Thursday, November 30, 2017

An Accurate GPS for $20?

This is a somewhat geeky post. However, if you've thought about using a GPS when windsurfing in the past, you might find it of interest.

Currently, the only "officially approved" GPS that the Locosys GW-60 watch. But the GW-60 has some issues, one of them being the price of about $250.

So - what if we could use something simple and cheap like this:
Here's what you see in the picture:

  1. A Samsung Galaxy J3 Luna Pro phone running Android. I bought it for $30 at Best Buy. 
  2. A USB GPS dongle with a U-blox 7 chip that I bought for $15 from Amazon (like this one).
  3. A USB "On-The-Go" cable for about $5 (like this one) to connect the dongle to the phone (note that the phone must support USB OTG - not all phones do!).
I'm also running the GPSLogit app, which costs about $17. But I had that already, and in the future, there probably will be other free apps that can be used. Similarly, if you already have an Android phone that supports USB OTG (also call "USB Host mode"), you could use that - hence the $20.

For the picture above, I used the free app GNSS Commander to read the data from the USB dongle, and provide them as "mock locations" to GPSLogit. After a successful initial test walk and drive,  I put the entire setup in a ziplock bag and then into a water proof armband, and then went windsurfing. For comparison, I also used a GW-60 watch. Here are the tracks:
The data from the dongle are in red, from the GW-60 in blue. Not a lot of difference! That's a promising start.

The setup above has a few issues, though - the biggest one being that we loose the accuracy data from the GPS chip in the dongle somewhere along the way. The U-blox GPS chips are exceptional in that they provide error estimates for doppler speeds; such error estimates (often call "SDoP") are essential to automatically identify artifacts in the GPS data (like Nina's recent 2 second top speed of 55 knots).

Since the GPS chip in the USB dongle can provide speed error estimates, a bit of hacking was required. I started with some public domain software for USB communication on Android, and quickly got it to read the dongle data. I used the u-center software on Windows to tell the dongle that is should send out data in the format that includes the speed accuracy data (using "ubx" instead of "NMEA" messages); while there, I also told it to send data at a higher rate (5 Hz like the GW-60, instead of the default 1 Hz). The hacked app simply reads the data, shows them on the screen to show it's busy, and write them to a "ubx" file.

Now, a test drive was in order. On the phone, I recorded the GPS data from the dongle with my hacked app, and also had GPSLogit record data from the phone's GPS chip. The speech function in GPSLogit also was on, and told me how fast I was going every 2 seconds. For comparison, I used a GW-60 watch.

Looking at the results back home turned out to be a bit more difficult. My favorite program, GPS Action Replay, is a bit buggy when it comes to reading ubx files, and got the date wrong by about a week. It also did not read the accuracy data correctly. In the alternative program, GPSResults, the accuracy data were displayed correctly, but the speed analysis did not work well, since the dongle data had a lot of missing data points (the distance between 2 points sometimes was 0.4 seconds instead of 0.2 seconds). Since GPSResults is super-strict, it refuses to use any section with missing points for top speeds. However, we a visual comparison of the data shows some interesting trends:
The picture above shows that the speeds from the GW-60 and the USB dongle were very close to each other most of the time. The data from the phone's GPS are often similar, but show a pronounce lag of about 2 seconds every time the speed goes up. I actually noticed that when driving - the speed announcements from the phone alway seemed to lag behind, even after taking some unavoidable lag between the speed measurement and the announcement into account. The cause of the lag is most likely a filter in the phone's GPS firmware. In the example above, the effect is that the phone GPS often understated the peak speed at the end of an acceleration by 1 - 2 km/h. For use outside of competitions, the phone GPS was sufficiently adequate; however, the delay in reporting acceleration might be somewhat detrimental when you want to fine-tune your stance in speed runs.

These first results are encouraging. Obviously, a lot more tests in "real-world" windsurfing conditions are necessary. Even before that, I'll need to look into the cause of the missing data points - it could be something as simple as the phone being to busy dumping data onto the screen, or announcing speeds. Worst case scenario would be to use the dongle at 1 Hz, where missing data points are much less likely.

One of the cool things about using phones for GPS speedsurfing is that they have large displays, sound output, and plenty of memory and processing power. That means you can see and hear your speed while your sailing, and get numbers in categories like alpha 500, nautical mile, and one hour where the GW-60 simply does not have enough "brains" to calculate the results on the fly. Even if you have to buy a phone at a non-sales price (closer to $70 or so), you'll end up with a cheaper and more powerful, albeit perhaps less convenient, solution.  That may require that apps like GPSLogit or Windsport Tracker will support the GPS dongles directly - but if not, app development on Android is pretty easy. With the accuracy data from the u-blox GPS chips, the results should even be useful for competitions like the GPS Team Challenge.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Harness Lines for Catapults

I was lucky today - my harness lines broke:
Usually, I hate it when harness lines break, but I'll make an exception today - they broke in a catapult. I sailed the same spot as yesterday (Barnstable Harbor), and foolishly believed that the water depth would be similar. I started sailing half an hour later than yesterday, that should account for low tide being a bit later, right? Wrong! Half a foot less water is the difference between not even touching the ground and stopping quickly when the fin hits the sand.
I was not sailing very fast, but the dive over the handle bar was abrupt enough for something to break. If the boom breaks, it gets expensive - about $700 for a new carbon boom. If the sail breaks, Nina will not be happy - and she already has to fix my 4.7. If the harness lines break, it's simple and cheap. We Germans have a word for that: Sollbruchstelle.

