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Windsurfing and Windfoiling Lake Lanier

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Observations of a Juice Box Windfoil Racer

Roughly two and a half years after making my first foil flight, I finally got the chance to put my skills to the test. In the past couple of weeks, I was able to race albeit briefly the first week. The first race was our club's 41st Fall Classic which, most of the time, favors long raceboards. The second was the Gulf Coast Windfoil Championships, one of the first windfoil-only regattas in our region.

Racing a windfoil was intriguing for a number of reasons:

  • I'd been foiling a while and there's no better test of one's skills than a race course.
  • Windfoils are supposed to have taken over from Formula racing for high performance shortboard upwind/downwind (as opposed to shortboard slalom) racing - in part, because they have a lower wind minimum and don't require such big (e.g. up to 12.5 m²) sails.
  • the windsurfing class for the 2024 Olympics Games will be windfoils.
  • It would be interesting to see if someone on freeride semi-recreational windfoiling gear could make it around a racecourse and under what conditions.

Headed off wind. Photo: Britt Viehman

Weekend One: Home Turf

My first attempt at racing, the Fall Classic, was an interesting test of concept. With racing cancelled Saturday because of gusty winds from Tropical Storm Nestor, it didn't look like I'd get a chance to try the foil. However, at the last possible moment, the forecast for Sunday went from dismal to brief morning period of maybe 8 or 9 to 14mph before fading, enough for me to try foiling at least one race.

Being my first race and not wanting to come flying into the starting line and causing problems, I hung a bit back at the start above and beside the committee boat. I wasn't that late to the start but the dirty air from all the big longboard sails preceeding me (a theme that will recur later) meant that I needed to tack back to port- the opposite way most were headed upwind - to get going with clean, unobstructed air. Unfortunately, that also meant that I was quickly headed towards shore as the start was just off the point where the LLSC club house was. So, I had to tack again.

On this tack, headed across Chattahoochee Bay, I was finally powered with clean air and could see most of the longboard fleet across and upwind. Leaning hard into my harness, I was able to keep flying and make progress upwind almost at the same angle as the longboards except I was probably going at least twice as fast as they were. By the time we all made it to the windward mark, I'd caught all but one longboard, ace sailor Dave Stanger who was not only (as always) wicked fast but had about 3/4 m². more sail than I did.

Downwind, while the longboards went straight down, I had to make long, wide angles to keep enough speed to stay on the wing. Even though the wind had dropped visibly to where there were no white caps, I could keep going. Even while sailing about 30-40% further, I was still faster. Again, upwind on the second lap and back down, I maintained a lead but the wind was continuing to lighten as forecast. Would the wind hold out long enough for me to go all the way downwind to the bottom mark and finish back across the line?

The wind faded enough (maybe 8 or 9) where I had trouble getting back up and going upiwnd after my first tack. Not helping were the previous six days of windsurfing including my time in OBX. I was gassed and simply didn't have the reserves to pump back on the foil in the lightest puffs. I did get going again, crossing in front of Dave but one more tack cost me valuable seconds and he crossed the finish probably 30 seconds before I did. He took a well deserved first and I pondered the what ifs - how much time did I lose from too many tacks, not having an adjustable outhaul, etc.

No matter. I felt the experiment was a success. In winds that hardly had a whitecap and would have never been enough to race a 9.5 on a wide board, I'd been competitive with the raceboards.

Race 2: Hook, Line and Stinker

The wind was visibly dropping but I figured I'd give the second race a shot. Why not? I was already on the water. This time I was going to be a bit more aggressive on the start. I did manage as the horn sounded to start the race to be on the line but I found myself pinned under the big sail of Chris Voith and the not so big Windsurfer LT sail of Cody Stewart. I tried to bare off and gain some space and speed assuming I could slide by the pin (inflatable orange mark that denotes the far end of the starting line). Windsurfers are unique in the sailing world in that, unlike other boats, we can legally touch the various marks on the course. It's habit to get close enough and slide right along the orange ball. It's works - that is, it works unless you have a giant hook under your board.

As I slid along the pin, suddenly I saw the pin lurch towards me. I was hooked on its anchor line. Well, that didn't surprise me. After all, I was sporting a big 90cm wing down there. Oh well, I'll just back up and let the line slide off the wing. Except it didn't. Forward, reverse did nothing except excite the derisive laughter of some who only moments earlier I'd considered friends. To be fair, it was pretty funny. Finally, getting in the water and flipping the board upside down did the trick. I was free.

As you can imagine, an upside down board does not go well to windward... There was a puff of wind and with the sound of laughter still in my ears, I decided to give it a go and finally caught the last of the longboards as I made it to the windward mark. But, finally, that was the last ticks on the meter. My time and the wind was up. Looking around at maybe 6-8 mph wind at best, I knew I wouldn't be completing two laps without holding things up. I slowly made my way downwind and informed the committee boat that I was retiring for the day.

