Wednesday, January 23, 2013

El norte- a gringos adventure to the darkside & back

Part 1- Dancing with the devil

Eventually we all end up chasing the wind.
How far- depends on our level of addiction and our sense of adventure.

This year again, I made the migration south on highway 1.
1500 miles later I reached the end of the road- Baja California Sur where the pacific ocean meets the Sea of Cortez. Its a wind lovers paradise with gringos from across the US & Canada making the annual winter pilgrimage in search of wind and swell.

It's a desolate countryside totally controlled by the elements with the sun and the wind taking their tolls on the landscape and the people.

The el norte breeze blows down the Sea of Cortez producing rolling swell and a solid, wrap yourself up in a winter jacket kind of breeze even when the sun is at its mid day peak.

I was really lucky this year scoring 19 out of 24 days on the water- a rather good way to start the year.

After nearly 25 years of windsurfing, I decided I needed something new.
Kite boarding had been tempting me over to the dark side for the past few years with bigger fleets, ease of travel and a new way to walk on water.

I'm not over windsurfing by any means- just adding another skill set to this old dog's tricks.
Besides- the slalom windsurfing rig was packed and ready to go for the Lord of the Winds showdown in Los Barriles in mid January.

In the meantime, however- I needed to learn how to kitesurf
How hard could it really be?
I mean- kooks with little or no water experience seemed to be picking it up and flying across the water in no time. I had nearly 25 years of water time, multiple Olympic campaigns, world championships, great lake crossings, and over 100 days on the water each season for the past 10 years. The only thing in the way was my ego and the painful learning curve ahead!
I had to unlearn all those years of powering the windsurfing sail and learn to control the kite with my finger tips

Day 1- kite flying on the beach.
I booked my lessons at Playa Central in La Ventana where the Wirthington family runs a kite school & beach club form a former fish processing plant on the Sea of Cortez. Its a bare bones outfit but they make you feel at home with hot showers after sailing, fresh oven baked pizza and a cold cervaza after a long day on the water. More importantly, they collect you a few miles down the beach on an ATV after body dragging and learning to fly the kite on the water with out a board.

I learned a few important lessons that day- stay away from the experts and the beginners.
They both have no fear!

Day 2- more body dragging downwind and kite control lessons.
The kite responds a bit slower than a windsurfer and it's a delayed reaction till you feel the power- and boy there's a lot of power in the kite. With still no board under my feet, I had to learn the basics of trying to body drag upwind to collect the board that I would eventually lose.

Day 3- Now that I had some idea of how the kite worked, I had a board to keep track of- which isn't connected to your kite so when you loose one- its a process to try to get them back together again. Frankly I had no idea what the hell I was doing and ended up chasing my board 3/4 of the time- totally exhausted and water logged.The ATV collected me after each run and dragged me back upwind to try the whole process over again. After 2-1/2 hours on the water- I managed 1 good ride for 10 seconds.

Day 4- Ok I should be getting this by now, I thought, as I got launched over and over -flying across the water with out a board and crashing the kite hard into the water. Re-lauching the kite was relativity easy unless you happen to do a double gainer with a 1-1/2 twist like I was getting accustom to doing. My 20 meter lines where now knotted up, crossed, tangled and wrapped around my board and myself. I had kook written all over. The day glow helmet & VHS radio strapped to my chest was a dead give away.
If I could have stayed away from myself on the water, I would have.

Day 5- really how hard could this be? I managed a few water starts power looping the kite till I got launched and face planted but each ride got a few seconds longer and the fear eventually turned into excitement. I was up and riding, sheeting in as I always did the previous 25 years on a windsurfer until I got super launched and came down hard on my arm on the twin tip board. I didn't notice the swelling till I got in but my forearm was already the size of a football but it didn't matter, I was a kite boarder now. I could ride almost 10 seconds before completely eating it and spent the next 10 minutes trying to recover the board. I went to bed that night practicing my power loops in my head while the ice cooled the swelling my forearm.

We packed up form La Ventana and headed down to Los Barriles where I met the rest of our crew who were flying in from SF for the Lord of the Winds event in a few days time.
I had a few more days of practice on the kite and managed some great runs on port tack going out to sea about 1-1/2- 2 miles before realizing I had no idea how to sail back on starboard tack.

