Monday, August 20, 2007

It’s lonely at the pinnacle of cool

“Formula” is a class of windsurf racing with giant sails, short, wide boards, and long fins. A formula windsurfer can get hydroplaning in lighter winds and sail around a course faster than any other type of windsurfer. Riding formula is an intense feeling of power and speed, and racing formula is like being in a jet plane dogfight.

Yet, only a tiny minority of windsurfers race in the formula class. If formula is so cool, why isn’t it more popular? Here’s my theory:

1. Too hard / too scary.
The biggest sails for recreational windsurfing are about the same size as the SMALLEST sails for formula windsurfing. But to keep up around the formula course, you need to rig big. The wide boards make it possible to handle an oversized sail, but it’s still a difficult and scary task, especially when you’re barreling downwind at breakneck speed. After a 20 minute formula race you’re exhausted, more than likely humiliated, and, if you’re Alan Bernau, the pain makes you ornery (see below).

2. Too expensive. All the gear for formula windsurfing is made to be ultra light and strong, which means it’s super pricey. The carbon boom alone can cost over $700, and because you’re pushing the equipment to the limit, you’re likely to break stuff and need lots of spares and replacements. Also, there’s a rapid arms-race with the gear, so to stay competitive you need to shell out for the latest and greatest stuff every year. What allowed me to dabble in formula for a few years was the glut of second and third hand equipment. In the picture below I’m riding Soheil Zahedi’s old Starboard F158 board, hanging on to John Quinn’s old 12.0 Gaastra Nitro III rig, and getting lift underwater from Alan Bernau’s old Curtis FR17 fin. I actually won a heat that day- the highlight of my brief formula career.

3. Too dependent on conditions. Though formula gear can get planing relatively early, it still requires at least 8 knots of wind to work properly. I’ve been to some events where the formula sailors waited around for days and never got to sail, while the traditional “longboard” windsurfers had lots of good races in light wind. Also, the long (70 cm) upright fins of formula boards are no good in shallow water, or water with seaweed or debris that can get snagged. And because the boards and sails are so big and lightly built, they are difficult and dangerous to launch where there are breaking waves (see Ron Kern pondering the shorebreak at Buckroe Beach in Hampton, VA).

Despite these disadvantages, there are a several formula fleets in the US. The best one is in San Francisco, where strong, consistent winds, high population density, and a culture of windsurfing and yacht racing create the perfect environment for hard-core formula racing. This year the US Windsurfing Nationals were held in San Francisco, where young racer Seth Besse took first place. I was rooting for Steve Bodner (2nd) and Andreas Macke (9th) because they both have cool blogs.

Maybe someday when I’m more upwardly mobile and I have a van, trailer, and / or a garage I will get back into formula windsurfing. Until then I’m pretty satisfied with the more low-key longboard racing.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your annalysis of Formulas problems. The Pros or people with the time to be a full time athlete like formula because their advantage is fitness. Most "average" windsurfers will never achieve the fitness level to be competitive at the local level much less with Pros. Corpus has been struggling with this for years now.
Longboarding may or may not be the answer for racing but may help the windsurfing base. I have ridden my long board more this year than ever. With fuel prices what they are if I drive to the beach I want to get on the water. Do something besides sit.

James Douglass said...

Right on, Frank. I think a lot of people are figuring out that the good old longboard is not only the past of windsurfing, but also its future.

Anonymous said...

Well James, I have a Starboard F147 and 11.5 nitro4 which is fast but at 55age when most people think it is windy enough to race formula I am wanting to ride slalom;) Also I have found that with one day of powered up formula I need two days rest. With longboarding I can ride the next day. If Phil races PWA slalom next year at 45age it will reinforce my belief that formula is to strenious for most. Have you noticed Dunkerbeck and some "old guys" are now in slalom 42 ? A certain physical size also plays into formula(tall and heavy)

James Douglass said...

Frank- Sounds like you've got a good light-wind planing setup. Sometimes I miss my formula gear. I liked being able to sail fast and powered up in moderate winds, and I enjoyed the workout. Regarding formula competition, though, I'm with you as far as leaving it to the big pros.

I never had much opportunity to race slalom besides a for-fun figure-8 course, but I really liked that.

Anonymous said...

Hey man, good blog here because i am thinking hard about getting into formula. i rode dave kashys formula the other day and im hooked. You bring up some good points here though about storage and it's pricey. So i have alot to think about here, but my main thing is i think i would get the most use out of a formula board because of the light wind capability because i don't really want to be windsurfing in anything less than 8 mph anyway. we will see next fall i might just have a formula board.

James Douglass said...

Hey John,

Well, I definitely had some good times riding formula. For pure speed and power there's nothing like it, and it might be perfect for your hard-riding style.

John Contos has a techno formula for sale pretty cheap. That's a good one because the skin is a bit tougher than on a regular formula board, and won't ding as easily when you're getting catapulted. Also it has slightly more length and volume than some formula boards, and it comes with an optional small fin that you could use for teaching Lindsay in shallow waters with your 5.0. Check it out in the Windvisions Gear Bag.

You would want a sail around 11 m to start with, then later you could fill the gap between 7 and 11 with a 9 m sail. The most expensive things would be the mast and boom, but you could ask around with Dave K and the other formula guys to see if someone is getting rid of stuff cheap.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

hey John
Nothing like getting thrown off the front in at 28mph and breaking the nose or your $1000 carbon fiber booms. Don't even think of not useing carbon fiber booms. The big sails will make you suffer!
Most people get hooked on the planning and speed of formula equipment. It is and adrenalin rush. Just like slalom. Being able to control the board when WAY over powered is the key to racing but just riding can be fun.

Diversidade de Coleoptera da Ilha Grande said...

Dear colleague fantastic blog. Thank You for important information. I am New with windsurf, after Begin with startboard I have fórmula with 5.8 And Wind 10-12 knots. What do You think If I try a New sail of 7.0 ?

James Douglass said...

Hola colleague- Sorry for my slow reply to your comment. Formula boards are designed to be raced with sails 9 m2 and larger. For recreational sailing in stronger winds, they can work with smaller sails, but when I am using a small sail I prefer to be on a narrower board with a smaller fin- either a longboard or a traditional (narrow) shortboard. Any sail less than 7.5 m2 on a formula board won't quite feel right. If you want to plane in 10-12 knots you need a fairly large sail, anyway. A 7.5 might work for 12-15 knots, but for 10-12 knots you would want a 9.0 or larger, unless you are very small and light.

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