2000 Maui Equipment Test: Bogus is as Bogus Does

Here’s the deal with this test…

IF THE INTRODUCTION to this 2000 board and sail test reads like the introduction to a book, it’s because the project became like a book. Having written two non-fiction books, I know. The amount of research and the number of hours spent at the laptop were comparable. Most of those writing hours were all-nighters in Baja (sleeping evenings, napping mornings, sailing afternoons), buzzed on Cuban coffee and listening out my trailer window to the roosters crowing and street dogs barking (and the occasional stray cow clomping down the street), either at each other or the Mexican moon. As Winnie the Pooh says about bees, “You never can tell, when it comes to them.” One could say the same thing about windsurfing equipment testers. Or testing in general.

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Here’s the deal with this test. It’s based on the reality that such tests are impossible. The physical variables inherent to windsurfing make authoritative performance pronouncements unattainable. If what the reader thinks he’s getting, or what the testing publication believes it’s delivering, is a reliably true or precise description of the performance characteristics of a board or sail, there’s a whole lot of delusion sailing around. And if that statement sounds stunning to you, turn right now to the sidebar titled, “Top 10 Reasons Why U.S. Board Tests Are Bogus (or at least have been until this one, and this one will be too, if you take it as gospel).”

You ask, quite reasonably: If that’s so, why bother doing them? Why
bother reading them?

The answer lies within the words of this one, our justification within the
structure. This test brings you background information like you’ve never gotten before. It avoids the pretense of authority and attempts not to tell you what to buy. It tries to enlighten, entertain and assist you to “know thyself” and “know thy stuff”.  We hope it also makes you laugh.

I don’t mean to dismiss all previous magazine tests. But I do think they might have made you cry. Certainly there has been much excellent technical information in them. But it’s so easy to be misled by one little thing that isn’t quite true in a review, and those untrue things in previous tests have been like fleas on a Baja dog. Published critiques have carried the air of conclusiveness, and trusting readers buy equipment based on them. Far too often, it’s equipment that’s not right for them, bringing tears.

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That said, it should be emphasized that there are many specifically untrue comments in this test—testers’ opinions. But the larger truth is the truth of what actually happened, not necessarily what should have happened. All that any comment reveals is the experience a tester—guest tester, pro sailor or magazine editor—had with a rig on that day, in those conditions, in that state of tune, with his style and skills. Which is why the ratings are anything but gospel.

It’s probably safe to say (with an exception or two), that all of the boards and sails in this test perform well, in the right hands at the right time. Behind the specific points of any negative comment is usually a mismatch somewhere in the mix of board, sail, sailor and conditions. A number of negative comments on any board or sail, no matter what they say, might merely indicate that the comfort zone in that mix is narrow.

One object of the theme of this test is to get the reader/sailor/consumer to realize that he or she should know what he/she wants and needs, before he/she can buy the thing that will make him/her happy. Everybody wants control, everybody wants easy planing, easy jibing. But technically, what features in a rig will deliver those things for you, given your skills, your style, your sailing conditions? How much rocker suits you? Where do you like your draft? It might sound daunting to think you must know, but the reward to knowing is way high—and sometimes, so is the price for not knowing. The correct answer might take years to find, without help—and the best source is an attentive dealer who’s progressive enough to realize that the hard sell is the short sell, in the long run.

Matching sailors’ skills and styles to board and sail performance features has to be one of the biggest and most important challenges to growth of the sport. It will require a great deal of commitment and attention. It can’t be casual. Conclusions can’t be found in magazine pages. At least not until magazines adopt Barry Spanier’s suggested approach (see Top 10 Reason Number 7). Even then, there’s plenty of room for error.

But if conclusions can’t be found, direction can. If you can define yourself, we can define the boards and sails.

We’d like to steal some words from the opening page of the Sailworks pamphlet, to further explain our own approach to this board and sail test.

“Sails, like art, emanate from the head, heart and soul of the creator. Understand the talent, the commitment and the philosophy and you’re a long way to understanding the sail.”

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When American Windsurfer announced that dealers would be invited to Maui to be testers, eyebrows were raised over the legitimate issue of bias. But the fears were never my own, and they proved to be way overblown. The word “bias” might suggest some sort of lack of integrity to some, but it really only  means “preference.” So what. Any windsurfer has likes and dislikes, which they bring to the test. Each dealer was informed at the test that he or she would be called on their ratings, publicly, if their numbers or comments suggested an attempt to manipulate the results.  In the end, frankly, the dealers’ input saved our ass. It was fair, it was informed, it was enthusiastic, and it provided substance without which this test would be lacking.