I had actually switched to adjustable harness lines several years ago when I read that adjustable lines break in catapults. Over time, I have broken a few booms and sails in catapults when hitting shallow spots - when the board stops but you keep going, something has to break! But the lines I used back then never worked well for me. Last year, though, when Nina and I started sharing booms again for some of our larger race sails, we started using Chinook Race Harness Lines. They cost about twice as much as fixed harness lines, but can easily be adjusted while sailing; are easy to hook into; and have replaceable parts, so that the cost over time can actually be lower than for other harness lines. These were the kind of lines I used today, and they broke when they were supposed to break. I must say, I am very happy about that.

The rest of today's session was interesting, too. Yesterday's session had been nice, and today's setup looked almost identical - just a couple of degrees colder, and a maybe a couple of miles more wind - but the closest wind meter at Chapin never reads accurately. I used the same gear as yesterday, only switching to a different pair of open-palm mittens. Well, these left my fingers a bit cold, and the spots that had been nice and flat yesterday either we're as flat today, or just a bit too shallow. But I was very nicely powered the entire time on my 7.0 ... at times, a bit too nicely. And then, the wind picked up. I found myself sailing at 24 knots when I really wanted to go slow, and decided to call it a day. That required a couple of downwind runs through the choppier parts. Too choppy, it turned out, when I hit a 2 or 3 foot steep ramp at 26 knots, and ended up in the water again. I thought the crash was somewhat controlled and that I hit the water, but either the water was harder than I thought it would be, or I hit the mast after all - my ribs are still hurting a bit.

After that, it was time for a little swim to get back to my gear. The waves were having fun playing with my board and pulling it out of my reach, but I eventually caught up with it. The GPS says it was just a 3-minute swim, but it felt a longer... or perhaps I'm still confused and am thinking about how long it took me to get the 7 m race sail out of the water again. There had been plenty of time for the mast sleeve to fill up, and pushing the tip up high enough so that it would stay about the waves was a tad of a challenge. But eventually, I made it back to shore, where a guy who had watched me commented that I had looked in control - how funny!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Cold and Windy

It's been windy a lot. And cold. Here's a picture from last Friday:
I sailed from Indian Neck Beach in Wellfleet Harbor. Nina had come along, but since it was cold, windier than predicted (33 mph gusting to low 40s), and bumpy, she stayed on shore. I can't blame her - temperatures were a little above 40ºF, but it felt rather cold. Maybe we have gotten spoiled by too many warm days up to now.

I used my Ianovated suit with an extra neoprene layer below, so I stayed nice and warm. This was the first session where I really needed mittens. I had brought a three different pairs of open-palm mittens, but the first pair I tried had only thin fabric on the inside of the fingertips. Not yet being used to cold-weather surfing again, my fingertips complained bitterly. No problem, I thought, and grabbed another pair that had neoprene covering the fingertips. That was much warmer ... but unfortunately, the mittens were too big, so my fingers slipped out a lot. Not a bit deal when taking short runs near shore, but the fin in Wellfleet Harbor is that you can take 3 mile long runs to the peninsula on the other side. I only went halfway before my inner chicken pointed out that going too far while all alone on the water might not be so smart, forcing me to turn around. Of course, my fingers slipped out of the mitten right away, and in 40+ mph gusts and a bit of chop, getting them back in proved to be really hard. Cooling the fingertips down to the point where the pain level became rather uncomfortable was a lot faster! Well, that ended up being a really short session. I was quite surprised when my fingers started to hurt again a couple of hours later in the hot tub - they had not really warmed up again the entire time. Fortunately, we had stopped at Inlandsea and gotten a new pair of palmless mittens, so the next cold session should involve less pain.

Yesterday, we had similar wind, but from a southerly direction - it was warm! I was able to sail in my 4.5 mm suit without a hat or mittens. The wind was similar in strength when we started, but instead of a 4.7 m freestyle sail, I used a 6.3 m race sail. After all, we were at the Kennedy Slicks, were it was supposed to be super-flat! And flat it was ... if you made it through the first 300 meters, where a lot of waves made it through and over the holes in the pier. Nina, who had not been on slalom gear for quite a while, had a bit of a hard time making it to the flat water at first. Just as she finally got halfway comfortable (after switching to a week fin because there was lots of junk in the water), the wind picked up, "gusting" to over 40 knots. I put the "gusting" in quotes because some of these gusts seemed to go on for several minutes, and were separated from the next gusts but just a short lull. More than 40 knots of wind is record territory, and Nina did indeed set a record, if you believe her GPS watch: it showed a 2 second top-speed of 55 knots! Analysis of the track at home showed that she reached this speed while swimming - just breaking the windsurf speed record apparently was not good enough for her. Or so her watch thought, and produced a big fat artifact. The maximum speed according to the GW-60 was 135 knots for 0.2 seconds! At this point, I was glad that it was an artifact, because otherwise, the acceleration would have reached rather unhealthy levels.

