Formula for Success

It’s Saturday and there are 18 racers from all over the world unpacking their gear in my building’s backyard?!!?

Formula Windsurfing is by far the most popular racing format worldwide. While Formula Windsurfing originated in France and it is extremely popular in Europe, it is not a “European” class just like the IMCO class is not a “European” Class. FW is an international class recognized by ISAF (International Sailing Federation). In a record short time it has become so well established that it just narrowly missed becoming the racing format for the windsurfing event at the 2008 Olympics (this maybe lucky for FW but that is another story). The FW race format is rapidly catching up in the US, Canada and the rest of the Americas with many established major events switching over to the FW format.

Like most racing classes, it incorporates limitations on the type of equipment you can use. Competitors racing in this class may register up to three sails and three fins per event and must use a FW approved board. The main distinguishing feature of a FW approved board is that it carries the ISAF stamp of approval as a production board. ISAF issues this stamp following the recommendations of IWA (International Windsurfing Association) and the Formula Windsurfing Class. Some of the criteria boards have to meet are maximum and minimum dimensional measurements, weight minimums and they must be production boards with worldwide distribution.

THE RACE IS ON! The race site is awesome! Covered storage for all the gear on a wide windy sandy beach, the occasional free lunch and great looking promo girls hanging about the racers all day long. This is what all racing should be like! After a frantic move to the race site on Sunday night and some practice racing on Monday and Tuesday the event gets off the ground. (enlarge)

A production board is made in a factory, comes from a mold and has a serial number stamped by the manufacturer. Every board from the same mold should, in theory, and within allowable tolerances, be the same as the next. On the other hand, a custom board is usually hand shaped and hand finished to the specifications and needs of the customer. If two custom boards are the same it is because the shaper chose to make two of the same. A common debate is whether custom boards are better or not than production boards. Some are some are not but that is beyond the scope of this article. Others question whether they should be or not be allowed to race in the same class. The answer is simple: If you want to race in the “Formula Windsurfing Class” then you must use a “Formula Windsurfing Approved” board.


What about the Open Class?
Open Class racing was really popular when board manufacturers were putting out really lame gear for racing. So lame in fact that team riders rarely used their sponsors’ production boards anytime custom boards were allowed. Long manufacturing lead times meant out-dated race gear by the time it was delivered to market. Custom board shapers delivered the goods rapidly and their boards were usually a bit superior to what was available from the mold. The story today is different as production gear is light, very high performance, fairly durable and the time from prototype to storefront is now just a few months.


There are still a few pockets of diehard Open Class racers centered around the work places of the most talented shapers. Berkeley, the Gorge, Maui and Texas are the epicenters of custom activity in the US, home to some of the best shapers in the world. Their designs and innovations have contributed greatly to the improvement of board shape technology. However, as FW grows in popularity, custom board makers are reasonably afraid for their livelihood. The demand for their beautifully crafted boards has peaked and is now dropping rapidly. Many are looking at changing job descriptions as they shift their focus to custom kiteboards while others seek working relationships with production board companies so as to secure fulfilling design jobs. Some are very entrepreneurial. They will produce and market their own brand of FW boards. Those that are not willing to flow with the changes of the market may suffer dire consequences just like those companies whose products fail the performance test. The world wide windsurfing market place does not respond to the needs of shapers nearly as fast as it does to the needs of the consumers. It will be up to those with an interest in Open Class racing to keep it alive in their neck of the woods.

DAY THREE : Weekend Warriors. It’s the weekend and the Weekend Warriors came out to play and take over center stage along with a Kitesurfing exhibition, live music on the beach and beautiful girls cruising the white sand beach of Isla Verde. These guys had been watching the pros for a few days and they were ready to battle it out on the water while the Pro Class took a much needed break. (enlarge)

I will concede that the demise of Open Class racing, if it ever happens, will have important downsides that should be addressed. First, almost all R & D work will shift to the major manufacturers. In their quest for worldwide acceptance of their products we may miss out on the development of gear for location-specific conditions. This development, or lack there-of, may prove critical in the future. Second, expect the almost certain disappearance from the race course of the home-built boards. There are many home-based board builders around the world that make fine boards for their own use. Many of these boards may look somewhat crude to the untrained eye as they are often built with low-tech materials from their local hardware store! Some might even be pretty fast but, more than anything, they are a testament to both the expensive nature of our sport and to the talent of these home-builders. I’m hopeful that organizers will find a place for them at their local events.