Maybe now is the time to present my own position. From a professional standpoint, I’m absolutely indifferent about advertising revenue to this magazine. I think the industry needs a credible publication, because windsurfers need one, and for that reason I’d like to see American Windsurfer assume that role and thrive, but I was merely contracted to write this test. I was asked to use my experience to raise the journalistic level of the equipment test. My personal economic survival does not depend upon satisfying manufacturers or making them happy. As I write this, I haven’t seen the edited reviews, but I trust they haven’t been watered down.

There are many shortfalls in this report and one of them are in the reviews of the sails. They are thinner than those for the boards; the details on individual sails are more in the specs than the copy. Sails are so much more mysterious and ethereal than boards, maybe because wind is less tangible than water. Testers know less about them, so they have less to say. Test writers know less about them, so ditto (but this one is learning). Sailmakers tend to be farther out there than board shapers, so their explanations of their creations are sometimes as mysterious (or thin) as the creations themselves. And sail tuning is the Great Bugaboo, as mentioned elsewhere, again and again.

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An omission that needs to be addressed, although by no means is it a shortfall—in fact, it turned out to be a blessing—is the absence of some major manufacturers, most notably Mistral, F2, Naish and North. Their distributor asked to be paid a significant amount to have his products evaluated before the 120,000 windsurfers who will be receiving this issue, a precedent that American Windsurfer thought best not to set. The test would have been more comprehensive with their inclusion, but by the same token it’s richer without them. There was more time and space to explore and introduce some truly dynamic new heavyweight contenders, such as Starboard, RRD, Tushingham and The Loft. As well as learn more about smaller high-quality manufacturers such as Sailworks and Windwing.

When I began crunching the numbers from the testers’ ratings sheets, there were two surprises. The first, a disappointment, was how few ratings there were, given the number of testers and 32 days of sailing. The only possible explanation is that testers frequently sailed but didn’t rate. Maybe that’s good, because it indicates they only rated when they were sure of their impressions.

The other surprise was pleasant. Despite my tongue-in-cheek trashing of the numbered ratings in Top 10 Reason Number 2, I believe they reflect general accuracy in a way words can’t—words do better with specifics. Even though it was painful to include ratings I knew were simply wrong, and tempting to throw them out (a slippery slope I turned away from), when I added up and averaged the numbers, if there were enough of them, what I believe to be a generally accurate portrait of the boards and sails magically emerged. Moral to the story: use enough testers, and they’ll eventually get it right. Kind of like the proverbial monkeys in a cage writing “War and Peace.”

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Of course, there are wrongs in testing procedures, and they will yield wrongs in evaluation, no matter how you try to justify it by stretching the argument, contending that those procedural wrongs reflect real-world realities, and reality is the bigger right. You can also say a novel contains more truth than non-fiction—but this is supposed to be science, ha-ha. So better control is a target for next year.

Next year, this test will probably be structured differently—because it can and should be refined, not because the structure didn’t work this year. I believe it did work. On Maui, I had my doubts; but after the picture began growing, literally before my eyes on my laptop screen, it started to make sense. Even those testers’ comments that I was sure were off base, if not off the wall, had validity, as long as they were balanced by… yes, contradiction. And sometimes that contradiction was between two same-sized experts on the same day. They both couldn’t be right, could they?

Welcome to the real world of windsurfing. As Jay Valentine, a veteran of the windsurfing wars, told me in Baja, speaking of equipment evaluation, “There’s no right, no wrong, there just is.”

So here’s our report on the 2000 boards and sails of those manufacturers who were confident enough to present themselves to you in this no-holds-barred medium. It just is.


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Footnotes on Ratings

The ratings categories were determined by committee. Early in the test we saw the need to refine them, but it was already too late if consistency were to be maintained.

With the Boards, it was recognized that the sail contributes at least as much to upwind performance (not to mention such small details as the fin, the sail’s state of tune, the mast track position, etc.), but it was unreasonable to expect a guest tester to be able to isolate the root of upwind performance. Because it’s most readily felt in the “board,” that’s where the category went.

Planing is defined as quickness to plane.

Speed is defined mostly as top speed, although it was recognized that top speed was largely unattainable because the reach to the wave break wasn’t long enough. So the line where acceleration (Power) ended and Speed began remained undefined. But most testers recognized it when they reached it.

Handling is defined as how well a board carves. Testers were asked to cut S curves along a reach, to judge Handling. Think of it as maneuverability, more than turning.

At first we asked testers to separate their Jibe ratings into Entry and Exit, but we realized that they were actually rating turning ability and quickness to plane, again, presuming most intermediate jibes didn’t maintain a full plane. Rating the total Jibe experience seemed a more useful approach, a case where less precision equals more. So later testers rated just Jibe, and we averaged the earlier dual ratings to get one number for Jibe.

We didn’t have a category for Ride, meaning how smoothly the board sails in rough water, and we should have. We also should have had a separate
category for wave boards, to rate wave maneuverability. Next time.

With the Sails, Speed is again defined as top speed. Same deal about determining where top is.