I had spend some time watching Nina swim and try to waterstart (which she managed .. a total of 3 times on her final run in, usually followed by gusts ripping the sail out of her hands a few seconds later). Then, I did my best to try and break her swimming record. I first tried to use her 5.0 m sail, but while the wind had dropped by about 10 mph, it was still windy enough to let me sail out and back a couple of times. So I went back out on my 6.3, and completely ignored the fact that the wind had switched to side-off. When my deep downwind trajectory would have let me crash into the wall rather than reach the flat water, I turned around, and practiced u-boat sailing my 90 l board in the now extremely gusty, but mostly very light, wind. For the amusement of beach goers, who were curious enough to enquire about the water temperature, I also added a few short stretches of swimming. Well, all forms of exercise are good, right?

Today was another sunny and windy day, but with temperatures below 40ºF, I decided to take a break. It's supposed to be warm and windy again tomorrow - see you on the water!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Not Stupid - Scary

This is not a windsurfing post. Contrary to what some of you may have thought after reading the title, it's not a political post, either. This post is about something that scares me - and scares me quite a bit, more than the front loop in windsurfing.

I develop software for a living, and a lot of my work deals with complex algorithms. At times, that includes machine learning and artificial intelligence methods like neural networks. A few years ago, it seemed that computers were stupid and would remain stupid.

That has changed. Now:
  • Computers can act with more intelligence than any human
  • Computers can learn such intelligence-related skills hundred of times faster than humans, without any supervision - computers can learn skills that take humans decades to master in weeks.
These statements are based on recent developments in computers playing games - specifically, the game of Go. Go is a board game that is very popular in East Asia, where it is played by more than 40 million people. This includes more than one thousand professional Go players in Japan, China, North Korea, and Taiwan. They compete in a number of tournaments where the winner's purse can be as high as $500,000 (compared to the total prize money of $140,000 at the largest windsurfing event, the PWA World Cup in Sylt).

Compare to chess, Go has much simpler rules. But while computers have been able to beat chess champions since the 1990s, Go has been a much harder problem, partly do to the large number of possible moves that make a "brute force" approach to finding the best move impossible. It took until October 2015 until a computer beat a professional go player in an even match.  A few month later, the next version of the computer program beat an 18-times Go world champion.

This was an impressive feat, but the story does not end here - it gets better. The version of the software was able to run on a single computer rather than a network of computers that previous versions required; it beat professional go players 60:0.

Then came the really crazy improvement: AlphaGo Zero. Whereas pevious versions had been trained with thousands of Go-games played by amateur and professional players, AlphaGo Zero only knew the rules. Over a few days, it played a few million games against itself, and used the outcome of the games for "unsupervised learning". After 40 days, AlphaGo Zero played against the older version that had beaten the world champion.  AlphaGo Zero won 100 out of 100 games!

So - a computer program taught itself in 40 days to reach a level that takes the best human players decades to achieve! That's absolutely amazing.

It's also very scary. If a computer can teach itself to surpass any human at a very difficult mental task within weeks, then "artificial intelligences" that are generally more intelligent than humans suddenly don't look like science fiction anymore. Some of the most intelligent people on this planet, including Steven Hawking and Elon Musk, have warned about the potential dangers - perhaps it would make sense trying to understand what they are concerned about?

I won't delve into that now, but let me give you a few things to think about. The AlphaGo software was developed by Google, and is running on hardware designed by Google. One computer with 4 "TPUs" can beat the best human Go player; in total, Google uses about 2.5 million servers at it's gigantic data centers. Plenty of computing power to learn other things. How about learning about the ethics of one species exterminating tens of thousands of species?

Of course, we don't really have to worry about computers - they can't harm us because we can just turn them off, right? Only if the computers were somehow connected to weapons would be have to worry about those science-fiction scenarios. There may be some military drones around, but they are usually flown by human operators; even if capable of autonomous flight, any firing decisions usually require a human. According to Wikipedia, the "U.S. Military is investing heavily in research and development towards testing and deploying increasingly automated systems". But thankfully, these are still to be controlled by human beings, thoughtfully supervised by the Commander in Chief. Nothing to worry about!
If you're interested in learning more about the underlying AI or want to watch the Go games between AlphaGo and Go professionals, check out the DeepMind channel on YouTube.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Fun in Lüderitz

The speedsurfing event at the channel in Lüderitz got a lot better this year - Ben Proffitt is there, and he keeps up up-to-date with daily videos on  Today was a light-wind day, so he gives a nice overview of the channel - with short segments of impressive crashes from previous years to illustrate the problems at the different areas. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Twenty, Forty, Thirty

Three days of wind in a row - very different days.

20 mph ESE at West Dennis. After 2 1/2 weeks in Hatteras, it feels very bumpy. The meter seems to read high - I need my 117 l board to get planing with a 7.0. Nina is barely powered on her 5.0, and "everything felt wrong". Good that every day of sailing is a great day of sailing! In the evening, we drive to Mystic, CT, so sail the Sandy Point Slicks on Monday.

