Course Racing Kites

As far as we know, the first course racing for kites, anywhere, is taking place this year on the San Francisco cityfront. For years now kites have been a familiar, colorful feature in the waters off Crissy Field, which is located just inside the Golden Gate and right in the mouth of the wind funnel. The kite sailors do their going-fast bit, and they do their flying through the air bit, and for some of them this is everything they know about sailing. Others, though, grew up in the sailing world, from dinghies to keelboats to windsurfers to kites, and a few of those people are also members of St. Francis Yacht Club, next door to Crissy Field.

From a San Francisco point of view, a partnership was a natural.

The games take place on alternate Thursday evenings, with starts from the St. Francis race deck. On opening night there were five races and anywhere from 18 to 22 kites per race. At one point, participants had speculated that perhaps they would have to limit heats to much smaller numbers, but no.

Organizing sparkplug John Gomes says, “We had some OCS’s and some DNF’s, and we had some people who were starting cold with no experience of starting lines or mark roundings. At the skippers’ meeting we talked up safety and we hammered home some rules, and when we got on course, we proved that we also had a few people who know how to be on the line, at speed, when the gun goes. Some of the fastest people out there were people like Poul Scheibel of Santa Cruz—new to racing, but very good. As soon as we had one race off, everybody was saying, ‘Let’s go again.’ ”

“After five windward-leeward races we hit the beach,” Gomes says, “and the people were ecstatic.”

With that in mind, here’s commentary written earlier on this subject:


The first time I met John Gomes he was volunteering on the race committee of a mainstream yacht club. You need to know that, not because this story is about John, or about race committees. Rather, if there is one kind of sailing the guy really goes for, it’s kite sailing, and that’s what this is about. For John Gomes, there is no separation between the life of a sailor and the life of a kitesailor. He was one of the first people I thought of when ISAF stiffly declared: “Significant safety concerns continue to be expressed. At this stage, ISAF does not give endorsement to recognizing kite powered crafts as holders of the outright World Sailing Speed Record.” No mention of why ISAF isn’t concerned about three-point pods, given the cartwheeling self destruction of Macquarie Innovation on a speed run in 2004.

The World Speed Sailing Record Council does maintain a category for boards with kite sails, and so far, no one on a kite has gone faster than the sailing speed records. Kites, however, have made advances while the curve elsewhere is near-flat. If we’re going to marginalize kites, now is the time to act. But why would we?

If you’ve been around a while you might recall that windsurfers were not immediately embraced by the higher powers. Now windsurfers are part of a sport governed by the verb, not the noun. That is, sailing as what you do, versus yachting, which requires a “yacht.”

505 world champion Morgan Larson, when he flies off to crew in a Farr 40 regatta, takes a kite with him “because it’s easy to pack.” Chip Wasson, San Francisco Bay sailor, has gone from windsurfing to kitesailing and the one thing he’s missed, he says, is racing. But no longer. “It’s a new era,” says Wasson. “Kites have not been efficient upwind, but that’s because there hasn’t been motive for development.”

Yes, kites have issues. A sailor and his kite typically take up 75-110 feet of airspace (more length equals more power). The strings (Kevlar, Spectra) are under high tension. Yes, they can cut. No, you don’t want to get tangled. (But I have friends who are still looking for better quick-release mechanisms for dinghy harnesses.) Kitesailing is too young to have an old guard, but the sport is attending to safety. Training is important because kites are powerful, as Larson says: “People notice that fact when they get dragged across the parking lot.”

It’s fair to call kitesailing an extreme sport. And racing? Gomes and Wasson’s St. Francis YC, which led the way in opening doors to windsurfers, will continue to experiment with freestyle, slalom, and course-racing events. Race Manager John Craig says, “Most kite sailors are new, and in their case the rules understanding isn’t great, but they’re coming along. We see a lot of windsurfers and kids going into it.”

Going into what? Wasson says, “I don’t tell people I’m going kiting; I say, I’m going sailing.”


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