Friday, December 25, 2009

Windsurfing in Tobago

We just came back from a week of windsurfing in Tobago. Even though the wind did not quite play along, we had a great time. Tobago is definitely a place to consider for windsurfing (and kitesurfing) vacations, so here are some details about our trip.


Getting to Tobago from the US
We had booked most of our windsurf vacations through Vela or similar outfits, where you can book the hotel and windsurf equipment. We did not find a place in the US that offers Tobago trips, so we had to find everything ourselves. We used TripAdvisor to select the Sun Spree Hotel (formerly Mermaid Hotel), and booked it through Yes Tourism. Flights to Trinidad are often cheap, we payed about $500 per person. We had a late arrival, but had a room for the night reserved with Yes Tourism. The room was at Leo's Place, a guest house near the airport. The room was basic, but clean, and Leo picked us up and dropped us off after breakfast the next morning. Flights from Trinidad to Tobago leave every hour, take 20 minutes and can be booked for about $30 on Expedia.
Based on what we had read and seen on the maps, we decided to walk to the hotel - perhaps a 15 minute walk. The hotel looked nice, and the staff was very helpful. We were able to check in right away, and on the day we left, we were given a room were we could shower in the evening. It certainly helped that the hotel was almost empty, as were most other hotels in the week before Christmas.
We had booked equipment at Radical Sports Tobago by email. The windsurf place is in Pidgeon Point, a nice beach park that's a 30 minute walk away from the hotel. We only had to walk a few minutes, though, before a cab picked us up and drove us the rest of the way, for $3. At the entrance to Pidgeon Point, we had to pay $15 per person for a one-week pass.
Windsurfing
Radical Sports was easy enough to find at the tip of the park. During our entire stay, there were only 2-4 other windsurfers there, so we always had our pick of windsurf equipment. They had a nice selection of Starboard and Mistral boards, many of them new or as good as new. Sails were North and Tushingham sails, up to 8.5 m.


After grabbing a quick snack at a beach bar, we sailed on the equipment we had reserved - for me, a Starboard Futura 133, with a 7.0 m sail. I ended up being a bit underpowered, and was not quite happy with the Futura. The Futura was fine once planing, and ok when schlogging - but I had a hard time to get it to plane, and ended up being catapulted a few times. I later switched to a Mistral Screamer 130, which I found much easier to get onto a plane, even though it seemed quite a bit smaller.
We had know that getting good wind would be a matter of luck - the windy season is just starting towards the end of December, with the best wind in March and April (similar to Margarita Island, which is not that far away). So we were prepared to practice light-wind tricks, which we did the next day. To get back to the hotel, we rented bikes at Radical Sports ($50/week).
The bay that we surfed in is protected by a reef on the outside, so the swell was limited. However, there definitely was some swell, especially compared to Lac Bay in Bonaire (or Fogland in southerly winds). The swell was highest the first day, when the wind was onshore, and the waves had about a mile and a half to build up. On most other days, the wind direction was more sideshore, and the swell was smaller. Good balance training for light wind, though.
The third day was my wife's birthday. She hates the cold, and was very happy to be in the Carribean. The Radical Sports kite surf instructor from Germany, Christian, offered to take us on a little boat tour to see the attractions in the bay - a sand bar peninsula named "No Mans Land", and the "Nylon Pool" - a spot near the reef where the water is shallow enough to stand, so lots of glass bottom boots ferry tourists over there for a swim. Pretty funny to look at, but a very nice trip.


On the light wind days, I took the opportunity to try a Starboard Kode 122 freestyle board. I liked it a lot better than the Futura 133 - it behaved well when schlogging, but really wanted to jump onto a plance when gusts hit.  But when the wind picked up on our last days in Tobago, I usually picked large equipment, including 8.5 m sails, to have a chance to plane. Speed addiction...

We had one day of nice wind, were I was planing on a 7.5 m sail (and probably could have planed on a 6.5). I really enjoyed the sailing in the bay - lots of space, very few other windsurfers and kite surfers, just an annoying jet ski every now and then.

Considering my large equipment, I did not try any loop attempts - but the loop pre-exercise from the Tricktionary was a lot of fun when we did low-wind tricks.


Food

One great thing in Tobago was the food. At Pidgeon Point, we could get simple stuff like sandwiches cheap. The big meals were breakfast and dinner, and we had quite a few positive surprises there. The local special for breakfast is salted fish.


It is prepared a bit different at the different restaurant. We were able to have breakfast at the restaurant at our hotel only once - after the first day, the restaurant was closed most of the time, or used for private functions. No big loss, though, since it forced us to explore. The next hotel, the Toucan Inn, was just a 3 minute walk away, and had excellent breakfast and dinner, in a very nice poolside location. Another place we went to was the Iguana Cafe, a 3 minute bike ride from our hotel. Again, the breakfast was great, and service very friendly.
For dinner, we ended up eating three times in a pizzeria - thin crust brickoven pizza, better than what you get in 99% of other pizzerias. Cost per person for breakfast and dinner was usually about $10-15.
In comparison...
How does Tobago compare to other windsurf destinations? Here are some random observations.
  • The bay is large, and very scenic. The hills in the background are beautiful, and there is plenty of space on the water.
  • What's missing is night life like in Cabarete, and a nice little city center like in Bonaire. There are a few restaurants to choose from, and a disco somewhere that we did not look at. 
  • If you go to Tobago, make sure to bring ear plugs! There are lots of free running chicken, and the roosters start getting loud really early. Can be a problem if you are noise sensitive (I am), but ear plugs will fix it.
  • Another thing that I did not see in Tobago was obvious poverty, similar to levels you see in Cabarete or some other islands in the Caribbean. Both streets and houses were generally in good condition, and I felt safe at all times. Almost everyone we met was very friendly, but in a somewhat non-american way: instead of big smiles and handshakes at the beginning, people got friendlier when you knew them for a (little) while.
  • The wind was not the greatest, but good enough from keeping us on the beach every day. We should have rented a car to drive around the island, but never did. Other windsurf place in the Caribbean (Bonaire, Margarita) also have not-so-great wind at this time of the year. In Tobago, the wind comes across the island, and might be a couple of knots less than in Lac Bay, where it comes straight from the ocean. But when going on a windsurf trip in the Caribbean in the middle of December, it's probably always a good idea to be prepared for light-wind days.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Go Pro Heros

