Get the bug for speedsailing in part one of our series. Including interviews with Ian Fox (Starboard) and Martin Van Meurs (GPS Speedsurfing)

Speed, Part One

Over the past few years speed sailing has made a big resurgence. There have been a number of reasons for this. Partly this is due to Finnian Maynard breaking the world speed record, but a lot of it is down to the invention of the GPS. Prior to this you needed to visit a measured speed course with either some timing equipment, a radar gun or someone with a stopwatch and a calculator. The handheld GPS units now available have reduced immensely pricewise and allow any rider to assess his speed sailing prowess.

Fast Left

When used with the excellent GPS-Speed sailing website this allows users worldwide to compete against the best in the world, their friends and others use similar kit. Once you register you can input data about your boards, sails and fins. Most importantly, you can upload data from your GPS and then compare your results with others. There are restrictions as to which GPS units are ratified by the site based on things such as accuracy, price and usability so it is worth checking the list of suitable units before making your purchase.

To obtain your data in a suitable form for the GPS-Speed sailing site, you will need to download some free software called GPS Action Replay. This great program allows you to view your tracks overlaid on a map of your sailing venue, edit out any spikes and the upload your speeds for the world to see. All the instructions for doing this can be found here. Remember to edit with notepad your servers.xml file to include your username and password or you will be unable to upload.

Over the next few months we will put questions to some of the users of this wonderful resource, to see what makes them tick.
This month it is the turn of Ian Fox. Ian works for Starboard and has a lot of input on their current designs. He is also one of the fastest sailors out there. Last year Ian achieved his personal best speed of 45.9 knots at his home venue, Sandy Point.

Ian, when did you begin windsurfing? 

For me, it all began back in the summer of 1980/81, in the twilight of my competitive cycling career. The father of one of my school friends owned a yacht shop, they had these things, and he thought that was something I would be interested in. At first, I was not. Sand was in everything.

How did you end up working for Starboard? 

I knew Svein since his Melbourne days back in the early years; he used to "summer" out there. Somehow he decided to ask me to become more involved around 2000, just as the FW scene was really booming, Thailand Worlds, the whole bit. My involvement started small and it went on from there. It's been long and hard and really fun. A great bunch of people and truly like a big family. It has become an excellent opportunity to blend both sailing and business experience and skills into a very demanding and rewarding situation. Outside of personal family, windsurfing is the biggest part of my life, and my involvement with the Starboard group (Starboard plus Severne/Airush/Drake) is now a significant part of that.

Ian Fox

Out of the many disciplines out there, why speed? 

Speed and efficiency. Getting the most outta what you got. It's been a characteristic of my life for as long as I can remember. Speed is finite, you can measure it, analyse it, improve it. Ultimately I guess it's the challenge that attracts me, and the excitement of pushing it out over the edge that inspires me. Being big (1m88 /92kg) I was naturally fast from the start. Plus I don't do flakas. 

Do you think a windsurfer will break that magic 50kts mark?

 Yes, without question. It's just another number on the mach meter. In fact we're probably already there.
Although 50kt over a full 500m will certainly be a very big handfull.
It just comes down to the right guy on the right day. And it will be a big day. Then you'll have history.
But I wouldn't say we have it to ourselves either. Kite guys, Macquarie Innovation and a few others have all got the potential. 

Do you think there will be any major changes in board, rig or fin design need to achieve that goal? 

Everyone's got some angle on breakthrough technology, some quantum change coming along. The next big thing. But I figure from here to 50 will be more a refinement of the best current technology; worldwide, 50kt potential windsurf sessions aren't happening all that often, so the opportunity to really test under record conditions is not an everyday occurrence for windsurfers. Balancing efficiency and top end control remains the major objective.
Streamlining the rider probably fits in there somewhere.

Looking Down

Speedsailors get a lot of harmless ribbing from freestylers or wavesailors along the lines of “There is no skill involved, all you need to do is eat a lot of pies”. How would you respond to those comments?

Invite them out for a session; first the speed strip, then the pie shop. Loser pays. Seriously, being big can help in speed, but being unfit or unskilled certainly will not. Anyone who can windsurf reasonably well can go pretty fast these days, even freestylers and wave guys. But to take it to the top level, that last 10% certainly demands core skill, focus, dedication and a load of determination. Just like most other facets of this sport. Or life.

The faster you get, the more bottle it takes to keep going. How do you build up the nerves to really go for it? 

Think Fast. It's addictive. Once you're bitten it's not about conquering fear, rather the "fear"of missing the sensation. Or session. (true!)
When you are really on fire in the groove, it's easier and mostly safer than most people think. Some days you can't screw up, no matter what. Other days, it just doesn't happen. Developing a strong confidence in your ability and equipment is the key. Know where and how you can push it, and by how much - and where not to. Yes, there are limits, but like many things they are not always equal. Focus. Find your sweetspot and expand it. Along with your confidence. The rest will follow. Just add wind. And flat water.

