Who are you and what are you doing in my backyard?
It’s Saturday and there are 18 racers from all over the world unpacking their gear in my building’s backyard?!!? What the $%&*%^*& is going on? How did you all find me? My neighbors are screaming at the building administrators, racers are wondering who all the cute girls on the beach are, the local sailors are freaking out at who’s rigging on their beach and the scene is not good for me because these guys where supposed to be here two days from now! (continued as captions on following pages)
WHAT IS FORMULA WINDSURFING ALL ABOUT?
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 first day of official racing saw three races completed in typical Caribbean weather — 15 to 20 knot winds.
The world FW Champion and event favorite Wojtek Brzozowski, Starboard/Pryde recovered from a late travel night to completely dominate the field on the first day. Fellow NP Team rider Jimmy Diaz, VI-11, riding on a new BIC FW 1.3 managed to remain close while his training partner Micah Buzianis on Drops/North had to contend with gear difficulties and settled for third. A fourth race was started and later abandoned as the breeze dropped below minimum just before darkness.
WHAT IS A PRODUCTIONBOARD?
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.
DAY TWO: Rocked Short courses, strong winds and breaking waves halfway up the windward leg challenged the sailors in the second day of racing in Isla Verde PR. After a short skippers meeting the sailors hit the water fully wound up on 9.0s for six killer races. Diaz and Buzianis managed to sneak in a few winds from Brzozowski. A very confident Brzozowski commented that he was beating himself more than his competition was.
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.
Conditions were great for this classic FW event. The race committee set up a taxing upwind/downwind course with a touch of reaching just to get the action close to the beach. With winds blowing up to 18 knots, racers were able to complete the 2 km course in about 20 minutes. A total of 4 races were run. The competition was hot between Master Alex Caviglia sailing on a fast NP/Bic FW1.3 combo and Dominican Republic’s rising star Ricardo Esteban blazing the course on a proven NP/Star 175 set up. Caviglia capitalized on his extensive racing experience to take the starts and score some lead time before Esteban sailed fast and steady through the pack. A satisfied Caviglia said after the last race: “Glad it’s over for today! One more like this one and I would have to trade my room at the Hilton for a bed at the hospital!”
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.
I LONG FOR MY LONGBOARD!
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).
Four races were completed for each of the classes and, after 13 races, the podium position for the Mens Pro were pretty much decided. Wojtek Brzozowski added another 1st place trophy to his mantle and a few bucks to his swelling bank account. Jimmy and Micah are in a battle to the end for 2nd place with Jimmy taking the place after the last race. The Masters’ leader is Julien Angevin. His ninth overall proves him to be as fast as the best in any class and way above the rest of his group.
The Weekend Warriors main story and only close race is for the lead. Neil Pryde Distributor Alex Caviglia proved that he still has what it takes being just 2 points behind current leader, Ricardo “ET” Esteban. The great news is that a 90 pound, 12 year old from Venezuela beat most of the men. Felix Martin decided to use his dad’s gear. This kid will be a threat as soon he gains some weight and experience.
IS THIS BETTER THAN WHAT WE HAD?
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!
IS THERE A BEGINNER ON MY RACEBOARD?
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.
DO WE NEED TO WEAR SHADES
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.
THE SUN IS SHINING ON OUR RACING FUTURE!
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.
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.