Saturday, February 27, 2021

How Not To Get Beaten By A Girl

Short answer: pick the right gear! For those of you with more patience, let me give you the long story.  

Nina and I have been speedsurfing 3 out of the last 4 days, and she's beaten my top speed in 2 of the 3 sessions. Not by a small margin, either - she typically was about 2 knots faster. Nor was this the first time - she did the same thing in a couple of speed sessions in January. Sure, she is a better windsurfer than I am - but I am taller and heavier, two things that should help in speedsurfing.

The last 3 days made it clear that gear choice is a big factor on who's faster. Three days ago, Nina was on a 6.3 m sail and 89 l slalom board; I was on a 7.0 m sail and 99 l board. Her 2 second top speed was 31.6 knots, pretty decent for the conditions - and 2 knots faster than my top speed. She got her top speed at a deep downwind angle - 130 degrees of the wind. My top speed was at a lower angle, about 110 degrees off the wind. The 20 degree difference explains the speed difference: deeper is faster. But since the apparent wind goes down at deeper angles, you need enough sail to go deep. Her 6.3 was big enough, my 7.0 was too small. I weigh almost one third more than Nina, so my sail size should be about 1/3rd larger, too - not just 10 percent larger.

Yesterday, I was able to turn the tables (for once). We rigged when the wind was barely touching 20 mph. Nina very much prefers the 6.3 to the 7.0, so I suggested she should a bigger board - the Falcon 99 instead of the Falcon 89. I went with the Falcon 112 and a 7.8 m sail. The wind picked up to around 24 mph just as we started sailing, so I ended up nicely powered. Nina also had plenty of power, but had a hard time controlling the board with the 23 cm delta fin that I often use with the board. This time around, I ended up with 31.6 knots, while she could not get above 30. The difference in "feel" was similar: my setup was nicely balanced and easy to sail, which she was fighting for control. 

The first instinct was to simply blame the board - we both had been on the Falcon 99 when we were slower. But as tempting as this explanation is, it's likely to be wrong. I had used the same board and fin a few weeks earlier, and set a spot and board PB with 33.09 knots. Furthermore, I had used the Falcon 112, a board which I never liked much, and which I had never been able to push past 30 knots. I had started to think of the board as "slow", at least for me - but clearly, I was wrong.

The wind forecast for today was a couple of knots higher than for the last few days. When we left home, the sky was still cloudy, but we hoped that the sun would burn away the clouds, as it does most days. Our optimism explain why we both opted for the same sails, but smaller boards, today: Nina for the Isonic Speed W54, and I for the Falcon 99. Unfortunately, the clouds stayed, and the wind never picked up, staying around 20 mph and leaving both of us a bit underpowered. We launched from the JFK Causeway today, despite the many dead fish from last week's cold on shore: 

On the water, though, there were fewer dead fish than on previous days. I guess they all washed up onshore...

Nina got out a bit earlier, and caught a nice gust in her very first speed run that propelled her to 31.7 knots - almost 3 knots faster than I was today. Overall, she also beat my speeds in 4 of the 6 GPS categories today, even jibing the little speed board better than I jibed my "go to" board. My setup today felt unbalanced, and I was fighting the entire time to get upwind. I did a few short speed runs, but had to pay for it every time afterwards fighting back upwind. It seems I made the mistake of going down one board size, but 2 fins sizes, and the 31 cm weed fin was too small for the conditions. Never mind that Nina was on a 19 cm fin...

The cool thing about all this is that the "match racing" allows us to learn about the "right" gear for the conditions. Most of our windsurfing has been freeriding and freestyle sailing, where you often pick the smallest sail possible to get planing. A 5.6 m freestyle sail in 18 knots wind (or less), and a 5.0 in 21 mph, would be plenty of power. On slalom gear, though, the 7.8 is barely large enough to get going in 18 knots, and just right right in 21. Knowing that you need a bigger sail is one thing - but there's always a tendency to pick a smaller-than-ideal size. The other complication is that everything needs to fit together - board and especially fin need to match both sail size and conditions, and going too big can be just as bad as going too small. But with two of us on the water, chances are higher that at least one of us gets it at least half-way right, and shows what is possible under the conditions. Now I only have to convince myself to always go two sail sizes larger than Nina, no matter how windy it looks...