When I feel compelled to write about companies, it's usually because they p'd me off. But once in a while, I find a company makes great products, sells them at a great price, and has outstanding customer support. That's my short description for GoPro.

I just got my Xmas and birthday present from my lovely wife - a GoPro Hero HD helmet camera. Of course, I had to test it right away. The results were great - the quality is just outstanding. Here is a short example:




(To watch directly on YouTube, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2YK12NSlAr4 - make sure to click the HD icon on the lower left corner to get the highest quality!)

I go the camera before Xmas because we are going on a short windsurf trip to Tobago soon, where we plan to use the camera a lot. The HD version of the camera is brand new, we had to pre-order it directly from GoPro. They tried to keep people up to date with the expected shipment dates, but is seems they were overwhelmed with orders. When they updated the expected shipment dates a few days ago, it seemed unlikely that we would get the camera in time for our trip.

We contacted their support and asked if there was anything they could do. We got two answers within 24 hours, apparently from 2 different people. Both said that we would probably get the camera in time. A day or two later, we got another email from GoPro support. This time, they said they could not be certain that we would receive the camera before the trip, and suggested that we pick up a camera at a local REI store. They included a list of the closest stores, with location and phone number.

We called the stores right away, and the third store had 4 cameras in stock (with another 56 cameras in the warehouse). They were kind enough to hold one for us, and we picked it up an hour later. Then, we canceled the order we had placed with GoPro using their web form - no problem. We had ordered a couple of 16 GB Kingston SDHC cards at Newegg.com, since some people had reported problems with other cards. But to try the camera on the warm and windy day of November 3rd, I had to get a card locally. I was lucky, the 8 GB SanDisk speed 4 card worked, as the video above shows.

Lovely experience to do business with GoPro - great product at a great price ($299 for a waterproof HD video camera!), and fast, proactive support that really wants to help you. I wish there were more companies like this one out there...

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cold feet or: Freud lives!

It was just too windy to stay home today. Looking at the wind readings, Fogland seemed the best place to go to: low twenties at first, then jumping to high twenties, but a lot less variation than other spots except Chapin. Since my wife did not want to go, I just put a board and a few sails in the car, instead of taking the trailer.

When I arrived, there were three windsurfers and two kiters in the bay. The guy I talked to was on a 4.7, Igor was on a 5.3, so I rigged the 5.0. When I was done rigging, I discovered that I had forgotten my boots! I don't mind windsurfing when air and water are both around 50 Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celcius), but I like to have warm feet. I had brought my neoprene socks that I usually wear inside my booties, so I decided to go for it, anyway.

The wind had picked up by now, and I started with a nice catapult when the first gust hit (later learned that it was gusting up to 39 mph). The chop in the NNW wind was rather high for a flatwater surfer like me - quite different from the flat water I usually see in Fogland during SW winds. I did not really get comfortable, and slipped on the board a few times when turning and starting. With the added time in the water, I was not quite sure if my feet were painfully cold, or if I had lost feeling in my toes - maybe both.

After surfing back in and slipping some more on the next run, I decided to call it a day. Had I had my boots, I would have rigged the 4.2, and tried some more - the wind was still picking up, with gusts to 44 mph. Real bummer - I was hoping to set some personal speed records. Would have worked, too, despite the chop and a board that was too large for the conditions (Screamer 116): in the first run, my top speed was 45 km, even though I never really got dialed in! Barely hanging on is more a more accurate description. But after getting used to the conditions switching to a smaller sail, 55 or 60 kmh should have been possible .. oh well.

So I got home early, and decided to stow the gear away for the winter. This had been the second not-so-great windsurf day in a row - and we'll be in the Caribbean in a few weeks. Forgetting the shoes today was a Freudian slip that should not be ignored..

Here's a few things to-do things I put on my list for the next season:
  1. Bring your boots!
  2. If it's really windy, bring the trailer (or at least the small board).
  3. Surf more in chop! Bonaire, Fogland, and Duxbury are all very nice, but heavy chop is rather different, and requires some practice. We need to sail more in Kalmus, Ned's, Fogland during NW, and Duxbury during SW - or maybe go back to Cabarete for summer vacations.
A great fall season it was, though, with 18 sessions since September 22.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Da Da Da (Downhaul Right!)

I have been windsurfing for 30 year now, and I just discovered the right way to thread the downhaul line, after doing it wrong for many years... To my defense, I learned rigging at the time of the original windsurfer, before we had all these fancy pulleys - but I had pulleys in the sail and the mast extension for more than 10 year, and always threaded the line wrong, until I stumbled on this great instruction video on the "Lost in Hatteras" blog.

