Johnny Heineken – Olympic Kiteboarding

Published on April 3rd, 2012

The International Sailing Federation (ISAF) is charged with determining what sailing events are in the Olympic Games, and what kind of equipment is to be used in each event. To help finalize their decisions for the 2016 Games, ISAF hosted an evaluation event in Santander, Spain on March 21-25 to gather information on kiteboarding, which is being considered for the Board event.

Assisting ISAF was American Johnny Heineken, who is the current Kite Course Racing World Champion. Scuttlebutt checked in with Johnny after the evaluation event…

1. What do you believe was important to accomplish at the evaluation event?

While we were there to test racing formats, on a basic level we needed to prove how high performance we really are.

Most people still think of kiteboarding as a sport that needs 15kts and up just to sail upwind, and many of the ISAF folk and sailors were of this mindset. In our own little world we know that we are some of the fastest craft on the water. If I am close to keeping up with Jimmy Spithill and the boys on their AC45 on San Francisco Bay, I can sure as hell knock the socks off the 49ers and Tornados.

We proved this in all wind conditions, sailing laps around the skiffs and multihulls at the trials in everything from 6kts and up (to give you an idea, we were reaching at over 25kts in 7-9ks of breeze). Higher and faster was the name of the game, and everyone noticed, including the ISAF president who spent much of his single day on the water learning about the gear and tactical side of kite racing.

2. How is equipment currently controlled?

We have a box rule for the board: Maximums of 70cm wide, 190cm long, 50cm maximum fin length. Starting this year any board used in an IKA sanctioned event must be a production board.

Kites must be production, meaning available to anyone and registered with the IKA. We are also limited to 3 kites per event, which is new this year and in my opinion not a great rule. We haven’t proven the range of our kites to be quite this good, but we’ll see how it goes. We don’t have a minimum and maximum size because these are somewhat self-governing. For instance my biggest kite is a 17m Ozone Edge. In 6 kts of breeze I have just enough power to get up and planing, and then I’m instantly going 15kts upwind and starting to depower. If I had a 20m kite, I may be able to get up and reach back and forth in 4kts, but I would be overpowered in 6-8kts. This is just not practical, because in 4kts of breeze there is inevitably a 2kt lull that will drop my kite out of the sky anyways. Furthermore, I will use up one of my three kites on this tiny wind range.

3. How content are you with the current racing rules?

Our rules do the job for now. They really just interpret the intricacies of having the sail 25m away from a 2m long hull. I just learned that our “Experimental Kiteboarding Competition Rules” will be added to the ISAF Sailing Rulebook next year as Appendix F. Pretty cool!

I still think we can refine our penalty system, as we have now proven that we can do penalty turns instead of using a 20% penalty system. This keeps everything on the water and forces us to admit fault at the moment of a potential foul instead of weighing our options later on the beach. I think both systems are in the rules right now, but hopefully only the spins will be included in the rulebook.

4. There were several racing formats being trialed. What were the conclusions?

Currently we race standard windward leeward courses and this works amazingly well even with fleets up 60+ kites. This is great, but the Olympics is all about the spectator (or at least getting in is all about being spectator friendly), and windward leeward courses are notoriously hard to understand for the non-sailor. We therefore needed to find a format that satisfies both the sailors, and is also easy to understand and exciting enough for a young audience to watch.

The International Kiteboarding Association proposed four formats to test, but these were really guidelines for an open discussion among sailors and ISAF.

a. Windward-Leewards
b. Short Track – Modeled after the AC format, basically very short windward leewards with top & bottom gates, reaching start and finish – heats of 4-6 competitors
c. Enduro – short box course with four buoy slalom on the downwind leg
d. Slalom – Downwind slalom with a reaching start – heats of 4-6

The conclusion was clear. Course racing provides the tactical sailing that we all love. This was definitely the competitor’s favorite. Other formats such as slalom and enduro are easy to follow from the beach because the fleet remains in a line instead of spreading the fleet out. From the sailor’s perspective, however, this mean follow the leader. The game of chess is gone. It is win the reaching start and don’t make a mistake, or be one of the followers with no chance of passing.

At the end of the week the consensus was that a rectangular course or box is pretty ideal. As long as the windward-leeward legs are long enough to facilitate tactical beats and downwind legs the sailors will be happy. The reaching legs line the fleet up to clearly show an order, and also provide the exciting 25-30kt reaches with some pretty impressive wipeouts. The finish reach can be moved close to spectators. This course also separates the weather mark from a port tack layline approach which can be especially nasty with kites. A variation on this would include a 3 buoy slalom over the last quarter of the downwind. Target time would be 10-12 minutes with a max fleet size of around 30 (~half mile beats depending on wind, 200m reaches). Ideally in a big championship even we would run qualifying fleets of this size and divide in to gold, silver, bronze midway through.

NOW, what to do about the exciting finals in an Olympic setting. Current opinion is that even watching a double points medal race (not discardable) is not clear for the viewer because the guy that gets 7th can win the Gold. People want to see the first across the line win a gold medal. Moving closer to this concept would make kite racing stand out considerably from all other classes, but it needs to remain fair

After lots of discussion, we narrowed down on the concept of an elimination series of the final 16. This will narrow the field to a final series between the top 4 on short course windward leewards, target time ~5 mins. 1st gets Gold, 2nd Silver, 3rd Bronze, 4th is the sucker. I’m still having a hard time getting my head around starting fresh on the last day with even points as the guys you’ve been battling with for an advantage over whole week. There are two problems with this. First, wind conditions could change drastically: it could be a windy event, one guy does well the whole time, and the final series is light and he either doesn’t qualify for the top 4, or maybe he does but gets 4th. Hero to Zero. He may not be the best light air sailor, and this should reflect in scores, but he shouldn’t be completely screwed out of his weeklong domination. Second, the goal should be to lead after the first week of competition, not just to save energy, sail ultra-conservatively, and only be top 4 by the last day because you eventually start fresh anyways in a final series for medals.

Obviously there is a lot of testing and refinement to be done, scoring systems to be developed, etc. But this needs to happen over time with strong fleets so we come up with the best system possible. Overall I am happy with what we accomplished in Santander, mainly because we were able to keep our course racing focused on windward leeward courses but also to spice them up and start the development of some revolutionary final formats. I look forward to testing these formats in upcoming events.

5. Can kites share a race course with other boats or boards?

Of course sharing a course all depends on what course we end up running, but it works just fine. We currently participate in some Dinghy events like the NOOD at (StFYC) and are just another fleet. Part of the report the ISAF evaluation panel releases will emphasize that running a kite race is just like running any other class. It will suggest course lengths, wind limits, and all the usual guidelines so any race committee can feel comfortable running a kiting event..

Here is a good place to make another point. When jumping in with the skiffs and multihulls last week, we got some uneasy looks from the boats who are constantly worried we’ll catch their rigs with our lines. We can cross a boat and miss the rig by 6 inches in the same way a boat will make a really close duck. We know where the kite is, it is an extension of the body while you’re out there so the best thing to do is keep on going and assume we’re in control. That’ll work…most of the time 😉


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