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Steph Bridge has spent her life in and around the ocean. Her father is a professional boat builder, making racing dinghies and, more recently, bigger yachts for the Volvo Ocean Race. As a youngster, Steph raced dinghies and represented Great Britain all over the world before getting heavily involved in kitesurfing from the beginning. She has a shop and school in Exmouth, Devon, called Edge Watersports that she runs with her husband, Eric. She coaches in all watersports and runs coaching holidays to many different locations around the world, fuelled by her passion for wave riding and finding new and challenging spots. In 2006 she became the British freestyle kitesurfing champion and has reigned as the Ladies' PKRA Kite Course Racing World Champion for the past two years.
There aren't many people better qualified to dish the dirt on course racing techniques and secrets.
The secret to doing well at racing is to get a good clean start and to work to edge ahead. Course shapes can vary, from triangles, sausages ((upwind/downwind), zig-zags, square or trapezoid, but will always involve an initial upwind leg and some very demanding downwind sailing angles. Here I will break down the component parts of completing all aspects of a course the quickest way possible, including how to set up and attack the start line, riding upwind quickly using good tactics and then holding speed downwind.
There are a number of important things to think about before you even reach the start line of a race. Checking over your equipment is important as you don't want anything to break or not work properly. The main things to assess are your line lengths, current wind speed, kite size and fin set-up. It's important to get out on the course early to check that everything feels good.
Another very important factor is 'start line bias'. It takes time to develop the skills to assess this, but the best way is if you have a team mate that is similar in speed to you, then both of you should sail towards the wind from opposite ends of the line. Whoever is ahead at the designated meeting point will determine which is the best end to start from. Remember that the wind is shifting and oscillating, so the bias on the line that is checked at five minutes to go may change with just one minute to go. This is what sorts out the good guys – having a feeling for this and changing your plan within the last minute could mean that you go across the start line first, giving you a great feeling. 90% of races are won on a good start.
The start line is often lined up with a small amount of port bias, allowing kiters to line up on starboard, avoiding so much bunching at the starboard end, which can often lead to kite carnage!
Remember that more and more racers are using longer lines, so be aware of this when trying to clear the start line on port tack as you have no rights of way.
I always sail the first upwind leg before the start of the race to see which tack feels right and to check for tidal influence on any parts of the course. I try to find landmarks and pointers to get an idea of wind patterns. If the wind is gusty then work out any likely wind shifts. Look at buoys, crab pots and your transit with something stationary to work out tidal flows and ask yourself if it's likely to change during the race.
Build up local knowledge. What has happened with the wind and conditions in the days leading up to the race? Find out the forecast and look out for approaching weather systems.
Check that your stopwatch is working properly and set.
Make sure that you are back at the start line for when the red flag warning signal goes up so that you can get accurate timing on your watch. Play things safe on the countdown to the start; keep clear of other kites and don't drop your kite. Keep an eye on the start line, checking to see if the wind has changed and to see if the line bias will be different. Be aware of any tidal influence on the start line as it's easy to get caught out if the wind drops, therefore making the tide more of an influence.
This usually goes up four minutes before the start and is when you should be looking to get on the correct tack and to try to be in control of the fleet. Keep asking yourself where you are in relation to everyone else. Check your stopwatch again to make sure it tallies with the committee boat.
There is usually a one minute rule to observe that states that any rider over the starting line in the last minute of the starting sequence will be disqualified from the race.
Keep it clean and if you see carnage ahead, keep clear. The idea is to try to hit the start line at speed with your kite low and edging hard to sail upwind. This is all about timing. The last ten seconds before the start you should be focussed on finding the gap so that when you dive the kite there is enough room to leeward (downwind). Remember that you have rights of way when on starboard and also that there is ‘no water’ allowed on a start line. This is a rule that means people coming in from upwind at the last minute cannot barge in and ask for space (water) at the starboard end.
ONE MINUTE TO GO
By now you should be well settled on starboard and be judging your speed perfectly on approach to the start line. Take account of the wind dropping or increasing, plus any change in its direction that will alter the start line bias – this is really important as you could be the only racer that notices and you'll make the best start of your life... all on your own!
Be aware of longer lines around you, Flysurfers that block your wind and anyone on the line that is parked up (not making way). Try to keep some space to leeward so you have room to dive your kite. At ten seconds to go I'm usually heading towards the line fast and crossing just as the gun goes.
You should try to cross the line with clean air, your kite in the zone and your upwind strategy in place. The first 40 metres are crucial as this is when the pack splits and you need to gain an edge upwind. If you can get around that windward mark in the top five you have a good chance of staying there.
Judging whether to get the best start but risking getting involved in potential chaos at the committee boat end, or to bear off and sail across the middle of the line in clear air will depend on where you find yourself with ten seconds to go to the start. Good luck... you may need it!
STARTING FOR ROOKIES
Go to smaller events where there are fewer people and the start line isn't so intimidating. Hang back at the start and go over the line with speed a few seconds after the herd. You will avoid tangles and can judge your own speed and timing without worrying about all the other kites and lines.
