WINDSURFING'S NEW DIMENSION
Words: Tris Best
Photos: Tiesda You, Gaute Kristiansen
How can windsurfing, as a sport, become more popular? We all know how rewarding it is; how healthy, diverse and exciting it can be, but how do we get others to realise its potential? What is holding the sport back from becoming as mainstream as say skiing is for winter sports? These are questions that many influential parties in the industry have tried to answer over recent years, but to little avail. The introduction of Super-X; the development of lighter and easier equipment for all abilities and disciplines; the establishment of more windsurfing schools and centres - all these obvious steps have undoubtedly helped to make the sport more appealing, both visually and practically. And yet in most countries the participation figures have seen only a fraction of the rise that was hoped for. For the last year however, Starboard have been approaching the problem from a very different angle and believe that, at long last, they have a real solution with great promise. We sent Tris Best out to Thailand to exclusively trial their unique Serenity project.
As a brand, Starboard has achieved a phenomenal amount in a very short space of time. Now one of, if not the biggest board brand in most countries around the world, they could sit back and produce a steady range of boards to defend their corner each year. But that is just not their style. The brand is made up of a cohesive, candid group of individuals with a tireless and infectious energy to drive the sport forward as a whole. When speaking to them it seems nothing is impossible or unachievable, no idea far-fetched or notion pointless trying; they are constantly encouraging each other to think laterally and defy convention. So when, at their dealer 2006 conference last year, they revealed their first Serenity prototype - an odd-looking vehicle aimed squarely at windsurfing in non-planing conditions, none of the audience was really taken aback. Possessing more visual similarities with a kayak than a windsurf board, the remarks amongst the group toed a fine line between scepticism and optimism. Would this just be another fad in windsurfing - a visionary's marvel that would, in reality, come to nothing? If anything it had grabbed the group's attention, but it would take a lot more to captivate their imagination.
METHOD BEHIND THE MADNESS
Taking a step back for a minute and looking at windsurfing as a sport, it really does possess more qualities and therefore possibilities for growth than pretty much any sport out there, especially in the water sports world. Think about it for a moment. First of all it's possible to windsurf at pretty much any age, from as young as four, right into your eighties. Whenever we go on test to Dahab for example, there is a certain gentleman who always seems to be on holiday at the same time, and has more life and energy than most, both on and off the water?and if I recall correctly he's 84 this year. Testament that you are never too old to windsurf! (Okay, nothing too profound there - you could say the same about surfing or sailing. Ed.) Secondly, this planet has more water on its surface than land, and at most locations you could windsurf, be it on a pond, lake, river estuary or ocean. Whatever the environment or conditions (save for exceptions such as river rapids), windsurfing is possible, making it potentially more applicable than any land-based sport or water-sport. So why hasn't it fulfilled that potential and become as widespread as it deserves?
I'm sure many of you have you your own explanations and beliefs, but the Serenity's story stems from Starboard looking back to the heady days of the sport in the eighties when windsurfing WAS the most popular and fastest growing water sport in the world. The fundamental difference between then and now is the focus of the sport. In the eighties windsurfing was a summer sport enjoyed by the masses in light and moderate winds. Every other car had a board on their roof, and it was as much a thing to do with the family as it was to go and compete with your friends around a course. The sport could be anything you wanted it to be, but the most important thing is that it didn't alienate anyone.
Today, windsurfing has evolved to become much easier to learn and offers so many more disciplines to explore, but ultimately everything focuses towards the progression into planing conditions. Every instructional scheme that has be refined recently, or board that has be designed has tried to make that progression as smooth and as straightforward as possible, trying to get people to experience planing windsurfing early in their 'career' to get them hooked. On the face of it, it is a good plan, but then you are still faced with the same problem. As people progress, they become more and more specialist and begin to wait for planing conditions before going out on the water. That wait becomes more and more frustrating until eventually they lose interest. The simple fact is that as soon as you have experienced windsurfing in planing conditions, pottering around on a lake in 5knots no longer has any real appeal. It just won't give you that adrenaline rush you have become addicted to.
The theory behind the Serenity project is to once again draw people's attention to the possibility of windsurfing in sub-planing wind strengths, re-establishing that the sport CAN actually be fun and exciting in light winds. Just think about it - no longer would the long summer evenings be purely the domain of the novice sailor; no more travelling to the beach in a fluster, only to be let down once you got there. If you had the means to make the most of sub-planing conditions and could be guaranteed that adrenaline riding sensation nigh on every time, a completely new side to the sport will be unveiled. The theory is very attractive...but it's one monster of a tall order.
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
I've got to admit, even before I boarded the plane, I was very sceptical of the mileage that the project held. Despite even trying the original prototype, I had doubts - the theory behind the idea was very compelling, but just how much fun could windsurfing in 5knots be for an experienced sailor? I approached the trip with an open mind but also with embedded reservations that would be hard to overcome; I didn't even bother packing my harness as I was adamant that it wouldn't be required. "Just humour the Starboard team, see how the project has evolved and then ask for their opinion on the uphill struggle the project will no doubt face to convince the industry and the consumers," I thought to myself.
The appearance of Serenity presents one of its most obvious challenges - it's simply massive...and we aren't talking width for a change! At 61cm wide, it could pass as a conventional 105L freeride board...that is until you add into the equation that it's 455cm long! That's four metres fifty-five! Over four-metres...however you look at it, that makes it a long, long board. So when Starboard were the pioneers of the widestyle revolution, isn't this a step in completely the opposite direction? We all now know the merits of having extra width and that wide boards are here to stay, so this has GOT to be a fad, no? It'll just be tippy and unstable underfoot making it difficult to sail...and as for its likely capabilities when it comes to manoeuvrability...