Funny how much easier downhauling is if the lines are not twisted. Maybe now I have a chance to downhaul my NP V8 8.5 m sail somewhere close to the specs; so far, I've never been able to get closer than 3 inches without snapping lines.

Thanks for the video, Andy (McKinney, not Brandt, for a change), and for teaching me a little humility :)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Three Great Days at Duxbury

I windsurfed each of the last 3 days in Duxbury - great days with wind averages from 20 to 25 knots. I ended with improved jibes and tacks, three new personal bests for speed, and a broken boom tail end.

Wednesday, 11/11/09: Jibes, tacks, gloves
We had the day off because of Veteran's Day. The forecast called for N to NE winds, so we decided to go to Duxbury in the morning. Only problem were the tides - low tide at 12:30, so we had to get up at 7:30. It was rather chilly at the beach - about 7 degrees Celsius, with wind in the upper twenties (mph). It was almost 11 before we actually started surfing. We chose the north side of Powder Point bridge, and water was getting pretty low. We ended up running aground a few times, and having to wade through muck - juck! However, the wind was just perfect: averages around 27, lulls of 23, gusts of 32. Rarely, if ever, did I surf more constant wind.

I started working on flipping my sail earlier in my jibes. I had thought a bit why I slowed down so much during my jibes (even when planing through), and the late sail flip seemed the most likely culprit. I remembered a clinic in Margarita, where the Tom Mastbaum stated that an earlier sail flip made the biggest different. I tried it, and it worked - I was quite amazed how much more speed I was able to carry through the turn. GPS analysis showed that I got the best jibe score ever on the 120l Nova (52%), and in my best jibe, the minimum speed was 23 kmh - a nice improvement. The strong wind certainly helped. Looking at the GPS tracks, you can see that the jibe entry was nice and smooth, but that there is room for improvement after the sail flip. Still, I had a lots of fun. I also improved my alpha racing personal best by10% in the run with the best jibe - without even focusing on speed.

As the water was getting lower, I found that I had to tack on the bridge side to avoid the shallows. My planing tacks on big boards like my Techno 293 are good, but I often had problems on the 120l board. But I remembered by ABK lessons from last year, and switched sides while still fully planing. So much easier - no more problems with nose or tail dives! I ended up with a close to 100% success rate on the tacks.

We had to stop after one hour, because the water levels where getting to low; we could actually see the ground for about half of the bay. As I was sailing back towards the bridge, at a distance from the shore that I thought was safe. Going about 40 kmh and just getting ready to slow down, the board suddenly ran aground and stopped, while I kept going. My wife was watching and said it looked pretty dramatic - I thought it was a lot of fun. The landing was soft, and for once, I was glad abou the muck. Water depth was just 4 inches where I had landed. Time to go home.

My wife had run aground a bunch more times, so she did not have as much fun, and said maybe that would be the last time surfing for her this year. She had tried out her modifications to the Neil Pryde gloves: she had cut out the Neoprene on the inner side of the fingers on one hand, and on the fingers and the palm on the other hand. This was based on a recent visit at Inland Sea, where we had seen palmless gloves, and chatted about them with Phil. I had also seen a post on the iWindsurf forum, describing the same idea. Worked beautifully; while she had barely been able to hold the boom and mast before in these gloves, she had no problem at all now.


Thursday, 11/12/09: Long distance speed
Another day that looked great in the forecast. Winds were blowing above 20 when I got up at 6, so when I dropped my daughter off at the commuter rail, I had the trailer hooked up, and was at Duxbury at 7:30 am. The wind came from a more easterly direction, so I sailed on the south side of the bridge, close to the far shore, where the water is nice and calm. I was fully powered on my 7.0 Matrix, but the wind was clearly below 30. Since the south side of Duxbury bay allows for long runs, I decided to go for long-distance personal speed records - nautical mile and 1 hour. My first 10 or so jibes were dry and ok, but then I started getting too many spinouts. I figured I had caught some grass and decided to tack to get rid of it. I got rid of the grass, but lost the rhythm, and fell during the next jibe. Still, I improved both my nautical mile and 1-hour personal bests. The one hour average went up from 27 to 33 kmh, which improved my ranking on GPS speedsurfing from about 800 to about 400 (of ~1700 sailors) - nice. Only drawback was that I was sailing alone - my wife had a belt test the next day, and did not want to be sore.


Friday, 11/13/09: Boom!
Winds were in the upper 20s again, and northeasterly. I started later, staying on the south side again. This time, I rigged a North Natural 6.2. Had not sailed this sail much, and needed a while to adjust the harness lines. Tried to go for short distance speed records, the wind was certainly good enough. My best average is about 46 kmh (average of five 10-second runs). I had a hard time getting faster than 47 kmh, though, and ended up with a 1 sec max of 49.68. The wind certainly would have permitted more, the water was flat - this seems to be close to the max for the 120l Nova (the best 1 sec speed I got on this board was just above 50). I had been thinking about using my wife's Mistral Screamer 116, which can go quite a bit faster. But the first time I used this board, I dinged it, which made here rather unhappy; and since it was Friday the 13th, I decided to stick to my old Nova.
For the first time in these 3 days, I saw other windsurfers on the water, coming from the far end of the bay. I decided to check it out, and sailed all the way over there - a nice 5 km run.