A huge storm brought 70+ mph winds during the night, with power outages from North Carolina to Canada.
Getting to the Barn Island boat launch takes longer than planned since some streets are closed due to fallen trees.
We rig when the meter readings show 32 mph averages, and some computer models predict further drops. Nina rigs the 3.4, our smallest sail. I rig the 5.6 Racing Blade, since Boro said the sail can handle a lot of wind. Sailing away from the launch is easy - there's a pronounced wind shadow. Maybe it should have tipped me off that I was fully planing within a second on the 72 l speed board. Once I leave the wind shadow, the fight starts. The sail is too big! Crash! Try to waterstart. The sail pushes me under water. I thought I knew how to waterstart? Again. The wind picks up the board and throws it around. And so it continues. Sailing out 2000 feet took 90 seconds. Getting back takes half an hour.

I rig down to the 5.0 Koncept, and fight my way up to the sandbar through 1-2 ft chop. On my way, I set a record - for the slowest sailing of a speedboard ever! But even at just 10-15 knots, it only takes 15 minutes to get half a mile upwind and a mile across. But when I arrive, I need a break! I'm also disoriented, and spend the next 40 minutes walking around looking for flat water. I later discover that the wind had picked up to averages above 40 mph, gusting above 50, during that time. Nina spent a lot of this time sitting on shore - the 3.4 is way to big!

And so it continues. We start sailing, the wind drops. I'm nervous about sailing back a mile on a 72 l board - I need about 110 l to float me! I sail back, rig the 5.6 again, and pull out a big board. As I get ready to go out, the wind picks up again to 40 mph. So back to the 72 l board, and once again an upwind sail to the sand bar. I get a few ok runs in before the wind drops. While I was going back and forth, Nina had some fun working on Vulcans on the 3.4; Dean set a new personal best for 2 second top speed of 37.7 knots; and Bart, who arrived late due to many closed streets, hit 35.8 knots. By the time I get things dialed in, the wind starts dropping again, and I barely manage a 32-knot run. But at least I managed to make it back to the launch without having to slog. Every day of sailing is a great day of sailing, but this day was an adventure.

The wind is finally nice. It lets us sleep late, and then comes in exactly as predicted (after adding a few miles per hour to the forecast because it's WSW). After feeling a bit like a beginner the day before, I decide to show the 5.6 who's the boss! I ask Nina for rigging advice. With almost an inch more downhaul, the sail actually has some loose leech! I still bounce around a bit when crossing over to Egg Island, which is half a mile downwind:

But once I get there, it's flat! The wind is almost at a right angle to the second sandbar, which is fully out due to a very low tide. That's not great for top speed, since going deep downwind means hitting chop after just a few seconds; but it's fun for just going back and forth, and working on jibes. I'm having a blast - compared to the 72 l speed board, the 90 l slalom board feels huge, and is really easy to get going and jibe. I end up with my 3rd-fastest session ever (33.5 knots, 62 km/h), and tie my personal best for alpha 500 with 22.5 knots. Here's a video of this alpha 500 run:
Average speed on the first leg was 29.6 knots; minimum speed in the jibe was 10.7 knots; and average speed on the second leg was about 19 knots. There's lots of room for improvement in the jibe and coming out of the jibe ... next time!

I managed to sail back in time just before the wind dropped too low, and had too walk and slog just a little bit - well worth it! That was a great day, all alone at Egg Island.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Fighting Chicken

Our first five days in Hatteras were windy - we planed every day, usually in wind that was higher than the forecast. Friday took the crown - the forecast predicted 20 mph at 8 going down to 15 during the day, but we got 23 mph going up to 30 and staying there.

I took the opportunity to fight my inner chicken. It's quite a loud-mouthed beast, and I often listen to it. Not this time! Out came the 72 l speed board, even though the wind had turned from NNE to NNW by noon, meaning higher water levels and more chop. I had been overpowered towards the end of the morning freestyle session on my 5.6 m sail in 25 mph wind. With meter readings of 29 mph after lunch, switching to a 6.3 m race sail sounded about right. You need to go big for speed, right?

Well, the 6.3 turned out to be encouraging the chicken just a bit too much. In theory, a 6.3 should be easy to hold in this wind and "moderate" chop. Indeed, the sail never felt overpowering; instead, it combined the best characteristics of a freestyle sail with amazing stability. But with the inner chicken constantly screaming "Not so fast!", I never quite got the feeling of being in control.

On the verge of once again loosing the chicken fight, I rigged down to a 5.6 Loft racing sail. That made a lot of difference, and I was finally able to get a few runs near 30 knots. That may be nothing to good speedsurfers, but for me, it's a lot in chop. With the chicken finally under control, I even found a patch of flat-ish water near shore, and get a 32 knot run - 2 knots faster than my previous best in Hatteras, and my 5th-fastest session ever. Take that, chicken!

We'll be at the ABK camp for the next five days, so we'll focus on freestyle instead of speed. Maybe I can beat the chicken once again and try a few loops...

Monday, October 9, 2017

WET Fall Regatta

The WET Fall regatta took place the last two days at David Kashy's place in Seaford, VA. We took that as a reason to drive down to Hatteras a week before the ABK camp, and had a blast.

