Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Baja fog

It was billed as the ultimate showdown between kiters and windsurfers with 3 events spanning 9 days on the sea of Cortez on southern tip of the Baja California peninsula. While the kiters showed up in numbers, the windsurfers still found ways to keep the bragging rights for another year. At the end of the day- we found we had more in common than what separates us and in hindsight, I’d say it was more a gathering of the tribes- where we all spoke the same language- wind!
After enduring what seemed like a windless (and snowless) fall and early winter in northern California- I made plans for my first trip to Baja California Sur. I hooked up with our local kiting crew who use the events as a testing ground to where they stand in the off season. The Heineken van made the trip down on Christmas eve packed with 6 sets of kiting gear & 4 people. Rock star siblings, Erica and Johnny almost made it only to be delayed on Christmas morning when their front differential fell out and their 4 wheel van quickly turned in a 2 wheel van.  

In Mexico- anything is possible and after a 6 hour delay and trading some beer for labor they were quickly back on their way.

I arrived 2 weeks later for the first event skipping the road trip and flying directly into Cabo St. Lucas. Alaska Airlines & Virgin airlines are probably the friendliest airlines for board enthusiast with $50 excess baggage fees per board and quiver bag and no haggling. Part of the reason our local race fleet stopped traveling was the fact that you'd show up to the airport with your board and sail quiver and possible pay $300-500 in excess baggage fees.

The Lord of the Winds Showdown in Los Barriles hooked up with the Travel Channel who was featuring the Sand Masters show at the same time. If you’ve never seen it, these guys create unbelievable works of art in the sand.  Their final creation was a huge sand stage for the Lord of the Winds where Johnny ‘Pacifico’ Heineken was crowned Lord of the Winds after taking the long distance race.   (Windsurfers 0: Kiters 1)

To say there is a bigger emphasis on fun vs a normal regatta would be an understatement.
We came in from racing with the race staff handing us a Pacifico as our official check in.
The organizers pumped up the the idea a Lord of the Winds showdown in ever way possible.
The windsurfers won the pre-party with Josh Samperio crushing the kiting and SUP crowd in a 42 sec binge under the beer tap bookmarked my double shots of tequila vs a meek 20 secs performance by the kiters. (Windsurfers 1: Kiters 1)
The first day of racing saw over 40 heats of slalom run on a 10 mark downwind course. It was super exciting to see the kiters try to figure this one out as there’s still a mix of sailors using course boards, twin tip boards and even surf boards.  The windsurfers looked the most graceful in the 16-22k breeze laying down their gybes and generally staying untangled compared to the kiters. It was Tyson Poor who dominated the slalom with a string of bullets followed by Bryan Perez and myself in 3rd.I raced with my ML 70 cm wide slalom board, 7.8m2 north warp and 44cm F4 fin for the slalom racing and switched up to a 48 cm fin for course racing. The event had $20,000 worth of prize money- most of which was allocated to the kiters but I ended up covering my entry fee with some well earned prize money!

In one race, we had a humpback whale emerge from the water just at the windward mark as we were rounding it. In other races I was surrounded by small flying fish jumping through the waves as I flew downwind. There was quite a few manta rays and even sea urchins near the shore.  Needless to say, by the end of the first event- my feet had taken a real beating!

We followed the next 2 days with course racing and a long distance race where the wind never really materialized above 15k so the kiters had a huge advantage making it look easy with the course gear and 15m kites compared the windsurfers who were on slalom gear and 7-8m rigs.  I made one brilliant move in the 2nd course race after the wind shifted 30 degrees and caught the rest of the fleet off guard. I was on the only one starting on starboard and planning across the line but the RC called me over early- doh....
In hindsight- its better to be a few seconds late if you've got the room.

Im pretty envious of what the sport of kite racing is doing with the gear evolution and the amount of sailors they are attracting. It’s almost as though history is repeating itself after windsurfing’s peak in the early 90’s.

Several of the world’s top ranked kite course racers hail from the SF Bay and for the past years they’ve progressed as a group- training together & sharing info freely. As a result, the group has raised the benchmark much more than any sailor could do on their own.  Next year, I vowed to either come back with a kite or a formula equipment to be better matched.

Next up, we packed the van up for a short trip up the coast to La Ventana and set up camp in the arroyo.