After about an hour, I decided to go to the North side of the bridge. After just a few runs, I ran aground in a region I though was much deeper. The board first slowed down for a few meters, then stopped completely. Getting up from the resulting fall, I discovered that the tail end of the Chinook triple clamp aluminum boom was completely bent. I had used it at close to the maximum length, but the fall had not really been that hard. Oh well - at least I broke the least expensive part of the equipment.

Looking at the GPS record, I discovered that I had improved my best for the nautical mile to 43.48 kmh - not bad for a board that seems to max out at 50. I improved a couple of hundred spots on GPS speedsurfing, but I'm still a lot further back than for 1-hour averages.
 --
Three great days at Duxbury. Hard to understand why so few other windsurfers were out, especially on Veterans day. Learned to love my Gaastra Matrix 7.0 even more - had more fun with it on Wednesday then on the North Natural 6.2 on Friday, with very similar wind.

I started thinking about new boards. Andy Brandt said it's time for a freestyle board to start new style tricks. I'd also be interested in something faster than my trusty old Nova 120. Looked a bit for dedicated speed boards, but they seem to be hard to come by in the US. After paying for a gold membership on GPS speedsurfing and doing some searches by board brand, I discovered that I should be able to go faster on three of the boards we have. Both the AHD and the Mistral Screamer have been clocked at 60 kmh top speeds, and JP Freestyle Wave boards in the 90l range have been clocked at around 65 kmh. Looks like I picked the wrong board on Friday!

Last year, I stopped windsurfing in October, and still remember being cold the last couple of times I went. This year, after a modest investment in a better wetsuit and a few other things, I was comfortably warm while windsurfing in October and November. I think this really helps getting better. This time of the year, I only go when the wind is likely to be great, which happens often enough. That means smaller sails and smaller boards - I don't even consider using my largest sail or board, which I usually have to sail in the summer to get going. With all the practice, I have become quite comfortable on the smaller board. I may end a day thinking that my jibes stunk - but they usually were dry > 90% of the time, and the jibe scores on a "bad" day are still better than the scores I got on the same board during the summer. Can't wait to play around in Tobago and Bonaire again, where the warm shallow waters encourage risk taking. We just signed up for an ABK camp in Bonaire early next year - hope to see you there!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cold weather windsurfing Do's and Don'ts

Yesterday, my wife and I went windsurfing when it was rather chilly - temperatures in the 40s (about 5 degrees Celsius), no sun, and wind above 20 knots. This was planned as a pretty short tip, but ended up even shorter than planned due to a few problems. This blog describes what worked and what did not work as a list of Do's and Don'ts.

Don't: Use O'Neill Psycho gloves
During my last trip to a windsurf store in Boston, I had bought a pair of O'Neill 3 mm Psycho gloves. They felt very warm and comfortable in the store, so leaving without them seemed like a bad idea. My wife ordered a pair from the web since they did not have her size.
We used them the first time yesterday. My lower arms were sore after just a few minutes - something that usually does not happen anymore. Keeping the fingers bent in these gloves just takes to much effort. I managed by (a) concentrating on committing to the harness, and (b) bending the fingers less, and relying to some extend on the friction from the neoprene gloves. That was ok, but it kept me from trying any interesting tricks.
My wive has much smaller hands, and she found her gloves impossible to use. She could not hold the mast when tacking, which led to a few unwanted waterstarts. She took the gloves off after a few run, and surfed without gloves instead.
I was a bit surprised here, since I had used Glacier gloves from LL Bean or REI before without any problems. They are also neoprene and look similar. However, the neoprene is quite a bit thinner, and bending the fingers is a lot easier.
I think the problem is that O'Neill makes gear for surfing, not for windsurfing. No need to bend the fingers much in surfing, so I bet the gloves are great if you surf without a sail.

Do: Get an Ion 5/4 semidry wetsuit
My wife had recently bought a dry suit, and I got an Ion 5/4 semidry suit because the store did not have a dry suit in my size. We used the new suits for the first time yesterday. I was perfectly happy with my suit. The arms felt a bit cold while at the beach, but were perfectly fine on and in the water. During waterstarts, some water entered through the zipper on the back, but the bib over the zipper worked fine to keep it from trickling down, and the amount of water was pretty small, so I did not get cold. A really nice feature on this suit are the little holes on the lower leg that allow water to escape. They worked perfectly fine, my lower legs remained pretty dry and comfortably warm. When taking the suit off after the session, most if it was just barely damp - "semidry" is indeed an accurate description. In short, I love this suit. No suprise you see many pro windsurfers with Ion suits and/or logos.

Don't: Get long hair caught in the dry suit seals
My wife was not quite as happy with her dry suit - she thought it was leaky, mainly at the top of her back. When I opened her zipper, her fleece sweater looked pretty dry. A closer look showed that some of her hair had been caught in the seal around her neck. It seems that a bit of water entered around the hair, and dripped down. Not much, but enough to make her feel chilly. I believe that the hair was the entire problem; when I go snorkeling without shaving my mustache, a lot of water enters my mask around the nose, since the seal is not tight. To get the dry suit to be really dry, shaving should not be needed - we'll just have to check for stray hair that's caught in the seal next time.