After 7 days on the water- I was finally getting my water starts and getting up on some decent rides.
It wasnt quite like the normal windsurfing where Ive developed years of muscle memory and don't have to think about any maneuvers in advance.
Hell- I didn't even know any maneuvers on the kite except water starting and power looping, so it was all good.

My first impressions are that its harder than it looks- especially when you dont know what your doing.  Every day I was doubling my time on the water- gaining valuable experience and getting once step closer to finally getting it.
I went from seasoned veteran on the windsurfer back to kook in less than a day!
So goes it when learning a new sport

I was super lucky to have some good friends in Los Barriles looking after me making sure I didnt kill myself and collecting me after each downwind run. A cold cervaza never tasted so good after a days sailing!

I was hooked but now it was time for the Lord of the Winds contest.

Exit kite boarding
Re-enter Windsurfing.

Part 2- Lord of the Winds.
What started off as a 10 buoy slalom course on day 1 of the event ended up as a 4 buoy fiascle by the end of day 3. 6 marks drifted away and there wasn't much the RC or the 58 registered competitors  could do about it. We just kind of went with the flow- but that meant only two - 15 min course races; two  3 min slalom races & one 25 min long distance race over the course of 3 days. The free-stylers got their chance to show off their skills in the shore break and the kiters battled it out for the hang time competition over the course of the next 2 days.
With a side shore breeze, the RC set up from a pickup truck on the beach with the heats written on the side of the truck. 

When you dont have much expectations, you cant be let down that much.

Day 1 began with course races.
I immediately went out with the only board and rig I had- my ml 70cm wide slalom board & 7.7 avanti slalom sail. I was a bit off the pace upwind riding the 48cm fin but made some big gains off the wind in the 10 board windsurfing fleet. With the wind 15-22k, and the whole fleet on slalom boards, you just had to make do with what you had. Tyson Poor was killing it with great board speed around the course taking the only 2 bullets while Casey Hauser and I fount it out for 2nd and 3rd.

Race 2- I switched down to the 44cm fin and had better speed. Tyson went down on a gybe and I jumped into the lead but over stood the top mark on the 2nd upwind while Tyson and Casey called the perfect layline and jumped back into the lead.
With the gybe mark adrift, the RC called the racing for the day and we packed it up mid day after the last kite race.
Slalom was on the agenda for day 2 of Lord of the Winds.
The forecast called for a building breeze and the shore break was building into a pounding 4-8' whitewater pounding at the 2nd & 4th inside  buoys.
17 heats were run in each round as the kiters still haven't figured out not to kill each other with more than 5 sailors in each fleet. Anything goes on the race course as the kiters are using 70 cm wide course boards, surf boards and even twin tips. You can imagine the chaos as each board has a different gybing radius with the twin tips practically jumping over the marks and the course boards making the biggest radius. The race track was set up to favor the twin tips as the legs were never long enough to let the course boards gain enough speed.

The windsurfers were killing it- displaying great form as the mark roundings were several sailors deep and the passing opportunities plentiful around the 6 buoy slalom course. Tyson, again was displaying great form leading almost every mark with Bryan Metcaf Perez in the hunt as well.
Wyatt had some unbelievable luck breaking his 2nd mast over the the 1st 2 days of the competition and not being able to complete 1 race.  I had some good starts and was in the hunt for the most of the game but wasnt able to grab any bullets despite being in the lead a few times.
On the 3rd race, Tyson and I went into the 4th gybe mark overlapped but there was no next mark. The buoy had drifted away and the racing was again called for the day just as things were heating up.

The RC switched to freestyle and the windsurfers again put on the best show with 5-6 boards showing an array of new and old school tricks from back loops in the 4-6' shore break, to sliding goiters, spocks and wylee skippers.

The crew from Pro Windsurfing Ventana really took it up a notch this year turning the heads of most of the kiters on the beach.
I can honestly say, freestyle and wave windsurfing are some of the coolest disciplines to watch.
I regret not pursing it earlier but just to watch these guys was a treat.

The kiters did their freestyle show but honestly, it all looks the same. Even the kiters on the beach went too impressed.

