photo by Jonathan Winters
My wife and I arrived at Heathrow airport on Friday, October 9, 1987 with just three days available to rent a van, travel across England to pick up and assemble my 16' kite powered speedsailboat, meet and organize the four man international crew (with their wives), practice launch procedures and be ready to sail flat out Tuesday morning in the 16th Annual Johnnie Walker International Speedsailing Event at Portland Harbor, Dorset, on the south coast of England.
No sweat. Except that the boat didn't clear customs on time. This meant 300+ extra miles of driving (no freeways) to pick it up on Saturday. Nobody in England works on Saturday. We had to unload and assemble the boat on Sunday. Of course, the crew with their strong backs and tools arrived Sunday evening; the boat had to come off the van and be put together Sunday day. Monday practice sailing was a bust, there was no wind at all. The crew understood their jobs well enough as each had done it many times, but only two had ever worked together. No sweat. This is just business as usual, in international speedsailing competition
Speedsailing, no holds barred, timed racing over a 500 meter measured course, has been my avocation, some say vice, for ten years. Wind direction, wind speed, boat configuration, even boat type, all are optional. The entrants must only be powered by the wind, be man-carrying (no models), and be capable of accelerating from rest.
Way back in January, 1978, I met a British kite manufacturer, Keith Stewart, at a trade show. I'd been thinking about inclined sail rigs on conventional catamarans (inclining the rig to windward can make a boat more stable, and thus able to sail in more wind and, maybe, faster). Keith was selling big 150-300 square foot delta kites with inflatable leading edge tubes, for pulling three wheeled trikes over beaches and marshes. I looked through his exhibit and something clicked. Here was my inclined rig, available right off the shelf! I'd take Keith's kites, my boat and controls, and "look out world!"
I designed and Keith built boats for the '78 through '82 international speedsailing events at Portland. We didn't break any world records, but the development work, Keith with his kites and me with my boats and controls, was invaluable. We lost funding in 1983 and I started my own self-financed project in Spring of '86. I came to Portland in October, '86 with the boat brand new, untested, and the entire crew picked up off the beach. There was absolutely no wind for 3 weeks and I went home skunked (and $12,000 lighter). I knew this happened occasionally, but preferably on someone else's budget! It was very hard to sign the checks to do it all again in '87. To say the very least, I was pretty hopeful of good weather and a good showing. Minor things like customs snafus, international logistics problems, and adverse weather before the event meant nothing. I was ready.
Dawn Tuesday; the wind was blowing 25 mph, gusting to 30, from the preferred direction. This was directly offshore, over the low shingle dunes, creating nearly flat water with strong, non-turbulent wind right down to the water (really only perfectly "clean" down to about 20' altitude. Friction with the water itself causes some turbulence, but only kitesailors can really appreciate this). The 75 best boardsailors in the world, culled from some 500 applicants, plus 15-18 sail "boats" (a rather loose term, as no two shared any common attributes. "Sailboat" here is defined as non-sailboard) were on the course trying to get timed runs in while the wind was blowing.
For traffic control purposes, sailboards must sail near shore in one direction during timed runs and offshore on their return. Larger sailboats normally sail even further offshore in rougher water, due to their greater draft requirements and to avoid congestion. Not me; my boat was custom designed just for Portland Harbor and can sail in one foot of water. I planned to sail inshore with the boards, in the flattest water.
Alas, it wasn't to be. On the very first run, I was a bit too far offshore, and as I approached the course it was either abort and bear away offshore, or go for it. Of course, I went for it, right down the sailboard return course! Most of these guys had never seen a kiteboat before, none had ever sailed near one. For safety (my 1/8" Kevlar lines sweep five feet off the water at 60 mph) most dropped their masts and dived into the water. I should digress here to mention that for (theoretically) faster speeds and simplicity in sailing the boat, I have no rudders. I think I have fair control without them. I can sail the boat "easterly" or "westerly," "upwind" or "downwind". I'm just not very good at swerving around objects smaller than, say, aircraft carriers. All of a sudden there were 30 or 40 boardsailors, dead in the water in front of me, and they couldn't get out of the way! Worse, it had been eight weeks since I put the boat into its crate and I couldn't remember how to steer it! (Let's see . . . was it right foot to go left, or left foot to go right?) I only hit three, and didn't crash the kites. The boardsailors all waved friendily (albeit most with only one finger) and yelled encouragement (though most seemed to encourage leaving town). All further runs that day were met with a totally empty course, any sailboards being curiously deserted. I finished the day with a spectacular crash when I fell off the boat, the kites wouldn't crash (under certain conditions, they "helicopter," circling fairly stably and hopelessly snarling the lines, and the boat flew, literally, across the course at 35 mph. The timers missed it, of course. No serious damage to boat or body (bent struts straightened, bruises survivable). No world records were in danger as I was still sorting our control settings and learning to sail in these "perfect" conditions. Early to bed and ready for day two.
