", hence winning both eliminations. In some of the footage, you can see that while world class sailors around him are bouncing out of their turns and barely holding it together, he's charging.

It's neat to see Albeau and Dunkerbeck duking it out on the tour this year. These guys are the ultimate power sailors. There was an article in Windsurfing Mag last year bitching about how guys in their late 30's/early 40's squatting at the top of the rankings don't make racing all that inspirational or aspirational for young sailors. BS - they're the freaking silver back gorillas of the sport, and any young gun trying to take over will have to be prepared for a pretty full-on battle. At least that's my interpretation (and the fact that I'm 41 and racing in a local fleet dominated by someone a few years older would surely not introduce any bias...)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Slalom object lessons

Go ahead, watch that video - it's good stuff. What you're seeing there is a fairly ho-hum PWA slalom race, right? Relatively big gear, and the camera being way up and away from the action, together with the distortion that and the long lens produce, makes it look less than exciting (side note - when will the PWA actually figure out that for less than a couple grand, they can put gopro cams on the buoys and a bunch of the boards and really produce some awesome content that shows why slalom racing gets your pulse to race at 180+? Oh well, I digress...)

While it's less than compelling viewing for the non-racing public, for racers, this thing is gold. Let's take it in order:

The Start
Albeau and Angulo near the pin, Dunkerbeck and Dagan closer to the boat, but all are hitting the line at speed. Angulo is just a wee bit ahead of Albeau, actually looks like he might have been the first to have crossed the line; he's fast, so he should be able to completely control Albeau - luff him up a bit, get to the mark ahead of him. Dunkerbeck takes advantage of the fact he's not fighting anyone (Dagan is not a threat to him), so he rolls them both. As they're coming into the first mark, he's basically won the race - proving again that a good start is crucial. There's a bit of a gamble - his line was a bit longer (the pin is usually a bit closer to the first mark, otherwise everyone would bunch up at the boat). It wasn't super windy, so he could translate the little bit of upwind advantage into speed (that, and as mentioned he didn't have to worry about a competitor close by, just focusing on going fast - which he did very well, to no one's surprise...)

First Jibe
Dunkerbeck reaps the rewards of being first at the mark - he picks a clean line, has undisturbed air and water, and gets to exit at speed, consolidating his lead. Look at Albeau and Angulo jibing behind him - these guys are world class, but their exits aren't anywhere near as fast. That's because they have to deal with disturbed air and water, as well as having to pick a line not optimized for acceleration after the transition but for competitive positioning. Albeau looks almost like he's going to roll Angulo - but he doesn't; instead, he pushes up on Dagan, takes a higher line, and gets the inside on the jibe. That positioning, along with a cleaner exit and somewhat more effective pumping allows him to roll Angulo after the jibe. Yes, there's a bunch more reaching and jibing - but at this point, the top 2 are decided.

Jibe 2 & 3
Second jibe shows again that winners make their own luck - Dunkerbeck is way ahead, gets to jibe without pressure, and consolidates his lead. Albeau is behind him, but solidly ahead of the three sailors duking it out behind him. He, too, gets to jibe free of pressure, which keeps him close to Dunkerbeck. Notice, however, that the three guys behind them are jockeying for position - look at Angulo weaving and getting off the gas a bit coming into the jibe. Not sure if that's a bobble (maybe induced by some stray chop) or an attempt to close the door on the guys behind, but that puts him and the other two even further behind. At this point, the guy who led at the start is a distant third. Look at the separation between the top 2 and the next three going into the third jibe - they're practically in a different race now. Even though Albeau hits a lull on exit, he has plenty of time to pump out of it keep way ahead of the pursuers (whilst Dunkerbeck again reaps the rewards of leadership in clean air way ahead - on entry into jibe 3, Albeau was in striking distance; upon exit, Dunkerbeck has just gotten himself the heat as long as he makes no mistakes).

Reach to Jibe 4 through Finish
It looks like the drama is over - Dunkerbeck and Albeau consolidate their 1-2 finish positions with flawless (and somewhat conservative) sailing - Albeau is too far off to challenge, so he's smart, not charging too hard. If Dunkerbeck falls, he'll get him; if not, he'll stay well ahead of the pursuers. Dunkerbeck knows that, so he just brings it home (look at his stance - he's not riding it on the ragged edge any longer).

Among the pursuers, though, the reach into jibe 4 is full of drama. Dagan attacks Angulo; Angulo takes him up, then dives down for speed to get some separation, then really takes him up going before going into the jibe. So Dagan is forced into a higher line, which he translates into an inside position at the mark. Given that the final reach is pretty far off the breeze, that shouldn't matter too much - except that Angulo isn't getting going very quickly.