Do: stay warm when changing
One big advantage of dry suits is that changing out of it is easy, since you can keep wearing the layer(s) you had on underneath. Changing out of a tightly fitting neoprene suit can be more of a problem when it's cold and windy. Changing in the car is not an option for me - I drive a Civic, and there's just not enough room. I'm not planning to get a van anytime soon, either.
However, the solution is simple: get a little self-expanding popup tent ($35) and a camping gas heater ($65) from Amazon.com. The tent sets up in 15 seconds, including putting some weight in and on it so it does not get blown away. The heater makes it nice and warm in a few minutes, despite the small two mesh windows on the sides. I also brought a small foam pad along, and changed into and out of my suit rather comfortably (and without having to worry about getting ticketed for indecent exposure).

Do: cover your head and feet
You loose most heat through your head, followed by your feet, so covering your hear is essential, and covering the feet is a great idea. I was wearing a neoprene beanie and a helmet; the helmet was primarily to keep the beanie in place. My wife had a neoprene hat with a small chin strap. Both solutions worked well. To keep the feet warm, I was wearing 0.5 mm hydroskin socks under 3 mm neoprene surf shoes; my wife used the same socks and 7 mm O'Neill boots. My feet were fine, hers were toasty, which she liked.

Overall, this surf session had a surreal quality for me. With the beanie and helmet on my head, I did not hear much. Together with the thicker suit and foot gear, I almost felt disconnected from my equipment. I was almost surprised everytime I got into my footstraps and planed easily. The place we went to was really flat for 20+ knots of wind, and easy to sail. So I had some fun, even though I did not feel like trying any new tricks, or even trying to go really fast (I had forgotten to bring the GPS).

Because of the glove problems and the water dripping into her dry suit, my wife did not have much fun. We ended up keeping the session pretty short; but the tide was going out quickly, and it would have been too shallow to keep surfing soon afterwards, anyway.

We'll definitely go again soon, though. We're hoping for a bit higher temperatures (50s would be nice, 60s a dream), and maybe some sun. More important, however, will be to get something to keep my wife's hands warn. Cutting out the palm and inner fingers of the gloves is one possible solution... but that kind of hurts to do that to new $45 gloves.

Yesterday's session was more adventure than fun - but that's generally true when windsurfing in unusual conditions. I'll never forget the story one of my favorite windsufing teachers, Tulpe, told me in Cabarete. A windsurfer who had surfed a lot in Margarita, and thought she was pretty good, came to Cabarete. After the first day in the high chop and waves there, she ended up in tears because she felt like a total beginner again - nothing had worked. The same thing happened to many others that were used to flat water, and it happens to me when I surf in Kalmus or Ned's Point for the first time after spending a lot of time in Bonaire and Fogland. But after getting used to the unusual conditions for a few hours or days, the pure fun usually returns.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tricktionary & Trickpack

I learned that following Andy Brandt's suggestions about windsurfing is generally a good idea. So when he brought the Tricktionary book to the ABK camp in Cape Cod, it really was just a question of when I'd the book, the DVDs, or both. I ordered both (the "Trickpack") a couple of weeks later as a birthday present for my lovely wife. She had been looking for a windsurf book that showed some of the tricks Andy taught us already. I also remembered having a trick book when I started windsurfing, and having a lot of fun trying the "old school" tricks in it (this was about 20 years before most "new school" tricks were invented).

Well, the birthday is still a couple of months away, about the same time that we probably will stop windsurfing because it will be freezing and snowing. Right now, my wife is really eager to try more stuff - she just got the heli tack last time we went out, and wants more. So I decided to give here her birthday present a bit early (after convincing her that she'd really want it now, not in a couple of months).

So, here's my impression of the Tricktionary II book and DVDs:

The book has about 285 pages. The first 50 pages cover the basics, from equipment to waterstart. They are rather useful for beginners and intermediates. Then, still as part of the "basics", some light wind tricks and pre-exercises are covered - from backwind and clew first sailing to sail-body 360s, heli tack, and front loop pre-exercise.

Each trick is shown with a series of 10-15 pictures, and has a written description. Most tricks also have a short intro and tips, and/or "common problems" and their solutions. I looked at some tricks that I can do reasonably well, and learned a couple of new things. I also looked at tricks that I just started working on, and found the combination of the picture series and the description very useful to understand what the trick is about (check out the sample pages here).

One of the best features is the methodical approach. For each trick, a number of pre-exercises are given. If you can do the pre-exercises, then learning the trick will be pretty straightforward; if you try to skip the pre-exercises and go straight for a complicated trick, you will probably be in for a much longer learning period. I learned this lesson during my ABK camps. In my first camp, I did not understand why I should practice backwind sailing or clew first sailing. But in my third camp, all the practice of basics really paid off - I often was able to do a new (light wind) trick on the first or second try, because I knew all the basic moves it was composed of. Even better, I even managed to put together whole new (for me) tricks: when I practiced boomerangs, and the sail came back to much to the side, I simply stepped around it for a boomerang sail-body 360.

I'm not saying this to claim that I am a great windsurfer (I'm not), but rather to illustrate that learning the basic moves will really help to learn more complicated (and more fun) stuff much quicker.

In its methodical approach, the setup of the Tricktionary book is similar to the way the ABK camps I attended were structured. I mentioned before that I am a great ABK fan (as are most or all other campers); so the structure in the book, which is more obvious, is a big plus. The layout and details in the book are also great. The pictures for a trick are arranged in the same way you sail during the trick - for example a straight line for straight-line tricks like a Vulcan, and a half circle for the Power Jibe.

