Getting a Kite Complex, I Think

Now we know what it takes to get the number-one, bull goose kiteboard developer to about-face: A world championship for course racing. That, and San Francisco Bay.

Paolo Rista shapes boards for himself, also for the likes of Bruno Sroka, who has been ripping up everything in 2009.

And Paolo Rista has been developing fins and techniques that go a new direction. He and Sroka “ride flat” and rely upon fins only—they don’t dip the rail—to resist the pull of the kite.

With success has come the flattery of imitation.

Now these two have a plan for how to sail the first-ever Kiteboard Course Racing World Championship. Turn success on its tail, and dip the rail.

It’s about the venue.

The inaugural course racing worlds is happening on San Francisco Bay, Tuesday through Saturday, because that’s where the discipline was developed. There were a few key members of St. Francis Yacht Club—John Gomes more than others—who went from the traditional junior sailing experience to the traditional young-adult sailing experience to the kiting experience to the question:  We’re sure as heck going to keep on kiting, but we miss sailboat racing, so can we combine the two? And would the club support the experiment? Yes and yes. All the way from the grassroots to US Sailing to ISAF.

First came proof of concept.

Yes, it is possible to race kites around the buoys. Then, two years ago, US Sailing sanctioned the first Nationals. Last year ISAF recognized kites as an international class and awarded the inaugural Worlds (other bodies made themselves available; sorry guys) to the outfit that had worked the problem from the bottom up. The rules remain a work in progress, but here is an example of the current state of play. Paraphrasing:

When a starboard-tack board is passing upwind of a port-tack board, starboard keeps the kite high, and port keeps the kite low. Starboard/port is determined by the forward hand of the rider “under standard position.”

With kites flying far from the rider, you can imagine the complications. Tangles?  They happen. But before we get to that let’s give Paolo Rista a chance to explain himself. We conversed via skype—the wall behind him was stacked with boards—and it was a normal summer day. He was on Maui, wearing a t-shirt, and I was in San Francisco, wearing fleece. So we began.

The first thing to understand about kiting is that the board has to bite the water, to resist the kite, for control and even to maximize speed. One speed technique is to carve the kite through the air, cutting big figure-eights, to increase apparent wind; without resistance you can’t make the kite do that.  (One of the early discoveries with foil-born boards was that they were so slick downwind they caught up with the kite, turning fast into slow.) Here’s a comment from Bryan McDonald: “Figure 8s are light air ‘looping.’ In heavy air, looping is a different animal (fairly erratic and pretty much impossible to control). Looping was found at the US Nationals in Texas this year (where it blew like stink) to be basically the only way to get downwind in one piece. Nationals was the pivotal event, in my book, that transformed looping from a rare move to a much more regular, almost normal move. It allows you to go deeper downwind (and usually faster). The caution is, when a hamburger does it and starts going higher than riders around him, the keep-clear portion of the rule pays off in spades.”

Back to resistance:  Rista, who has owned Open Class boats and sailed with the likes of Michel Desjoyeaux, relates, “I came away from boat sailing convinced that the most efficient lateral resistance comes from the fin, the keel. Depending on load waterline for resistance is less efficient. Think of the overhangs in the old-style meter boats. Dipping the rail on a kiteboard is the equivalent of adding LWL. Bruno and I ride flat, using only the fins as lateral resistance, and that’s fast, so people have begun to copy us.”

But not for the Worlds in San Francisco?

“The bay is a unique body of water,” Rista says. “Surface conditions vary. Ideally, you sail with a board that is perfectly-suited to the water of the moment, but on San Francisco Bay you can go through a whole World Cup season’s worth of changes in one afternoon. With the seabreeze building or backing off and the current changing with the tide, you can go through every type of water surface except big waves.”

Read, compromise.

Sroka is French, and he has spent most of 2009 in Europe, where he has been top dog at every World Tour event—he also won the inaugural, ISAF-sanctioned European Course Racing Championship—and was scheduled to arrive in California only one day ahead of the Worlds. Rista says, “Our World Tour equipment is totally different from what we are going to sail in San Francisco. Bruno will have to jump on the board and hope it works. Mainly the issue is the chop on San Francisco Bay, especially because downwind in a chop your board gets buffeted. You need the rail for stability.”

