|Going into the 2011 World Championships I expected a more even spread of nationalities on the podium come the end of the event. Sure, Adam Koch already has a World Championship crown on his mantlepiece at home, but so too does French rider Bruno Sroka. And what about Julien Kerneur who was leading the PKRA World Racing championship? I'd heard a few bits and pieces about how good John Heineken was but as far as I knew Bryan Lake was a skimboarding wave nut who'd been living in Hawaii for the last several years. He'd dropped off the Hawaiian radar over the last year and his name in particular was a big surprise to me.
While Ben Todd reported from the Worlds on the previous pages of the mag as being an open, friendly event, it seems within the community there's a sub culture of well-oiled team work. Further research revealed that John, Adam and Bryan all now ride together at a spot called Crissy Field in the San Francisco Bay area. Coincidence that they dominated the podium? It's unlikely.
If you haven't heard of Crissy Field as a kite spot, you probably won't have heard of the St. Francis Yacht Club either, which has been running a Cabrinha sponsored kite racing series on Thursday nights going back several years. Chip Wasson has been on the general kite scene since the late nineties and was instrumental in getting kitesurfers integrated into the club's notoriously highly structured and evolved racing scene (Chip, along with the help of John Gomes and John Craig incidentally also later managed to secure the support of ISAF to establish kites as a sailing 'class' ahead of the first World Championship in 2009).
|New World Champion, John Heineken, says: 'In my opinion kite racing was literally born at the St. Francis Yacht Club and has continued to flourish at Crissy Field ever since. From the beginning we have had an open invitation to race against the formula windsurfers in some of the longest standing annual windsurfing events on the planet. We are just now getting to the point that we can keep up with them around the course, which is really exciting. The StFYC legitimised the sport by taking in our rag-tag bunch of riders, running races for us and conditioning us to the rigours of the traditional sailing format. Six of the top 13 finishers at the Worlds regularly take part in our Thursday night race series here at Crissy Field, which demonstrates that our series is as competitive as any international event.'
Kitesurfing, especially on a race course, was surely a recipe for headaches for any race organisers used to the regimented control and rule abiding organisation of sailing boats in the beginning though. It can't have been an easy suggestion to push through the usually stuffy sailing club hierarchy.
'The yacht club were willing to 'try' when there was no notion that the concept of kites on a starting line would work.' says Chip.
Can you imagine those early races? If you've competed in any kind of grass roots racing events, I'm sure you can. Kites are regularly dropped, spreading 30 metres of line in the drink and virtually covering the start line for everyone else. Crossing the start can turn into a navigational exercise just to get going. This is still true wherever you race due to the nature of our rigs, but skills and awareness had to improve for kitesurfing to have any hope of becoming a legitimate racing sport. However, what the St. Francis Yacht Club saw was a new, raw, exciting element of racing that might just work. And even the previously freeminded kitesurfers were starting to sit up and take notice, too. After all, we might pretend we don't care, but we would quite like to know who's officially the best/fastest rider at our local beach, wouldn't we?
'Racing created a metric that kiteboarding never previously had that sparked peoples' interest in competing on a true performance based level.' Chip continues. 'The bay is burgeoning with potential participants from sailing and other sports that helped strengthen the fleet and consequently everyone got pushed to go faster. Riders here are passionate about going faster and getting better and it's infectious to progress with, and sail against, Johnny H, Adam and Andy Koch, Joey Pascuale and Bryan Lake to name a just a few.'
On top of that the Bay area offers up a solid nine month season of consistent sailing and practice time throughout the year.
|It seems this trio of riders were also carrying more arrows for their racing bows. Asking John about his background he revealed, 'Adam, Bryan and myself were all competitive sailors before ever racing kites. We all grew up racing boats from a young age. Bryan won three college US National Championships for the University of Hawaii while Adam and I both spent a ton of time racing skiffs. I was third in the 2005 29er World Championships and then followed that with a few years of an Olympic Campaign in a 49er. In kiting the sail flies and the boat weighs 12 pounds, but it's just another (and some would argue the most fun) version of high-performance sailing.'
The rise of the American racers is in a way about the conversion of sailors into kite racers. Racing around a course requires lots of different skills and subtle understandings. Tactics play a huge part and it's not just about going fast.
John reckons, 'Speed is important,but there are decisions to be made all around the course: which kite to take out? Which side of the start line is favoured? Should I tack on this shift or not? I'm not saying I'm the smartest sailor in the world, but I've definitely gone around the course a bunch of times and that's the only way to learn.' In my humble experience, you can train as much as you like, but in the very mixed-level national class here at home in the UK, I've seen the best sailors on the scene helplessly hung out to dry with an unfortunate coming together with an inexperienced racer. John agrees: 'Handling tight situations while using the rules to your advantage, or at least while not fouling anyone else, is critical. Over the last couple years our kite fleet here has improved tremendously in this regard, and I think we've proven we can race with standard sailing rules (experimental kiteboarding rules included), which is really cool!'
But it's not all down to a sound racing infrastructure. Being so new, kite racers all over the world, hungered by the bait of the sudden chance of success, jumped on the band wagon over the last few years in the hope of possible Olympic contention as well as World Championship glory. Kiters started practicing hard and learning as much as they could about board, fin and kite technologies, hoping to get that vital step ahead. As much as technology has dominated after-race conversations at the bar, the Americans' commitment to racing cannot be overlooked.
|'While it's not every day you can train in 30+ knots of wind and three metre swells, we were as ready as we could be. We trained hard and effectively. Living in trailers at Sherman Island and sailing two or three sessions per day, we got as much water time as possible. I sometimes carry a GPS and, after one particular day of sailing I had sailed over 75 miles, averaging 16 knots upwind and high 20s downwind, with a top speed of 34 knots. That's a lot of sailing. But we didn't just go grind and work on board speed for hours on end. Short courses, mark rounding, tacking and gybing drills were invaluable practice. Our comfort in manoeuvres and around other kites allowed us to keep our heads out of the boat and in the race. By the time we got to Germany for the Worlds we were so comfortable on our boards that it was just another regatta.' Confesses John. 'All for one and one for all' seems to be the group's noble recipe for success. Right from the start Chip has tried to set a standard of sharing technology with the rest of the fleet, instead of withholding equipment development for individual success. 'When sharing technology' he says, 'we all step up the pace and the skippers at the top of the fleet simply need to continue to evolve to stay ahead.' Skip concludes, 'This concept naturally built upon itself and everyone got better and pushed harder.'
John confirms, 'We worked together on technique and designs, sharing everything, always pushing the performance envelope, and improving as a group. Bay Area board designer, Mike Zajicek (who shaped and built all our boards) worked with our feedback to refine and improve designs. Paolo Rista,
Curtis fins, Dennis from Techtonics and Ozone kites, among many others, were instrumental in pushing things forward. We had no coach or group funding like the French team.
|But as I said, we trained together and shared knowledge while the French remained caught up in their own competitive bubble. We sailed past them as a group.'
So what for the rest of us? A lot of hard work and trying to get kite racing integrated into many more structured racing events so we can learn from other technically disciplined sailors? Perhaps national kite scouts need to start sniffing around sailing clubs for natural racing talent to coax over from sailing to kitesurfing?
However, there's one magic ingredient that we still haven't mentioned. The Bay area fleet is one of friends and, as Chip believes, 'The whole trajectory of training stays positive and open which creates fun in the pursuit of progression. People simply like to have fun!' Perhaps that's the most powerful training tactic of all.
This feature is inissue #53