Clearwater: The Big Leagues

The following weekend, Langdon Garner and I attended the Gulf Coast Windfoil Championships hosted by the Clearwater Community Sailing Center. The CCSC is a municipal sailing center and its Sailing Director, Justin Ahearn, has shepherded a flock of strong youth windsurfers including past Kona World Champ, Alex Temko - he also came in third this year at the Worlds in Lake Garda. Along with Justin, a number of senior Formula aces from Florida and elsewhere showed up.

Langdon and I had no illusions that we'd be battling it out up front. In fact, we worked with Justin to have a sport fleet, or as I liked to call it, "Fleet for Old Guys Who Finish Last". Instead, what we wanted to do is see how the big dogs foiled. We'd been foiling a while in our own back water but we didn't have a benchmark for our progress nor did we have a clue if we were approaching anything incorrectly. It's like hitting a tennis ball off a wall for practice. You think you are doing pretty well. It's not until there's a player on the other side of the net do you find out whether your returns would really land in the court or go a few inches or feet long or even over the fence.

The forecast was a nice 12-18 and that ended up being conservative as it probably neared 20+ around lunch time. The big dogs sported foil and cut down formula sails of up to 10 sq.m. Local youth ace, Noah Lyons, would ride an older 9.2 race sail the entire event. The Open Fleet would race two laps while the old guys would do one. The windward mark was probably 3/4 mile upwind of the start.

The starts were much more aggressive - everyone was flying on the start and had the timing pretty well sorted to be on the line when the horn sounded. Even though a couple of guys decided to start on port (and crossing through the fleet), every one was in control and no raised voices or close calls seemed to occur.

Sport started six minutes later and, by then, Open was usually almost down to the leeward mark! By the time I got going, I'd be mixing it up with the tail end - usually the less experienced teens - of Open fleet. They weren't really much faster than me but did a better job of tacking and hitting the laylines upwind. Also, they didn't run out of gas like this old guy. I was happy I only had to do one lap in the freshening breeze.

Langdon had some equipment challenges so after the first race, he decided to observe and learn. As the level of foiling was pretty high, he did well just being there.

We ended up running three races before lunch and then another three after. With my 7.7, I was sporting the next smallest sail. Most of the kids were on 8.5s and the big men on 9s and 10s. Almost all the adults were on 1000 cm² wings while Noah Lyons was on a 900. Almost all the rest of the juniors were on 800s! While a lot of rec foilers are using as much as 2000cm² wings, these groms were flying around and placing with wings less than half the size. Starboard seemed to be the foil of choice with some carbon team sets but more than a couple aluminum GT-R setups which run less than $1400. Christophe Waerzeggers had a shiny new Loke that looked the biz. Sails ranged from new foil offerings from NP, Severne and Duotone, to cut down formula sails to 8.5 m2 raceboard sails like Techno, etc. There were some foil specific boards but there seemed to be a lot of recycled formula boards. Almost every board was graced by a nose repair or two, and race winner Justin's Starboard was no exception.

Day 2: Even more wind

Day two brought even more wind: 16-22. Some of the older guys went to 8s while I tried a 6.7 and smaller wing. I was a bit underpowered some of the time which made it a challenge going upwind and at others, I was fully on in almost 25. My moment of ignomy was flying downwind in the first race after lunch where I crashed just short of the finish. The wind had picked up to the point that I could not uphaul the sail off the water. The last time I could recall that happening was racing a 9.5 when the gusts were in the low 20s.

On the second day, the race committee had me start with the big fleet to save time. This and the fact that the big guys were literally going around the course almost twice as fast as I was meant that my uphauling had an extra urgency; I didn't want to be bobbing around the finish line as the front of the fleet came downwind at 25+mph. Nor did I want to jeopardize anyone in serious contention's chance for a good finish. It wasn't to be. As I struggled, someone else came across the line for the victory. Pretty soon, I came across first in my class - still trying to uphaul. Not my most glorious moment but racing isn't for the shy... I retired and called it a day. Four of six races wasn't bad.

For all the wind of day one and day two, the third was a bust. The race committee ended any speculation of whether the wind would come up quickly. Trophies were given out and we headed home.

What we learned

Windward racing is about power and speed. You rig for as much power as you can control upwind and then head far enough downwind to stay in control going back. How much power? One competitor put it this way on the stronger winds of day two: He'd prefer to tack too soon going upwind and have to throw in a couple of quick tacks rather than overstand and have to bear off to a reach for the windward mark. The reach in those conditions was that scary overpowered.

Otherwide, speed upwind meant keeping tacks to a minimum. A tack could easily cost you 50 or more yards vs a competitor. A slow tack cost more. If you missed your angles and had to throw in an extra couple of tacks, it was very expensive and for the front guys meant a middle of the pack finish instead. It takes practice to estimate when to tack to make the windward mark and more to make it around the board quickly and going in the other direction.