The weather was nice, the wind great for longboard racing, the organization once again excellent - thanks to all who made it happen!
Racing is always a good way to learn where you need to improve. I had plenty to learn! Some of these things are:

  • Practice the hard stuff, not just the fun stuff! I fell a couple of times in long downwind legs, which I never practice.
  • Check your gear before the trip! When I took out Nina's Ultra Cat at the end of day one, I discovered that the mast foot tendon had about 10 deep cracks; it was just pure luck that it had not broken during the races. Nina ended up using slalom gear for several races on day two, which was fun in the gusts, but had her drop to the rear of the field in lulls.
  • If you're racing with your MSO, she might expect exceptions from the right-of-way rules, even if she knows them perfectly well. Or perhaps she never practiced stopping with a cambered sail on a race board, and absolutely will not drop a 3-cam 7.8 m sail. Well, at least not before the inevitable collision. 
  • Listen carefully at the skippers meeting, and then look at the flags! More about that below.
The races also illustrated nicely how much gear matters. Steve was in a league of his own on the Starboard Phantom 377:
Although looking at the picture, maybe he just discovered how to sail downhill all the time?

John was in second place in most races on a Mega Cat with a 9.5 m raceboard sail. When Nina was on her Ultra Cat with a 7.8 m 3-cam freerace sail, she managed to pass him a few times; taking the weight difference into account, she was on comparable gear. I'm much closer to John's weight, and was on my Lightning that does not have a race daggerboard, so I was far behind John in the light wind races. In the second race on Sunday when the wind picked up, I managed to get close, and might have had a chance to beat him ... if I had looked at the flags and seen that we were going around the course twice this time, instead of just once as in the first race of the day. By the time I understood what all the "2" signs that the boat crew was making meant, the entire field had long passed me. But at least there was nobody else in the picture when I finally crossed the finish line:
The pictures are from Marcia and David - big thanks! Here's a final one of Nina having fun:

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Speed Spots

Jose left us and took the wind with him. While waiting for the wind to come back, I think of past sessions, and wonder - where did I go really fast in the past? Thanks to my sessions database with 1,113 entries since 2009, that's easy to answer. Here's a list of the spots where I have reached top speeds above 30 knots:

No big surprises here. Three of the top 4 spots are Slicks, and the remaining spot (Corpus) is shallow everywhere, and also has excellent speed strips. Perhaps the more surprising thing is that my home spot, Kalmus, is at the very bottom of the list - I sailed faster than 30 knots in only one session out of 251! Compare that to Sandy Point in Connecticut, where I sailed only twice - and broke 30 knots both times.

But as the avid reader of this blog knows, my Kalmus sessions are usually freestyle or bump & jump sessions. It's rare that the wind is strong enough to make speed sailing interesting, and when that happens, I often sail upwind or downwind half a mile to the nearby slicks - Egg Island downwind, and the Kennedy Slicks upwind. If we look at only sessions where I used slalom gear, and then sort by the percentage of sessions where I did 30+ knots, a different image emerges:

Now, Sandy Point is on top, followed by Egg Island and two other slicks on Cape Cod. Of the spots on the list, I would indeed rank Sandy Point as the spot with the highest speed potential when wind, tide, and wind direction all come together. But that does not happen often; furthermore, Sandy Point requires a 3-hour drive, while all the other spots are a lots closer (with Salvo being a vacation spot, and Corpus Christi a winter spot). So we sail at Sandy Point only when we can be darn sure that it will be really windy!

The table above includes sessions with large slalom gear like my 117 l slalom board. When I use the large gear, the wind is typically around or below 15 knots, which makes is darn near impossible for me to reach 30 knots. To get a better idea of the "real quality" of the speed spots, let's look at only sessions on slalom boards below 100 liters:
Now, Egg Island and Barnstable Harbor jump to the top - two of my local favorites. Kennedy Slicks also looks better, with 5 out of 8 sessions above 30 knots. Overall, there are now five spots where sailed faster than 30 knots more than half of the time - cool! The four spots within a 45 minute drive work in a variety of different wind directions: SW-WSW, NW-NNW, and NNE-NE-ENE. You just have to know where to go...

Of the other spots, some indeed make it hard to go faster than 30 knots, at least at my skill level. But some spots are not quite as bad as they seem, for a variety of reasons. Of the 40 sessions that I hit 30 knots, I had wind gusts above 23 knots 38 times. But in Corpus Christi, only 10 of the 26 speed sessions had wind gusts above 23 knots; counting just these 10 sessions would give a much better ">30 knot percentage".

Fogland is another example of a spot that looks worse in the tables above than it really is. The first time I broke 30 knots was in November 2011; the next two 30-knot session were in early 2012 in... Fogland. But after we moved to Cape Cod in the summer of 2012, we stayed on Cape Cod, and went to Fogland only on rare occasions - usually for Dani's BBQ.

Have you ever played a multi-level video game where it took a while to get to the highest level, but once you got there, the lower levels seemed much easier? I think speedsurfing is similar: once you reached a certain speed, reaching what used to be your top speed before becomes much easier. This applies to many different speedsurfing categories: top speed, alpha 500, even the nautical mile. I have often seen speedsurfer "unlock" new speed levels, and afterwards post sessions where there numbers where much higher than they would have been before the "unlock" event. Sometimes, there's an obvious reason for the new "top level", like new gear; at other times, it's a trip to a much faster speed spot like the Lüderitz speed channel or La Franqui, or the opportunity to sail with better speedsurfers; and sometimes, there is no obvious reason. But whatever the cause was, reaching a new top speed level can definitely have an "unlock" effect. So go pick a spot and play a lot!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Wheelie Stop

The one thing that surprised me most in yesterday's speed session was that Nina had problems getting dialed in, and stopped early when her forearms started hurting too much. Nina has become a better windsurfer than I am. She mostly does freestyle, but we have had several speedsurfing sessions where she has beaten my top speed. So what happened?

