From the ISA speed windsurfing worldcup, Walvisbay, Namibia, October 2005
It is night in Namibia. The only sounds in the Walvisbay are made by the wind,
the waves and by a few of the myriads of sea birds, who feel very much at
home in the enormous lagoon. For a moment, the world seems at peace. But then
you see a strange shadow rushing through the darkness: A speedkite, piloted
by an either bold or - this is a matter of opinion - completely demented
Frenchman. Because outside, a fire is blazing. With the help of some rags and
planks drenched in gasoline, it is burning upon the railing of a metal
staircase that has been pulled into the water.
The goal is to grind along the burning rails. And they succeed on the second
attempt: Orange flames reflect from bottom side of a board, the fire goes
out, a few wild guys cheer. The scene reminds of the best of days in Saintes
Maries de la Mer, when Fred Haywood used his bow to shoot decorative holes
into Eric Beale's convertible. Then, the local policeman, who was soon
converted to the cause, drew his pistol to add a few official bullet holes.
The speedsurfing kids of the 21st century don't fall behind their
half-legendary ancestors. This is not because they pee down from the balcony
upon unsuspecting dignitaries. It is also not because they quadbike in the
dunes so recklessly that the unnerved guide aborts the tour, threatens to let
them go home on foot and reimburses the remaining fees. It is because they
are, above all, fast.
Speed is the only thing that counts here, be it with a kite or a
windsurfboard. The talk, the parties, the commotion of a Grand Prix: All this
quickly fades. Because "when the numbers roll in, the bullshit stops". In the
"king of the strip", the pure 500 meters discipline, 19 riders exceeded 39
knots, 11 the 40. A distinct group of four windsurfers even broke the 42
knots. This included the usual speed subjects Björn Dunkerbeck, Finian
Maynard and Antoine Albeau. But Patrik Diethelm was up there as well, to the
surprise of many, who only thought of him as the F2 shaper.
After a hard day of two heats and many runs, the quartet were just a fourth of
a knot apart. Diethelm clocked 42.71 knots and thus slightly beat even
Albeau. On the one hand, that is not so much. "42.7 knots? I did this already
ten years ago, and that in waves", said "Powermike" Pucher, old warrior from
Austria, who casually broke the Austrian kite speed record. On the other
hand, it is a lot, as Diethelm increased the Italian record by three knots.
One almost understands why Francesco d'Urso, previous record holder, asked
the International Speedsurfing Association (ISA) whether Diethelm was a
Proper Italian. Well, he had the passport, and a history of starting for
Italy, so there was nothing to make a fuss about.
Nationality matters. Depending on the speed addiction of a nation, one man's
record is another man's also-ran-result. The French and the Germans seem
particularly obsessed: Together with the Namibians and their close cousins,
the South Africans, they fielded over 50 of the 71 participating kiters and
windsurfers. The Germans were represented, amongst others, by the battle
robot Thomas Döblin, the extreme kiter Tilman Heinig and some self-styled
gentlemen riders. But unlike the Germans, the French weren't just on location
in large numbers, but they were also winning. Sylvain Maurin, already 45
years of age, consistently fought hard against the strong competition and
made first place in kite racing. "Momo", as everyone calls the PKRA speaker
affectionately, was visibly moved. To thunderous acclaim, he told how this
was the first time in 18 years of competition that he won a first place.
Moreover, in his speech he the made the remarkable observation that "not all
kiters are young and without brains".
Also with "Vive la France" in her beaming face, Aurelia Herpin could claim the
new women kite speed record. The young Frenchwoman, who lives in Tarifa and
trains very hard, has really earned this. Her own equipment got stuck in some
European airport which initially forced her to be a bystander. But as soon as
she got upon the water, she almost immediately broke the record, and did so
again on the next day.
Among the men, the kite record was also broken. However, this was a lot more
difficult then among the women. Already in 2004, local hero Olaf Marting had
shown the world elite a solid new record. This upset a lot of people,
particularly the former holder Manu Taub, and Marting got some sneers about
"self-measured speeds". Accordingly, peoples nerves were frayed this year.
Even a harmless misunderstanding about the 2004 speeds almost resulted in an
Therefore, Marting started with enormous motivation. Like a cruise missile, he
tracked the shoreline for the last five rideable centimeters of water. Hardly
another kiter displayed the same level of determination and precision, even
the spectators were afraid. The well-deserved result was a new kite speed
record of 41.79 knots. This was a sizable distance to Alexandre Caizergues,
second-fastest kiter with 41 knots, and far, far ahead of the still
respectable 39.82 knots of Dirk Hanel, who, like in the preceding year, was
fastest German. Moreover, it was only 1.14 knots behind Björn, who got the
overall best speed of 42.93.