Longboards have a place in our sport. If your beach or lake rarely sees winds over 7 knots then a Formula Windsurfing board and Formula Windsurfing racing may not be for you unless you are willing to travel to events. I grant you that for those places where the wind is always light there is great joy to be found in very light air cruising and longboard racing. Drifting slowly with an easy to handle small sail on a big board in light wind is fun and relaxing. This is the only type of windsurfing a lot of people know and more power to them! (No pun intended).

IT’s Day Four so let’s protest! The day was so perfect that we had to send a heli for pics. Micah and Wojtek battled it out for first place after narrowly missing the prop wash at the start. Around the first mark and Micah takes off on his Drops MB14/North Sail like a bat out of hell being chased by the world champion Wojtek, Jimmy Diaz and Yannick Renard. This we have to photograph so the heli zooms low for the shot….Oh No! We’re too close (imagine the pilot thinking) so he guns the power to move away and the tornado that hits Micah blows him out of the water. There goes one race! Have you ever seen a tiny race committee boat with a really pissed off race director actually trying to chase a helicopter? It was pretty funny (not for Micah). Micah ended getting average points for that race in redress. So did top Argentina racer Costa Hoevel who lost out on a port and starboard encounter but got his due in the protest room. (enlarge)

Yes!!!! Over the last few years board makers have continuously increased the width of their designs to stretch the performance envelope in light air. The development came fast and furious. Just until recently, new boards where getting wider by about an inch every 4 or 5 months. Manufacturers raced to put out wider and wider boards that were being outdated and outperformed by new generation boards so quickly that everybody involved in the sport was freaking out (except the shapers!). Formula Windsurfing’s promise of lower costs seemed just an unrealizable dream as avid racers needed to keep investing on the latest and greatest to stay competitive while the resale value of dated race designs dropped fast.

However, things have changed. The class has grown and the development curve has flattened out. Boards are no longer being disposed-of just because they are not the latest models. A 100-cm wide board maybe just a tiny, little bit faster than a 95cm wide board—emphasis on maybe. As of today, you don’t need to go out and buy the latest to be competitive. Any quality race board from last year, 90-cm or over, will work amazingly well for all but the absolute lightest wind and even then it may be ok if you are a lightweight.

FW boards are great performers in light air course racing but thankfully not at the expense of a corresponding loss of heavy air performance. We have all been pleasantly surprised at how well the extremely wide boards handle 25+ knots. Keep in mind that it’s scary going downwind in 25 knots regardless of whether you are on an 8.4 or a 4.5.

The single best contribution of FW equipment limitations is the forcing of board and sail designers to create race boards and sails that are competitive over a much wider wind range than ever before. Plus, the lack of PWA race events is compelling a lot of highly paid team riders to participate in FW events riding on the boards you and I can buy at a store. This in turn puts pressure on the board companies to produce boards that are in fact really fast and easy to handle. The days of $2500 custom boards that look like a Bic Techno are gone and good riddance!

DAY FIVE IS A WASHOUT: A week of brilliant sun and strong winds was to good to extend indefinitely so on Sunday Mother Nature unleashed a huge rain storm. The day started well enough with strong winds but by the time we arrived at the beach it had turned light and offshore. It never recovered so the race committee called the whole soggy thing off at 2:00 pm. Not one person was upset. Everybody was exhausted and the frenzied packing was to be the last exercise. It was a simple awards ceremony, the food was good and the money was paid out in cash. (enlarge)

Has anybody noticed that really wide boards are great for teaching windsurfing? I’m not suggesting that any of us will actually USE our new race boards to teach our friends how to windsurf but…we could. The same characteristics that make the new style race boards so fast also make them pretty good for beginners and that gives them some inherent value even after they are retired from active race duty.