At this point, though, the camera leaves these two to follow the leaders, missing something interesting. Only once the first two have finished does it pan back - revealing that Dagan has rolled Angulo. How the hell did that happen? Did Dagan capitalize on his lower weight to get going faster out of the lull at the mark? Did Angulo make some sort of mistake? Whatever it was - the guy who led off the line is now in fourth, and Dagan, who looked like despite a brilliant start he just didn't have the speed to hang with those three, just got himself a notch in his belt with a top three finish.

Dagan's performance in all of this is probably the most impressive - he's way lighter than the other three, and he looks like he's not quite as fast in a straight line (probably because of that). So he can't start at the pin - he'd get rolled by the big boys for sure. But starting higher up is not great for him either - being light, it's hard to translate that extra bit of angle into extra speed, so he's not likely to roll any of the big guys. If there'd been a big gust coming through on the first reach, the other three would have probably just put lots of distance on him; instead, he was able to hang with them. And then he just sailed a really nice, flawless, technically and tactically strong race. He kept pushing Angulo, putting on pressure, provoking mistakes, all the while staying clean himself. And at the end, he was rewarded for his persistence with an opening and took advantage of the opportunity.

Windsurfing is not a great spectator sport - it's too far away, it's hard to tell what's happening. This race is a perfect example of that - it's just not very compelling footage unless you are a racer and know what's going on. Imagine, however, that we had a video feed consisting not just of the camera high up on shore for the overall view, but also the above mentioned gopros, or perhaps handhelds on jet skis near the jibe marks, or panorama cams mounted on the marks. A few grand of equipment, two hours of editing (smells like a job for a windsurfing-addicted communications/broadcast student needing an internship project), and a bit of commentary by the sailors collected over a beer while watching the footage along the lines of "check out how he's pushing me up right there..." - presto, content compelling enough for prime time.

Too bad that the excess luggage charges apparently don't leave the PWA enough cash flow to make that investment. Perhaps a bake sale? Meanwhile, I'm getting amped to go racing next month.

Friday, May 6, 2011

There's just no substitute

There's that rush you get when you're planing along, flying the board on the fin. It's the purest form of sailing - your body an integral part of the system that converts wind power into velocity. The efficiency of modern windsurfing is staggering - in conditions like today's, on my formula gear, 10-12 knots of breeze are enough to propel you along at over twice the windspeed. And it feels easy and exhilarating, just cruising along.

With modern slalom gear, in 20-25 knots of breeze, speeds around 35 knots are doable in open water. That used to be world record territory for any sail powered craft back in the 80's - yet here we are going that fast any decent slalom session like the one I had last week. Talk about a rush.

Meanwhile, the freestylers are pushing the limits with tricks so intricate, I get dizzy watching, and the wave sailors are charging so hard, it's staggering. But for me, it's still purely about that sensation of power and motion.

I've been windsurfing since I was a kid. Back then, the sport was stand up sailing (hence that bumper sticker that's been around since the 70's). In those days, feeling the force of the wind transformed into (at the time, much slower) motion was pure magic - and it still is. Whether effortlessly cruising, or holding on for dear live on a speed run on the ragged edge of an epic wipeout - there's just no substitute...

Monday, March 28, 2011

Gotta love these guys...


As if a fully powered slalom session for lunch wasn't enough to put a big smile on my face, I was treated to a spectacular visit by a very playful pod of Harbor Porpoises (see image for what these little guys look like; photo by Erik Christensen via Wikimedia Commons). It's not rare to see porpoises in Puget Sound and Bellingham Bay. Usually, you spot one or two, sometimes a whole pod - but they usually go by in the distance. Today, as I kept going back and forth on the same 1/4 mile reach (trying to maximize my jibes - gotta practice when you get the chance...), however, a pod of six or seven of them were just hanging out playing in the same spot for almost twenty minutes. They'd go upwind, then turn around and surf the swell downwind, and once in a while they'd breach, usually when I got close.

I'm not one to anthropomorphize animals, but you can't tell me that these guys weren't out there having fun. They were playing, clearly enjoying the sheer thrill of velocity - and the similarity between that and what I was doing was pretty striking. I guess we water people all have a bit of marine mammal in us...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rites of spring

The first flowers are poking their heads up; some trees are starting to bloom, and slowly but surely, temperatures are creeping upward here in Bellingham. The skiing on Baker is still great (the base on Pan Dome is 273 inches - which is considered a normal amount up there for this time of year...), and there still are powder days to be had - but it's becoming clear that spring is on its way, and daylight savings time only adds to the manic energy that takes over this place when the light returns with a vengeance and people start shedding layers.

Today, however, marked that very special rite of spring - the first session without a hood (or gloves for that matter). It was an honest 50 degrees out. Yes, feet are still kind of chilly (water temps are around 45-46F all winter long, not much colder than in the summer - unless there's a bunch of melt-water coming down the rivers...) - but all very doable. Makes a difference, too, in how you approach your sailing - when you're not wearing gloves and can get a real grip on the boom, and when you don't feel sort of isolated/muffled under a hood, you tend to sail more aggressively.