The book is great, and will certainly be with us on every future windsurf trip. So how about the DVD? In short: also great, and even better in combination with the book.

I have looked at a few trick DVD on Totalvid.com to check them out before buying. One thing I did not like was the lack of organization in the downloads. The first time, I may want to watch the whole video - but mostly, I want to be able to look up a specific trick I am working on. With the Tricktionary DVD, that's easy. That's an impressive feat, since we are talking about 3 DVDs with 400 minutes of contents. Tricks are organized into categories: basics, jibes, tacks, old school, jumps, switch, and extreme (there are also beginner and wave sections). The DVD is organized much more like a web site, with lots of links and "back" buttons to facilitate navigation. For example, each trick has links to the pre-requisites you should have under your belt before trying the trick.

The trick videos themselves are great, too. At first, the entire trick is shown in normal speed. Then, the trick is explained in detail, with slowdowns and highlighting used very nicely to illustrate what you need to do. The wind directions is also indicated by an arrow on the water, which can be very helpful. The highlighting is great to see what's important - if the mast arm needs to be extended, and the clew arm bent, chances are they are highlighted when the verbal instructions mention this.

There is just one thing that might turn off a few viewers: the voice over in the English version was done with a noticeable German accent. It seems the Tricktionary project was done by German-speaking folks; the authors are Austrian, and the video and pictures show some of the best German Pro windsurfers. However, the voice overs are perfectly understandable in the English version. For me, I'll just listen to the German version. Other languages are also available, but I did not check them out.

For windsurfers who have not been to an ABK or similar camp before, the question might arise: "Why should I get a Tricktionary if I'm not interested in tricks?"

The answer, in my eyes, is simple: To get better and have more fun. I tried to perfect my jibe in many private lessons; I must have listened to at least 10 different Vela clinics about jibes, studied jibe videos many times, and read everything I could find about it. I usually surf where ou have to turn every 500 meters, so I also got plenty of practice. But the real breakthrough came after I started playing around with other tricks again in an ABK camp. Practicing things like backwind and clew first sailing, and 7 different light wind jibe variations, gave me a much better feeling for sail and board handling, and probably helped at least as much as the specific pointers Andy and his instructors gave me. Since then, I am looking forward to each jibe - it's as much fun as just going wicked fast, if not more.

Of course, there is also the other big advantage: I don't get skunked anymore. The times of sitting at the beach and waiting for wind are gone - I go out on the water and practice light wind tricks instead. I did that when I started surfing on Lake Konstanz, since high wind day were extremely rare; I'm glad I started it again. We've actually gone surfing on days when the wind forecast was lousy, specifically to practice light wind tricks - and had as much fun as on high wind days.

So: if you windsurf for fun, get Tricktionary and start practicing tricks!

Links:
http://www.tricktionary.net/
http://worldwinds.net/ - US distributor of Tricktionary
http://abkboardsports.com/

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Jibe SLOWLY!

I have been windsurfing for 30 years now, although with maybe 15 years of breaks in between). For most of these years, I've been working on my planing jibes - and a lot of other windsurfers I talk to have been working on their jibes for many years, too.

My jibes are finally getting decent; I often plane through, as long as the conditions are what I'm used to. Getting onto the water more often since I met my lovely windsurfing wife certainly has helped, but the biggest contribution to better jibes comes from the 3 ABK camps I have attended in the last 20 months.

One of the things Andy had to tell me again and again was to slow things down. I finally really understood what he meant when I looked at my jibe analysis from yesterday's session. I knew I had done a few jibes that were rather nice, fully planing through on my small board. Here a part of the jibe analysis table from GPS Action Replay:

I had always focused on the first few columns - score, begin speed, and end speed (all in mph). This time, I noticed the duration column: each jibe took about 16-18 seconds. That's slow. I did a dry jibe in the kitchen, talking my way through it from jibe entry to getting fully going again:
"loosen up in the ankles, let the sail pull you into the turn, keep the sail tight, pull it all the way back, look forward, now swing the mast to the other side, open up, step, flip the sail, grab the new side, grab with the other hand, hang low, step back, accelerate"
That's about 15 seconds, spoken without any haste!
I then looked back at the GPS records from this year's camp at Kalmus, when I had convinced Andy do do a couple of jibes with the GPS (not surprisingly, both jibes he did were better than any jibe I did the entire day). Sure enough, the time for each of the two rather beautiful jibes also as about 15 seconds; here's video of the GPS replay:

video
The entire movie is 55 seconds long- two jibes make about 35 seconds (not including the preparation), and 20 seconds in between, before and after. This may not seem that slow when you watch the video - but talked yourself through a dry jibe, and watch the time it takes!

So, as Andy says: slow is fast!

Tracking windsurf sessions

Earlier this year, I started logging my windsurf sessions in a little database. Here's a screen shot of a session record:




You can click on the image to see the full size version, but I'll explain the various parts below.


The top left section contain information about the session - where, which gear I used, wind speed, some data from the GPS, and comments.

In this session, I was going for speed and worked on small board jibes. I managed to set a speed record for the board I was using, as well as a jibe record. The "40%" for the jibe means that the minimum speed was 40% of the entry speed; 40% mean I nicely planed through the jibe, but there was room left for improvement.



In the bottom left section is a screen shot from iWindsurf.com that shows the wind for the day. Great day, except that I waited too long before using the Mistral Screamer, our fastest board. Since my lively wife was having too much fun on the Screamer, it was 5:30 or so before I used it, and the wind had gone down a bit by then, both the averages and the lulls. Had I tried an hour earlier, I probably would have set more records.