One thing I noticed yesterday was that she was staying relatively far away from the shore than I was - check the GPS tracks:
Nina's tracks are red, mine are light blue. With wind around 30 mph and stronger gusts, every mast length away from shore meant a lot more chop. Nina's average distance in the middle of the tracks was about 100 meters (350 ft); mine was closer to 30 meters (100 ft). Being closer to the shore meant not only more speed, but also a lot easier sailing.

I was puzzled why she stayed so far away from shore. Perhaps fear? No, that makes no sense - she is rather fearless when she goes through endless crashes while working on new freestyle moves, and keeps trying them when it's so windy that many windsurfers find jibing scary.

When we looked at our GPS tracks today, things became clear. The easiest way to make it back to the start is by stopping right at the edge of the reed islands, where the water was about hip-deep. But nobody ever taught Nina the Wheelie Stop on a slalom board! Her only way of stopping was to go upwind until she ran out of speed. But on a fast speed board with a cambered sail, that takes a long time - so she stayed far away from shore.

So, let's review the Wheelie Stop. If you're ever on a slalom or speed board, you absolutely should have this way of stopping dialed in; it can also be very useful on freeride (and other) boards. Let's start with a picture:
That's me stopping (probably 2 seconds before my fin hit the only big stone far and wide). I have sheeted out - my front arm is bent, the back arm long. But the cambered sail still keeps a bit of power, and the speedboard would happily coast for a long time, so I also put all my weight on the back foot to sink the tail and raise the nose up - putting the brakes on with a wheelie. The picture is from when I am just starting to brake - usually, the nose goes even higher, and there's more spray flying. But it should be good enough to get the idea.

Here's a short section of the GPS track where I slow down this way:
I want to stop at shore at the end of a 34 knot speed run (the wind is from the top-right). Just opening up the sail a bit got me down to 30 knots, but that's still pretty fast. But 10 seconds later, I have come to a full stop, exactly where I wanted to be. The track shows the third element of the wheelie stop: going upwind as you put on the brakes. With the nose of the board high in the air, the apparent wind from the front helps slowing you down .. a lot. You just may want to be careful using this technique when it's choppy and crazy windy, or you might find yourself jumping onto shore!
If you are a want-to-be-looper, there's and additional reason to practice the Wheelie Stop: Andy Brandt and the Tricktionary teach it as one of the pre-exercises for the front loop. But even if you're not interested in looping, it's a useful stopping technique that should be in every windsurfer's arsenal. Have fun trying it!

Friday, September 22, 2017


Rain, fog, temperatures in the high 50s - it must be speed time! So out we went to our favorite slicks:
That's Bart on the left, me in the middle, and Dean on the right. Here's a picture of our playground, taken from the hill where we parked:
Bart ready to go out:
That's Nina's 5.0 Loft Racing Blade he is using. Nina sailed for about an hour before Bart came, but could not get dialed in quite right in the gusty conditions, and decided to take pictures instead. Bart was happy to use her sail, and never finished rigging his own.

Dean had some fun, too:
Once he remembered that this was supposed to be a speed session, he stuck to the water a bit better:
Dean's 2 second top speed was 36.25 knots - that's darn fast! But Bart was flying fast, too:
This is what Bart looked like when he checked his GPS after the best run of the day:
He had 38 knots on his GPS - plenty of reason to be happy! That's a full three knots faster than his previous best, and the fastest GPS speed in New England that I have ever seen. He was quite willing to share the excitement, and tell us where he had hit his top speed:
Later analysis showed that the 38 knots were an artifact; Bart's actual 2 second top speed was 35.77 knots. But that was still 0.7 knots faster than he had ever sailed before. Bart also improved his personal best for 5 x 10 seconds by a knot - congratulations!

He set his top speed just as the incoming tide had started to cover the islands in the bay - the wind had gotten a lot steadier then, and felt stronger than before. My GPS tracks show that the slicks got faster as the tide came in:
I barely broke 30 knots in the first few runs, but later had five runs with a 2-second top speed above 34 knots. The max speed the GPS showed was 35.66 knots, which is cool.. except that recording at 5 Hz is likely to add some little speed artifacts, and my 1 second top speed was just below 35. Still, I set two new personal records for 2 seconds and 5 x 10 second speeds - great! I also was just about 1.4 knots slower than Dean, which is a big improvement over the usual 3 to 5 knots that I'm slower. The Loft Racing Blade 5.6 I used today for the first time certainly is one reason I was able to narrow the gap - great sail! But maybe Nina had the 5.0 that Bart used rigged a bit better :-).