To make the quickest time upwind means finding the best balance between pointing high and sailing very fast. This will also depend on the sea state, but you should be working your legs all the time to absorb chop and keep the board moving quickly up and over the waves. Your body should pump with a motion as you sail through small chop, maintaining board speed while staying on the best upwind course possible.
Upwind reaching is probably the most important part of racing, and your success will be affected by kite and fin size, board design and profile, sea state, your own physical strength as well as body, leg and feet positioning.
Pointing high into wind makes it hard to go fast. I usually find the point at which the board starts to generate lift from the fins and then I try to turn my body and hips and lever myself as far out to windward as possible with my arms fully extended. I try to exert more weight through my rear hip, increasing the pressure through the rear leg. This allows my hips to rotate towards the wind, also increasing back foot pressure.
On the first upwind leg I constantly monitor the progress of my opponents, which influences my decision of when to tack. I look to windward for gusts/lulls/holes in the wind, as well as taking care not to overlay the windward mark. If the tide is taking me towards the mark, then I always tack early and try to be riding on starboard when approaching the windward mark, especially if there are a lot of other kites around.
I believe a flat board should be the fastest way to kite upwind, but this is dependent on the fin sizes and their angle. I have the new North Race Ltd 2010 set-up for windy conditions with the Yatesarger 18 degree fins at the front and some ten degree angled fins that Bob Yates from Tarifa Fin Company made, with flex at the rear. This combo is great for ten metre kites in conditions between 22 – 40 knots. When it's very windy it is more difficult to kite with the board very flat, so the angled fin is useful.
My carbon board was custom built by my brother, Guy Roswell, and is set up for 12 metre and bigger kite sizes, with larger 26 centimetre fins at the back and 22s at the front. I do not have a definitive answer for the perfect combo; however, I do know that fins work best when they are not in-line!
The flatter the board is ridden, the better straight fins will work. An angle of 10-15 degrees on either the front or back allows for the board to be sailed with a slight angle to leeward, so the leeward fins are just out of the water.
Getting a fin combination to work well upwind that suits your weight and strength is just as important as what goes on downwind. You can have the best set-up ever upwind but if you are falling in downwind and cannot turn around it is not much good!
I believe I am still working on maximum performance and kite course racing is evolving fast. What works for one person may not work for another. The board needs to feel right for you and very importantly it must also be comfortable and go around corners! We have a number of things still to develop, including fin profile, angle and size, as well as the possibility of a centreboard that can be raised for going downwind.
Downwind sailing needs commitment and aggressive kite flying. Depending on the wind and angle of the reach you are on, your weight will be further in and over the board than usual with you leaning well back if it's choppy and windy. Focus on keeping a straight front leg and again, keeping the board as flat as possible.
The broader the reach you are on (the more downwind you are pointing) the more aggressive you have to be with your kite. The angle that the kite is worked across the wind window is crucial to generating sufficient power. The smaller the kite the more easily it can be moved, and longer lines increase the size of the wind window that can be 'worked', so are an advantage.
The only time you should loop your kite is if it is about to stall or you have another competitor nearby, otherwise fly it across the middle of the window. Sometimes in light winds I steer with my hands on the actual lines for more direct control. In stronger winds the key is to continue working the kite while skipping over the waves. Very often only the back end of the board will be in the water and it's all about holding it together, not falling and moving the kite as aggressively as you can. If the wind is gusty I tend to 'luff' up towards the wind in the lulls and bear away in the gusts.
When it’s really windy, the apparent wind moves further forward and you're travelling quickly, allowing you to bear away much more. In lighter wind, try to sail as broadly as you can without slowing and coming off the plane. As you can't point as far downwind in light winds, a couple of gybes might be necessary to reach the mark instead of just heading straight there as in strong winds.
Very often people haven't flown the kite at the angle you need to fly it at to go downwind. Going snowkiting really helps as the workable wind window when using the kite to pull you uphill is crucial. This will teach you a lot about downwind kite flying. Basically, be committed and fly the kite aggressively.
STEPH'S ROUTE TO RACING
If you're up for getting involved in racing then the first thing to do is to learn to ride a directional board. Take the straps off and learn to gybe it consistently well – it's easier without straps as there's nothing to trip over. Then of course you should get hold of the new North Race Ltd 2010 as it's ideal on all points of sailing, is easy to turn and will get you on the water in ten knots of wind!
Find some local events in your country – they are popping up everywhere now. Smaller events are ideal for getting the hang of it all. You will need a stopwatch and a seat harness as a must. Like anything, the more racing you do, the better you'll get. Being familiar with the course, laylines, start line, rules with other kites etc. are more important than whether you have the latest board and kite.
In the UK it's been hard to find race training partners, but I train with my husband Eric or against Olympic 49er dinghy sailors that also live in Exmouth, Devon. They are good to practise against as we are close in upwind ability and they have a compass etc. on board. This winter I will do more of this, and when I go to events I always try to get there a few days before and find someone to train against. I maintain my fitness by sea swimming until December, rollerblading, mountain biking and paddleboarding.
Kite course racing can be done by anyone and more people are willing to help and give advice, so don't be scared; the buzz that you will get jostling for position on the start line is awesome!
OUTRO – Visit Steph and her kiting family at: www.edgewatersports.com