Sroka smoked the San Francisco fleet in an earlier appearance at the Thursday evening Cabrinha series, so it’s already established that he can walk in and walk away. And, looking behind the scenes, Rista says, “Bruno is focused on winning the World Tour. People who see themselves not winning the World Tour have been putting all their energies into San Francisco.”

Sounds like a dogfight, and course racing is driving the development of boards and kites that point. “Two years ago, with twin-fin boards, you couldn’t get upwind,” Rista says. “You were using the rail as much as the fins.” Quad-fin boards are common now, and they often prove better upwind,  but the challenges remain. Rista again: “Fifteen years ago, when I was working with Manu Bertin—Manu was the first to put an inflatable kite together with a surfboard—what kept this from becoming a sport was that you couldn’t go upwind. Now, here we are.”

On the Kiteboard Pro World Tour, disciplines include freestyle, jumping, and course racing, but the habit has been to stage races only when the breeze is too light for the extreme games. So, racing has been seen as tame, though in 2009 it also is seen as increasingly attractive, because it moves the sport beyond a time when events were lost for lack of big air.

As for the kites themselves, that’s a story all its own. “On the World Tour, most of the racing is done with 16 square meter kites,” Rista says. “In the Golden Gate wind slot, it’s generally 10 or 11 square meters.

“Very few people have a grasp of kite design except the people who are producing the brands,” Rista says. “It’s a more complex set of concepts than you need to shape a board. People do that in their garage. Bruno and I define our sponsors by who has the best kite. Our relations are based on long-term friendships but sometimes short-term sponsorships.”

Imperial Entanglements? Oh Yeah

The first thing spectators ask, watching kites race, is how they avoid getting tangled. The best answer is, fervent attentiveness. Oh, and let’s not forget about fear.

But sometimes it all goes wrong.

As soon as one error leads to a tangle, there is the risk of a domino effect. That’s exactly what happened at the start line of a certain Cabrinha Series race last June. A lull hit the fleet just moments before the start. Kite positions were adjusted rapidly, or in at least one case, not rapidly enough. Soon, nine kites were down. There was the thought that this may have been an all-time record, so consider this an invitation to top it, if you can.

Boriana Parvanova, who goes kiting almost every day off Crissy Field but doesn’t race, was up close and personal. She observes, “Once a kite tangles, it starts looping out of control and it takes out everything in range. It’s always surprising to me that this doesn’t happen more often.”

The fins, as many as four per board, can rip up a kite and we don’t like to think about what they might to do people, out of control. The incident sobered the San Francisco Bay contingent and convinced the St. Francis YC race committee to do even more preaching at its skipper meetings about the right of way rules, and the problems of barging. “I think the locals understand the concept,” Parvanova says, “but you have to wonder about the people coming in from elsewhere.”

To that point: The inaugural US Nationals marked the first (actually the only) time that I have seen a condensed version of The Racing Rules of Sailing included as part of the Sailing Instructions.


These are some very, very  smart and capable people, and in fact, it’s a wonderful convergence. You have, on one hand, people who grew up in a yachting environment getting out and sailing faster–big big tootles faster–and you have people who grew up jumping waves discovering that the blue blazer set likes their act.

So, here was that evening Cabrinha Series race in June, and the fleet was coming to the line. At this point it was just starting to go wrong in front of Boriana’s lens   .  .  .starting_to_go_wrong

Boriana was shooting from the Race Deck of St. Francis Yacht Club, which has a 50 yard line view.  And then  .  .  .


And then and then and then and then  .  .  .


Yep, it’s a domino deal.

Thanks to Boriana Parvanova for the pics above. The closeup of the carnage below, which tells how it felt  (almost, but not quite–the water is cold) comes courtesy of Nico Ostermann/F-One Kiteboarding.

And if you have the notion that this first post is a little rough around the edges, you wouldn’t be wrong. Time waits for no man, so we plowed ahead and the coding be damned. But if you liked our good ole Sail West blog, check back. You will like what is becoming the Blue Planet TimesKimball


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