This tends to be a good time of year for sailing up here; lots of fronts moving through, not a lot of eel grass to worry about yet. A couple months of this should get me ready for Gorge racing season - can't wait!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On life-affirming stupidity

I don't have any small b&j gear. I just don't get to sail it enough to make the investment. There's only one day or so every winter where I'll be out there on my small slalom board and 6.1, picking my way through the somewhat chaotic terrain on Bellingham Bay, and wishing I had a 4.2 Hucker and a jump board. For this winter, yesterday was that day.

The wind chart (courtesy - big shout-out to Mike Sumpter for this amazing service to the PNW wind tribe) pretty much tells the story (the Locust sensor is most representative of what's actually happening on the bay). Since it was ebbing, the water was stacking up pretty nicely, too. One of these days, I want to get Dale out here on a day like that - would be fun to see what he would do with those incredible port tack ramps.

So it was a short session; sailing slalom gear in those conditions is a bit like taking a pair of downhill race skis through a mogul field. Not exactly fun, and you never really get to equilibrium. But it sure makes you feel alive. There's just something life-affirmingly stupid about this kind of thing - I still can't quite wipe that slightly crazed grin off my face...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On deflating kites and the relative strengths of FW and slalom gear

The Lord of the Wind Showdown in Los Barrilles (Baja) got some pretty intense coverage. Lots going on, tons of good racing and freestyle/big air for both boards and kites. And, of course, a bit of friendly rivalry. David Wells of Waterhound summed it up as KP deflating the kites in the headline for his daily news digest (to which you should absolutely subscribe - it's a rather excellent daily dose of water-sports related news). Here's his write-up on it, and KP has a good report up as well.

The thing I find remarkable about this is that everyone seemed to be surprised that Kevin was able to hold off the kites downwind, whereas nobody really commented on the feat he pulled off in getting out from under them after the start and beating them to the windward mark. That held true both for the comments you heard from folks who were at the event, and on the local Pacific Northwest windsurfing newsgroup.

Conventional wisdom has it that kites suck upwind, but rock on a free downwind leg, going deeper and faster than anything else. But all last year, the kite racers have made tremendous strides in upwind performance. They've come to the point where in racing with the Bay Area formula fleet (probably the strongest amateur fleet you'll find in the US), they've proven that they can make it to the windward mark with the lead pack. Sure, they tend to foot compared to formula sailors, but with the edge they have in speed, they still put up very respectable VMG.

And it's been proven again and again that unless conditions are absolutely ballistic, FW beats big slalom gear going up - even modern big slalom gear. So you have some of the world's best kite racers on the most up to date gear. And then you have Kevin, who's easily their equal on the windsurfing side. He's riding a big slalom board and an 8.5 Ezzy Infinity. No disrespect to Dave Ezzy - but that sail is not really known as a course slalom upwind powerhouse. And still, Kevin pulls out from under the kiters after the start and beats them to the windward mark - that's an impressive performance, both for the rider and for the gear; it's amazing how versatile big slalom gear has become.

And then there's the downwind, and everyone seems to expect a massacre - but it doesn't happen. Kevin stays in front. Impossible, is it not? Except it isn't. Something funny happened in kite evolution in the last few years. Racing kite boards have become very wide with very fat tails, and they run very big fins - a trend similar to the evolution of formula boards. And downwind is all of a sudden a bit harder - I had several kiteracers tell me that in rough water, going downwind can be pretty character building. Yes, they are still way faster off the breeze than FW - but that's where another interesting thing has happened.

Big slalom gear has become an amazing downwind weapon - not just downwind as in downwind slalom (somewhat broad reaches), but downwind as in deep and fast on a free downwind leg. We've seen this in the Blowout, where Bruce started going out on his 8.2 and big slalom board three years ago. On the top half of the course, I was able to stay with him, even pull ahead once in a while on my 9.9 and FW board. In the corridor, when the breeze picked up a couple notches, it wasn't even close - he went just as deep as I did, but way faster.

I've tested this since then with others - and when you're fully powered on a big slalom board, and the water is somewhat rough, not only are you more comfortable than your buddy on FW - you're also making your way downwind a lot faster.

This all leads me to thinking about the SF Classic. That race has a couple small triangles on the top of the course, usually in lots of breeze under the bridge (with a weak spot on the inside mark where everyone is slogging for a bit). Then there's lots of broad and beam reaching all the way down to Berkeley. If you didn't care about placing well in the upwind Challenge that starts as a time trial with your finish in the Classic, if it was pretty windy, and if there were a big ebb helping you out with the upwind legs under the bridge, that race just might call out for big slalom gear. It would certainly be worth the experiment - and it would be a hoot as well, since all that reaching across the bay would actually be fun instead of being strictly character building. If I get a chance to come down for that this year and the conditions are right, I might just try that...