DAY SIX: Departure…. “What is this gray stuff falling from the sky?” No self-respecting event would end without some sort of major calamity. Ours was an erupting volcano! On Sunday night Sufriere Volcano in the tiny Caribbean Island of Monserrat went off the charts and exploded in a massive cloud of white ash. Half of it ended up on my truck on Monday morning. The other half was messy enough to require the authorities to close the airport all day Monday. Needless to say, there were a few upset travelers. Wojtek took it pretty well considering he was to miss the German FW championships. Others decided to go explore while most just made the airport their home for the night. The organizers just carried equipment back and forth. In conclusion The final report is of a well-run event with great competition. The sailors where thrilled with the Puerto Rican hospitality, the race direction, the site and windsurfing in general. Indeed the level of stoke was very high. The future looks bright for Formula Windsurfing in the Americas. Next stop, THE GORGE and then the worlds in Brazil. (enlarge)

The feverish development drive has paid off handsomely. We are now planing when we used to be complaining. While FW racing in 7 or 8 knots is still the realm of only the very best sailors, it is indisputable that even intermediates are capable of planing and going upwind on wide Formula Windsurfing boards in as little as 10 knots. This is the single most important development in our industry in the last 10 years. We can now sit on a harness instead of on the beach without the tediousness on a longboard in the light air conditions that prevail in so many parts of the world. The really wide boards, 85cm and over, are much easier to sail compared to the boards of just two years ago of more or less 70 cm. Racing is thus more fun and more accessible.

So… are we done here? I’m not sure. We are at the point of quickly diminishing returns on the width issue. The goal of planing upwind in less than 7 knots seems unrealistic with current technology. The class has wisely recognized that allowing unrestrained development (meaning wider and wider boards) may be shooting ourselves in the foot. Not to mention that the boards will not fit in some big planes and on top of small cars if they get much wider than a meter. The self-imposed limit of 1005 mm in width expires at the end of next year. The class will hopefully debate intelligently if we need to allow wider boards. We are hoping that manufacturers will not self-servingly influence the class to allow greater width even if it might bring insignificant performance enhancements.

In the very end all racing performance is more dependent on the quality of the racers themselves. That is why many of the top athletes join “teams” and look for the performance edge through careful tuning, maximum physical fitness and professional dedication to the sport.

MOST OF THE LOCALS laughed when we rigged 9.8s You know what the best thing about having the US Windsurfing Nationals at the Gorge is? They are at the Gorge! Here’S a travel tip. When you fly into Portland, Oregon from the East make sure your arrival time is late in the afternoon. Sit on the left side of the plane and about 10 minutes before arrival you will be treated to a view of Mt. Hood that will blow your mind. It pierces the blue sky like a dagger, colored fiery red from the setting sun. The most important tip is to make sure you visit the Gorge for there are very few places around the world that can match it in terms of sheer beauty and even fewer for quality sailing conditions. The traveling part of going to race events can be a real drag especially if you are serious about doing well. First is making sure you have all the gear. If you are going to a Formula race it means a minimum (and maximum!) of three complete rigs and a race board and some good fins. This is a lot of gear (but a lot less than it used to be.) Packing it right so that you can spend your first days sailing and not fixing is critical. (enlarge)

I think we will see a big turn around in the popularity of racing windsurfers in the US and around the World. Racing is fun and it’s more fun with the Formula Windsurfing Class than with any other. Local dealers have a great new incentive to invest the time and resources to organize events while lower wind minimums will mean the completion of more events with more fun sailing.

There will be plenty of new and used Formula Windsurfing gear coming to the market in the coming months that is fast, competitive and easy to use for all levels of sailors. Those who buy it will do great things with it. They will sail their short board in the lightest air they know and, most likely, they will race it. Some might even teach their friends with it. Most importantly, they will have tons of fun sailing it. That, my friends, is the Formula for Success.

Good luck at the airport. The ticket counter agent has a great deal of influence on your travel budget. Getting the gear on the plane will cost anywhere from $0 to $300 depending on how he/she is feeling, how late it is or any number of other variables to fuzzy to describe. If you are smart you have a Ranger pick-up from Budget reserved for when your gear makes it. Now the fun begins. I love windsurfing events because you meet up with all your friends that you have not seen since the last windsurfing event. Friends that understand how you feel about a favorite board being dinged or a killer race just before the sun sets. They hear you when you complain about getting up early for a skipper’s meeting on a windless day with a pounding hangover from last night’s party. These people understand where you come from and it’s great to see them time and time again at events around town, around the country or around (if you are really into this) the World. (enlarge)


Formula Windsurfing Internet Resources:

Jamie Torres is the co-owner of Velauno and is the organizer of the Pan-Am Formula Windsurf Race. Publisher John Chao was to meet a US Formula Race Tour sponsor in NYC on 9/11.

by Jamie Torres

Jamie Torres is the co-owner of Velauno and is the organizer of the Pan-Am Formula Windsurf Race.

photos by John Chao

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