Saturday, January 21, 2012


The last few winters, we took a vacation in Bonaire to escape the cold, and learn new tricks at ABK BoardSports Camps. But after the bad economy got through to us last year, we had planned to skip the trip this year. That did not seem much of a problem for a while, since the winter came late, and we had plenty of warm days to go windsurfing.

Things started going south when my lovely wife came back from visiting family with a nasty cold that soon had us both coughing day and night, and kept us off the water for a while. Next, my car decided that 8 years without problems was enough, and started making funny noises - just in time to miss two days in a row of great wind. Then, when the car was finally fixed and the colds under control, we got our first snow storm. Nothing major, but still - not exactly ideal weather to go sailing here. But just as depression wanted to knock on the door, a couple of good things happened. First, we heard that we could expect a rather substantial tax refund; then, we saw that the prices for flights to Bonaire had dropped to rarely seen lows, even for flights in the near future. I bet you can guess the rest - we are going to Bonaire soon! Big smiles are back on our faces.

Bonaire is a wonderful spot for all windsurfers who love flat water. Of all the great things there, I think the colors of the water is one of the most beautiful things, especially as you sail from the large shallow area into the deeper half of the bay. I know that not all my readers have had the chance to visit Bonaire, so here is a brief video from last year that's indented to illustrate this point. Hope to see you all in Bonaire soon!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A comparison of speed strips

Too sore from getting beat up by 58 mph gusts yesterday, and too wimpy to sail today in near-freezing temperatures, I decided to look for reasons why no speedsurfer around here has gone much faster than 35 knots - while in Europe and Australia, hords of windsurfers are going faster than 40 and 45 knots all the time (and recently, a few have broken 50 knots).

For wannabes like myself, we can explain the low speeds by lack of skill and proper speed equipment. However, at least 3 of the guys on our Fogland Speed Surfer team are kick-ass windsurfers with extensive race and/or teaching and freestyle experience, and they all have gear that can easily go 45 knots. So what to blame then? Maybe the lack of proper speed spots in the area? 

I decided to have a closer look at our favorite spots, and compare them to West Kirby in England, where several speed surfers have broken 50 knots already this year. For the impatient readers, I'll start with a table that summarizes the results:
I'll briefly explain the different columns before I discuss each spot in detail.
Access describes how easy it is to get to the speed strip; ideally, we want to drive right up, carry our gear a few meters, and then race downwind at full speed.
Depth categorizes the water depth at and near the speed strip. Shallow water keeps the water surface smooth and fast, and can eliminate the problem of having to waterstart ridiculous large sails with huge mast sleeves full of water in very strong winds.
Tides show how sensitive a spot is to the tides; some spots are only fast at high tide, or may not be sailable at all at low tide.
Length is the length of the speed strip that can be sailed at the ideal angle. A 10-second run at 50 knots covers about 260 meters, but we need to add space to get up to speed and to stop.
Barrier relates to the jetty, sand bar, or similar obstruction that creates the perfectly smooth water for speed runs just behind it. 

Let's look at West Kirby first. The West Kirby speed strip is in a man-made "marine lake" that is 5 feet deep. The speed runs are made at a wall that rises about 4 feet above the water levels; the speed strip is about 620 m long, with extra room at the start to load up for Slingshots, and at the end to jibe. The low barrier wall can be walked, which makes it easy to walk the gear back to the start. The wind has a clear fetch for several miles across a bay before it hits the speed strip.

West Kirby is one of the fastest speed strips in Europe. Just 11 days ago, several speed surfers broke the 50 knot barrier there. So a speed strip length of 620 meters is definitely enough; for 40 knots, even 500 meter should be sufficient.
Next, let us look at Fogland bay in Tiverton, Rhode Island, the birthplace of the Fogland Speed Surfers. The entire bay is about 500 meters across, and quite shallow. Tides in Fogland are about 4 ft, and most days, the speed strip shown in the picture is sailable the entire time (at least with short speed fins). Only when tides drop below normal low does the ground start eating the fins of speed surfers who venture too close to shore.
The best wind direction for speed in Fogland is SW to WSW. There is a second speed strip going up along the shore that is about the same length. However, both strips suffer from gusty winds since the barrier here is higher (at least 5 feet at high tide) and more uneven than at West Kirby. A bigger problem for 10-second top speeds is that the runs are quite short - a 340 m run like indicated by the line in the picture above would require a very abrupt stop at the end. All this makes Fogland a great place to get started with speed surfing, or to go to when it's so windy that some extra safety becomes important - but breaking 40 knots there will be very hard, if not impossible.

