In a year of change from our November/ December issue, Finn Mullen reflects on how some tweaks in kit and perspective have altered his windsurfing and sessions for the better.
Photos Katie McAnena // Billy Mullen.
We were a motley group of elder students – senior workers pulled in from various company outposts around the world for some management training, mostly forgettable. Except for one gem. It was meant to be a classroom discussion, but it clearly wasn’t. “Can all arguments be resolved?” – was the ironic title of the topic for debate. “No”, said the lecturer moderating, “they can’t”. And with that, the appeals for a voice of compromise were shut down, 5 minutes in. I looked around the classroom as heads nodded, some bowed indifferent and some shook with frustration. The lesson? There’s always a different view, whether we choose to see it or hear it is another matter.
Lately, we’ve become more aware that one person’s entertainment can be another’s angst; viewpoints shift and evolve. The idea of restoring normality in a pandemic is appealing, but eulogises the old normal in spite of its flaws. Covid-19 has given us a sharp reminder of how much we took ‘normality’ for granted, though some changes it has brought about have been for the better. Outdoor sports have boomed and windsurfing hasn’t been immune from the surge. Some inner-city roads have been turned into exercise zones as swathes of space have been given over to walkers and cyclists. On the face of it a good thing, but what if you’re not so able-bodied? Before rezoning, those same spaces might have been your only way to get to somewhere easily by car. It’s all about perspective.
Ask professional windsurfer, Red Bull Storm Chase veteran and lover of big waves, Dany Bruch, about why he couldn’t stop smiling after sailing for 90 minutes in Germany a few weeks ago, in by his own admission, average conditions, and he’ll tell you about how it was his first sail since February. That’s when his young son took seriously ill and how Dany and his wife have been in and out of hospital with him since. Bruch junior is getting better now thankfully. “You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.”, wrote Dany on an Instagram post, quoting Bob Marley. It’s all about perspective.
This year hasn’t gone to plan for any of us. I’m writing this at the start of a second lockdown and while for obvious reasons I haven’t been able to windsurf much in 2020, strangely, I have never enjoyed my windsurfing more. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, mushier, and more prone to moments of life-affirming joy at just holding a boom, no doubt. But more than ever I take the view that any windsurfing is better than none, so every day on the water is a good one.
Continuing on the less is more theme, my views on lesser-battened sails have also undergone a change, having recently added some 4-batten sails to my quiver. When 3 and 4 batten sails first emerged on the market, I assumed these would be designed for the purist wave rider in cross-off nirvanas. That was then and this is now, where many 4-batten designs have control and versatility at their very core. And certainly PWA events at Pozo, the ultimate onshore control test, have no shortage of 4-batten designs being used in battle. They have an ease of use for most sailors that makes them worth a second look if you have dismissed them as being too specialist before. But it’s not just in the waves that they are finding application, brands are coming out with 4-batten camber-induced freeride foil sail designs, and 3-batten wave sails are having a resurgence as lightweight wind foil engines for enthusiasts seeking the ultimate in minimalism and purest ‘free-foil’ experience.
Inspired by the ‘battenless’ designs of wings on foils, I decided to take the reduced batten count movement to its obvious conclusion and experiment with a one-batten ‘soft’ sail on my wind foil board. It’s a sail that I use for messing around on my windSUP, for making the most of non-planing breezes. But a foil blurs the lines on what actually are ‘non-planing’ winds, especially if you can work the foil up with your legs to augment any wind power. Wings do this well as you are so mobile and dynamic on the board, having no fixed rig to work around. What I wanted to test was if the ‘baggy’ nature and reduced weight of a soft sail allowed you to be more physical with your body, especially your legs, to work the foil up in light winds. And it does! Sure the draft on the sail was moving around like a bag of frogs, and it by no means gave the lovely controlled and stable flight of a foil sail, or any modern sail for that matter. But it did offer the ability to work the rig and foil in a different feeling way for light winds, and whilst the low-end was endearing, the top-end had all the virtues of an umbrella in a gale, making for an interesting rodeo when the meekest of gusts hit. But that was kind of the charm of the thing, reacting to all its many foibles and nostalgically remembering the wrestles with soft sails from decades before. I’m pretty sure vintage car owners don’t go out in their cars to experience all the refinements of the latest in auto design. Sometimes it’s about the warts and all feeling, or just having fun varying your windsurfing experience. The mash up of modern and old highlighted just how efficient foils are. Even when paired with the most sluggish of partners, foils can still lead a dance. The experiment cemented my view that foils sit firmly at the top of the food chain for windsurfing efficiency.
FLIP THE SWITCH
If there’s one thing 2020 has taught us, it’s that we can change things up pretty quickly when needed. While we’ve had to abide by new rules and regulations, we’ve also ripped up quite a few conventions along the way too. Messing around doing stuff like putting soft sails on foil boards isn’t just good for the soul, it helps us get in that mindset of experimentation and change, vital for progression.
A friend of mine, strapped for cash, spent many years surfing his wave board, complete with footstraps and all, and actually learnt to surf pretty darn well on it. He got quite his pick of waves, nothing to do with the volume and length of his board, though that helped, but more to do with every surfer in the lineup staying away from the lunatic surfing a windsurfer with a roof rack strap for a leash! These days we have the luxury of boards designed for a range of uses – from windSUPs to 4-in-1 foil boards, the inspiration to mix it up is built-in. Earlier this year, 2 x world champion surfer John John Florence stuck fins into the track boxes of his foil surfboard and proceeded to surf the strange setup completely against the board’s design brief, but in the manner you’d expect from one of the best in the world. The video of the ensuing session of course went viral.