Fast Right

Once you have decided you want to get into speedsailing, what type of kit do you recommend? 

Equipment choice really depends on venue/conditions.The good news is the new school speed and slalom gear has enormous potential range.
For weekend speedsters with reasonable conditions a good slalom or even a fast freeride 80-100Lts could be a versatile board choice. On a good day you'll still punt 40 without too much trouble. For those with better conditions or higher aspirations, the current crop of speed boards around 50 Lt x 50cm are a more accessible ride than most consider, with enough potential to take you all the way. Sails in the 5m to 6m range are really the norm for speedsailing, even smaller 4-5m for nuke or record days. Fins.Never, ever underestimate the importance of these in speed. They must suit the rider style, technique to get the most out of the whole package. 28-30cm for top slalom speed, dedicated speed boards 24-26cm for medium and 20-24cm for top speed. Try many. Understand the "effective size" influence of differing aspect ratio, stiffness, surface area, foil section etc . And rake - very important. 
Having progressive (even if modest) quivers of sails and fins always helps rather than jumping around on odd or mismatched sizing, handling, feel or tuning..

What are the most important things to get the most out of whatever kit you have? 

Detail. Look for the obvious things. And the not so obvious. A single 0.1kt factor might mean nothing, but find 10 of them..
There is no "one solution", no "one size fits all", no "silver bullet". The primary thing is for the rider to really analyse and understand their own conditions, equipment as well as personal style and size. What you're looking for is the magic combination/s that work specifically for them, in their conditions. Not someone else. Rider size, style, technique and tuning all factor into it. Big time. Blindly copying Finian or Whitey's setup may work. Or most likely not.  
Some of the Forums can be a good source of info, but filter everything. If you're new to the game, try to minimise the learning curve by finding a top rider who you can relate to in terms of size, style, strength, technique, conditions and then home in on what they are doing, and why. Understand the difference between hi power and low drag tuning. Are you better off with superfast (in theory..) tuning, or will circulating many runs in a session on "slower" (but more practical) setup give you more chance at being on the runs that count ? Pick your groove. Develop a good basic setup based around that. And keep tuning it. Above all else, always seek efficiency with control. And a super sensitive backhand.

How do you set up a board and rig for speed? 

Feel the conditions. Is the course broader (fuller sail, slightly tighter leech, more rake on fin) or tighter (flatter and/or smaller foil, looser leech, upright fin), flatter water (higher, more rearward stance) or choppier (lower, forward stance) than usual?? The windier it gets, you're faster going super broad, so be prepared to rethink your previous learning on what may be fast in beam reach racing, blasting or B&F drags. Running way off the wind, likely thru rolling chop, you want balance, neutrality and control at the top end. No, not so you can have an easy ride to 40, but so you can really push on from there. Progressively fine tune your stance and differing trim settings : outhaul/downhaul/strap + mastfoot position/boom height+harness line length / longitudinal and lateral trim of the board at speed / sheeting and rake angle of the rig. Fins you need to scale to your sail (and board) size, and conditions. More fin gives more control to push it, and lift to the board but costs you more in drag. Too little might cost you more. Or a trip to casualty. Change one thing at a time. Develop a very analytical feel for what's happening, not just on the GPS but during the run itself. 

Going Left

It seems that all sailors use a different stance, boom height, harness line length etc for speed. What works best for you? 

Bjorn style. Moderate boom height, moderate harness line length on medium low hook position gives a stance that allows me to make proportionally higher use of leg power and keep a little extra control in reserve with the upper body to push it through the rough stuff, which is my favourite technique even on flat water, because even when it's flat, it's often faster through the rough. And when it's fast, it's never really flat.

What are your aims for 2007? 

Well, my goal is one knot for every year, so that's another one to clock up. But to do that, I need to be there when it's windy ! 
Epic speed days are few and far between, no matter where you are. I think I probably hold the GPSSS record for highest number of good days missed by unavoidable and previously scheduled overseas travel etc. Too many guys are setting their own speed sailing schedules by my "away" calendar. So I have some catching up to do. It all started as a joke, but the joke since became very real. Ask anyone who lives through April with me in Maui - while all the PB's are going down at The PiT. ( Sandy Pt, a short drive from Ian's home in southern Australia, and testing ground for the fastest Starboards. ).

Speed, Part One b

After speaking to Ian, I then put the same questions to Martin Van Meurs. Martin was one of the key players in the GPS Speedsurfing website from the start (I’ll let him tell you about that) and with a recorded average speed of 44.6 Knots at West Kirby earlier this year, is no slouch either.

