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Choosing the Best Tool for the Application

Published on 22/10/20
by randy

My first wind sport was hang gliding. The study of micrometeorology was essential and it helped me move to windsurfing, a wind sport with far less risk.  It’s probably my main grounding for wind sport much like my first religion was.  We did expand windsurfing to ice/snow and enjoyed the smoother ride with less friction, but the real challenge came when kiteboarding was introduced.  I remember my windsurf friends asking if I had switched to “the dark side” when they found out I was exploring kiting.  

A few years back the hydrofoil was introduced and got most traction with kiteboarding.  It was then added to the windsurf board and recently we now have a hand held wing that works beautifully with a foil.  I like to look at all of these applications as different tools for different conditions.  I’ve developed skills in all of these tools except kiteboarding foiling.  However, I’ve had the privilege to ride frequently with expert kiteboard foilers.  Each tool can enhance our general understanding of wind sport and challenge a deeper level of riding.  For sure, what we put attention to grows stronger and what we ignore loses energy.  Some riders never switch their tool and continue to go deeper and deeper refining their tool with their instrument of choice.  Some hit a plateau. Some people have deepened their religion of preference and have not incorporated the wisdom and teachings of other religions.  I will never know their instrument of choice at their depth, and they will never know the broadening of experience that comes from synthesizing learnings from a variety of instruments/religions.  The last thing I want to do is make any attempt at persuasion to the supposed “right” choice.  It only leads to anger.  Yet, given I have a certain proficiency in a wide variety of tools and continue to practice all of them I thought it could be helpful to run some comparative observations from my riding.  

Parameters I’m looking at are: 1. Learning curve, 2. Ease of launch and landing, 3. Versatility in non-steady wind/friction, 4. Impact from weeds, 5. Risk factors, 6. Set-up/tear down ease, 7. Ease/impact on the body, 8. Freedom from attachment to the board.

  1. Kiteboarding seems to have the easiest learning curve, especially when first learned on snow/ice.  The downside is the risk of injury if proper training in exit strategies isn’t given thorough attention.  Windsurfing to planing skill takes more time to learn but has very little risk of injury unless one fails to pay attention to water/air temp and offshore winds. For sure, water is more forgiving than ice/snow when falling.  The learning curve for foiling seems fastest for windsurf foiling provide the rider has advanced windsurfing skill.

2. The most versatile launch/landing seems to be the hand held wing with foil board.  I’ve been able to get in and out of the water in places I’d never be able to kite.  The windsurf rig is attached to the board so it’s more cumbersome.  This is where the kiteboarding tools are much more condition dependent.  It’s preferable to have an experienced assistant, it’s necessary to have a safe distance from downwind objects, and enough time to deploy the various safety mechanisms if the launch or landing fail to go smooth, and debris either on land or in the water can be a menace.  The downside for foils is necessity of water depth.  I often have to walk my rig several hundred feet to get enough clearance.  Launching in shore break over three feet seems next to impossible for me.

3. The amount of friction with the board determines whether we’re planing or complaining.  Here’s where winter ice/snow riding and foiling dominate.  Foiling requires enough speed for ‘take off’, but once on foil the friction is dramatically reduced.  Winter riding wins hands down on ice since little friction exists.  In water, the upward pull and light weight of the kiteboarding gives it the advantage.  Once up on foil, little wind is required to keep flying on plane, giving the foil a huge advantage in the typically non-steady winds of the interior.  With the windsurf board and wing there’s a pumping action that works the upper body as the rider seizes on the gust to get up on foil.  As the wind line passes or diminishes, the rider can pump the sail or wing in conjunction with the board to keep on foil.  It’s great aerobic exercise, works upper and lower body, and allows the rider to stay on plane in conditions that ordinarily would be off plane. The proficient kiteboard foiler seems to have the advantage for signing the kite in lighter wind, as long as they can keep the kite in the sky.  The windsurf and wing board rider have the float of the board and the better visual for seeing the next wind line coming.  Before foiling I would windsurf/kiteboard an average of one time per week.  I now average over four days per week of riding.

4. Weeds are a major problem for foils and kiteboard lines. I’ve been able to handle foiling Minnesota lakes until late June before I have to go to the river.  It’s so frustrating to be waiting for a gust, pumpling to get on plane, only to realize a small weed has attached to the foil.  Similarly, I’m in a self/drift launch situation most of the time for kiteboarding.  Once summer sets in I’m always running the risk of weeds caught on the lines with a failed launch.  I also have to practice keen lake awareness to know those areas where a dropped kite simply won’t relaunch given the plant life on the surface.  The introduction of the weed fin for windsurfing has made this my instrument of choice when weeds are abundant.  It’s an easy launch from shore and I can always clear the weeds easily from the rig if necessary.  It’s the only instrument where I don’t have to be so aware of the plant life ceiling.