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Freezing In Texas

"Everything is bigger in Texas!"  I learned that five years ago, when we started to spend part of the winter in Corpus Christi. But who would have thunk that applies to winter thingies, like power outages? Not me!

It started harmless enough. The forecast predicted a couple of days with temperatures below freezing, and down into the 20s at night (that's -6 C, for my friends used to metric numbers). No big deal, we thought - we've seen freezing or near-freezing temperatures almost every year we were down here. Usually, temperatures would get back up into the 60s a couple of days later.

So when our power went out on Sunday evening, we did not worry. So what if we never experienced power outages while living in Germany? We've been in the US long enough to get used to them. Usually, they just last a few minutes, or at most a few hours, even if a snow and ice storm with near-hurricane force winds hits Cape Cod.

We were in for a lesson about what "small government" means. "Small government" is considered a great thing in Texas; even the legislature meets only every other year. For electricity, this means that Texas never entered any agreements to share electricity with neighboring states, since doing so would have put its power grid under Federal jurisdiction. 

Together with millions of Texans, we learned the consequences of this decision, and the "In business we trust! Regulation is bad!" philosophy, over the next few days. We called out landlord about the outage after half an hour, and heard back from them that the utility company thought that fixing it might take until midnight. So we went to bed early, hoping to have power again when we woke up. Hah!

We woke up to near-freezing temperatures in the apartment. This time, it took the landlord more than an hour to get a hold of anyone at the electricity company, and the news were not good. During the night, power companies all over Texas had started "rotating outages". Supposedly, they cut power to some customers for 15-60 minutes at a time. The reality, however, was very different. Some customers had power the entire time - we could see the outside lights burning all the time at the buildings across from ours. Others had "planned" outages that lasted many hours. But for many, the power did not come back on for days.

After the first night, our landlords tried to help by allowing us to use the fireplace, which had been off limits until then as a "fire hazard". Being good Germans, we of course had followed that rule, and thus not bothered to get any firewood. When we tried to drive to a grocery store to get some, we were in for another surprise. Not that the little stores on North Padre Island were closed - that was to be expected, with power outages now common. The surprise was that the police had closed the JFK Causeway - the only connection to the main land (and open grocery stores). Apparently, there was some ice on the bridge, which made driving way too dangerous. This made me realize how wicked spoiled we are in New England, where somehow the streets remain useable even in snow and ice. 

Fortunately, the landlord had allowed me to use some wood he had lying around in the garage - 2x4s under the work bench (but not the wood next to it that was cut to size for sealing up the place during hurricane warnings!). He even had a manual saw hanging on the wall, which gave me an excellent warmup and workout - let's just say its best years were long behind it.

The fireplace was in the back corner of the apartment. Using it helped me understand the difference in heating capacity between a wood burning stove, like we have at home, and a fireplace installed in a climate where typical winter temperatures are in the high 60s. The wood stove in our Cape Cod home can actually heat up the entire place; the little corner fire place looks very nice. But if you sit just a foot or two away from it, just out of range of the sparks that the construction wood will generate, you can stay warm. Yes, we definitely were lucky.

At some time, our neighbor managed to organize an emergency generator that he ran near-constantly from then on. Since houses are about 6 feet apart here, and the generator was on his back patio and did not have any noise suppression, we absolutely knew when his generator was running. It did not quite sound like a plane trying to take off, but it clearly seemed to be aiming in this direction. My admiration for my lovely wife grew a bit when I saw she could sleep through that noise. I got some sleep, too, at least until my ears hurt so bad from the ear plugs that I had to take them out.

On day 2 of the Big Freeze, temperatures during the day rose above freezing, and the police opened the bridge to the mainland again. Afraid that they might spoil the islanders too much, and that there might be some ice hiding on the road at other places, they decided to keep the main highway into Corpus Christi closed, though. We needed to get to the hardware store which was on the other side of Flour Bluff - usually a 10 minute trip on the highway. But with the 6-lane highway closed, the only other option to get there was to use a little 2-lane bridge a few miles further south. No problem - that was the way we often took after windsurfing to go to Lazy Beach Brewing! So what if we had to share the small roads with thousands of other cars, which extended to 10-minute trip to more than an hour - at least we go there! And we were able to score some burnable construction wood, at prices that were only twice as high as on Cape Cod.  And sawing that wood into small pieces was a lot easier than before thanks to a brand new saw. 

