Defining the future of windsurfing

Published on October 13th, 2019

Selecting the best ten events and equipment for the Paris 2024 Olympics is no easy task. Taking input from all the nations in the world, navigating the requirements of the International Olympic Committee, while remaining true to the sport… it is a load.

Since World Sailing approved the Paris program a year ago, they have faced two distinct hurdles. The first was the retention of the Laser and Laser Radial for the Men’s and Women’s One Person Dinghy event, with the second to be the future of the Men’s and Women’s Windsurfing event.

After trialing the most suitable options, World Sailing in May 2019 decided to retain the Lasers, a conservative decision to protect current investment among its member nations in equipment and technology. But now World Sailing must tackle a bigger decision in November 2019, which is whether the windsurfing event will use foiling or non-foiling equipment.

After recruiting ten male and ten female windsurfers from 18 nations to test two non-foiling options and three foiling options, the feedback was that the foiling Starboard iFoil best fulfilled the criteria for the windsurfer events in 2024.

This recommendation now gets forwarded to World Sailing where it gets further digested to ensure all aspects of the decision are being considered. To help understand the recommendation, we share this commentary from one of the test pilots – USA Olympian Farrah Hall:

A very happy Farrah Hall.

Part I. Some political commentary
Politics and athletes sometimes seem to never mix well. However, at Lake Garda, athletes, windsurfing manufacturers, and World Sailing representatives came together to create an amazing four days of testing and tuning equipment and great discussions.

Everyone was curious, fair, and earnestly engaged and interested in the event. With the true spirit of sport, we all worked together to evaluate and discover the best windsurfing class for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

Finally, the World Sailing Sea Trials working group has recommended the iFoil, a multi-manufacturer one design foil platform, created by Starboard, as the 2024 Olympic Windsurfing equipment. The recommendation still needs to be approved by World Sailing at the 2019 Annual Conference in Bermuda.

In short, why was foil chosen over a traditional platform? Only a short time ago, foil wasn’t ready to enter into the Olympic arena, and many saw (or still see) it as simply the latest new toy or fad within the sport.

However, in European countries as well as in the PWA (Professional Windsurfers Association) World Windsurfing Tour, foil has already proven itself to be a great platform for racing both locally and professionally, and adaptable to the Olympic format.

Among the sea trials testers and organizers, there was a strong sense that the sport needs to evolve. With many types of sailing craft already adopting a foiling platform, and pressure on World Sailing to justify keeping sailing classes in the Olympics to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), World Sailing was leaning pro-foil from the beginning of the test.

In addition, many windfoil-savvy Olympic and PWA sailors at the sea trials already knew it to be a fun, well performing class with successful events under the belt, and were eager to prove that foil can work as the Olympic class. The sea trials were pro-foil from the start.

At Garda, all the foil equipment platforms showed a high level of performance in both light wind (4-6 knots) and strong (a gusty 25). The equipment was not overly difficult or complicated to sail, and racing was fast, exciting, technical, physical, and very motivating!

Sailors who were beginner foilers picked up windfoil technique in just a few sessions, and within a short time, had strong enough technical skill to speed test with the group and sail around the racecourse. The fun factor was also strong with foiling, and the thrill of speed, stability, and physical racing in all kinds of conditions was hard to beat. The foil equipment was easy to use, fun, and inspiring to see on video and photos all at once, which made it very attractive.

Although the testing clearly favored the foil classes, sailors also had concerns about running a campaign with entirely new equipment. One major concern we shared was if emerging nations, self-funded athletes, and countries who haven’t even seen windfoil equipment yet, could adapt to this platform. In short, can countries bridge the culture gap rapidly to participate in windfoil?

This concern (among other political issues) is why I believe World Sailing selected a one-design multi manufacturer platform over the more open formats. For many, windfoil appears to be out of reach and complicated to sail, with specialized and advanced technical knowledge, even though this is not the case.

The psychological hurdle for developing countries to overcome is lessened if the equipment is a one-design platform. A one-design platform also holds true to traditional Olympic sailing ideals: the best sailor, not the best equipment, wins. As such, a complicated and potentially expensive gear selection process, compounded with a sense of unfairness that could keep emerging national sailors out of the sport, can be avoided.

