Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Marginal winds

May has not been great for wind here in the Northeast, with lots of rain and fog. During the last week, we went windsurfing three times in Fogland, which lived up to its name and greeted us with fog two of the three days.

The first day had a decent forecast, and we went hoping for some thermals and tunneling up the bay, which can create wonderful conditions. Alas, the fog never really lifted, and we ended up doing light wind tricks. I had brought my good old Bic Techno 293 to work a bit on duck tacks. However, I got to try my new Gaastra Pilot 6.5 m sail for the first time, and loved it. No real surprise here, I bought it because I had liked it a lot in January on Bonaire, where it became my go-to sail. Still, I just loved how light it felt - definitely a great sail for freestyle. Nina loved it too when she tried it, which makes this sail really exceptional - usually, she does not like the sails I love, and vice versa.

Towards the end of the session, when the wind became a bit too light for duck tacks, I decided to work some more on heli tacks. I have been doing heli tacks for a while now, and they are easy enough now on a big board in light winds. Nevertheless, when I concentrated on the foot work, I finally understood something that I heard in many lectures for different tricks: minimize your body movements. That's a big element in Andy Brandt's duck jibe lecture ("don't duck!"), but also a part of the planing tack, where steps that are too big carry you right past the mast and into the water. When I focused on where I stepped during the heli tack, I discovered that bringing the feet close together before the final steps allows you to keep the body much stiller. That makes the whole trick easier, and easier looking, since there's little movement, except for the sail. Most likely, "discovering" this is based on sub-conscious memories of something that Andy or one of the ABK instructors told me a long time ago when watching my heli tack attempts. I often learn this way: at first, not understanding or perhaps pretending to do what I am told, and then understanding what it's all about a year or two later. It's really good that the ABK instructors have so much patience...

The next day of windsurfing was last Saturday - a late decision when we saw the wind pick up above the forecast. Again, I grabbed my Techno 293 since I did not want to waste time digging my slalom board out of the shed. We made it to Fogland in time to catch the tail end of two hours of decent wind (averages 17-18 mph, gusts up to 22). But while I had loved the Techno for light wind the day before, I really did not like how it felt when planing. The GPS speeds where ok for the conditions, but it felt like I was dragging a parachute in the water behind me. All the sailing on fast and lively freestyle and slalom boards has spoiled me, I guess. I even went and put a big fin into my Skate 110 so I could put my 8.5 m sail on it. That worked even better than I remembered, but the wind had dropped too much, so I only got a few planing runs in gusts in. Still, it was a lovely day in Fogland, seeing old friends again and even some sun (finally!).

The prospect of sailing with friends again was one reason we went back to Fogland the next day. Another reason was that this was predicted to be the last windy day of the month, and we were hoping to  improve our standing in the GPS Team Challenge a bit. The first thing we noticed when driving to the beach was a light wind freestyler, a rare sight in Fogland. This turned out to be Nico, out for his first session of the season, working on 360s, duck tacks, switch duck jibes, and a few tricks I don't even know the name for - nice!

Dani showed up again with his new Ray 115 and his Maui Sails TR7 8.4, and this time, I brought my Warp SL 71. Dani is about 50 pounds lighter than me, so he planed most of the day; I often needed gusts to get going (which maxed out at 20 mph), but had about one hour where I was planing most of the time. I took the Warp out onto the river, and was amazed how well it handled the river chop. I actually did get my top speed out in the middle of the river, rather than in the flatter water of the bay. For the conditions, I was happy with my top speed of 28 mph. Dani and Sabah also got some good nautical mile runs on the river, so we managed to improve our ranking in this category by a few spots - not bad considering that we were just barely planing most of the time. Cesar, Fogland's great speed sailing motivator, also showed up for his first season of the year, but he'll need a bit more wind before his speed machines leave us in the dust again.

Compared to planing on the Techno the day before, surfing the Warp was a entirely different world. Despite being 9 cm narrower and a lot shorter, the Warp planes up just as quickly; pumping it onto a plane is a whole lot easier, since it's so much lighter. Once on a plane, it is and absolute blast to sail - my hands wanted to leave the boom all the time to drag in the water or wave to other surfers. I can't wait to sail this board in 25-30 mph winds on perfectly flat water!

With marginal winds and short runs in the bay, I had to tack most of the time to get back to where I started. With 8 more liters than my Skate 110, the Warp feels big when tacking, even though I still managed to push the nose under water during most tacks. But then, it seems easier to push the nose through the wind when it's under water - whatever works! With so little good wind recently, I sailed for more than 4 hours, and my tacks got wetter and wetter as the day progressed. It will be interesting to see how my windsurfing develops when I will have the luxury of being at a place where it's windy every day for several weeks in a row. With just an hour or two of sailing every day, maybe I'll try more new things, and spend less time trying to hang on as longs as possible...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lost in the fog

It's been 15 days since the last decent windsurf session, so the withdrawal symptoms were getting bad when we finally had a good wind forecast for today. As the day got nearer, the numbers dropped, but Windguru still promised some gusts of 28-30 knots. When we got up early to check the meter readings, some sites posted averages in the low 20s - good enough for me!