We had big hopes to get power again on day 3, because the forecast had predicted 50 degrees (10 C) and sunshine. But once again, the weather remained much colder than predicted, and the sun never made it through the clouds. We saw a few work trucks at the local power substation, and some business and intersections on North Padre Island got their power back, but our house never did.

At this point, we were getting a bit tired of the cold, and the idea of a warm shower seemed like something heavenly. So we looked at hotels in the area. We had done so haphazardly before, but this time, we were serious! But every hotel that we called to verify that the rooms shown on the internet were still available either had no power, or no water. The water was a new thing: in many areas in Texas, the water supply suffered within a couple of days of the power going down. Sometimes, the water plants had power outages, and no backup generators. At other places, many people without power opened the faucets  to prevent pipes from freezing and bursting; and often, pipes did burst, but the water was not cut off for various reasons. All that reduced water levels to dangerously low levels, and reduced the water pressure to a slow trickle - if the water was not shut off completely.

On North Padre Island, we were lucky, because the water was never shut off all the way. For a day or so, the pressure dropped so low that toilet tanks had to be refilled by hand, and filling a gallon mug with water took a few minutes - but we still had water. Around that time, I also realized how lucky I was that my Raynaud's disease is just a very mild form, so that my fingers only hurt briefly after washing my hands, until they were warmed up again at the fireplace.

But today, on the fourth day without power or hot water, we had reached the point were a 3-hour drive to South Padre Island seemed too tempting. Temperatures were a bit warmer down here, and hotels still had power, running water, and free rooms. On the drive from North to South Padre Island, we saw hundreds of wind turbines working just fine in the strong wind; interestingly, we also saw at least 50 wind turbines that were not running, right next to others that ran. That's at least 100 MW of unused capacity - for no apparent reason, since temperatures were in the mid-40s, and wind speeds were just about ideal.

Some Republican politicians, including the governor, have jumped on the opportunity to blame renewable energy sources for the power problems. That strategy will probably work well with their voters: deflect the blame to something they had. However, their statements have been proven to largely be a lie (check this article in Newsweek, or this article from NPR). If you dig just a bit deeper, you can see that the problems arise directly from the free, largely unregulated energy market in Texas. Less than 20% of the electricity in Texas is generated by electric utilities; about 80%  is produced by "independent power producers" and similar commercial sources. Those independent providers have no responsibility to the consumer at all - instead, their only objective is maximizing profits. They have increasingly chosen wind turbines simple because this is the most profitable energy source in Texas, where wind and space are plenty. This happened even though Texas does not provide any state subsidies for renewable energy - the state only subsidizes fossil energy sources (oil and gas). But in the quest to maximize profits without responsibility to customers, the energy providers run an extremely lean ship, with a "grid reserve margin" of only 7.4%. When they installed wind turbines, they chose not to install cold weather packages, which would increase costs, but allow wind turbines to work perfectly fine in temperatures down to at least -4 F.

The current power crisis in Texas (which was preceded by power outages last September) is a logical consequence of all this - profit maximization with minimal regulation. At least one Texas gas company has been very happy with the recent problems, saying that it has "hit the jackpot" since it was able to sell gas at highly inflated prices during the crisis. 

Well, enough of that. We are now in South Padre Island. It's very windy, but we did not even bring our wetsuits - air temperatures in the 40s and water temps that are probably in the 30s just did not seem attractive after 4 days of freezing. At least we are warm now!

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Fun With Polar Plots: Fin - Freeride Foil - Race Foil

Have a look at this GPS track from one of my windsurfing sessions last summer:

This is how almost everyone windsurfs at Kalmus (and many other spots): back and force, back and force, and then some more back and force. If we plot the speeds against the angle to the wind in a "polar plot", here's what we get:

The filled are shows the maximum speed at a given angle to the wind; the inner blue line shows the average speed (ignoring speeds below 5 knots). The plot includes speeds while turning, which confuses the picture a bit. Here's what it looks like if we ignore all turns, and look only at speed when going in a straight line:

In GPS Speedreader, we can also look at how often we surfed at any given angle to the wind by selecting "Frequency" in the pulldown menu at the bottom:

This tells a pretty boring story: almost always on a beam reach in one direction, and pinching upwind just a little bit when going the other direction. The highest upwind angle is just around 30 degrees (60 degrees relative to the wind).