In the USA, the culture gap is a legitimate concern, because we are already about two years behind the most advanced windfoil communities. However, in the light of our current upswing of community and shop support for windfoil, combined with the iFoil’s heavily discounted price for emerging nations and multiple manufacturers allowing for sponsorships, it may be that this combination of pricing, potential for sponsorships, and a specific one-design package will help shorten the gap between us and other sailing countries before 2028.

Baby steps: Maryland windsurfers try out windfoil with the raceboard fleet in August 2019 (Photo Daphne Lathouras)

A second concern was manufacturing: the readiness of the equipment to be put into production, the durability of gear and the current trajectory of development of foiling technology. Having a major manufacturer backing the iFoil, Starboard, with a good reputation for quality and R&D, sailors were optimistic from the outset.

However, it remains to be seen how close to “one-design” all the different manufacturers can keep the equipment, if it will be covered by warranty, and how the final quality will turn out – although healthy competition between companies will certainly help!

Within the iFoil platform itself there are still unknowns to address, such as the use of the fin option or not, if there could be a carbon mast for the foil, changing to a larger sail size for the girls, and the political process of how and when to allow the gear to adapt to new technology while keeping the platform globally fair for the Olympics.

Even with these concerns, among the testers and officials present, the attitude was very positive towards windfoil as the future of our sport!

How will the selection of windfoil change American windsurfing? In short, it won’t change too much right away, especially since we don’t have much structure to begin with. However, windfoil in general, with the additional nudge of the Olympics, will increase the involvement of windsurfing shops and local manufacturers in the Olympic effort.

With a multi manufacturer platform, shops are more likely to order and sell their preferred brand’s Olympic package, and support local racing. In New Zealand, one shop has already mustered up broad participation in windfoil by offering a well discounted equipment package to anyone who competes in its regatta series. Shops have long been contributors to local communities, and currently there are no shops in the US (and worldwide) who support the RS:X racing platform.

With a switch to foil as well, more yacht clubs may be inspired to take up windsurfing programs before 2028. The more community involvement we create, the more local racing, mentorship, and support structure we can build before the Olympics in Los Angeles to give our athletes a chance for a good performance. This should be a call to action for shops and windsurfing clubs across the USA – what an opportunity to revitalize our sport locally!

Windfoil is also changing the shape of youth Bic Techno racing. In France, Techno has been slowly declining over the last few years due to a greater push for racing and results (similar to Optis in the US), and outside academic and financial pressures. Also, foil has been taking over young teenagers’ interest because it’s fast, exciting, and less stress and pressure.

At a recent national youth foil event in Leucate, France, numbers were strong and included 18 teenaged girls. Foil will certainly take away participation from the Bic Techno class, and it is already doing so now. A few foil youth classes have been proposed and it remains to be seen which one, if any, will be taken up, and how it will fit into the traditional development structure.

However, the Techno will certainly remain the youth introductory class to both windsurfing and racing, and remains a solid investment for youth programs. Ready or not, windfoil is here to stay. The good news is that on a local level, it’s not as complicated as we think it will be, and we have an amazing opportunity to build our local communities!

Young windfoilers get going after a start in Leucate, France, in August 2019 (Photo FF Voile)

In the greater global and political arena of the sport, World Sailing’s overall concern, I found, was the question of retaining sailing in the Olympics. With the sport of sailing itself a bit always under scrutiny, World Sailing feels the need to prove that sailing is exciting, modern, visible, and media-friendly. In addition to marketing concerns, political concerns are also forefront.

Factors such as appealing to IOC requirements like gender equality, participation of emerging nations and environmental sustainability, are weighing in. Even more concerning, the IOC is moving to an event-based rather than a sport-based approach to the Olympics, and athlete numbers in all sports are always limited.

For the past couple Olympic quadrennials, the sport of sailing has been fairly gender-equal and has met IOC standards, but if the IOC starts considering cutting sole events within the sport to add events in other sports, World Sailing wants to be ready with the strongest events possible.

Each four years, it seems like another sailing class gets cut from the Games, and World Sailing can no longer rely on sailing as a monolith keeping all its events – each event (class) must be as strong as possible.

Part II: The awesomeness of the 2024 Sea Trials event from a competitor’s point of view
First, the team. Participants in the Sea Trials included members of World Sailing’s Equipment Committee, Events Committee, Technical Committee and specialists, and the windsurfing athlete representative. Athlete testers included ten male and ten female windsurfers from 18 nations.