Plugging in an 8.5m sail, I stepped onto the board for the first time, reluctantly accepting the crew's offer to strap a harness around my waist. The predominantly off-shore wind was fickle to say the least as Per Anderson (Starboard's chief tester) and I launched in the ferry harbour to the north of Koh Chang Island, close to the Thai border with Cambodia. I say predominantly offshore, as the wind was swirling around continuously, forcing us to adopt some fancy footwork to remain dry. We decided to head further offshore in the hope that the wind would be a little cleaner and we could remain on one tack for more than ten seconds. There cant have been more than 2-3knots of wind and yet the first thing you notice about Serenity is how eerily efficient it cuts through the water. Being a displacement hull, it parts the water in such a tranquil manner, without creating the slightest ripple or bow-wave; there is no hint of a thudding or slapping sound as experienced on a conventional board when the hull patters the surface of the water. As such, in such light winds it's hard to establish just how fast you are travelling, your usual handy transit of passing the bubbles of your bow wave no longer an option. Instead, by using other means I began to realise the extent of the board's gliding potential, gaining momentum incredibly smoothly and capable of covering great distances with very little input required from the rider. Watching and noting Per's refined technique (he is probably the most seasoned Serenity pilot), I began to experiment with my stance to get the most from the board...and it is then that it happened...
Concentrating on maintaining my balance as I shuffled my feet closer together, I didn't notice a gust approaching, hitting the sail with a jolt. I instinctively disregarded my pursuit for style and took evasive action, leaning back and extending my front leg to drive the new surge of power into the board. The response of the board took me by surprise - its nose rising out of the water like the bow of an America's Cup yacht to sit high and dry, whilst at the board became increasingly light and responsive underfoot. Rocking onto its leeward rail it hunts upwind, the large 70cm fin beginning to generate a fantastic amount of lift, encouraging you to leap down the back of the board to counteract it. Initial surprise over, I regain my composure and look to Per for inspiration in how to refine my stance once more. Making the most of the same gust, he is simply flying, his feet wrapped around the windward rail and sail raked back as if in planing mode. I then realise the reason for his seemingly immaculate comfort?he is hooked in! Inspired to try, I extend my hips up and reach for the lines with my hook. Leaning back against the sail feels alien, as if I'm learning the technique all over again, but despite my distinct inadequacies, one over-riding sensation suddenly becomes apparent - that I'm having a great deal of fun...and that the strength of the gust was, at the very most, 4-5knots!
The set up for sailing in sub-planing conditions presents a whole new chapter in the accepted manual for rigging modern equipment. Pumping is no longer of any great use as you are not, at any stage, trying to release the board and make it sit on the surface of the water. Sails can therefore be set very loose and baggy, using a shorter softer mast than usual to allow the sail to breathe easily. In fact, the best way to partner the Serenity is with a modern sail, rigged with minimal tension so that it more closely resembles the old triangular billowing sails seen back in the 1980's! Sailing the board is also quite an exciting challenge and a complete departure from modern gospel, (those of you that remember the days of Div II racing with be in your element!). Sailing in a straight line, the most efficient trimming method is to incline the board slightly onto its leeward rail, experimenting with your position and balance so as not to alter the board's course. When steering the board, nothing happens too quickly so you have to learn to give yourself plenty of time, dipping the leeward rail purposefully to turn towards the wind and rocking back on your heels to put weight on the windward rail to turn downwind. Sensitivity is the key, as any slight alteration to the trim will have a direct affect on the board's speed; by keeping your feet right next to one another, you can use your whole body as a lever and reduce the number of accidental alterations made. Per is a master at it, making sailing the Serenity look easy and graceful.
CALMING THE STORM
No doubt many of you reading this will still maintain your strong reservations for the project...and the only real way offer a satisfactory answer would be for you to try the Serenity for yourself. Yes, it is long; it isn't the easiest to turn and it certainly isn't a practical board for the beginner to jump on. Neither did I get a real chance to try the board out in a rolling swell or chop to see how it would cope in adverse environments. But as with any revolutionary concept, to make an impact and get people to take note, it has to show signs of its full potential and Serenity certainly does that. In only five knots, I was hooked in, leaning against the sail and grinning from ear to ear...something I thought I'd never experience in windsurfing.
Back when the concept was unveiled, the notion of having fun windsurfing in sub-planing conditions was as obscure to the audience as the solution appeared. As you climb the ladder in your windsurfing career, you becoming increasingly specialist and narrow the number of days you can enjoy your time on the water; what Serenity does is offer a whole new dimension, making the sport two-way escalator rather than a ladder if you like, where you can enjoy the rush of the sport whatever the wind strength. There may well be some of you that actually like the fact that windsurfing is quite a specialist niche sport; that not every Tom, Dick and Harry can participate in it. To settle their nerves, Serenity will never make windsurfing lose its identity as an extreme, adrenaline fuelled sport - far from it. What it hopes to do is draw more attention to the sport and enable a new line of blood to filter through. More participation means more attention from other industries, more coverage on TV and a heightened awareness of what the sport can offer. Take a look at the sport of kayaking for example. With the introduction of relatively cheap and durable plastic hulls several years ago, the sport took off, bought into by families that wanted a water sport to enjoy during the summer months. I don't have the figures for the UK unfortunately, but in the US the participation numbers almost doubled from 1998 to sit at nearly seven million in 2005 - a massive increase. With all its diversity and potential, windsurfing just needs to tap into that market and prove that it can be a great deal of fun during those light wind summer days. A new and exciting light wind alternative to windsurfing has arrived - windsurfing!
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