Monday, March 29, 2010

Yes, I still windsurf

And as a matter of fact I got a cool session after work today at my secret sandbar break at the south end of Fort Pierce. It was fun because the ocean was smooth and the waves were clean, but it was also challenging because the wind was light and gusty near shore and overpowering offshore. Also, the due-offshore wind angle made it kind of tricky to ride the waves into the wind. I got a few, but spent most of the session just putting the pedal to the metal (petal to the medal?) and zooming up and down the coast.


I don't usually take sneaky pictures of strangers, but this fisherman dude just happened to be there when I was taking pictures of the wave break and I think he makes the shot more interesting.


After I got out of the water, miraculously escaping cleanly from the shorebreak, it started to really nuke. I packed up hurriedly and drove by "Chucks", our name for the kite launch inside Fort Pierce Inlet, to see if any of my pals were still out. Only Crazy Doug was on the water. He was massively overpowered on a 12 msq kite, but holding it together because he's a good kiter, the kite was a brand new 2010 model with lots of depower control, and he was riding a tiny 125 cm board. One of the things he was doing to stay in control was burying the board deep in the water and throwing tons of spray to slow himself down and force his kite to the edge of the wind window. It looked pretty cool.



He also was doing his trademark show-off tweaked jumps. Doug turned 52 today.


Some of the jumps were kinda high.


I reckon it's a good thing I showed up to help land his kite at sunset, because I don't know how the heck he could have landed it safely without assistance.

Mild to Wild; Saturday and Sunday Kite Sessions

Saturday there was barely enough wind to keep a kite in the air, but it was a good chance to test out the humongous 17 msq Cabrinha Contra that I bought from the ikitesurf classifieds last week. I also got a 14 msq Contra in the same cheap package, but I haven't tested that one yet. I'll probably just keep the one I like best.


Anyway, as I might have expected for a kite 5 msq larger than my regular 12 msq, the Contra turned slowly but pulled HARD, even in the mild 10 knot wind conditions. It required some adjustments to how I rode the board, too, like to turn the kite power into upwind drive I had to really pressure hard on the back section of the board. My pal Marc tried the kite for about 30 seconds but hardly got off the beach. He said he couldn't deal with how much bar pressure it took to turn the kite, since he is used to kites with 1:1 bar systems (no pulleys on the bar). The 2:1 "pulley bar" system I have on my kites makes it so you can steer and sheet the kite with smaller motions but with more resistance. I like it because it's more like windsurfing- you really feel the power you're dealing with and are less likely to accidentally stall or overpower the kite. Anyway, here's the video.

17 msq Kite Session, King Crimson from James Douglass on Vimeo.

Sunday there was about 15 knots from the Southeast, so everybody went to Fort Pierce Inlet State Park, in the lee of the inlet's North Jetty. The waves were up and there were tons of surfers, which made launching tense. I probably could have gone windsurfing with my 6.6 sail and 106 liter board, but I have to admit I haven't been doing that much lately because its so easy to ride my 12 msq kite and 137 cm board in those conditions. Riding the big waves on the outside would have been more fun on a windsurf, but I might have been pounded by the inside break on the way there. Tough call. Anyway, I went with the kite and had plenty of fun. Here's the video.

Kiteboarding in Waves at Fort Pierce Inlet State Park from James Douglass on Vimeo.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Good News in Windsurfing

I think the greatest strength of windsurfing is its connection to sailing. On a windsurf you can cruise, explore, and race just like on a sit-down sailboat, and you can do it all faster for less money on a more simple and portable setup.

When I was a kid I did day-camp with laser sailboats at the Olympia Yacht Club. It was shortly after I had learned to windsurf, and I remember thinking, "This is pretty fun, but it would be a lot cooler if we were all on windsurfs".

Well, some folks at US Sailing, the main organization that puts together sailing racing and instruction in America, have been doing the sensible thing and heavily incorporating windsurfing into their youth sailing and racing programs. Check out these two videos by Bryan McDonald that highlight recent activities of US Sailing's "Windsurfing Task Force" (wtf)...