The next spot to look at is Duxbury bay. Similar to Fogland, it is separated by a sand bar that is wide enough to include a road. Tides in Duxbury are about 9-12 feet, which affects windsurfing: at normal low tide, most areas in the bay are too shallow for windsurfing. Even in between tides, the lower water level increases the height of the barrier by about 5 feet, to a total of more than 10 feet, which disrupts the wind quite a bit. This is less of a problem closer to high tide, but then, the water about 50 feet from shore is more than 10 feet deep. This means that in theoretically ideal N to NNE wind directions, a lot of wind swell builds up, which kills top speed.
However, Duxbury is by far the best local spot for long distance speed (one hour, nautical mile, and total distance). In ENE to NE winds, runs are almost 5 km long. About 50 to 100 m from the shore, the effects of the barrier are negligible, and the water is still very smooth in light to medium winds. Doing 100 km here means going back and forth only about 11 times!

The next speed spot to look at is in Hyannis Port Harbor: the Kennedy Slicks. A stone jetty protects the harbor from the prevailing SW winds, and creates a 560 m long speed strip. The ideal wind direction would be W, but west winds come across land therefore are weak and gusty; the best wind direction that actually works is WSW. Tides are about 4 feet; at high tide, the top of the jetty is about 4 feet above the water level. That's almost perfect - but unfortunately, the first half of the jetty has a number of large holes, through which waves crash at high tide, creating small waves and limiting speed.
To sail at the fastest angles (120-135ยบ) in WSW winds, it is necessary to sail away from the wall. However, since the water in the harbor is pretty deep, the chop builds up very quickly, which again limits top speed. The Kennedy Slicks are a great place to play and practice, but reaching 40 knots here will be very hard, even if the tides and wind direction are perfect.

This brings us to the last local speed spot that we'll look at, the Egg Island Slicks. This spot is less than 2 miles from the Kennedy Slicks, on the other side of Kalmus Beach in Lewis Bay. While I have sailed the other local spots many times, I have sailed the Egg Island Slicks only once - and broke all my short-distance personal bests that day. Egg Island works best in SW winds, where it offers a 500 m long speed strip right next to a sand bar that is just barely above water at high tide. At the end of the sand bar, the chop increases gradually, enabling a controlled stop or turn. The wind tends to be a bit gusty at the start of the strip due to the "Great Island" below, so very small speed boards could be a problem. However, the setup allows a Slingshot approach from the right, and there is plenty of shallow water nearby to stand and rest.
The one drawback that Egg Island has is that it requires an approach over about 500-800 m of open water, which includes crossing a ferry lane. The waves and chop during the approach can be challenging; they were completely doable on a 30-35 mph day, but could present a real problem on a day like yesterday, where average were in the 40s and gusts in the 60s. Those are the days when real records are set...

Well, I think we can safely conclude that we cannot really blame the spots for our local low speeds. I think the problem may be more due to lack of "critical mass". With that, I don't mean body mass - Steve Thorp has shown that you do not need to be 6 ft tall or weigh 200+ pounds to break 50 knots. Rather, I mean number of speed surfers. Single speed surfer teams from Australia may get as many as 20 surfers onto the water on a given day, with 7 of them posting speeds near or above 40 knots; in the Netherlands, speed strips may see 100 windsurfers on a good day. Around here, I am happy if there are 3 of us on the water going for speed, and 5 makes a great day. But every time I get to sail with our better surfers, I learn a lot, and if we have good wind, I usually break a personal best or two.  In addition to the learning, bigger groups increase the stoke factor. For example, in surfing hot spots like Australia or the Netherlands, it is quite normal to take long boat rides, drive a few hundred miles, or even do 2-day trips by plane just to get to the right speed spot at the right time. Our little group may not be as big or as crazy about speed surfing yet, but we have seen a number of group sessions, new speed gear, and plenty of new personal bests in the last year - and I am sure 2012 will be even better.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday the 13th: surfing 14-58 mph winds

Is it tempting fate to go windsurfing on Friday the 13th? Or is it just proof that you're not superstitious? Well, either way, the forecast called for winds in the 30s today, and temperatures around 50 (although dropping quickly in the afternoon). That's just too nice a winter present to not go sailing!

The typical venue for a SW setup like today would have been Hyannis. With a forecast into the low 40s there, both the Kennedy Slicks and the Egg Island Slicks would have been perfect for setting personal bests. Alas, the tides were not quite right for the Egg Island Slicks, and with both Nina and I still getting over a cold, we thought that the shallow waters of Fogland bay would be a safer venue. We were joined there by Jeff, Graham, and Martin. Jeff had been the one who had originally suggested Fogland, but when he saw the wind averages in the low 30s, with gusts in 40s, he wisely decided not to go out. Graham went and was way overpowered on a 4.0 - maybe that should have told me that my KA Koncept 5.8 was perhaps a bit big. But I had set up some nice personal best with that sail not too long ago with wind in the 30s, so it should work, right?