The top right section has a screen shot of a speed graph, generated with GPS Action Replay. It gives me a quick overview of how the session was - I was planing nicely most of the time. The dips also show me how my jibes were - mostly dry, with a few good ones in between.

The bottom right shows the tracks for the day. They are color-coded for speed; I set the units to mp/h instead of km/h for this image. The blue arrow in the middle shows my personal speed strip for the day - a shallow area behind a little gras island, where the water was nice and flat.
This was the first time I sailed on this side of PowderPoint bridge in Duxbury, and I really liked it - great for northerl winds, where the bridge creates to much wind shadow on the other side.

Tools Used
Here's a quick overview of what I used here:
  • iWindsurf.com for wind forecasts and graphs
  • Navi GT-31 GPS (my best birthday present ever!)
  • GPS Action Replay Pro to analyze and plot the GPS data
  • FileMaker 10 to create the database (I used FileMaker since I had it on my computer; this could probably be done as easily with Bento or something similar)
  • A MacBook Pro running OS X 10.5
I'm also posting my sessions to gps-speedsurfing.com - keeps me humble after I thought I was soooo fast. But then, most serious posters there use dedicated speed equipment, while I'm usually on a 120l board with padded deck that I had bought for my 12-year old daugther a few years back.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The best way to improve your windsurfing

I just came back from a week of windsurfing in Bonaire (well, it's been a week now, but due to post-holiday depression, it seems like just a day).

Just like last year, I had signed up for a week of "camp" with ABK Boardsports. This year, my wife also joined the camp. We both had a blast - ABK camps are the best way to improve your windsurfing skills, have tons of fun, and meet nice new people.

I have been windsurfing for almost 30 years now. That does not really show in my skills - I took several long breaks, each lasting 5-10 years, where I did not surf at all. I picked it up again about 8 years ago, and have taken regular windsurf vacations in Cabarete, Margarita Island, and Bonaire. At home, I usually sail in Fogland, RI, or Cape Cod. 
For most people, including me, good instruction is essential to get better. I originally learned windsurfing at the University of Konstanz, which offered beginner classes at Lake Konstanz (Bodensee), and advanced classes at Lago di Como in Italy. In the Carribean, I usually took a few hours of private lessons - never quite as many as I wanted to, because the wind would often not play along, or something else got in the way. 

So, sadly enough, my jibe was still not good after decades of windsurfing. I'd usually make it to the other side without falling in, but with more fear than fun, and mostly without speed. This started to change during my first 5-day ABK camp last year. The wind was not so great, we played with light-wind tricks about half of the course. But in the 2 or 3 days that the wind was decent, Andy Brandt and his teachers gave me enough pointers to make a dramatic difference. After a day, I started to plane through my jibes. At the end of the course, I was looking forward to my jibes, because they were fun, rather than just taking them as a necessary hassle when it was time to turn around.

How did Andy fix what many previous private lessons, countless "clinic" presentations, and endless hours of practice on my own had failed? Of course, Andy or his instructors did illustrate jibe in theoretical lessons on the beach. But I think what really made the difference were just a few things:
  • great feedback,
  • focussing on just one thing at a time on the water, and
  • consistency
2008: My first ABK camp
Bonaire is one of the best spots to learn to jibe (or to jibe better), because the water is just knee- to hip deep. If you fall off, you just beach start and try again. If the wind is marginal and cruising back up against the wind is difficult, you can simply walk. And the instructors can just stand at one point, let you jibe around them, and then tell you what you should change.

So, after my first couple of jibes, Andy called me over and (after telling me what parts I did well) told me to change just one thing. I did what he said, and - surprise! - things got a lot better. Then he'd call me over again, and tell me the next thing to focus on. The big things last year were to let the sail pull me up, into an upright balanced stance, and to do things slower. After I did both of these things, I planed through my jibes, even though the wind was just marginal. More importantly, I had a lot more fun in jibing. Being pulled into an upright stance, and then just coasting through the turn with no sail pressure, gave a totally new feeling of speed and control. 

All fine and good if things work in Bonaire on relatively big boards - but how did that improve my skills under different conditions back home? The real test came a couple of months later when I had a rare chance to sail my 96 liter JP board in 25-35 mph wind. I use this board just a few days every year - usually, I am on 120-200 l boards and huge sails to get planing in marginal conditions. Well, this day was much windier than usual, creating a lot of sharp, step chop even in Fogland's protected cove - but I discovered that I managed to complete most jibes even on the small equipment. The last time I had sailed small boards before the ABK camp, falling during jibes was virtually certain. Great!

The rest of the summer of 2008 was not so great, with just a few days of decent wind, so I did not get much practice. 

2009: My second ABK camp
When we arrived in Bonaire at the beginning of March 2009, we were greated by great conditions - 25-30 mph winds and (of course) plenty of sun. The wind turned out to be a bit too great for me - after just 2 hours of sleep during the overnight flight to Bonaire, and a 5 months break from windsurfing, the first day was more fight than fun. I was glad that I actually made it though one jibe - and that one was not very pretty.