The second day, and the third, featured variable light winds, lots of rain, and no sailing. Each night lots of wind was forecast for "tomorrow" and each morning lots "this afternoon". On the night of the third day, completely without warning (heads rolled at the Royal Weather Bureau), we had 90-100 mph hurricane force winds. This storm was entirely during the hours of darkness and partially wrecked the cities of Southampton, London, and Cherbourg, France. It was the worst storm to hit southern England since 1703.
We stayed in our rooms while slate roofing tiles were blowing off all over town and many chimneys fell. I simply wrote-off the boat. I didn't want to drive to the beach, as we had to cross an open causeway, and we were driving a van . . .
At dawn the wind had dropped to 30 mph, so we went down to the beach to survey the damage. There were 18 boat entries, total, all of which were up on the beach, tied down. 15 were totally wrecked or damaged beyond on-site repair; three had disappeared completely. The local community had lost or sunk 30 yachts and innumerable small boats. We had tied the kiteboat next to a large balk of timber, along with several others. The boats on both sides of us were gone and one nearer the water was partially demolished. And there was mine, with hardly a scratch on it! We went to the morning briefing to see where things stood.
Some 50 sailboard rigs stored in a large tent had disappearedÑalong with the tent, and the Porta-cabin with the back-up timing computer was blown flat. The main computer was undamaged, the timing transits still stood, the wind was from the preferred direction, and so they opened the course! The TV cameras were rolling and we had the only undamaged boat. What an opportunity! But alas, our support boat had sunk in the storm and the local man who owned it and who had been volunteering not only the boat, but his time as well was committed to helping his neighbors dig themselves and their boats out. So favor for favor, we wrote off the day and salvaged other people's boats. No great damage to the support boat (thank goodness, as I was guaranteeing its condition) and we built a lot of good will with the local boatmen. We were further consoled as the wind kept dropping and the best speeds were slower than on the first day.
The next day, Saturday, the wind was 20-25 mph, from the preferred direction and there were 2000+ people on the beach watching the show. We sailed both morning and afternoon and had great fun (I did anyhow; the crew grumbled each time I crashed the kites). I drank lots of salt water while being dragged underwater past the French TV cameras.
We kept changing rigs as the kites got wet and finally managed third fastest for the week in one class and second fastest in another. It turned out that this was the last good sailing day as the wind shifted direction and the course couldn't be opened. As often is the case, the best conditions and highest speeds for the week were on the first day. This was a pity since we sailed as fast or faster on each succeeding day, in lighter and lighter winds, as practice took its effect.
We sailed a lot the last two days, although the wind direction dictated sailing only out and back into the beach (the course is along the beach) in rough water. The boat is quite capable of sailing to windward, or downwind, but not fast. Sailboats generally are only fast across the wind.
In conclusion, the boat sailed up to its potential--30 mph--only for short distances, less than the length of the course, and then would fall off the wind and finish the run slowly. A combination of pilot error (practice, practice!) and an annoying but curable helm balance problem (curable by building a new boat!!) kept me fast enough to see the carrot on the end of the stick, but not fast enough to catch it!!
However, to quote actor Arnold Schwartzenegger, "I'll be back!"
This article first appeared in Kitelines, the journal of the American Kiteflier's Association in July, 1988. Since the October '87 Portland Speed Trials chronicled above, Dave Culp Speedsailing has expanded the concept of high speed planing multihulls with a new kite powered catamaran. This boat blends the latest work on 40 knot sailboard shapes with proven Flexifoil kite power. Jabberwocky will begin trials in late Summer '89 and KI will be there!
Kitesailing, whether on sandy beaches with wheels or through the waves on converted catamarans is exciting. It's a tremendous thrill and can easily become an obsession. We become so focused on the pure thrill of the sport that safety may take a back seat. Don't let it happen!