Well, I hit the water shortly after 12, and here is what the wind meter showed:
Gusts of 58 mph made my attempts to get going rather interesting. I water started with both feet in the straps, but had no chance of getting the board under control - I did some nice wheelies before I got thrown into the water. The water was still to deep to touch the ground, so I quickly decided to turn around and rig a 3.7 instead. I also switched to the trusted Goya One 77 which had given me plenty of fun in Maui in 30-40 mph winds. That combination worked a bit better, but I ended up being still overpowered in the gusts, and under-boarded in the lulls (77 l is a bit small for a 90 kg guy with winter clothes and dry suit if the wind is not steady). So back for a bigger board...

I never got quite dialed in today. I did a few speed runs which involved some walking upwind, and managed to get a 30-knot reading on my GPS, which I had seen only once or twice before. Graham was fighting a bit, too, but he look good, doing a number of nice jibes and trying Willy Skippers and Duck Tacks. But the guy having the most fun on the water was Martin. It seems every time I looked his way, he was either chop hopping or turning around in style with a heli tack or a fully planing duck jibe. I gave him Nina's GPS and told him to try my Hawk, which he soon did. That only made him go faster, and widened his smile. I had wanted to blame the Hawk for many failed jibe attempts, but Martin quickly demonstrated that the Hawk can be jibed beautifully, with full-speed tight laydown jibes. Oh well - as Beth Winkler said, jibing is a career (a very long one for me :). He also got some great speed readings, in particular for the nautical mile and alpha - and I doubt he even knows what alpha is!

As much as I hated missing the steadier winds of Cape Code or Point Judith, I was glad that we had picked the shallow bay when my arms started cramping up after 3 hours. Not that I had sailed much during that time - it included plenty of equipment changes, upwind walks, and several breaks. On a good day, I sail more than today in 30 minutes... and I certainly don't get arm cramps after just a few hours. I'll just blame it on still being a bit sick.

We almost made it away from the beach without anything bad happening - that is, until I looked into the rear view mirror and noticed that there were only three boards on the trailer. We had come with 4 boards! Looking back, we saw one board lying on the rocks a hundred yards back. Seems we (or perhaps I should say "I") had forgotten to put the second strap on, and the wind blew the board of the trailer in no time. Fortunately, the board had not taken any visible damage, and nobody had been anywhere close to it when it blew off.

Here are a few pictures from today:
Lack of board control...

Where did that gust come from?

Young Master Graham jumping the board around

Martin, the king of the duck jibe

I may not be in the same league as Martin, but I'm in the same picture!

The winner of the "Create your own rainbow" contest: Martin
Graham just posted a nice GoPro video that he made with his new Clew-View:

Monday, January 2, 2012

I needed that!

It was a lovely day at the beginning of January - lots of sun, and air temperatures in the low 40s (7 C). With no windsurfing for almost a month and a good wind forecast, I just had to get out today. Still on jet lag, I was up before 6, only to wait for the wind to come to Cape Cod. Yes, it was blowing upper 20s in Point Judith, and the forecast there was just as good, but that would have been too easy.

It's a long story of driving around that's not worth telling, but I eventually made it to Kalmus Beach in Hyannis around 10 am, just as the wind picked up to 30 mph averages. I took my time rigging, hoping someone else would show up, but ended up sailing alone for the first hour. With all the thick booties and gloves, I could not really tell if I was powered or overpowered - but I was nicely planing most of the time. Of course, I had my Hawk trimmed for speed, but ended up sailing in chop, since I wanted to stay closer to shore while sailing alone, instead of making a trip over to Egg Island. Together with lack of practice, jet lag, and at least 17 other excuses I can think of, this made jibing a difficult proposition. Here are pictures from two attempts:

If I had been going for jump jibes or Willy Skippers, that might have been decent attempts - but I was actually going for a simple step jibe. Oops! After a few slightly wet jibes, I decided to take advantage of the refreshing water temperatures (35F, 2C) instead, and practice new ways of falling in jibes. Except for my partially frozen brain, I was perfectly warm - and my brain thawed up a bit after I exchanged the thin hood for the big and tight hood (which I still think was originally developed for more devious purposes). Thanks to a Clew-View mounted GoPro HD, I can share some picture of these crashes with you:

Trying to prove that the earth is round.

Walking backwards off the tail

I like the way the water drops look on this one.