These consistently strong performances of the kiters make windsurfers wonder.
Is it possible that the kiters will irrevocably outrun windsurfers one day?
First of all, the speedkites seem crude compared to windsurfing riggs. There
should be a lot of room for improvement: The leading edges of most kites are
very thick, and the sail's bottom side with its open ribs looks
aerodynamically awkward. Second, and this is a more fundamental issue, kiters
generate the necessary lateral lift by pushing away spray with the board,
while windsurfers need a fin with laminar flow. This flow can detach ("spin
out"). Unfortunately, at speeds of 45-50 knots, spin out due to cavitation
(steam bubble creation and collapse along the fin profile) becomes harder and
harder to avoid. This could be an insuperable limit to windsurfers, while
leaving kiters unimpressed.
It's hard to impress speed surfers anyway. Sebastien "Catman" Cattelan, who
donned a silver speed suit and snow goggles, ignored two black
disqualification flags. Thereupon he was hunted down by boat and physically
removed from the water. He had caused particular anger with his idea to sail
back upwind on the very 500m course - directly into the face of the racers
going downwind with 35-40 knots. This was the last straw for the race
committee. Head judge Jan-Cas Smit remembered that a similar maneuvre
resulted in a fatal accident 1989 in Saintes Maries, so Catman wasn't just
thrown out of a heat or for a day, but out of the whole competition. "Rule 69
out of the ISAF rule book is explicit", it was said in front of the assembled
crew. This lead a surfer, alluding to human mating behaviour, to comment:
"Rule 69? Can't they number their rules a bit differently?"
No, they can't, because Walvisbay is an orderly place. Jeff Marting, formerly
the goalkeeper of the Namibian soccer team, is a race director with a knack
for discipline. This was particularly important as kiters and windsurfers
were on the course simultaneously, their differing equipment characteristics
notwithstanding. To practise the very important sequencing of the
participants in the run-up, Marting Senior personally stood there with a flag
on the first racing day. This was a big relief for all riders who had
experienced the chaotic start on the course in Fuerte.
A lot of discussion involved the timing systems, especially as the display on
the beach malfunctioned once. The riders wished for detailed figures for
every single one of their runs, not just for the fastest ones. But Markus
Schwendtner of the ISA declared: "We have measured and checked all runs.
However, we transfer only the fast ones into the result database, because it
is so much extra work. We work already until 3am and can't do more if we have
to be fit again the next day". But he hopes that in 2006 there will be a new
timing system based on transponders.
Apart of this irritation, the event was well organised. This is a lot less
easy than it sounds to the surf-focused competitors. In a quiet moment, Heiko
(of namibia-tours.com) and Hilko (helmsman and co-organiser) told about the
huge amount of volunteer work and goodwill that happened in the background.
Sponsors don't grow on trees, transport containers don't fall from the sky,
an ambulance doesn't wait on the beach for fun. Also, it's not everyone's cup
of tea to volunteer on a rescue boat in force eight conditions all day, just
to be insulted by a thoughtless competitor. A bit more consideration for all
these helping hands would be appropriate, and also for surf-action.com, who
gave the 5.000 Euros of prize money.
Many times the comparison to Fuerte was drawn, particularly as the Fuerte
speed cups 2004 and 2005 had been rather disappointing. In normal summer
conditions in Fuerte, the speed course suffers from a way too broad wind
direction, almost completely downwind. This resulted in many aborted runs,
bad times and an agonising struggle upwind. Moreover, in 2005 there was so
little wind that only two disappointing runs took place for the pro fleet.
Additional issues are the tide-dependent sand banks and the waves that
sometimes break on the course.
Opposed to this, the speed course in Walvisbay is a godsend. It takes only a
short lay from the yacht club to get there. Waves, unless caused by other
surfers, are practically non-existent. There are no sandbanks that eat fins,
and the shore subsides with a steady angle, making is possible to race
independent of the tide. Moreover, the wind is remarkably steady and blows
almost without gusts or shifts. This allows to finetune the riggs much more
than it is possible in, say, a bumpy Mistral. All taken together,
speedsurfing is so relaxed here that any ambitious hobby surfer has a chance
to clock 30+ knots.
