Kite controversy to be debated at ISAF Annual Conference

Published on October 30th, 2014

Kiting’s apex body is set to consider a near-immediate ban on foil kites for Formula course board racing, ostensibly over safety fears for competitors.

The International Kiteboarding Association’s (IKA) annual general meeting next Tuesday (Nov 4) is likely to debate measures put forward by the Polish Kiteboarding Association (PKA) that would effectively outlaw ram-air kites from the beginning of next year.

The move has stirred bitter controversy among Formula kite racers as the devastatingly efficient and quick foil kites have revolutionized the course board discipline this season, leaving those flying Leading-Edge Inflatable (LEI) kites trailing.

Leading edge inflatable kites have an inflated bladder at the leading edge which gives the kite its shape and also keeps the kite floating once dropped in the water.

Ram air kites have openings at the front leading edge to allow foil inflation and to create the wing shape.

For many riders the key difficulty was that only two manufacturers – Ozone with the Chrono and St Petersburg-based Elf with the Joker – had put resources into pioneering the new generation of foil kites that took the race scene by storm.

In particular North Kiteboarding team riders – including women’s world champion Steph Bridge and son Olly, men’s European champion – had to use North-badged Elf foil kites in order to be competitive against Ozone riders.

However, the number of riders who turned up to compete at the Formula kite World, African and European championships was dramatically down on the previous year. Some argue the biggest factor for the fall was the expense and lack of availability of foil kites, without which riders felt at a big disadvantage. A few racers left the Worlds early, disheartened their campaign was doomed riding LEI kites.

But the PKA, which hosted the European championships in Mielno in September, argues in its submission likely to be aired by the IKA at the forthcoming meeting in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, that the foil kites pose grave risk to riders because of a lack of buoyancy – unlike tube kites – when in the water.

The Polish association proposes that kites’ inflated tubes should be at least 50 litres in volume, with the additional proviso they should have three inflatable struts to hold the trailing edge clear of the water to improve visibility and buoyancy. The stipulations would effectively rule out foil kites.

Marek Rowinski, PKA president, spent several months consulting the country’s leading riders and competition organizers, particularly after an incident at the Polish Cup where a fleet of around 10 foil kites fell when the wind dropped, leaving most riders in the water, two of whom were extremely difficult to locate because of their kites’ low visibility.

“If the present foil kites drop in the water they’re simply not visible and they may drag the rider into the water on the high seas,” said Rowinski. “[Top rider] Tomek Janiak was almost drowned in rough sea. He said it was the most dangerous experience he’d ever had.”

Rowinski envisages any foil kite ban would last only a year or two to enable manufacturers to come up with a solution to the perceived safety issues. He is convinced the PKA’s measure will secure a proposer and seconder so that it is discussed at the AGM, though he accepts winning a two-thirds majority vote might be tough.

Predictably Ozone is aghast at any possible ban, no matter how distant the possibility. Matt Taggart, Ozone Kites’ manager, leapt on to a vitriolic Facebook Kiteboard Racing group thread to decry the absurd notion that the IKA might ban foil kites.

“Markus [Schwendtner, IKA CEO] two to three years ago was always telling us to ‘design better kites so we could race in lighter winds’,” wrote Taggart. “Well, Roman [Luibimtsev], Elf, led the way and now [we] at Ozone put in the hard work with investment to find the way. We did what the IKA told us to do and now the talk is about banning foil kites!”

Taggart further argues the innovation of foil kites has helped ensure exciting events go ahead in the lightest of winds guaranteeing organizers, riders and spectators get a return for their investment. “So now to limit the innovation in light-wind racing that the performance-foil kites give us would be total madness,” he writes.

Elf’s Luibimtsev is equally incensed, listing the foil kites’ advantages over tube kites, like a wider wind range, better ability to stay airborne in lulls, and even the chance to relaunch a folded foil kite once mastered over a deflated LEI.

“Now ram air kites are going to be declared outlaws,” he writes. “But this is outrageous! I have been around as a rider and coach. I have not seen a single accident because of a foil ‘lacking safety’. What I have seen is that sometimes inflatables float while foils fly. I know it hurts.”

Reigning world champion Steph Bridge has her reservations. She has safety concerns, but is more alarmed at the effect foils have had on Formula kite ridership due to expense, durability and accessibility issues that have “killed a great sport in 12 months.” Yet – echoing the sentiment of many racers – she accepts the genie is out of the bottle.

“For sure, I don’t want to go back,” she said. “I love foil kites. In the big sizes they’re really easy. I think it would be very difficult to ban them. That would be a backward step. Really, we need more.”

Source: Ian MacKinnon, Kiteboard Tour Asia

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