WORDS - Mark Shinn
INTRO ? Let loose on our pages for the fifth time, two-time world champion, Mark Shinn, hits the subject of choosing the right board
Where have the last two months gone since I wrote my most recent column on wave riding styles and equipment? All over Europe the reports of incredible weather are flooding in and it seems many people's main summer kiting season has been expanded by a couple of months. You might wonder how I can tell sat here in perpetually warm and windy Tenerife, but I have a secret guide to kiting conditions ? my mail box!
When it's cold and blowing a gale I only seem to receive mails regarding advanced level riding and equipment. Conversely, when the conditions are warm and pleasantly windy (but not too strong) I have a lot of requests for advice on intermediate and easy-to-use gear. Lately, it's quite clear that the latter has been winning hands down.
This got me thinking that maybe now would be a good time (what with the new season starting so early) to pass on my thoughts about boards.
I truly believe that the most important factors determining twin-tip board choice for any level of rider are ease of use and comfort. I don't care if you are the next Aaron Hadlow; a board with incredible performance but difficult to use is not the way forward. Having a board which gives an insane amount of speed and pop on flat water is wonderful, but unless you happen to live by the lagoons of Cumbuco in Brazil, you're not likely to exploit this asset very often. Attempting ten jumps and only experiencing that incredible performance on one of them, because you span out or tripped over the rail on the other nine, is not going to help improve your performance, and perhaps more importantly, certainly won't impress your mates!
On the other hand, a board that is so soft and flexible that riding it feels like kiting in your favorite slippers is not the answer either. Your upwind ability will be seriously compromised and even though you might make nine or ten clean take-offs, all the energy will be absorbed by the board and little will be left to propel you into the air.
When testing boards I like to give riders of different abilities different boards without letting them know the performance characteristics expected from them. Interestingly, most of the time a rider will perform better on a board with less, but easy to access, performance, which leads me to my conclusion about ease of use outweighing performance in terms of importance.
Of course, a good rider can make anything work and technique plays a major part in any board's performance. However, try not to let your heart rule your head when choosing a board. Be honest with yourself about whether you'd be better off on a high-performance freestyle machine, or, in reality would you get more fun and achievement out of a slightly de-tuned, easier to ride model?
This brings me neatly on to the next topic of discussion: board sizes.
Twin-tips came into the world 170 to 180 centimetres long, but over a few short years shortened to as little as 90 centimetres. You may have noticed that the majority of boards now fall into the 126 to 135 centimetre bracket. Boards that are too long mean that you have a large surface-area behind your back foot, leading to very high back-foot pressure and loss of control ? not helped by the fact that the fins are so far away from your feet. The super-short boards (typified by Lou Wainman's Buzz board) have so little length behind your back foot (and in front of your front foot) that fins become irrelevant. Any fin that close to your feet that was big enough to represent any kind of serious grip became a major liability at the front of the board.
In my opinion by far the most important factor in choosing a board is the width. With modern flex patterns allowing vastly more control over boards than ever before, the benefits of wider boards (better planing, better upwind ability, more pop, easier landings etc.) now come without the traditional loss of control caused by increased width. Every brand has slightly different sizes though, and of course your riding style makes a big difference to what suits you best ? however, if you try riding a board narrower than 38 centimetres you'll probably notice a serious lack of light-wind versatility. Equally, boards over 44 centimetres wide can generally only be used on light-wind days.
Let's back up a fraction though, and talk about fins.
Fins are a particularly thorny topic and one that I lose sleep over! Trying to specify a certain fin size and type for a board to suit every potential rider is a bit like trying to design a tyre that suits every car in the world. Bigger fins mean less rail pressure is needed to keep the board tracking. The down side is that, at the same time, the board has stiffer turning characteristics, is more prone to tripping over the nose fins if you tend to ride a little front-foot heavy, and is harder to slip from heel-side to toe-side, and back.
Smaller fins give the board a more skatey feel and allow for slightly faster landings. But the risk of losing rail-grip in choppy conditions is increased and, in very demanding conditions, it can be frustrating. In my experience fin size barely influences upwind performance. I have tested identical boards with different-sized fins between multiple riders and, without fail, the fastest rider upwind was fastest on each fin size. Whatever board you buy, you'll have to accept that the fins supplied are designed to fit the 'average' rider in the 'average' conditions that the board is targeted at. If you fall outside these parameters you might need to try some different models in order to perfectly tune your ride.
Another tip to consider is the old problem of water spraying into your face. The common misconception is that the water is coming from the rail of the board, but in fact this isn't true. The water releases from the edge of the board and clips your front heel ? from there splashing up straight into your eyes. This may be caused by any number of factors, and can be solved pretty easily by slightly adjusting the size of your foot-straps. By either loosening or tightening them a fraction you alter the position of your foot on the pad and, more often than not, this is enough to move your heel out of the line of fire ? allowing you to open your eyes once again (never a bad thing when you are kiting!).
Don't be afraid to experiment; a slight change in the trip angle of the board can change your session from a nightmare into a dream. In fact, it's clear that magazine tests, internet forum reviews and mates' recommendations will only take you so far. There really is no better option than testing for yourself. While it can sometimes be a hassle to co-ordinate with a certain brand's test days or ensuring you can get the test ride from the local shop when the wind is good, the end results are always worth it. Knowing that your possible purchase is the right one for you provides you with not only peace of mind but also confidence that your gear is not holding you back. In some cases, testing might even convince you that the board you already have is the best for you and spending your hard-earned cash will not improve things in the slightest, and in fact a retune was all that was needed.
Find more on Mark and his boards at: www.shinnworld.com
This column is in issue #27. Read this whole issue online for free now, click here.
Mark My Words 05 - issue #27
Kitesurfing Test - Boards 2013
Nomad 136-Team series
Kitesurfing Test - Kites 2013
Liquid Force Envy 7 and 9m
Kitesurfing travel directory