The wind was a bit less the next day, and I did a bit better - but I still thought I had forgotten everything I had learned last year. When class began the next day, I discovered I was wrong. I just needed a few corrections to get back to good success rates. The first one was subtle - the position of the front foot after changing the feet. My foot had pointed too much to the outside, and not enough to the front. That was something I probably had done wrong before, but nobody had ever pointed out. Fix it, and - voila - much improved jibes. A couple more minor adjustments, and things were looking good again.

The next day, Andy started working on really improving my jibes. The goal was a nicely oversheeted laydown jibe. I needed to learn to push down on the boom after standing up, and pushing the sail behind me. I had to work on that a bit - I tend to cork my body when I oversheet. But in the end, my jibes looked pretty good on the videos we took in the afternoon.

On to the next goal: duck jibes.
We started on planing duck jibes after half a day of low wind, where we practiced low wind duck jibes, switch stance jibes, and a few more jibe variations. When the wind picked up and we switched to high wind gear, my second attempt to do a planing duck jibe (with a 7.5 m sail) worked. So did two more attempts in the next few tries. Then, when we started to work on making it better, I started thinking about how to do the jibe - and things fell apart (or rather, I fell a lot). For a few hours, I practiced the many different ways to fall when a duck jibe goes wrong, with a lot of high-speed falls. All good fun :) After working my way through falling in the different parts, I got pretty close to completing it again when Andy decided we deserved a break. He taught us the "fall jibe" - a practical way to turn on the spot that's pretty close to a jump jibe and a slam jibe. I did not care for the light wind version, but I love the planing fall jibe. Finally, a jibe where you are not only allowed to fall - you are expected to fall! That one was designed for me. I had a very good success rate right away, although my clew first waterstarts sucked at first. With a few hours of practice, they got better, and once again, I looked pretty good on the movies in the evening. Only when I looked at my GPS recordings for the afternoon did I discover a slight disadvantage of the fall jibe - stopping the board and falling in kills your speed :-)

So, I learned a lot in 5 days of camp: my planing jibe improved quite a bit; the duck jibe is almost there; and I learned the fall jibe, which is really handy in crowded situations, or when you need to jibe without loosing too much ground, or if you just need to cool off on a hot summer day. This seems to be the first step towards tricks like the vulcan, too - I see a lot of falls & fun in my windsurfing future. I learned a few more tricks for light-wind days, too, so I'll have fun on those typical summer days where the wind is not arriving as promised. 

What really underscored how great ABK camps, though, are was the progress I saw others make. Case in point: my wife. She participated in the camp for the first time this year. She's been windsurfing for more than a decade, but usually just a week or two in the summer, which means little progress (she got a bit more practice once we started dating a few years ago). Before camp, she used the harness, and got into the front footstrap - but just "kind of", always holding back quite a bit. In camp, she became comfortable with using the harness and both foot straps, and ended up going really fast - there were several times I could not catch her, which is great. She also learned the low-wind pivot jibe, and started to work on the planing jibe. Great progress for one week. And remember that all these skills translate to more fun on the water.

Last year, when she did not take the class, she also made some progress, but a lot less. She started the camp being skeptical, but ended up looking forward to the next camp. No surprise most surfers in camp are repeaters.

Many others in camp made impressive progress, too. Several surfers in the group I was in went from so-so jibes to nice planing jibes in a week. Most impressive were the two absolute beginners. The wind was to strong to be ideal for beginners - we were in high-wind mode 7 of the 9 half-days of class. So, what did the beginners do? The went from standing on a windsurf board the first time straight to beach starts, waterstarts, and using the harness the first time. Sometimes you see people who are great in other sports progress really fast, like competition skateboarders or world-class kayakers. But neither of our two newbies was that much into sports, so their progress really speaks to the quality of the teaching.

As I said above, one reason why the teaching was so great is consistency. There usually are 4-6 instructors out on the water. If you sail close to anyone of them and they notice something, they'll tell you what you need to do to improve. Typically, it does not matter who it is - if you have a hard time getting something, you may hear the same suggestion from 2 or 3 different instructors. At least when it comes to the planing jibe, they will all teach and demonstrate the move exactly the same way. That's rather amazing; in previous jibe lectures, different instructors would always emphasize rather different points.

Finally, a funny story from camp. One participant (Paul) had brought along a GPS, and threw down a challenge one day. He had given his GPS to another participant (Anthony) in the morning, and Anthony had clocked a high speed of 45 kmh. Paul did not get close to this speed that day (although he had reached 49 kmh a few days before, when it was windier). He gave me the GPS saying " you have to beat 45 kmh". I tried my best, but just got up to 44 kmh. To my excuse, the wind had gone down a bit from the morning, and kept going down, like it typically does in Bonaire. After I came back, the challenge passed to Andy. He has quite a bit of racing background in his 30-year windsurfing career, and had demonstrated that he could pump a 100 liter board onto a plane with a 5.7 m sail when others had problems planing on 138 liters with 8.0 sails. He looked great coming in, but the GPS was merciless: only 42 kmh! That gave a lot of laughs during the video review in the evening, helped by Matt's funny comments ("hit a sandbar, hit a sandbar!"). Of course, Andy managed to reach 42 kmh in conditions where most surfers out there were not planing anymore.. and the jibes he laid down during his attempt were just gorgeous. I swear he can sail out of a jibe faster than he went in!

So, I'm looking forward to warmer days to practice what I've learned, and to my next ABK camp. If you want to improve your windsurfing skills, or learn windsurfing, sign up! Maybe I'll see you in Bonaire next year. Until then, check out a few YouTube videos of Andy Brandt (and others):