Two downsides exist, however. Firstly, it is unexpectedly cold. More than 18°
water and 20-21° air temperature hardly occur, notwithstanding the nearly
permanent sunshine. Secondly, the wind direction is usually quite good, but
not very good. In the late morning, when the wind builds, it has a nice deep
angle suitable for speed. But when the wind reaches its thermally-driven
maximum in the afternoon, it usually has turned so far to the South that the
angle for the run is almost abeam, about 100°. That is good fun and allows
easy tacking and thus many runs with good speeds. But to aim for the absolute
record, one would rather have an angle of 125° degrees and 40+ knots, which
is rare here. For these special conditions, the notorious canal in Saintes
Maries may still be the favourite.
In one particular area Walvisbay may simply be the best spot in the world -
the nautical mile. The shoreline and thus the course are long and straight
enough. Therefore one day, the race committee took the risk to adapt the
buoys and cameras to the 1852 meter long course. This was fortunate, because
after initial scepticism amongst some of the riders, the records rolled in.
Alongside many national bests, Finian Maynard reached a new world record with
39.97 knots. This simple number - more than 5 knots faster than the old
record - hides an extreme performance. To sustain an average speed of 40
knots for 90 seconds on a surfboard requires more than just a bit of balance
or a good trim. If you really go for it to the limit, the legs burn already
after half of the distance, concentration wanes and control slips. If Finian
wouldn't be on the bounce like a US marine, he could have hardly made it.
Even Björn was impressed that Finian could beat him by more than a second.
Apart of that, Björn measured up to his reputation. He won five of the six
500m heats, also the king of the strip-ranking, and - for good measure - the
overall speed world championship 2005. This was the final nail in the coffin
of the omnipresent critics, who had hoped to see some performance dropouts
after long party nights.
There also was a "queen of the strip"-ranking. In this slightly inofficial
rating, the surfers politely expressed their considerable appreciation of the
attendant female competitors. Natasha Petersman from South Africa was simply
charming. Valerie Ghibaudo from France wore a t-shirt with the slogan "too
cute to cook" - and she was right. Karin Jaggi from Switzerland was also
doing well, but her mark was wrecked by her terrible violet neoprene suit,
which, by general consensus, absolutely has to be replaced next year.
However, the biggest tumult and the loudest roars happened when Marion Raisi,
the young speeder from France, accepted her third prize. "Undress!", demanded
the Gaul horde vociferously. Further details shall remain unreported, in
order to escape the holy wrath of the Surf amazons. But one common
characteristic has to be noted: They understand the ocean and the love of man
to the ocean.
Besides, there wasn't much space for soft relations. When Jeff Martin
announced during the first skipper's meeting that everyone had come here to
have fun, disagreement was voiced out of the audience: "I am here to
compete", grunted somebody, and compete they did. People haggled, tried new
tricks, optimized their equipment or their stance and copied every good - or
seemingly good - idea they could perceive. Especially the emotionally charged
duel between Björn and Finian continued. In every heat they eyed each other
like wolf and hound. All the more surprising was Finian's speech on the
occasion of his second place. Instead of philosophising about himself or the
world at large, he congratulated Björn cordially to his 35th world
championship and pointed out, that Björn probably had won more titles than
any other athlete in any other sport. At first, the audience was stunned and
quiet, but then the well-deserved acclaim was even louder. Björn and Finian
shook hands. Later, when Björn was called to the front again, he not only
said "speed is back", but also asserted that the fifty knots will come.
Thereupon Finian could not hold back and called "yes, the fifty knots will
come to me, on the canal, servus!".
This may all well come to pass. But in this game, there is a third player, the
"Macquarie Innovation". MI is the successor of the old record ship "Yellow
Pages". MI was badly damaged in a 47-knot-crash in November of 2004, but she
was rebuilt. Everyone who has seen the frightening GPS-traces of the boat is
holding their breath. What if MI gets a perfect day in Sandy Point in
Australia? What if MI, instead of waiting in Sandy Point, would charter a
couple of containers to Namibia? What if MI would sail in the optimal angle
of the late morning wind, which already is strong enough for the
hyperefficient ship? They would break the record on the nautical mile
probably on the first try, and even the record on the 500m would be in grave
danger. "Let's hope they never come here", said one of the top surfers, "or
at least not yet". As always in speedsailing, everything is just a matter of
(C) 2005 Henrik Klagges (sail number #111)