This second video is pretty good, too, except there's some crappy Florida formula sailor mucking it up...

One little thing that US Sailing did that I think could be a big help for windsurfing was shortening the instructor course from four to two days, making it possible to do in one weekend. More trained instructors means more windsurfers will get a good introduction to the sport.

Another random, cool thing that just happened in windsurfing was the Formula World Championships at a weird big lake in the Argentinian Andes. I was following American Olympic Class and Formula Class windsurfer Farrah Hall's reports on her blog, and was stoked to hear that she made the international podium with a 3rd place. The men's winner (by far) was French pro sailor Antoine Albeau, who has dominated everything for the past couple years.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Picture of a Nice Rack...

...of samples for 13C/12C and 15N/14N stable isotope ratio analysis.

The samples are dried and ground-up bits of plants, animals, and mud from seagrass beds I've been studying in Florida's Banana River Lagoon. The isotope analysis will help me figure out how the different organisms are connected to each other in the food chain. I'll explain how, starting with a little background on what isotopes are. It has to do with neutrons.

1. From middle school chemistry, you know that atoms have a nucleus formed of tiny protons and neutrons, and the nucleus is orbited by even tinier electrons. The number of protons in the atom determine what element it is, and the number of electrons matches the number of protons so that their - and + charges balance out. For example, Carbon atoms have 6 protons and 6 electrons.

2. The number of neutrons in an atom is roughly similar to the number of protons and electrons, but there can be alternate atoms of the same element with slightly different numbers of neutrons. Those alternate versions are called "isotopes". For example, most carbon atoms are the isotope 12C, with 6 neutrons, but there is also 13C, with 7 neutrons, and 14C, with 8 neutrons.

3. Some isotopes of an element are "stable isotopes", meaning that they don't lose their extra neutrons by radioactive decay. 12C and 13C are both stable isotopes, even though 13C is relatively rare. Isotopes that do tend to lose their extra neutrons are called "radio isotopes". An example would be 14C, also known as Carbon 14, which decays to 13C. (14C is what they use in carbon dating, but that's not what I'm talking about in this post.)

4. The different stable isotopes of an atom can do all the same chemical reactions and form all the same substances because they have the same number of protons and electrons. However, the "heavy" isotopes- the ones with extra neutrons, tend to be a bit more sluggish. So the physical and chemical cycles in nature that shuffle atoms and molecules around, e.g. evaporation, photosynthesis, and the food chain, tend to concentrate heavy vs. light isotopes in different parts of the environment. It's analogous to the way shaking a box of cereal tends to concentrate the light flakes at the top and the heavy raisins at the bottom. Studying the ratio of heavy/light isotopes in a material you find in nature, anything from an antarctic ice core to a human hair sample, can tell you things about the history and formation of that material that you couldn't learn any other way. Like what temperature the atmosphere was when the ice was laid down, or whether the person was a vegetarian or not.

5. Carbon and Nitrogen are some of the key elements of life, so the stable isotopes that are most often used to study the feeding connections among living things are 13C/12C and 15N/14N. The ratio of 13C/12C is different for different kinds of plants, so you can tell approximately what kind of plants an animal got its Carbon from by comparing it's 13C/12C ratio to the ratios of the plants in the area. (Scientists can tell Americans from Europeans by our carbon isotope ratios, because Americans have a diet based mainly on corn, corn syrup, and cornfed meat and dairy, and corn has a distinctive isotope signature.) With nitrogen, the ratio of 15N/14N increases every time one organism eats another and incorporates it into it's own body. So you can tell how high an animal is in the food chain by how high its 15N/14N ratio is compared to the plants at the base of the food chain. (Eskimos have super high 15N/14N ratios, because they mainly eat meat from animals high in the marine food chain, like seals.)