For comparison, let's look at the tracks from a windfoil session:

The tracks are spread out a little more, which is easier to see in the polar plot:

The maximum upwind angles are about 15 degrees higher than with a fin. While speeds drop quickly when going upwind on the fin, the speed drops on the foil are much smaller. This was a session in about 11 to 13 knots of wind, gusting to 15 knots, with a 6.5 m sail, a Slingshot Infinity 84 foil, and a Fanatic Stingray 140. The i84 foil is known to not go upwind as well as the smaller Infinity 76. I was reasonably well powered, but not really fully powered; a bit more wind would have allowed a few more degrees against the wind. But even with this setup and in the lighter wind, going upwind was totally effortless - much easier than with a fin.

Freeride foils are known to be easy to use and can be tons of run, but they are slower than race foils, and  do not go upwind nearly as well. I don't have a race foil, but after reading on the Seabreeze forum about someone who had just gotten a race setup, I downloaded the track from, and had a closer look. Here's the polar plot:

That's quite a different story! The speeds are comparable to my windsurf session, but both upwind and downwind angles are a lot better. Where I had a hard time pointing 30 degrees into the wind, the race foil reached almost 60 degrees, while barely slowing down relative to the beam reach speed. That enabled the foiler to take a nice excursion around some big sand banks at his spot:

At least for me, this would have been impossible to do with a fin - maybe on a longboard with a huge daggerboard, but even that would have required a lot more tacks. 

The "frequency" polar plot for the race foil also looks very different from the one with the fin:

The distribution is much wider than in the fin plot further up, especially on the left side (starboard) - meaning he did not go upwind or downwind a couple of times, but rather most of the time. More options, more fun! Maybe I need to get one of these race foils...

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Foil Turns

The forecast predicted 10 mph. Fog was rolling in from the ocean. But the arctic air that has started chilling large parts of the US is predicted to make it down to Texas in a couple of days, with lows close to freezing even on the coast - so when the wind meter readings got up to 12 mph, we just had to go foiling at Bird Island.

My GPS tracks tell the story:

Speeds are knots, except for the wind speeds which are in miles per hour. We foiled from 3:35 pm to 5 pm. I used a 6.5 m sail with a Slingshot Infinity 84 and a Fanatic Stingray 140, Nina used her 5.4 m wing, Slingshot Infinity 99 foil, and custom wing board. We both used 71 cm (28 in) foil masts. 

The tracks show that I was foiling almost the entire time, which was nice. But the even nicer part was that I managed to keep speed in almost all of my jibes. Most of them included a touchdown at the end, but it usually just needed a couple of pumps to get back up flying. So easy! It seems to be twice as much fun if you don't have to start over after every turn. A couple of times, I even managed to switch the feet while still flying, and if there was a touchdown, it was very brief - maybe a second or two. On port, I did sail-first jibes, trying to remember everything Andy Brandt told me in a private a few weeks ago. The closer I staid to his advise, the better the jibes were - no surprise! But on starboard, it felt more natural to do step jibes. Before today, I'd typically loose most of my speed when flipping the sail, but today, controlling height and turn radius somehow worked much better. I also must have remembered Nina's advice, because I started pushing down on the boom when stepping, which made the foot change much less dramatic. To my surprise, I ended up foiling through one of the step jibes, which also ended up being the jibe with the highest minimum speed in the entire session. 

Most likely, the near-perfect conditions today made things easy, and explain most of the progress. The water was quite deep (0.5 ft above 0), but very flat thanks to the light wind. But the polar diagram shows that I still got upwind angles of almost 45 degrees, which is perhaps 5-10 degrees better than in many sessions. That's a definite hint that (a) the wind was reasonably strong, at least in gusts, and that (b) tips that Andy Brandt gave me in the private lesson made a big difference (besides improving my jibes, he also showed me how to go upwind better).  So there is some hope that, at least to some small extend, the improvements may be due to me finally improving my foil jibes.

Nina had a fantastic day winging. She's been foiling through jibes for months, but foiling through tacks had remained elusive - until today! She discovered that she had to move her arms a bit differently, and promptly foiled cleanly through a couple of tacks, without the board making any water contact. In about half a dozen more tacks, the board just touched the water very briefly. Naturally, she was super happy.

With a little luck, we'll get another session tomorrow, before temperatures start dropping all the way into the 30s over a few days. Going windsurfing or foiling in such temperatures here in Texas is just inconceivable