This was our third day of small-sail sailing in a row, after overpowered sessions on 4.7/5.0 at Pleasant Bay 2 days ago, and 3.7/4.0 at Chapin yesterday morning. Those were fun, but I certainly liked today's session the most!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

ECWF Cape Cod 2017

The 5th Annual East Coast Windsurfing Festival Cape Cod took place at Kalmus Beach last weekend, and we had a blast. For the first time in 4 years, we had no "special guest". We had invited three well-known windsurfers, but none of them could come, and it took some them so long to tell us that is was too late to invite anyone else. We also had a very low wind forecast - mostly less than 10 mph. That kept some windsurfers from coming, but the most enthusiastic folks still showed up:
Over two days, we were able to have 8 races:

Six windsurfers battled it out in freestyle:
 The level was amazingly high - most competitors threw beautiful Duck Tacks, some added Ankle Biters, Back-2-Back, Matrix,Rail Rides, and Upside-Down tricks:

Even the organizers got to play on both days - Nina competed in all races on day 1, and did showed Sophie from Canada some light wind freestyle on day 2:

Once again, one man was in a class of his own:

Gonzalo won all races, usually far ahead of all other competitors. His "longboard" was less than 3 meters long, but certainly long enough to keep a few 25 to 30 year-old 12-footers from Mistral and F2 in check. Full results are here.

We crowned a new pair to be King and Queen of the Cape - Liz and Michael:

I was very impressed with Michael's progress since last year. He beat several other guys who have also improved a lot in the past 12 months - but not as fast as he did. Liz won the women's racing; every time she had a chance to race on a longboard instead of her Starboard Go, she left about half of the men's fleet behind. Impressive!

This year, we had a new shop sponsor: 2 Rad from Canada. We had contacted the two local shops in the past about demo gear for the event without success. But Vincent and Bruno from 2 Rad managed to convince Fanatic and North to send a whole bunch of demo gear to them, and then drove 6 hours from Quebec to show the gear at the event:
 During a no-wind phase on day one, they and local Fanatic/North team sailor Chris Eldridge have us a great introduction to the gear they had brought:
Unfortunately, the wind never picked up enough to plane, to only very limited testing of the demo gear took place. Vincent managed to get the demo foil out of the water for a few short runs, though:
Without any doubt, though, 2Rad, Fanatic, and North certainly earned an enormous amount of goodwill! For next year's event, we plan to set a "rain date", so that we can delay the event by one week if we have a bad wind forecast.

I'll leave you with a few more pictures from the event:

Michael, the new King of the Cape, ducking the sail

Queen of the Cape Liz ahead of Jay

Myles, Jeff (who dominated the 7.5 class), and Jay

Marty smiling

Michael and Martin

The Flying Spaniard way ahead of everyone else

Friday, September 1, 2017

BaHa Session

No, I did not turn into a wave sailor.  It's BaHa, not Baja. The great spot 12 minutes from our house that I usually have for myself. The GPS tracks:
94 km before noon - that's fun! The wind dropped at the end of the session, as northwest wind likes to do. The wind dropped just as I started, but 16 mph averages on the Chapin meter were enough to get going on the 7.0 Racing Blade with the 117 l slalom board. I got lucky about 2 hours into the session, when the wind turned more northerly and picked up to 21 mph average / 29 mph gusts, just as the tide level was perfect for speed runs in the slicks. The wind is weaker and quite gusty there, but I got lucky and caught a good gust, which gave me a new 2 second top speed on the big board (30.85 knots, 57 km/h). That's not much for most speedsurfers, but enough to make me happy: in the 1100 windsurf session since I started using a GPS, I was faster only 20 times. The 3rd-fastest nautical mile I ever sailed (26.58 knots) was just icing on the cake. 
Once again, the Loft Racing Blade behaved beautifully, letting me plane in 16 mph and just getting into it in the 29 mph gusts. I also was very happy with the Tectonics WeedDemon 33 today. Near high tide, plenty of dead reed stalks were in the water, so that a pointer fin would not have been fun. But when powered up today, it held beautifully in downwind speed runs, and going back upwind was absolutely no issue. Of course, having 2 km long runs helped :-).
That was a great start into September. I don't want to jinx anything so I'll be quiet - but have you looked at the wind forecast for Kalmus recently?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Amazing Sail

That's what she said.
Nina on a Loft Racing Blade 7.0 in 14 knots
I agreed. That's pretty much the story. The impatient can stop reading now.

For the patient reader, we'll go back in time. Ever since I owned more than 2 sails, I had a mix of different styles and brands. At some point, I came close to have a collection ranging from 5.5 to 7.5 square meters of the same model .. only to discover that the manufacturer had totally changed the character of the sail, but kept the name, when I bought the last missing size. Bummer!

When I started to dabble in speedsurfing, things got worse. The first sail I bought was the sail that had held the top speed on for years: a 2007 KA Koncept 5.8. The fact that the sail was about 5 years old and a real bargain made the purchasing decision easier. Even though the sail was supposedly developed for light weight surfers (which I am certainly not!), I liked it. Over the years, the 5.8 Koncept got larger and smaller speed sail companions - some where gifts (thanks, Dani!), the others were bought used and cheap. They were all decent sails that had a well-established fan base - but they also all rigged and behaved differently, and I can't say I loved any of them.

In stark contrast, my lovely wife approaches windsurfing in a much more orderly way. Once she discovered that (a) freestyle was her thing, and (b) she liked North Idols, she made sure she had the whole quiver: 4.0, 4.2, 4.5, 4.7, and 5.0. I also bought a 5.6, but she never uses that one. So she can use a sail that feels pretty much the same, regardless if it's blowing 18 or 30. Maybe that has something to do with her being so good.