Anyway, that's what I'm doing. I had to dry and grind my samples to get them ready for incineration in a machine called a "mass spectrometer", which will determine the ratio of heavy to light isotopes of Carbon and Nitrogen in each material. The Smithsonian's mass spec' facility is up in Washington DC, so I'm going to go there for a week next month.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Kite's Eye View of Fort Pierce Inlet

In my last video post I mentioned my intent to do some kite-mounted camera work using the less wide-angle resolution setting on my GoPro HD camera. Thursday I did just that, filming a powered-up west wind session in Fort Pierce Inlet. The resolution and field of view were definitely improved over the way I was doing it before, but I still had some issues with camera shakiness, fogging up, and a piece of string flapping in front of the lense. Oh well, I'm learning.

The video shows one nice, long jump and one zoomed-in jump where I turn the board upside down in mid air, but mostly it shows puny jumps, mediocre transitions, and crash landings. I'm wearing both a life vest and a helmet, which should please my parents. I set the video to a techno anthem; "Watch Out" by Ferry Corsten. I know not everyone likes techno, but I think it's a cool song with a lot of energy. Also, it's pretty cool that the artist is named after a boat. I think he's European.

Kite Mounted Camera, Take 2 from James Douglass on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

One Bright Morning in the Middle of the Night

I went kiting after work on St. Patrick's Day and took some helmet camera video of the session. I accidentally set the camera to its highest resolution, which is less wide-angle than the default resolution, so some of the scene appears cut-off. I think the high-resolution / narrower-angle mode will work well for kite-mounted camera shots, but I'll stick with the widest angle in the future for board and body mounted shots.

The song in the video is by Jimi Hendrix.

Strange Things - Indian River Lagoon Kiting from James Douglass on Vimeo.

At one point in the video I mention that I'm flicking an isopod off my arm. Isopods are little bug-like crustaceans. Most species live in the water, but the grey roly polys (also known as sowbugs or pillbugs) that you find on land are also isopods. The species I was flicking off my arm is one of my favorites, Erichsonella attenuata. It clings to blades of seagrass and fronds of macroalgae, and is well camouflaged for protection from predators.

Erichsonella and other underwater bugs and snails are important for keeping seagrasses healthy, because as they crawl along the blades they clean off the microalgae and scum by eating it. They're also an important link to animals higher in the food chain, like gamefish.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

What Invert You Like - Benthic Ecology 2010

One of the delightful things about being a marine biologist is schmoozing with your friends and peers a few times each year at national conferences.

I just returned today from the 2010 Benthic Ecology Meeting in Wilmington, NC, where 500 geeks like me presented their latest research on benthic (sea-bottom) life. Most of the presentations were 12-minute talks given to a lecture-hall audience, or posters that you could visit and discuss during evening mixers. I did a talk titled "Do Marine Reserves Affect Seagrass, An Experiment in Florida", which was based on a project I did last summer. A couple slides from the talk are below to give an idea of what it was like. If you want to know more about my research, you can visit my professional page from the link in my blogger profile.

In addition to the usual talks and posters, this year's BEM included a film festival with creative offerings by marine biologists and amateur filmmakers. Some were serious documentaries about science or environmental issues, while others, such as "What Invert[ebrate] You Like", by San Diego State University professor Jeremy Long, were more musical and comedic in nature. It helps to be a marine biologist to appreciate some of the references and inside jokes in this one, but anyway...

Monday, March 8, 2010

Kiteboarding stuff for non-kiters to know

The other day someone suggested that I write a post to explain a few things about kiteboarding to my non-kiteboarding readers. That struck me as a good idea, and one that might help promote safe and happy beach sharing among kiters, windsurfers, and other folks. Here it is:

Kiteboarding Stuff for Non-Kiters To Know

0. NEVER grab or hold the lines. That's the most important thing, so I put it at the beginning.

1. Just like you shouldn't stand in the cone of area in front of a golfer where a wild shot might hit you, you should avoid the cone of area downwind of a kiter where an out-of-control kite or rider might go. This is true whether you're on the beach or on the water. Of course, it's also the kiter's own responsibility to avoid spots where there will be people in his downwind danger zone, and if you see a kiter being reckless or stupid in that way, you should diplomatically advise him to pick a safer spot.

2. When you tug on the line attached to one side of a kite, the kite turns in that direction.

3. Kites pull harder the faster they are moving through the air and the closer they are to straight downwind of the kite flyer. When you stop turning the kite it flies to a position nearly perpendicular to the wind direction, where it pulls a lot less. That's called the edge of the wind window.