By the time we made it out to Cape Cod, the wind in West Dennis had dropped down to 18 mph - but since I had planned to use my Warp SL 71 slalom board, no problem. I rigged my newly repaired 8.5 V8, and sailed away. The fog was pretty dense, with visibility limited to maybe 250 yards, but the wind was onshore, and the beach in West Dennis goes on forever, so I did not expect any problems. Hah! Here are the GPS tracks from the start of this session:
I started on the left side in the image above. The wind was marginal, so I had to go downwind and get away from the shore a bit to get planing. At the end of the first leg, I did not see the shore anymore; after jibing and sailing back towards shore, I was pretty far from where I had started. I could not see the spot where I had started anymore, which surprised me a bit. I assumed (correctly) that I was downwind of it, and went back out, with the plan to go upwind. Unfortunately, for most of the next two legs, I had no visual indicators where I was going, and ended up going downwind instead of upwind. As I approached the shore, I saw a few people standing in the water, and assumed that they were kite surfers. I came to the conclusion that I had gone to far upwind. The regular kite place is upwind, and the West Dennis police apparently had started to ticket kiters who sailed to far downwind a few days ago, so this seemed reasonable. I did not actually see any kites, but as I said, the fog was rather dense (and some of it might have entered my brain at this time :). So I decided to go "back" downwind. But when I got close to the shore after the next 2 runs, I did not see the expected scenery, but instead some unfamiliar looking houses. By now, the wind had dropped, and I was schlogging the entire time. Some half-hearted attempts to go upwind did not get me into more familiar territory, and I decided to go ashore and ask someone where in hell they had hidden the mile-long West Dennis beach. To stay clear of the sea walls there, this required going a bit further downwind...

Most of the houses on the beach down there appeared to be empty summer houses. Fortunately, one of the houses was being renovated, and a rather amused-looking carpenter pointed me in the right direction. It was the direction that I would have guessed, but after guessing wrong about where exactly I was a few times, asking someone else just seemed safer.

So I had a long track back. Fortunately, the wind had picked up again, and I could plane most of the time. I started to worry that my lovely wife, who was also out sailing, would worry about me - but it turned out that she also had gotten a bit disoriented in the fog, finding herself unexpectedly far downwind of the launch site. So she correctly assumed that the same thing had happened to me. As I was tacking back up, the fog finally lifted a bit, and I could see her sailing.

When I finally made it back, I decided to swap fins and to try my new Clew-View mount for the GoPro camera - but that's a story for another time. I got one more good run in before the wind dropped again, and we decided to call it a day. Of course, the wind teased us and picked up again just as we were about to leave. Fortunately, family duties prevented us from rigging again: once again, the wind dropped off after a few minutes, and then stayed down for the rest of the day.

So, that was a rather long story for relatively little action - there was never any element of real danger. Water and air temperatures today were comfortable; the tide was low, so that I could touch ground most of the time when I  fell in; and the wind was onshore and moderate. However, I certainly will think twice before venturing out in dense fog in the future if there is any potential element of danger, like strong or offshore winds, or cold temperatures. In fog this dense, finding someone who is in trouble would have been a real challenge for any rescuers.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Texas report

We are on our way back from a week of windsurfing in Texas - 5 days in Corpus Christi and one day in South Padre Island. In addition to sailing at two spots we had never sailed before, we attended an ABK freestyle camp, and I got a chance to try several great Fanatic and RRD boards. And yes, it was windy every day - most days in the 4.5 - 5.3 range, with a couple of days where I sailed 6.4-7.5 sails.

Bird Island Basin, Corpus Christi
We decided to check out windsurfing in Corpus Christi based on Andy Brandt's suggestion (ignoring Andy's suggestions is always a bad idea, as I have learned the hard way). We also wanted to check out Corpus and South Padre Island (SPI) as possible spots to move to.
The drive from the airport to Padre Island is short enough, but not exactly scenic. Padre Island is a barrier island that is surprisingly untouched by tourism, at least compared to places like Hatteras and SPI. There are a number of condo complexes and maybe 10-15 restaurant and bars, but the nearest supermarket is across the bridge in Corpus Christi. Our apartment in the Palm Bay condo complex, which we had booked through Worldwinds, was very nice, directly at the pool. To get to the Bird Island windsurfing spot, we had to drive for 15 minutes to along an almost deserted road. Here's a view of the beach, with some ABK campers waiting for the camp to start, and the Worldwinds building in the back:

The beach is nice and sandy, the water mostly hip- to chest-deep for mile or so out. Water temperatures at the end of April were in the upper seventies. The water was mostly flat, although there was some nice little chop in the shipping channels for chop hops and tricks like Shove Its. There's plenty of space on the water - even on the weekend, with more than 50 sailors out, it did not feel crowded.

