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...