There are two aspects to kitesailing safety; safety to self and safety to others. Not surprisingly, most of us think of ourselves without much trouble. We don't tie powerful stacks of kites to our harnesses without deadman releases (pretty sobering thought isn't that; a deadman release?). We don't strap ourselves to our boats. We wear positive flotation devices always and helmets when appropriate.
But we don't often think of the second aspect of safety; that of the others around us. The major danger here isn't in hitting someone with the kites or the boat itself, though either mishap would be painful. The real danger when kitesailing is the flying lines. These thin, nearly invisible lines are stronger than steel. They scream through the air at speeds up to three times the wind speed. Line tensions have been measured at over 400 pounds while kiteskiing and over 2000 pounds with kitesailboats. This is more than enough to do serious damage to soft human bodies. The responsibility for others' safety lies squarely and entirely on the pilot of the kite craft.
It's a pretty sobering thought, no? But there are steps you can take to minimize any danger and still have lots of fun kitesailing. First, when practicing, always plan to work over clear water or sand, never near a crowd. Second, until you're very proficient at flying, never let anybody pass between the craft and the kites. Either fly them right up overhead, or put them down (crashing them if necessary), until the dawdler passes. Don't assume that the passer-by knows anything about kite flying, let alone the danger he's in. Third, when sailing near other boats or craft, keep in mind that the entire responsibility for others' safety lies with you, not with them. It's best to assume that people do not understand what you're doing and that they make no connection between those wildly gyrating kites and that small boat magically charging past them. Expect them to motor or sail right up to you (on the kite side, of course) to find out what you're doing, and be assured that yelling at them will only bring them closer, the better to hear you! Take charge and keep those kites high, or put them into the water (temper, temper!), until the curious pass.
Last, should all else fail and you're left watching in horror as that windsurfer or speedboat turns the wrong way at the last instant and collision with the lines in inevitable, just let go! If you're hand holding the kites, this is simple enough (though it's a good idea to use a floating flying bar or handles, so you can find them). If you've attached the kites directly to a boat always work a quick release into the system. This way you can pull one pin or lanyard and cut the rig free. All forces drop to zero and a potentially dangerous situation becomes simply an annoying tangle with a new kitesailing fan.
Kitesailing needn't be dangerous. KI is unaware of any serious injuries sustained while kitesailing. Some kitesailing competitors (Dave Culp Speedsailing, Jacob's Ladder, and others) always have a speedboat pacing them, partly to warn off potentially threatened passers-by. Thoughtful handling of kites and craft, and careful adherence to these safety rules should go a long way towards keeping international kitesailing's safety record intact.
Santa Barbara student and kiteskier Cory Roesseler made history in the 1989 Gorge Cities Blowout, a 20 mile sailboard race, on July 21, 1989. Roesseler finished the race in 56 minutes, breaking the existing course record by more than 10 minutes!
Cory began the race in a (typically for him) unorthodox manner. Having pre-launched his 3-kite stack of Flexifoil kites (one 16'-er and two 12'6"-ersÑtotal sail area 100 square feet), he awaited the starting gun, while being literally held down by Jon Waters of Catch-The-Wind kites and Tony Russi, Boeing engineer and kitecraft consultant. Thirty seconds before the start, a "pretty good" gust of wind caught the kites, lifting all three men off the beach. Jon and Tony wisely let go and Cory was offÑstraight up!
Fortunately, he was able to recover and sail back and forth, staying behind the starting line, until the gun went off. Cory then sailed through virtually the entire fleet of 180 of the best boardsailors in the world within the first mile. He never looked back and by mile ten, was half a mile ahead of all but 3 or 4 sailors and had passed even the leader, Nevin Sayer.
The TV camera helicopter caught lots of great shots as Cory leaped over the six foot swells, sometimes hitting altitudes of fifteen feet and jumping 40-50 feet downwind.
The tremendous pounding, along with gusts as high as 45 mph finally took their toll. At mile eleven, one of his kite spar tips broke and the first kite became useless, slowing the rest of the stack. Cory continued to sail, at speeds of over 30 mph, and finished the last five miles neck and neck with Sayer.
Upon rounding the last mark, Cory discovered that his damaged rig made him incapable of sailing to windward, up to the finish line! Sayer did cross, to cheers, world acclaim, and big cash prizes. Cory sailed into the beach, secure in the knowledge that he could beat the world's best and that, finally, kitesailing was on the map in world-class sailing events.
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