Power is defined as acceleration after the board is on a plane.
Stability is quite broad, the most inclusive category. It includes handling and balance, which in hindsight we realize should have been separate categories.

Most of the time, Range is only half a category. Sailors often sailed
underpowered or overpowered, but rarely both, and they scored Range based on how well the sail performed in that one direction. Better categories would be Range Over and Range Under. Of course, that can’t be fairly determined without the time and patience to re-tune. That Great Bugaboo.

Waterstart doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning, especially with the smaller sails, and contributes too heavily to the Overall rating, jacking it up in every case. All sails waterstart well nowadays. When you’re fully powered, there isn’t a lot of difference in the ease with which any 4.5-meter sail waterstarts, and when you’re not, the difference is in your own finesse. Bigger sails and cammed sails are obviously more difficult. We asked testers to factor in relativity, so a 9.0-meter cambered race sail could conceivably earn a 5 in Waterstart (as wave boards sometimes earned 5’s in Speed), but that request was unrealistic, in this case


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TOP 10 REASONS WHY U.S. BOARD TESTS ARE BOGUS
(or at least have been until this one, and it will be too, if you take it as gospel)

Number 10: As Randy French says, “Maui [or any test site] is basically just one condition. A board feels different in every type of chop or wave pattern, and it reacts differently every time you add 10 pounds.”

Number 9: As Roberto Ricci says, “Ultimately what matters is the balance between the board, the sail and the sailor. To look at just one parameter is wrong.”

Number 8: As Jeff Henderson says, “There’s technical testing and there’s ‘feel’ testing. It’s crazy to say it’s technical testing. That leaves ‘feel’ testing, which is totally subjective. How did I FEEL before I got out on the water?”

Number 7: As Barry Spanier says, “You need to take all the boards of the same size and category out on the same sail, consecutively, in both underpowered and overpowered conditions, in both flat water and chop, with different styles and skills and weights of sailors; and take all the sails of the same size and category out on the same board, consecutively… “
Us: Sigh. “We aren’t able to do that, at least not…”
Spanier: “Then it’s all bogus.”

Number 6: Evaluations by guest testers are merely brief first impressions, with no significant time to get to know a board or sail. Their ratings always change with second and third sailings.

Number 5: Fins, like tires on racing cars, are everything. Fins don’t always come with boards; when fins are supplied with such boards they aren’t always ideal; testers or volunteer equipment managers switch fins without noting the change; even when the correct or production fin is fitted, the board’s traits can be changed with another fin, making a truly meaningful evaluation open-ended, if not almost endless.

Number 4: Board tuning. The ideal mast, footstrap and fin positions should be found for each sailor in each condition, and to do that you need to try all the positions.

Number 3: Sail tuning. Ha! The Great Bugaboo. Close isn’t good enough; every sail deserves to be dialed-in when it’s rated, and that takes some patience and perseverance—time. Tuning one sail whose characteristics you’re familiar with is not difficult; keeping 50 of them correctly tuned at all times when testers are tweaking them left and right is virtually hopeless. We invite all sailmakers to stand on the beach with their eagle eyes trained on every sailor headed toward the water. They may carry long bamboo whipping rods.

An extended part of this tuning is mast compatibility. Sailmakers always recommend a range of mast stiffness, with the correct choice depending mostly on the sailor’s weight. Two-hundred-pound sailors and 120-pound sailors use the same mast at a test. It can’t be right for both of them, and the innocent sail pays the price in the judging.

Number 2: Ratings numbers. They unfortunately speak louder than words (they take less time to read), when maybe they should just shut up. Equipment tests should be essay tests. When one tester says a board is boffo (5) and another says it sucks (2), the rating (3.5) says: just average, nothing special. When in fact there’s a special dynamic dilemma.

Finally, the Number 1 Top Reason Board and Sail Tests are Bogus:
People believe them. As Steve Gottleib says, “It’s amazing the impact the magazine tests have. It’s really scary.” We share your fear, Steve.

Consumers walk into their dealers and say, “’BS Illustrated’ [for boardsailor, of course] says this board or sail is great, so I want one.” And vice versa. It’s irrelevant how strong the writeup may be; chances are still great (see above 9 chances) that any individual sailor is being steered wrong, and ultimately will be unhappy. The best thing you can say about ‘BS Illustrated’ is that it’s clueless and careless. The worst you can say is that it’s indifferent, selfish, self-serving, irresponsible, dangerous, dishonest, and pandering to advertisers while exploiting windsurfers, to the detriment of the sport. It’s eating its young.


 

by Sam Moses

Senior Editor, Sam Moses was a Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated and Deputy Editor of AutoWeek magazine, where he won the 1998 Ken Purdy Award.

photos by John Chao

Publisher / Editor of American Windsurfer is a former photojournalist for GEO, National Geographic and Time-Life Magazines.

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