The women windsurfers included a majority of experienced RS:X sailors, but also a few who compete in predominately windfoil. We had both young and older women, and a wide variety of heights and sizes. The men were more mixed in terms of discipline and size; we had big, strong guys from the PWA and smaller-sized, experienced, current and ex-Olympic sailors and coaches. Some of these Olympic sailors are now competing in foil, and most compete in almost every other race-oriented windsurfing discipline!

Representatives from each “tender” (proposed Olympic equipment and platform), were present, along with sponsored pro riders representing both brands and tenders. Pro riders participating as brand representatives were there to help testers rig and tune equipment, and sometimes helped us launch and come in! Brand reps also joined us on the water on the coach boat or sailing, which was great fun.

The mix of sailors was extra cool, and we had some quite decorated professionals among us! Some of the pro riders working for their brands are PWA stars, including Antoine Albeau, Gonzalo Costa-Hoevel, and Arnon Dagan. Owners of well-known brands like Svein Rasmussen (Starboard) and Monty Spindler (Loft) were there, as well as Arnon, who represented his own foil brand, FutureFly / Z Foils.

Olympic medals were on all levels – Aaron McIntosh and Bruce Kendall, the most decorated Kiwi windsurfers, each represented their own tender submission (Windfoil One and Glide, respectively); and Olympic medalists Bryony Shaw, Zofia Klepacka, and Lillian De Geus were among the female testers.

Our athlete representative for World Sailing, Maayan Davidovich, had an amazing Olympic career as well and it was great to have her there helping manage the event. The majority of the testers had Olympic experience.

World Sailing members also organized the testing on the water to maximize the opportunity to evaluate the performance of each type of equipment on different types of racecourses. Each day, testers were divided into groups and assigned certain equipment, but we also frequently swapped on the water to test differences between classes or between sets of foil equipment.

World Sailing organized three coach boats to follow us around, observe, help change and tune equipment, and run races. We tested mainly course racing and slalom formats, and there was additional time to speed test equipment against the other women.

Course racing on the iFoil

Having a bunch of highly competitive people participating raised the level and motivated everyone to sail aggressively and to our best ability, and to figure out the gear and tune up as much as possible. The good competitive spirit on the water led to some equally good debriefings at the end of each day.

I learned as much about the equipment from each debrief as I did by actually sailing the gear! Debriefs also helped me gain confidence in my feeling on the water and in my ability to evaluate equipment, as many shared similar observations.

World Sailing also gave their best when it came to managing debriefs and asking the right questions. The technical questions they asked often surprised me, as they were truly interested in the details of rigging and tuning all the tenders and how the women felt on the water with each set of equipment.

The priorities for discussion among the sailors included not only technical details, but pricing, campaign costs, the ability to have sponsorship opportunities, and having multiple manufacturers to ensure quality control, fairer market competition, and ease monopoly-type problems. We also had men’s and women’s group discussions, and written questions, answers, and essays to complete in order to have a complete record.

Personally, I didn’t know what to expect as far as how each tender would perform, but was determined to bring my “A” game when evaluating equipment. I wanted to consider each platform of equipment in itself, and also the greater vision of the manufacturer and how they demonstrated the greater ideals of the Olympics – and whether they could execute that vision!

The platforms included three foil and two traditional windsurfing; there was some overlap within the foil platforms (both between manufacturers and type of format as you would expect in the windsurfing industry), and a good deal of pro-foil excitement among testers and officials. In the following paragraphs I’ll describe what happened within the different tenders.

RS:X was disadvantaged from the start of the sea trials, even with the positive note of a successful, fun, and highly-attended World Championships that finished the day before the sea trials started. However, a few things occurred during these events that were telling as to the state of the class.

The first was one sailor’s new still factory-packaged RS:X board sold to another sailor for 700 euro over the retail price due to Pryde supply issues. The second was the war waged on the Neil Pryde truck the first day it arrived, due to outstanding warranties (defective equipment) that hadn’t been or were unable to be honored, sometimes over a year late.

The last nail in the coffin for the RS:X was a poorly thought out tender presentation by the president of the RS:X class, which effectively blamed sailors for its own supply, distribution and manufacturing problems, and didn’t propose any solutions or even offer an apology. Aren’t you supposed to be on the sailors’ side? The presentation only served to harden the testers’ stance against the RS:X – if you can’t serve your community, what good are you?