The site has been running since 2004 initially starting as a small local site with a few Dutch sailors involved. Who could have predicted what was to follow. It soon gained worldwide recognition with some of the world’s top speed merchants posting their speeds.  To keep an eye on it all the Dutch team have recruited a  number of enthusiastic sailors to randomly check track records with potential top speeds checked and ratified as a matter of course. As well as allowing you to compete with your peers, many people visit the site when planning a potential kit purchase, you can simply see how well it is performing and what combinations are working for others. Most of us cannot afford to try different kit combinations but at least we can use this resource to make an informed choice.

Martin, when did you begin windsurfing and what got you into the sport?

I started windsurfing when the wooden booms were still being used.... I was struck by the simplicity of the concept, I liked the water and felt windsurfing would be more challenging than sailing.

How did you get involved in gps-speedsurfing.com and how do you envisage the future of the site? 

I liked speedsurfing a lot, but got tired of waiting for wind so I left the sport after yet another disappointment. After discovering waterproof GPS handhelds, I started speedsurfing again on my home spot and loved it. Roger van Tongeren showed me the possibility to download data and within 10 minutes we wrote down the basic concept of GPS-speedsurfing. Over 1000 members are now actively competing and I feel the numbers will rise substantially if the technical aspects are being sorted out in a better way. Automatic downloading and sending of data will change the face of flat water windsurfing forever. .

Out of the many disciplines out there, why speed? 

Simple: the fight with nature. The stronger the wind gets, the more I like it. The adrenalin rush while going over 40 knots is addictive. Once you've felt it you can't quit anymore. 

Do you think a windsurfer will break that magic 50kts mark?

I have no doubt this will happen, and it will happen very soon. Going 50 over 500 metres is another thing. We need the perfect conditions for that and only a very few will be capable to reach that speed over that given distance.

Do you think there will be any major changes in board, rig or fin design need to achieve that goal? 

Nope, we're basically there. Just an insane amount of wind at the right angle, flat water and we're there. But like said this is easier said than done.

Speedsailors get a lot of harmless ribbing from freestylers or wavesailors along the lines of “There is no skill involved, all you need to do is eat a lot of pies”. How would you respond to those comments?

Speedsurfing isn't really hard indeed on silky smooth water and moderate windspeeds. But once the wind starts howling and you really need to go for it, things get different. I'd like to watch while they try to get over 40 in 40+ knot windspeeds and choppy water. After that we'll have another chat. By the way, modern day gear allows smaller guys to go fast as well. It's not anymore the rope pulling contest it used to be. And even if it's pretty easy to go fast in some conditions, being the fastest in a race is a matter of technique, analyzing and finetuning of your gear. This combination makes light wind speedsurfing compelling as well.

The faster you get, the more bottle it takes to keep going. How do you build up the nerves to really go for it? 

Dare to crash. The more you get used to crashing the less scary high wind speedsurfing gets. Experience obviously is a big help as well. During my high speed runs in West Kirby in insane windspeeds I was totally at ease and felt I was ready to take the challenge with nature.

Once you have decided you want to get into speedsailing, what type of kit do you recommend? 

Don't go for the extreme gear if you're not living near a spot like Sandy Point. A medium wind slalom board can go blisteringly fast, is way more fun, and way easier to control. It IS important to buy a full on race sail though. Free race sails are a lot slower. Also make sure you size down on the fin as the wind gets stronger.

What are the most important things to get the most out of whatever kit you have? 

Fins...defenitely. A bad fin makes your board spin-out and you will loose confidence real quick.

How do you set up a board and rig for speed? 

Mastfoot postition as far back as possible while still being able to control the gusts, fin as small as possible without getting spin-outs, sail as big as possible when it's gusty and choppy and sometimes exactly the opposite when it's totally flat and constant wind.

It seems that all sailors use a different stance, boom height, harness line length etc for speed. What works best for you? 

It changes each year. With the new TR3, I'm using shorter harness lines (30") again and the boom not too high. It just comes down to feeling and testing.

Do you think rider weight matters when it comes to speed?

It matters less each year. Also as the wind gets stronger and slowly overtakes the board speed, weight is getting less important.

What are your aims for 2007?

Going for 50.

Given all the information above it seems that experimentation is the key. You cannot simply go out on flat water on fast kit and expect to go fast. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and to go fast you need to find out what these are and develop your skills around them. Steve Thorp is a prime example of a sailor that doesn't comply with what you would expect. His style and approach is different to many plus he uses a waist harness yet still sails at over 45kts. Then you have Karin Jaggi, the worlds fastest woman, yet at half the weight of many of the top men reaches similar speeds. Heavier sailors have the strength to muscle their way through their mistakes but the lightweights often develop a more efficient technique and stance. By carefully examining your own skills and using your GPS tracks you can soon work out what works best for you. You'll soon be shooting up the GPS Speedsailing rankings and enjoying every session as you constantly work to beat your personal best.

Until part 2, happy sailing.