4. Launching and landing a kite is typically done at the edge of the wind window, like, 90 degrees to the right or left of the kiter with respect to the wind direction. If you're launching someone's kite, just stand and hold it by the leading edge while they get in position. Don't let go until they give you the thumbs up signal.

5. Most kites for kiteboarding have four lines. The outer lines on the bar attach further back on the kite and steer the kite. The inner lines on the bar attach more forward on the kite and allow the kite to luff (depower) when you slacken the back lines. The front lines go through a hole in the center of the bar and connect to a harness attachment called the "chicken loop". Being attached to the chicken loop lets the rider depower the kite at any time by pushing the bar away, slackening the back lines.

6. Besides the chicken loop, kite bars can have a variety of features for safety and fine tuning of kite power. The trim system, which usually involves straps or cleats, adjusts the length of the front lines so you can set the average power level you like, and then make short-term adjustments the usual way by pushing and pulling on the bar. A twig of rubber tubing called the donkey dick locks your harness hook into the chicken loop so you don't accidentally unhook, but various emergency releases let you disconnect yourself from the kite if you need to. A leash connected to your harness can attach to different places on the bar and lines so that if you do accidentally unhook and lose the bar the kite will depower but stay attached to you.

7. The most popular kites for kiteboarding are "leading edge inflatable" (lei) kites, because they are the easiest to relaunch off the water if they crash. The older style lei's are called "C" kites and the newer type are called "bow" kites. Bow kites are better and safer all around, but some people who like to do crazy tricks still prefer C kites. My kite is a bow kite.

8. The only safe way to carry an inflated kite is standing on the upwind side of it, holding the leading edge, with the kite upside down. When you have to set it down, flip it over right side up and chunk it onto the ground leading edge down, facing it directly into the wind. The wind will usually hold it down in that position, but to be safe you should also weigh it down with sand or a board or something.

9. If you want to learn kiteboarding safely you need to practice first with a trainer kite <4 meters squared, and then you need to take a lesson.

10. Windsurfing has not been cancelled.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Birds Walking and Humans Flying

A big frontal system swept over Florida today, accompanied by a delightful mixture of rain, sun, and wind. The rain brought opportunistic cattle egrets and white ibises into my neighborhood to munch soggy bugs and earthworms. It's cool to look out over your bowl of cereal to see exotic wildlife also having breakfast.

By lunchtime the rain was gone, but a SW wind was kicking up nicely. After some hemming and hawing I decided to take a "nooner" windsurfing session in the ocean, at a sandbar break I sort-of discovered a while back. The wind was gusty, but the side-off direction and the wave setup were perfect for frontside, down-the-line rides in small, forgiving surf. Seasoned waveriding windsurfers go ape for side-off conditions, and I'm starting to see why. The energy from the wind is blasting in one direction, and the energy from the wave is blasting in a perpendicular direction, so when you zoom into the intersection of the wind and wave energy you can spring back and forth from one to the other like jumping between two giant trampolines that are canted 45 degrees to face each other. I took some video (below), but it doesn't really capture how fun it was.

Side-off windsurfing mellow waves in Florida from James Douglass on Vimeo.

After work I stopped by Jaycee Park to see my kite buddies riding in the increasingly strong winds. I took some still pictures with my normal camera. Doug Smith was lit on a 7 msq kite (that's really small for a kite), and getting some huge jumps (picture below).

Brent Beringhaus, a local college student and kiteboarding instructor, was also going big. He almost had a kitemare at the end of his session, though. He was on the beach getting ready to land his kite when he accidentally pulled the black "more power" trim strap instead of the red "less power" trim strap. He was instantly lifted into the air, headed straight for a tree, but he quickly grabbed the "chicken loop" below his bar and pulled it down to depower and return to earth. He was only a few feet from the tree when he landed. Yikes! That kind of thing reinforces my decision to reserve high winds for windsurfing.

Below is a slide show of pictures from today. I think if you click on it you can see it larger in a separate window.