My next experiment is to throw fins into the twin fin box tracks of my wind foil board and see how it goes. It will be a homage to the HiFly ‘Madd’ boards of yesteryear which tried to champion twin fins in a freeride setup. And I’m pretty sure the results will be terrible, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of ‘Top Gear’ style anarchy now and again. Maybe it will be a good setup to just practice sail spins and transitions on in light winds, or maybe it will be good for the kids to muck about on. We may all be confined to our local spots for a while to come, but there’s no reason why we can’t experiment with our kit setups or technique and make the familiar unfamiliar.
When I ‘wing’ in surf, one of the most enjoyable things to do is park the wing in neutral and just glide on the waves. It’s an addictive feeling, but why only in swell I thought? Surely with a bigger front foil on my local lake I could still glide with the wing in neutral by using a bit more leg power to pump and keep the ride going down little bits of chop. And I did, and it felt even better than in the sea because I was doing something different. The only thing stopping me was my own blinkered thoughts. Convention is good for convention, but for moving sideways in water, whatever your board craft, a little bit of alternative thinking can bring you a long way.
KEEPING IT FRESH
Seeing things with fresh eyes, means seeing more. Just as we have found new ways to work and live in a pandemic, we can find new ways to windsurf if we want. The variety of modern kit out there means you can really dial into the type of equipment that maximizes your local spot. Swiss sailor, Balz Müller, has practically rewritten the rulebook on what is possible on a lake. Whether it’s winging, foiling or freestyle, he is turning in pioneering world-class performances on distinctly normal looking freshwater lakes. The only boundaries are our own.
Our native shores can be explored with just the same sense of adventure that we normally reserve for foreign sands. Exploring your own patch is more a challenge of overcoming pre-conceptions that the familiar brings. It’s seeing the nuanced beauty, discovering local history, perhaps pouring over nautical charts and nautical pilot books to really dig into the coastal currents and features that define your home spot.
And particularly as winter bites, if you’re struggling to find motivation, then have a look at all the research being done into the benefits of cold water sea swimming. Anecdotally people report its effects as ranging from helping beat depression to giving an energy boost that feels like 10 espressos! And recently researchers from Cambridge University have been investigating if it may protect the brain from degenerative diseases like dementia. Just think of all those positives next time your swimming after your kit in December! But in all seriousness, to make the most of our home spots over the coming months we need to make friends with the cold, and one of the best ways I’ve found is just keeping your body accustomed to it, be it swimming, surfing or SUP’ing when we can’t get our windy fix. And let’s not forget we have a season ticket to the greatest gym in the world – the beach! And best of all, in winter it’s uncrowded, perfect for socially distancing! Sometimes it’s too easy to look at where we windsurf as having no attraction when it’s not windy, but for some people it’s their idea of heaven for a run or walk on the beach. And with good reason, studies have shown how important coastal spaces are to our wellbeing. “We find people who visit the coast, for example, at least twice weekly, tend to experience better general and mental health,” said Dr Lewis Elliott of the University of Exeter in a recent article. I think he could be onto something, next on my list of experiments is to evaluate the effects of large dosages of coastal visits and subsequent immersions in various states of wind. In the name of science, I hope to overdose as often as possible!
Alongside a reset in attitude I’ve added some fresh kit too. The current state of design excellence in windsurfing means that there are no bad conditions, just the wrong kit. And whilst it has involved some investment in new gear, the return has been excellent. I’ll highlight some of my stock picks.
In case you haven’t noticed it, and let’s face it, we have all been a bit pre-occupied of late, the humble boom has been having something of a makeover. Swooning over my brand new ‘skinny’ one, I’m reminded of how booms used to be these hulking great diameters of forearm pumping, muscle bulking, arms of steel devices. And apologies if you still have one, but in their modern wave and freeride guise they have been on a diet, and are a lot healthier for it – ‘skinny’ booms are here to stay. By ‘skinny’, I mean reduced diameter and this varies from 24.5 to 27 mm and everything between, depending on how skinny you want to go. Personally I prefer the lower end of the scale, and it’s because I find I can keep a better hold of the boom without having to grip it with all the strength of a free climber holding onto the north face of the Eiger with one hand. There’s an adjustment period where you end up with callouses in strange places as your hands and fingers rest on different places with virgin skin, but it’s a pain worth enduring as apart from just less physical forearm effort, the narrow grip encourages you to ‘surf’ the boom. By ‘surfing’ the boom, I mean moving your front and back hands up and down its length, which by virtue of the lesser diameter and lighter way the boom is gripped by your hands, is easier to do with a ‘skinny’ boom. And be it wave riding or the humble tack and gybe, there is virtually no manoeuvre that can’t benefit from moving your hands more, or faster. I could rest my case on that point alone, but the skinny boom has a particularly timely benefit heading into winter. Gloves are a pain windsurfing, but they are certainly less of a pain when used on a skinny boom as the reduced diameter doesn’t cramp your forearms as much. If you’re writing to Santa this Christmas, I’d put a skinny boom at the top of the list, and 2 skinny booms at the bottom. Honourable mention also to the ‘booms’ of wings which are also easier to use in winter with gloves, as wings require less strength to hold onto than sails, something to think about for the colder weather ahead.