Downwind, when I was too overwhelmed to hook in, the Open Fleet were hooked in and powered up going deep. It was fun to watch. The best downwinders were those that could foil jibe easily. They could head straight down the middle of the course taking advantage of every puff by jibing over. Unlike a regular windsurfer that loses a fair amount of speed jibing, a foilboard loses very litlle.

Like any type of sailing, starts are important. In windfoiling, because of the speeds involved, I can't overstress this. You need to learn by repetition how far your board goes in 10,20,30 seconds. You absolutely have to be on the line in open air. I would start after everyone as a courtesy to those actually racing for places. The amount of dirty air left after even a small fleet crosses the start is difficult to imagine. They would leave the line fully powered and headed upwind at 15-20 mph.. I'd barely be able to get flying and over the line.

Would I do it again?

Yes, for several reasons. First, it makes you better, quickly. It forces you to past the edge of your comfort zone. The first day I was racing my 7.7 in conditions where I could easily have free foiled a 5.4.

The second, the sport is still young. Everyone is nice. Everyone. Langdon and I were flunkies among some of the best racing windsurfers in the the SE US. Didn't matter. Everyone was kind and inviting. They are happy you are there. They want to help you be better and will do everything from offering tips to helping you get your gear out of the water.

Here's another reason I didn't realize until I was there: Langdon and my being there helped support an event that gave what may be one of our future Olympic hopefuls a chance to race. We all talk about supporting the sport we love. This is a simple way to do that and even get a T-shirt in the process.

About those kids...

About half the fleet were U19s, including overall second place, Noah Lyons. There's a good chance that some of the leading contenders for Paris2024 will come from this group. Some of the poop flung towards the selection of windfoiling for the Paris games is that youth don't have a path towards windfoiling. This group is the categorical proof that there is. Teens with a decent alu foil, old wide board and even raceboard sail can have a good time and still be competitive. They have the skill and experience already to perform at a high level. I can't wait to see how good they get in five years.

And, the look on the little kids in Optis when the big kids foiled through their fleet on the way back to the beach? Priceless. Don't think the little Opti sailors weren't paying attention. One of them may well be foiling in LA2028

Credit where credit is due

Our big thanks to Justin Ahearn and the whole CCSC organization. The race committee was first rate and everyone welcomed us. Ron Kern, Tim Knapp and Christophe Waerzeggers mentored Sport Fleet and were generous with their time and advice. Shout out to USWindsurfing President, Jerome Sampson, who came by and watched. Britt Viehmann of North Beach Windsurfing of St. Pete took pics, helped the race committee and gave copious foiling tips to us both. His support of the U19s is significant.

Shoutout to Alex Morales of Tillo International for nailing a freerace board and foil that are good enough to get me around the race course and made in the US.

Pics or it didn't happen Dept.

Photo album on FB:

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Atlanta Couples Learning to Windsurf in Nags Head

Hearing the Outer Banks is a great place to learn, we were thrilled to have new windsurfers join us this spring in Nags Head. We’ve reserved the same house again for May 2 - 23 next year, so let us know if you’re interested in coming.

Conditions for learning and improving skills are ideal. We rent a large house on the water. It’s shallow near shore with waist-deep water extending out as far as a beginner is likely to sail. The bottom is sandy, and the water is comfortably warm. We store sails in racks under the house, so gear only has to be rigged once. Such ideal conditions make leaning fun.

Here are brief vignettes of three Atlanta couples who joined us to learn and improve windsurfing skills.

Ed & Agata. Ed has been windsurfing in Atlanta for several years, and learned the hard way on Lake Lanier. Ed wanted to improve his own skills and his wife, Agata, was eager to learn. This was Agata’s birthday present and she loved it.

You can sign up for professional windsurfing lessons, but Ed proved to be a good, patient teacher. Usually the wind is light in the morning and picks up as the day goes on, but on the first morning of their vacation, brisk wind and waves made learning a challenge, so Ed stabilized the board so Agata could get started.

Marcel & Roxanna have been coming for years, and when they had children, began renting a house nearby and continued sailing from our house. In the photo Ed & Agata practice in the background while Marcel gets ready to sail, Roxanna watches their two boys, Joshua & Jeremiah. Peggy says she retired from windsurfing last year at age 70, but she’s been known to come out of retirement when conditions are just right.

After the first day, Agata decided she wanted her own wetsuit with a proper fit. So she and Ed went three miles down the road to Cavalier surf shop & picked up a nice flexible spring suit. Agata soon made rapid progress, heading out on her own and able to turn back to where she started.

Now it’s Roxanna’s turn to windsurf while Marcel & father, David watch on.

David & Mindy with their dog, Roxie. Dave found that getting back into windsurfing on Lake Lanier was a challenge, so he came to the Outer Banks hoping to improve his skills. For Mindy, It turned out to be a fun family vacation spot with lots to do, even for a non-windsurfer. Roxie found her moxie on the last evening.

Dave is having a blast getting up on a plane and hooked in with his harness.