Although the RS:X was thoroughly tested on the water, mostly against the Glide, in different formats of racing, the enthusiasm for sailing it just wasn’t there when windfoil was around. The RS:X was the same as it always was, but having exciting foil equipment performing in close to the same wind range as RS:X was a little hard to compete with.

The equipment that I thought came the closest to the Olympic values of equality, accessibility and fair play, and also having a carefully thought-out design was Bruce Kendall’s Glide tender. It was fun and balanced to sail, if a little underpowered, with a stable, easy to rig and good quality 8,5 by Loft sails.

Compared to the RS:X, it is lighter and sailed more like a raceboard on the rail (more waterline). It planed both upwind and downwind faster, but naturally wanted to stay longer on the rail upwind than RS:X. The design of the Glide is detailed, good quality and well thought out for everyday use.

The boards are designed to be used as charters as well for international events, and the specs between boards and rig components have been well controlled for so that they are as similar to each other as possible. The white color is sun resistant and the daggerboard and mast track are designed to be safe for toes (Who hasn’t had a toe nearly ripped off by the RS:X mast track?)

Training partners duke it out, old school style (Glide/RSX)

I felt sorry for the Glide, because in the face of the latest innovations of windfoil gear, there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm about this thoughtfully and idealistically designed set of equipment. I was the only person to put up a hand to volunteer to sail it on the first day, and from there the tone was more or less set.

However, after a few days of testing, we shared one major concern: heavier people (guys) were not competitive in light wind and the effect of differences in the rider’s weight was greater than the RS:X. It really needed a 9.5 to allow the men a more similar weight range to the RS:X.

The Glide was well outperforming the RS:X around the course in marginal wind, although the RS:X was faster planing downwind and had a more “Formula” type feeling in planing conditions of about 15 knots. The Glide platform has started to work well in Asia where it was born, and as of now it’s better suited to smaller people.

I came into the test a fan of this gear, having tried it before in France, and I still remain a fan. However, there was a consensus among testers and officials that windfoil better represents the forefront and future of our sport rather than the somewhat retro Glide, and windfoil can support a greater range of body types.

Windfoil tenders included three submissions; the iFoil, the only one-design class; the Windfoil One, a limited open platform; and Formula Foil, a PWA format. To some extent, manufacturers and their representatives present overlapped between the two more open formats, changing sails among testers and re-rigging and tuning equipment. In general, the sail sizes tested among the women were 7.5 to 9.0, and men 9.0 to 10.0.

Sail manufacturers included Severne, Neil Pryde, Phantom, and Challenger Sails. Foils were race-oriented; in general masts around 100-115 cm in length, fuselages 95 cm or longer, front wings curved and measuring from 800 to 1000 cm2. Brands included Starboard, Pryde/F4, Exploder, Z, and Phantom. (Many small foil manufacturers exist, these brands represent a tiny portion of the foils that exist currently).

Boards were all wide with the 100 cm tail allowed by the Formula class, giving maximum leverage over the foil for max upwind performance. Some boards present included a few different manufacturers’ version of the one-design Windfoil One/ iFoil (Pryde, Starboard, Phantom), and a few Formula foilboards (Futurefly, Patrik). Apologies if I’ve missed a brand or two.

In general, I found the iFoil to be a strong performer. It is clear that a lot of research and design has gone into this equipment, and Starboard is one of the first major brands to adopt foil and patiently wait until they had a good product to begin marketing. Compared to the Formula and Windfoil One platforms, there was some iFoil equipment that did not test well against the other tenders in terms of speed.

However, it was always in the mix and its ease of use and tuning options made it very pleasant to race on. The girls found that the proposed 8.0 sail was too small (8.5 was preferred), and the fin may not be a good option due to its limited range of use, and added complexity to an already technical set of equipment. Differently sized fuselages and wings, instead of a fin or two sail sizes, were more useful when tuning equipment for different conditions.

Lookin’ pretty chilling on the grass.

I also greatly enjoyed the Windfoil One equipment and proposal of a single one design board, one open foil, and two open sails of a specific size range. There is a good and enthusiastic group of sailors behind this class proposal, and it is already active in New Zealand. As someone who likes testing equipment, it was exciting to experience the different combinations of sails and foils while remaining on a one-design board.