It was amazing to see how many wind junkies make the trip down from the northern US and Canada for several weeks or months in the winter. There are literally hundreds of sailors camping on the beach living off the grid in their RV’s or tents and enjoying the sea and the wind in southern Baja. All you really need is some protection from the wind and the sun and you’re set.  The food is cheap and the liquor even cheaper. I never once worried about my safety while in Baja. They say the Mexicans don’t enter the water from march to October and its only it’s the crazy wind starved gringos who travel from the northern US that endure the fierce el norde winds.

There are several outfits like Baja Joes or Palapas Ventana that will let you sleep in relative comfort for under $50 a night or on the contrary- several camps where sailors have built elaborate structures for cooking and showing outdoors and most importantly- keeping your sails rigged up and ready and out of the UV. 
It takes the meaning of beach bum to a whole new level!
This grasshopper still has a thing or two to learn as I realized a Baja fog beats the SF fog any day of the week.

We started off the racing by joining the weekly slalom series at Playa Central in La Ventana run by the legendary Alex Aguera. It was a no BS event with several rounds of slalom for amateur and professional kiters and windsurfers. I again managed a 3rd behind Tyson and Bryan getting schooled by my lack of time on the water the past few months. Nonetheless it a great tune up for the La Ventana Classic to follow.  It was so nice to sail in powered up conditions. I was lit on by new mikes lab slalom board, north warp 6.3 and F4 44cm fin in a 25-30k breeze.

Tyson Poor and Wyatt ' Miller Time' have stepped up their game recently taking the next step and opening their own resort in La Ventana to maximize their entire waterman experience. 20 hours on the water a week really shows regardless of whether its freestyle or slalom!

The next day we started the La Ventana Classic. This is the first lucha libre Mexican wrestling themed windsurfing Ive ever been to in my 25 years in the sport. On Saturday evening we all gathered in the city's main square for a classic lucha libre wresting showdown. It was way better than any B rated movie you've ever seen and kept us entertained the whole evening. A greased pig catching contest followed with the windsurfers edging out the kiters.
(Windsurfers 2: Kiters 1 if you're keeping still keeping count.) 
The rivalry continued throughout the event as the big match up was the long distance race which pitted the kiters vs the windsurfers in an 11 mile reach from the island of Ceralvo back to La Ventana. We packed all our gear on the local fleet of fishing boats for a 8 am transfer to the island and waited for the wind to build around 2pm.  I never realized how good a beach fire could feel at 11 am in the morning.

It was probably 15-20k at the start but 20 min later at the La Ventana finish it was a much lighter 12-16k. Tyson Poor on a JP 112l slalom board and 7.8m rig had a good lead built up at the first mark with Johnny Heineken on his 9m kite in hot pursuit. I was way underpowered on my 7.8 and 39 cm fin and in hindsight could have used something bigger like a 9.0 and 44cm fin. For windsurfers to have advantage- you really need to keep things on the edge of the comfort zone and be totally overpowered. Needless to say, it wasn't happening for me just yet.

Next was a 1.5 mile downwind leg and small reach to the finish. This is where the kiters made huge gains. I rounded in 5th at mark 1 and slipped to 11th at the finish as 6 kiters looped straight downwind in the finish while we had several underpowered downwind reaches eating lots of ground. Tyson and Johnny rounded the last mark overlapped with a final 10 second reach to the finish just in front of the beach. It was Nascar type racing at its finest with Tyson not allowing Johnny to pass him with several aggressive moves to keep him in front and take the bullet by a mere 3 feet. (Windsurfers 3:Kiters 1)

There was even some sailor who made the crossing on a fat pair of water skies and a kite!
The rest of the event had some low wind jet ski tows in giving Byran Perez and Tyson Poor an chance to showcase some their tow in windsurfing skills.  In addition, the kiters competed for the Big Air contest. 
The windsurfers held on this year but its obvious the sport is changing with kiters outnumbering the windsurfers almost 10:1. We still won the party, the greased pig contest, and the Classic so to say the sport is dying is simply wrong.
We completed 3 more days of course racing where I managed to finally get the top spot at the end of the regatta in the windsurfing course racing. My prize was a huge lucho libre belt emblazed with all the classic mexican mojo you could imagine.

Im not sure I could have had a better time with a better group of people. Except for Montezuma's revenge, the Baja experience is something Im hoping to repeat next winter.

Steve Bodner