ABK freestyle camp
The ABK camp was full with 20 campers, ranging from absoloute beginners to freestylers working on Vulcans and Spocks. The composition was a bit different from other camps: it included a number of younger windsurfers, and three couples in the advanced group. There were at least 4 or 5 windsurfers there that sailed a lot better than I do, which was great (even though my plan to improve my skills through close observation was at best marginally successful).

This was the first ABK camp I attended were we did not have a single light wind day. We had the usual great lectures, including a Flaka lecture from Brendon that I had not heard before, and worked on 360s, loops, Shove Its, Vulcans, and (one of us) on Spocks. I was pretty impressed to see the others trying Vulcans even when the wind averages were above 30, and gusts above 40. Nina really got into Shove Its, and we could see her take off even in her early attempts. It's a great move when overpowered, and she was sailing a 4.0 and 100 l board while I was fully powered on a 4.5, and had switched from the 110 l Skate to a 95 l FreeWave. The GPS tracks proved that she tried at least 2 or 3 Shove Its on almost every run out .. no surprise she was really tired in the evening. She also learned the fall jibe and tried jump jibes and Vulcans, but that almost got lost in the excitement about the Shove Its. One day, at least 5 of us tried loops, and Donnie got really close to completing one - he got all the way around, and only the waterstart was missing. My progress was rather more incremental, without any breakthroughs. I was still a bit stuck in board testing mode, for which I can partially blame Worldwinds, which offered an excellent selection of current Fanatic and RRD gear. I tried a couple of Fanatic Hawks (100 and 120 l) and loved them, and compared the Hawk 100 to the FreeWave 95, which ended up being a close call in the conditions there - both are lively and fast, and great for flat water and small chop. I think I'll go with the FreeWave for voodoo chop and wave conditions, though.

On the day after camp when the winds were light in the morning, I took out a Fanatic Ray 125 from 2009 with a MauiSails Titan 7.5. That was a rather fast combo, I was planing 99% of the time while others had a much harder time to get going, even on similar sized sails. The board definitely was eager to go fast, and got me up to perhaps 1.5 x wind speed. The ride was pretty physical, although I got tuned in after about one hour (it may have helped that the wind picked up).

After the Ray, I took the opportunity to demo several RRD boards that Tony Kardol had brought down, starting with an RRD FireMove 110. I had loved this board at the Windsurfing Magazine board test, and was eager to see the direct comparison to the Ray, with the same sail and identical conditions. Again, I loved the FireMove, and found it incredibly easy to jibe. Only when I took it for all-out speed runs did I notice some limitations of the design: compared to the thicker rails in the tail of the Ray, the thin tail section had less directional stability, and required more attention to keep going straight.

Next, I tried the RRD Freestyle Wave 120, a board that is very popular with heavier ABK campers. The board was livelier than the FireMove, even though it was narrower, and I found it just a tad harder to jibe in the chop - while the FireMove sliced through chop in the turns like a hot knife through warm butter, the FSW was more comparable to other boards I had sailed before. Still, definitely a great board.

Finally, I got a chance to try an RRD FireStorm 120, a brand new RRD board that is narrower than the FireMove, and more drag-race oriented. The board required just a bit more attention at the start to keep the nose from turning upwind, but accellerated almost as quickly as the Ray, and then hitting a perfect mix of comfort and livelyness. This board absolutely inspired confidence, and made me want so try things, something that usually takes a lot more "getting used to" on other boards. It jibed as well, if not even better than, the FireMove, but when taking it for a short speed run, the higher rails provide excellent grip. The thought I had when stopping because the cold north winds had finally gotten to me was "This board is a drag racer's wet dream". Unfortunately, the smallest size the board comes in is 110 l, but I think that even the 120 l will handle chop at least as well as a typical 95 l freestyle-wave board.

South Padre Island
While in Texas, we decided to drive down to South Padre Island (SPI) to check it out. SPI is a spring break vacation spot full of bars, condos complexes, hotels, and tourist trap shops, but we found it quite charming. In the middle of non-spring break weeks, there are plenty of hotel rooms for less than $50,  with fun restaurants within walking distance. We rented windsurf gear, but sailed only for about one hour, since the sea grass was acting as a constant break, even though we were on weed fins. Funny enough, this spot at the southern tip of Texas was also the first spot where I really got cold while windsurfing this year, since I had only brought my shorty. The water in the Laguna Madre was very flat, despite 25 mph winds. I am a very big fan of flat water, but I can imagine that windsurfing there would get a bit boring if you live there - even the Bird Island Basin had more variable and interesting conditions, with decent chop at some spots. From what I have seen, however, Hatteras offers a better choice of different conditions at the various launch spots and the reef in the middle, as well as (I have heard) better ocean sailing. We also thought that Cape Hatteras has more charm overall, so it's currently out top "we'd like to move there" location. But for sailing in the spring, we definitely plan to go back to Corpus Christi, with its reliable warm winds that blow for weeks on end.  We just hope that we won't have as many jelly fish next time - sailing in leggings and a shorty wet suit really cramped my style (and is one reason why I might not post any boom cam video from this trip).