At some point, I forgot that I was going for new ways to crash, and thought I was actually trying turn around without falling. That did not work, which then in turn frustrated me. So I decided to let the board try to jibe without me:
Much to my surprise, that seemed to work better than when I stayed on the board. The only problem was that I was still swimming in the water when the board took of on the new reach. But while the board and sail may be able to turn ok without me, their straight line sailing (which happens to be one thing I am good at) sucks. So does the waterstart without me (that's another thing I'm good at, thanks to plenty of practice even when the water is almost freezing), so eventually, I caught up with the gear again, and sailed back in.

Well, I needed that. I am feeling a lot better now, and I'm sure the sea water that's still running out of my nose will stop within an hour or two (just kidding - I waited until the dripping had stopped before turning on my computer!). Next time when it's sunny and warmish, my lovely wife will (knock on wood) be with me again. It's only half the fun without her!

It was nice to see Jerry and a few other windsurfers show up around noon. I suspect a causal connection between them showing up kinda late and the wind dropping shortly thereafter. I can't really proof this, but I think the wind rewards those that show up early. Point Judith had much steadier wind the entire day, and I'm sure the Rhode Island windsurfers showed up bright and early again! Well, next time the wind is westerly, that's where you'll find me.
Disclaimer: It is by no means certain that my brain freeze has indeed ended, so (as always) read this at your own risk :-)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 review

124 sessions, 4400 km (2700 miles) sailed - 2011 was a great year. We sailed locally (in Massachusetts and Rhode Island) from January to December, and some of the best sessions were in the colder months - February, March, and November. The warm weather in the fall helped a lot, but finding out how to keep the hands warm when sailing in cold weather was also essential.

Compared to 2010, we did fewer windsurf trips, but we still got to see the windsurf spots in Texas for the first time (Corpus Christi and South Padre Island), and made it to Bonaire and Hatteras. All of these trips were about a week each; but the big trip to Maui in the summer was for more than 6 weeks. Ok, that was not all vacation, we had to work most days; but we managed to go sailing in Kanaha, Sprecks, and Kihei 37 times. The trip convinced us that we want to live closer to the water, so that we can put a windsurf session in the middle of the work day when it's windy. That's not really an option right now - we have to drive for 1 - 2 hours each way to go windsurfing.

So, what have we learned? The list of new tricks is surprisingly short. We both got a few more light wind tricks, including a few 360 variations. The lovely Nina also got pretty good at duck jibes, and started to work on Vulcans. I was a bit lazier, and only improved a few tricks that I had already done at least once before, like 360s, duck jibes, and fall/slam/jump jibes. One day, I worked a bit on Shove Its, but that was mostly because it was so windy that I did not really want to work on anything else.

Perhaps the biggest thing we both learned was to be comfortable in chop and winds above 30 mph. Conditions that I found a bit challenging last year, for example the swell on the river near Fogland in 25 mph winds, now seem like a nice, mostly flat playground.  The $375 that I spent on 3 private lessons with Matt Pritchard to get more comfortable in crazy conditions were very well spent! But in addition to qualified instruction, getting comfortable simply required practice - plenty of time on the water in 30+ mph winds to build muscle memory and confidence.

The one over-due thing that I finally accomplished was to break the 30-knot barrier. Under the right conditions, that turned out to be relatively easy, and Nina set a new personal speed best the very same day. I am definitely looking forward to going back to Egg Island in the spring to sail faster boards and fins!

We were traveling most of the summer, but in the fall, we sailed a lot with the other members of the Fogland Speed Surfers team. It was fun to drag Dean out to new places, and get my ass kicked every single time - his faster speeds usually improved our ranking in the GPS Team Challenge. In 2010, the Fogland Speed Surfers ranked 53rd of 59 active teams; in 2011, we ranked 49th of 63. A lot of team members set personal bests in the fall, so I am sure we'll do better again next year. I will keep focusing on the two long distance measures, one hour and total distance. I managed to sail 100 miles in about 6 hours on a marginal day, and I'm curious to see how far I can push things on a longer day with better wind.

So, what's in store for 2012? The big thing will be a move closer to the water. We had considered Cape Hatteras for a while, but a Hurricane wash-out like this fall could be a big problem when we are also trying to run a business there. So the current favorite is Cape Cod, which also offers the advantages of many different sailing spots, including lakes for ice sailing in the winter. With the planned move, the number of windsurf trips this year will probably be lower than last year, and maybe also the number of sessions. But after the move, the nearest beach will be just a 10 minute drive away, with plenty more choices within a 30 minute drive. That should drive the number of sessions back up again! Right now, it looks like 2012 is off to a good start: the forecast for tomorrow looks great, with wind in the mid-20s, sunshine, and reasonable temperatures (45F, 7C). The only thing missing is my lovely wife, who is still in Germany visiting family. But she will be back soon, to start our 2012 windsurfing adventures.