We woke up to day 3 with just 4 bouys left on the course so the RC decided to run the long distance lord of the winds showdown. It wasnt much of a match between the course kite boards and the slalom windsurfing boards over the windward leeward race track. The windward mark was near Punta Pescadero a few miles upwind and by the time we got there it was blowing 25-30k.
The kites dominated but I held my own just behind the top pack of kites while the rest of the windsurfers took a long flier and ove rstood the top mark, I had a huge lead going downwind and baring any disaster, had the race wrapped up in the windsurfing division. But Ive learned never to count yourself out or take anything for granted. with the wind at 20-25k and the shore break pounding, I fell at the gybe mark and had a slow water start out and Bryan Metcaf- Perez  was there to jump into the lead. With just another 500m left to the downwind finish line. Bryan and I went went into the last gybe 5 secs apart. Bryan slipped on his gybe as I went below him to try to gain some additional speed and better angle to the finish but he recovered and sailed right over me as we went across the finish line.
That's racing- as close as it gets with every little factor counting for something!
Bryan Lake won the long distance race in the closing seconds just in front of Johnny Heineken and was crowned Lord of the Winds- a fitting title if there ever was one. 

The kites finished their final round of slalom in an embarrassing pitiful course consisting of only 4 marks all set directly downwind of each other.

I met my goals and ended up on the podium in every division with a 2nd in slalom and long distance and 3rd in course racing. More importantly my back was holding up and my trip just got extended by another week so I could spend some additional time learning to kite.

Part 3- The aha moment.
I jumped back on the kiteboard after setting Johnny up on my windsurfing board.
The bargain seemed fair- kiting lessons from the world champion in exchange for a few windsurfing lessons. I think I got the better end of the deal as I stayed on the water for nearly 3 hours while Johnny had some gear failure on his 2nd run as the mast went through the top of the sail and he struggled to get the gear back to the beach. I think that may have turned him off from windsurfing all together.
Tuesday turned out to be one of the biggest days of the year and was dubbed as 
BIG TUESDAY as the swell reached 10' and the wind was gusting from 25-40k.
The el norte was in full effect.
All I could do was watch as I didn't have the right gear but got to see some great surf in front of the house and the kiters tear it up at the event site with the demo & kite expo going on. It was a well deserved break for me to let my body recover.

Wednesday we headed back to La Ventana for the double cross.
Its a race from the hot springs just north of La Ventana out to Cerralvo island and back across the channel. The winds howls through the channel and the swell picked up to 10-15' breaking with a mad furry as the wind peaked from 25-35k. I ended up borrowing a 6.2 rig from MacRae just before the race to survive as my 7.7 was completely out of the question. It was really a survival race as I rode in the chicken strap most of the race just trying to stay upright with only 1 safety boat for 40+ competitors. Sometimes, its not even worth the risk.
Riding the swell downwind on the 2nd half of the crossing was amazing.
Huge swells would lift you up as you barreled down the face screaming across the breaking waves and onto the next set. 
Wyatt and Tyson were able to put the pedal down totally in control on their small rigs and small boards and lead the charge across the channel and back getting the best of Johnny who finish 3rd. 
The windsurfers had the advantage with 2 reaching legs and overpowered conditions.
I longed for my 90l ml slalom and 6.3 warp but had to run with what I had.

During the crossing I saw some amazing sea life as we crossed the open channel- whales, sharks, turtles, needle fish, schools of jumping fish,and even manta rays. I was in awe to be surrounded by such beautiful creatures and walked away from the race knowing it was an amazing opportunity.

With 3 more days to devote to kite boarding, I finally had my aha moment where it all clicked. 
Everything came together and I was up riding with no problem. 
Kite boarding is so easy once you get it but until then its like trying to ride a bucking bronco.
You're not quite sure what to do, when to do it or how much pressure to apply.

Once I got it, it was all so effortless.

Of course, I still fell on my ass at every transition but I was mowing the grass- back and forth with the kite parked at 45 degrees and me edging the twin tip to stay upwind. 

It seems silly but I made a goal of trying to stay upwind and come back to the same beach where I started from as all my previous sessions, I ended up on a 1 way journey downwind with a ride back up the beach in the back of a truck. 
The extra few days was enough for me to actually have fun kiting as I wasn't swallowing copious amounts of salt water and wearing myself out trying to collect my board. 

I even made it back upwind to where I started from graduating from kite boarding 101 to a seasoned kook. Im not sure where the sport will take me but I'm looking forward to learning more and getting more time on the water this spring.