July 29, 2007
By Kimball Livingston
Air. It's not just for breathing, anymore.
With the America's Cup descending from superlative to squabble and my deck shoes only days removed from the streets of Valencia, I seriously needed an energy infusion, and I seriously got it by showing up for some kite racing on San Francisco Bay. Do you feel the need for big air?
The inaugural U.S. national championship for course racing on kites – ISAF recently came on board for kiting, and the nationals had entries from South America and Europe – was interesting for who won but even more so as a snapshot of a young sport growing in all directions at once. The hydrofoil-board is fast upwind, and the only reason it's slow downwind is that it's too fast. Is that cool or what? Read on for the how and why. Otherwise, the events that crowned Bay sailor Anthony Chavez as the first U.S. champion also demonstrated an advantage – in this kind of competition, at this stage of development – for what the riders call "directional" boards without foils.
This is the first time I've ever seen Sailing Instructions where the five-page SI's were stapled to 14 pages of the basic rules of racing under sail: when boards meet, room at a mark, penalties etcetera etcetera. When I say "young sport" I mean it.
Cabrinha Kites-sponsored Shawn Richman, a Maui guy who admits to being a bit of a freak at home because he kites instead of surfs, says, "Kiting just exploded; we need to establish certain parts of our sport; we need these benchmarks."
Richman, who plans to enter UC Santa Cruz in the fall, followed his kid brother, Jesse, into the game five years ago. Jesse also rides for Cabrinha and was leading the competition for a while – it wouldn't have been his first title; he started riding as a preteen – then finished third behind Chavez and Jeff Kafka. There was a huge spread in the talent pool, but once the fleet was split into gold and silver divisions, the look and feel made sense. Shawn said of the final day of racing, "There were 35 people out there, and everybody was doing something different, and I think now we have a baseline of what works and what doesn't. I've been riding a twin-tip [short symmetrical board] and a month ago I was doing great with that. Then I came here and got killed in the first three races."
Shawn switched to one of Jeff Kafka's asymmetric "directional" boards for the final day and came away convinced that, for course competition, that's the way to go. You won't get any argument on that from Chavez, who shapes his own boards and has been part of the development of kite-course racing from the get-go on the San Francisco cityfront.
The point men for that development were Chip Wasson and John Gomes. Gomes came out of yacht club junior programs and traditional sailboat racing, got hooked on kites, and decided that he wanted to have it both ways. St. Francis Yacht Club is his second home, and the clubhouse sits just a few hundred meters downwind from Crissy Field, one of the great sites for windsurfing and kiting, and Gomes had no trouble three years ago in getting StFYC to experiment with putting kites on a racecourse. Obviously, that worked out. Local racing is in its third season, and for 2007, Gomes made it his project to take the organization to the national level. That's how he became the regatta developer for the first-ever US Kiteboarding National Championship, and that's how San Francisco Bay became recognized by US Sailing as Fleet One. Gomes says, "Riders are looking for alternatives to freestyle competition; racing expands the scope."
Wasson acknowledges Gomes for trailblazing the way to recognition, and he was quick to acknowledge the support that the game has found at St. Francis. "Kite racing is suddenly an international development," he says, "and it's impressive to have something so new supported by a solid backbone."
Okay, let's talk foils, because Wasson was riding one, very successfully on the upwind legs. As Shawn Richman put it, "Chip would get to the weather mark 30 seconds ahead of us, but it would only take us 10 seconds to pass him downwind."
So how come? It's because the foil-born board catches up to the kite too quickly, and the rider loses the ability to resist the kite and guide it through those big S-sweeps that generate apparent wind and more speed. Wasson at times was reaching downwind at higher angles than the competition to generate resistance because "Falling is slow. We've shown that the foil can be better on some points of sail," Wasson says. "This gets it on-stage"
Inevitably there's a comparison to the foil-born Moth dinghy, but as Wasson points out, "The Moth has two foil points in the water. Riding a single shaft foil is a real trick, but we have a couple of developments coming down the road that I think will be, shall we say, interesting."