There was a higher level of equipment tuning with all the different gear, and sometimes I spent a lot of time trying to fix the setup of the gear on the water, which I enjoy doing; but having less experience with the variety of equipment, sometimes I had to go back for a lot of advice from the pro riders on the boat.

My favorite foils were the Phantom and the NP Flight F4, with a little favoritism for the Phantom (naturally these are the super expensive full carbon ones) and the Pryde sails just felt like a tractor trailer hauling you upwind (that means they were good). I also liked the Phantom sail as it was really stable. The Severne sails had a soft feel and were the easiest to pump.

I felt that Windfoil One would be a good class to adopt for the grassroots windsurfing community and small manufacturing structure already present in the USA. It is open to small manufacturers who can produce smaller series of standardized equipment, helping our little guys and anyone who wants to jump into the manufacturing game. Also, shops can carry their preferred brand of foil or the brand that sells the best, and (hopefully) offer deals and promote that to the community.

Sailors can use almost any gear they can scrounge up to race, except the board, and the format gives them guidelines for sail sizes, less pressure to have a lot of gear, and other equipment considerations. Sponsorship and team rider opportunities with brands would also be better.

However, as an Olympic class proposal, I was concerned that having a more open format would surely create an initial arms race, and the psychological jump, lack of knowledge, and potential expense would be too great for countries unfamiliar with windfoil, ultimately decreasing participation.

In the Formula class, we had all kinds of gear with some serious horsepower. I really liked some of the board and foil combinations, like the FutureFly paired with its own foil brand, Z Foil. It was a high quality, strong board that was nice to jibe and the foil was stable and powerful.

However, some of the girls had trouble getting the equipment tuned up, and the range of gear seemed too daunting and potentially pricey for an Olympic class, possibly out of reach for the average emerging nation Joe. This is why we have the PWA to push the limits of developing equipment, and pro riders to represent and sail all the latest, greatest, and incredible windsurfing technology!

While I already expected foil would be a strong performer during the Sea Trials, it still surprised me how well all this equipment performed in a wide range of Garda conditions. I even managed to surprise myself with how easy it was to adapt the typical “tool box” (classic training protocols and windsurfing technical skills) for sailing RS:X to the foil platform, and that I could sail foil in both very light wind and overpowered conditions easily.

It was thrilling skimming along faster than the wind in 5 knots, and going downwind almost weightlessly in 20 knots of breeze. Speed testing proved that sailors of different sizes on different gear could have a similar speed, and that even sailors who had been on foil gear for a few afternoons could adapt to feel the differences in equipment and start to go fast.

Racing was successfully carried out in even strong, gusty and cold conditions, along with equipment swaps between races, and the foil gear was able to be towed by a coach boat (albeit more difficult). As we did more racing, it became progressively clear to me that foil gear can be easily controlled while starting in a group, when overpowered downwind, and during maneuvers, and that as the technical level of sailors grows, safety concerns would start to be ironed out.

One small thing I found hilarious was how easy and fast it was to get back to the beach in an offshore wind compared to the RS:X! This was pretty drastic; 3 minutes of sailing instead of 30.

There are many things I love about the now “retro” or traditional classes of windsurfing that I find missing in windfoil, such as certain tactics, strategies, and feelings that come from traditional equipment. In addition, we still have many safety and equipment issues to iron out with windfoil, such as towing, launching, and coming back to the beach with long foils in rough conditions.

We also didn’t have the opportunity to test the windfoil gear in swell and choppy conditions (as well as the Glide, which I am told performs really well in strong conditions). However, after experiencing the range of windfoil performance and its ease of use, I am convinced windsurfing is moving in the right direction and we have selected an Olympic class representative of what the sport will look like for years to come.

I was really moved to be a part of this event. The teamwork and cooperation brought everyone together to create a sporting event where everyone gave their best and truly became part of a greater whole. If any event could perform in the “zone,” this was definitely it. The feeling of accomplishing something for the sport, the magic of Lake Garda, and the memories and happy surprises I have from the four days of the 2024 Windsurfing Olympic Sea Trials is something that will stay with me forever.

I can say with confidence that even though there are plenty of bugs to work out, the Sea Trials testers and World Sailing officials made a good choice to defy gravity and fly into the future with windfoil.

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