Getting to grips with the Mar Menor
Prior to the start of racing proper on Thursday, competitors at the EUROSAF High Performance Grand Prix today have been getting to grips with sailing on the Murcia region’s Mar Menor. One of the best kept secrets of the Spanish sailing scene, this 170sqkm salt water lagoon is separated from the Mediterranean by a 22km long spit of sand, known as La Manga. Mid-October and the air temperature is 30+°C, the waters of the shallow Mar Menor bath-warm with an afternoon sea breeze typically filling in from the east or south.
One of the furthest to travel to Murcia is the winner of the 29erXX US Nationals and North Americans, Kristen Lane, competing here with her crew, Australian Ollie Hartas. Lane flew in from her native San Francisco having chartered a boat and rig from the 29erXX’s Italian distributor Nautivela.
“When I heard that they were going to showcase in a grand prix style high performance sailing, I knew I had to be here,” says Lane, who is competing in a fleet comprising boats coming from Spain, plus strong entries from Germany, Sweden, France and Denmark. “I also thought it was interesting that the organisers said from the beginning that they were going to explore different course formats – the speed trials, the slalom, etc - that looks really interesting to me.”
Kristen Lane, with crewman Ollie Hartas
The organisers of the EUROSAF High Performance Grand Prix, spearheaded by Rafa Gonzalez, sat down with the 29erXX class earlier today to iron out the racing formats to be used for the 29ers. This will include conventional windward-leeward, windward-leeward restricted by America’s Cup style course boundaries, a more complex course including reaching legs, a slalom course plus the straight reaches of the 29erXX Seiko Speed Challenge.
Lane describes the 29erXX as providing the most fun sailing she’s ever done. Although she prefers to sail with men, she says if the 29erXX was chosen as the Women’s two person skiff for Rio 2016, then she would consider pursuing an Olympic campaign. This is a sentiment held by many of the other competitors in the class here, especially some of the Danish and German all-female teams who are already on national funding. As Lane puts it: “For women who want to sail skiffs – what other boat is there to sail right now?”
As to the venue, Lane says she is impressed. Murcia airport is just a five minute drive from the event’s base at the sizable Centro de Alto Rendimento – Infanta Cristina (high performance centre), in turn a two minute walk from the hotel in which all the competitors and race officials are staying. And the sailing will be challenging in light to moderate winds.
According to Alan Hillman, who’s dinghy training company Pro-Vela has been based on the Mar Menor for the last 15 years, the sea breeze typically fills in mid-afternoon from the south or the east.
But the biggest fleet at the EUROSAF High Performance Grand Prix is the kiteboards boasting 24 male and 10 female competitors, who are sailing the first ever Slalom World Championship for the Region of Murcia Trophy.
Typically kiteboards compete in conventional windward-leeward ‘course’ racing, or at freestyle events, while slalom racing has been slower to come of age. Many of the top course sailors are competing at the new slalom event including France’s Julien Kerneur, ranked second in the world and Bruno Sroka, a past World Champion, and three powerful US entries including Bryan Lake, third at this year’s course World Championship and Damien Leroy who was second at the last circuit kiteboard event held in Puerto Rico.
While course racing sees the whole fleet starting together, the slalom event is held in a qualifying heat format for around four at a time, culminating in semi-finals and then finals. The course comprises a reaching start and then broad reaching legs, so all off the wind.
“It is more about being fast and having equipment control,” states Markus Schwendther, Executive Secretary of the International Kiteboarding Association. “The boards are around 60cm long and they have three or four long fins. They don’t gybe very well, so you have to really calve them around the corner. So there is a lot of technique and it is quite entertaining.”
This being the inaugural Slalom Championship, equipment is unlimited, competitors able to change kite size according to their weight and to conditions. For example, Damien Leroy has brought with him from his base in Jupiter in Florida, three boards and five kites, ranging in size from 8-16sqm.
The EUROSAF High Performance Grand Prix is one of the rare occasions kiteboards get to sail alongside boats, the most famous other example being San Francisco’s Bridge to Bridge race. Generally the kites come out on top, Leroy says, adding that he hopes at some point during this event that all competitors will get to line up simultaneously on the same course. While the sea breeze didn’t manage to exceed 10 knots today, the kiteboards, using their big gear, are capable of sailing in anything over 5-6 knots of wind.
Kite dudes - Damien Leroy (left) with Bryan Lake.
For ISAF officials and other Member National Authority representatives visiting this event at the Mar Menor on ‘fact finding missions’, Bryan Lake provides interesting testimony about the merits of kite-boarding having previously been a collegiate sailors with a background sailing 29ers, Lasers, 420s, Sabots, El Toros and big boats.
“The truth why we’re doing this is because it is the most high performance sailing there is out there. We are going fast around the course,” says Lake. While kiteboards currently hold the outright world speed record on a 500m long course with a 55+ knot average, if the breeze is up to around 25-30 knots, then typically kiteboards will be making around 40 knots downwind and 17 upwind. For knots per $ it doesn’t get much better.
“I used to be on the University of Hawaii sailing team and my sailing coach made the mistake of showing me how to kiteboard and I started skipping sailing practice when the wind and the waves were up,” admits Lake.
Racing starts tomorrow afternoon for the 29erXX, kiteboards, the double-handed F18 and singlehanded A-Class catamarans, and the foiling Moths, on three courses on the Mar Menor.