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...