5. It seems the risk factors increase by how far away the power source is from the body and how hard the potential contact surfaces are.  Kiteboarding seems to have the most risk given the power source is 100’ away and the speed at which things can get out of control.  Ingenious safety mechanisms have been set up and it behooves the rider to continuously practice with these so they become automatic and instantaneous.  It seems kiteboard foiling is also more demanding in this area since the rider can load the back foot, sending the lighter board in the air with an unknown landing.  There have also been instances where the lines have tangled around the foil.  The windsurf rig and the wing are held close to the body for greater control in radical conditions.  All the rider needs to do is let the rig go and fall to the side of the board.  Leash management can be an issue that requires calm and patience when wing boarding.  In rough conditions the foil could impact the body.  Wingboarding in waves can pose some threat as the board with foil tumbles in the whitewater.  It’s helpful to have neoprene protection when foiling.  I’ve taken several nicks from my wetsuits that would have penetrated my skin without that extra layer.  Booties are also a good idea with windsurf foiling to prevent injury when water starting.  On the flip side, windsurfing forces more toe pressure against the boot end and after years of boot use fungus usually develops under the toes.  It’s a frequent consequence of tight ski boots, as well.  Fortunately, I’ve removed my back straps for windsurf foiling and my toes are much happier.  However, with regular high wind windsurfing it’s simply not an option.

6. There’s no simpler set up and tear down than with wing boarding.  Attach the foil, blow up the wing, attach the leashes and you’re ready to go.  I usually leave my foil on, so it’s often less than five minutes to get on the water.  Blowing up a kite is quick, much less complicated than a windsurf rig, and is often viewed as a major step to simplicity.  Yet, it takes tremendous concentration to make sure the lines are laid out and attached correctly.  Tear down for kiteboarding and wing boarding seems about the same.  Kiteboarding wins the ease of transport prize and we’re looking forward to the performance factor of the inflatable wing boards that can easily pack up for air travel.  Most foil boards are under 7’ already, so auto transport is easy.

7. I just turned seventy and the foil has been a great blessing.  Previously my body was limited to no more than two hours of riding before pain started to set in.  Whether with kiting (my knee) or windsurfing (my back), it took about half an hour for my brain to catch up to the conditions, an hour of great alert riding, and a half hour to realize it was time to come in.  Foiling is much more like flying and sailing.  After take off, it’s smooth and quiet.  It seems I can get two to three two hour sessions in without body pain.  It’s especially helpful when rotating between instruments (i.e. 2 hours wing boarding, 2 hours windsurf foiling, 1 hour kiteboarding, 30 minutes windsurfing, 1 wing boarding).  I had often thought I was nearing the end of my windsurfing days and now I’m optimistic that the foil will allow me to keep on going. Also, playing the board in the air has relieved me from the need to travel for more terrain.  Oftentimes, this could be four hours out of the day and more gas than I care to use in these times.  More riding time, less complaining, less gas harming the environment and my pocketbook.

8. The windsurf rig is attached to the board with a universal joint.  The kiteboarder is attached to the kite by lines.  Both use a harness to help in this attachment as the body balances against the power of the wind engine.  For thirty years I’ve used the Skimbat (winter wing boarding) with a long race snowboard.  The freedom from not being attached was addicting.  The wing could be thrown about freely, balancing the edge of the snowboard against the lake surface and the angle of the wing for the desired performance.  It was also the closest I could get my body to the power source, a gratifying feeling in turbulent conditions.  Wing boarding water takes it to a whole new level with the introduction of a moving terrain.  Integrating the body with optimum attitude of the foil and the wing is like a ballet.  I believe it synthesizes my hang gliding, windsurfing, SUP surfing, kiting and yoga skills in a most amazing way.  I’ve always enjoyed listening to a musical sound track while riding and have found wing boarding to be the most dance like for me.

You may not relate to my concept of ‘windsport tools’.  I know many who would object to the concept of synthesizing various religious wisdoms for various times and situations.  For me, the synthesis of Christianity, Zen, Sufi, Indigenous, Jewish and Hindi traditions has deepened the spiritual journey.  There have been many times where the correct choice of tool meant the difference between violence or harmony.  There have been many times where I chose the incorrect windsport instrument for the conditions.  

I’m so grateful to all the curious minds who’ve given us the innovations for pursuing our dreams.  Traveling through this time of uncertainty, the passion we have for riding the wind brings us forever back to balance.  We can seek harmony through homogeny or through embracing diversity with our curiosity.  Deepest gratitudes to our pilgrim spirit fellow riders.

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