While freestyle is Nina's first love on the water, she also likes slalom and speed on occasion (for example when she can leave tons of guys behind at a Kashy/WET slalom regatta). When it was time to replace my old Koncept 5.8, we ended up buying a "barely" used Loft Racing Blade 5.6 from Boro. I have not yet had a chance to use it, but Nina sailed in both both light and strong wind, and loved it both times. That alone is quite unusual - the other racing and speed sails we sailed usually did not behave well in light conditions if they were great in strong wind, and vice versa. But I had an opportunity to sail a Loft Racing Blade 7.8 last year, when Boro visited, and liked the sail a lot.

We had also bought a used Loft Switchblade 7.8 earlier this year. That's not a full race sail, since it has only 3 cams and a narrower mast sleeve, but it has plenty of low-end power and top-end stability. More importantly, both Nina and I like it a lot (Nina especially if I rig it and then the wind drops, so she does not have to rig it or carry it to the water).

So when our fellow speedsurfer Al from New Jersey reported that he had bought several Loft racing sails from Poland, Nina started talking - "wouldn't it be great if we also had the same sail for speed in all different sizes"? Who am I to disagree? So we placed an order for 3 sails (5.0, 6.3, and 7.0), one mast, and a few more things. That included a couple of mast bases and extensions, since the racing sails need 3 pulleys, and all RDM extensions sold for the "US" 2-pin system have only two pulleys. This ended up being the biggest order for windsurf gear we had ever placed - with a shop in Europe that we had never done business with!

But within less than 2 weeks, everything arrived in perfect shape. Even the weather played along: yesterday was windless but nice to allow for some practice rigging and batten tuning; today, we got perfect wind to try the 7.0.

At first glance, today looked less than perfect. It was rainy and cold (57ºF, 14ºC) in the morning, and the wind meter readings were just around 20 mph. That may sound good, but the Duxbury meter tends to read high, since it's sitting on a very tall pole that has a much better fetch than a windsurfer in the bay. For my older MS TR-7 race sail, that would have been marginal wind - I would have chosen to rig the 7.8 instead. But the new sail needed to be tested, so out I went. Here are the GPS tracks:
A few things to note:

  • I was planing the entire time until the wind dropped near the end of the session (when averages dropped to 17 mph, then 15).
  • I planed through a whole bunch of jibes. That's amazing since I often have problems when jibing cambered sails.
  • At the end, I switched gear with Nina, who had a total blast on the slalom gear (117 l board, 7.0 sail) in 15 mph wind. I had somewhat less fun sailing her 90 l board / 5.0 m sail back to shore. The board plaid submarine most of the time - U-Boot windsurfing is not so much fun.
I was quite amazed how much power I had in the relatively light wind. At the same time, this was "easy power" - the sail never felt heavy. Nina said it felt "like a freestyle sail", and I have to agree. On land, the sail feels a lot heavier than a freestyle sail - on the water, not so. Even the slogging, which can be a pain on some race sails, was nice and easy. The wind was too weak to test top end stability, with gusts never exceeding 24 mph, but the "locked-in" feeling was superb - substantially better than in the Switchblade 7.8, which does already feel very stable. My 2-second top speed today was 33 mph- that's 13 mph faster than the average wind speed, and 9 mph faster than the strongest gusts during the session, quite decent by my standards. I can't wait to see how the sail does in strong wind and on my speed board!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Surprise Fun

The wind has been pretty light this summer, so when I saw gusts above 20 mph today, I just had to go sailing. Despite a few light wind freestyle and longboard sessions, my withdrawal symptoms were strong enough to overlook a few minor issues. Kalmus was the only spot showing halfway decent wind, but the wind was from the northwest - offshore and not a good direction for Kalmus. According to the iWindsurf meter, it was rather gusty:
Gusty, offshore, best wind probably in Lewis Bay: a longboard day! When I got to the beach, I could see lots of white caps a few hundred meters from shore, so I rigged the Loft SwitchBlade 7.8. That's usually not my preferred longboard sail, but 3 cams and tons of stability meant I did not have to worry about strong gusts. What followed was more than 2 hours of fun in what felt like my most-powered longboard session ever. Here are the tracks:
At times, I was in both back foot straps on holding on with all I had, 10 feet of board fully out of the water in front of me. At times, I briefly thought that a slalom board might have been fun too, but almost every time, the wind would drop to sub-planing within a minute or two. The speed graph shows the variability quite well - I was mostly just going back and forth on a beam reach, where the board speed is typically close to the wind speed. On a slalom board with the same sail, I probably would have slogged often, which is no fun; on the longboard, I felt lightning fast most of the time. In gusts, the wind was strong enough for deep downwind runs, but the chop was about a foot high, which slowed the longboard down with every little wave I crossed. Threading the chop on a course close to a beam reach ended up a lot faster, and less scary.

As much fun as that was, I am looking forward to September, when the crowds are gone, all beaches are open for windsurfing again, and the wind (hopefully!) returns. Just three more weeks! Lots of fun action in September, too:

  • The ABK Camp Hyannis from September 8-10. I hope all you local windsurfers have signed up already - the camp has sold out every year in the last 4 or 5 years!
  • The East Coast Windsurfing Festival Cape Cod on September 16-17. Fun races, freestyle competition, GPS racing, and probably some cool demo gear - sign up and join the fun! We'll start this year with a "Beer Social" at Kelly's on Main Street in Hyannis on Friday, September 15, at 7 pm.