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THE CLOWNS OF CLEARWATER

Pete Lynn waterskiing ,<1sq.m Excalibur sports kite, 1988 or 1989
Pete Lynn waterskiing ,<1sq.m Excalibur sports kite, 1988 or 1989
From late 1987, with the help of family, friends, and various innocent bystanders who were roped in (sometimes literally), I made a determined attempt to get some sort of on-the-water kite traction to work.

This mainly happened at Lake Clearwater, a NZ alpine lake 80km upslope from Ashburton, where we had a holiday bach. Lake Clearwater frequently has strong gusty winds. It's a Mecca for windsurfing, but not an ideal place for kite development- which I failed to understand for far too long (harbouring the stupid theory that if we could make something work there, it would be easy everywhere else).

And the words "determined attempt" doesn't adequately describe the process: Obsessive, sometimes dangerous, occasionally humorous (in a shadenfreude sort of way) and rarely successful, should all be in there somewhere. Which is how we came to wear the "Clowns of Clearwater " label I suppose.

At that time, balancing on a board while flying a kite seemed to be about as silly an idea as riding a one-wheeled bicycle must have been- until someone did it. We didn't know what, if anything, was going to work, but had a basic hope that something eventually would. Over the next 10 years I tried just about every style of boat, board and bodily appendage we could think of- more than 150 different approaches before losing count (from embarrassment). The long grass around here is still full of these attempts- they emerge into sight every year about this time with the winter die-off.

Kiteboats under the trees.
Kiteboats under the trees.
On occasion it was a toss-up between drowning and strangling, lashed to some contraption with ever tightening kite lines while being dragged upside down at high speed by a looping kite. How Pete (son) and I and other crash test dummies ever survived this time I'll never know. He reckons it was our finely honed survival instincts, but on a few occasions , it was just blind luck and the manic strength of panic.

The gallery (mainly windsurfers), were derisive, and friends queried why I was making a public fool of myself. Explanations that failures are an inevitable part of the development process, didn't sound convincing- even to me. They had a point. But obsessions like this aren't easily put aside it seems.

Various board ideas on the fence.
Various board ideas on the fence.
Even using the basic traction kites we had back in '87, the boats we built,(many different styles), were immediately able to sail upwind. They remain my favoured solution, but were (and still are) unwieldy, both on the water and off. To capture people's imagination enough to get a kite based sport started, everyone was looking for something minimalist, but that was still able to go to windward.

Early on, waterskis looked to be the most promising option, and when Corey Roesaler from Seattle came to Clearwater with his KiteSki system in the early '90's, he was a long way ahead in every respect. Just after this I met Bruno and Dominique Legaignoux in Italy, did some kitesailing with them and tried out their revolutionary "marine wing" (at this time it had reverse steering- very French!). By the middle '90's, early adopters all over the world, and especially in Maui (where the sport first took on it's identifiably current form), had learnt to stand up on a board and wobble along. By 1997, it was clear that kite boarding was going to explode.

What a privilege it is to have been in the thick of things through this period.
Bruce Smith, rotating seat catamaran, 1989
Bruce Smith, rotating seat catamaran, 1989
Hydrofoil seat at full speed, 1996: another failure.
Hydrofoil seat at full speed, 1996: another failure.
Peter Lynn, hydrofoil seat, lake Clearwater 1996
Peter Lynn, hydrofoil seat, lake Clearwater 1996

Could the hostility we experienced from some of the windsurfers at Lake Clearwater in the early period have been a presentiment of what has now just happened?

That incredibly, unbelievably, kite boarding, a sport that didn't exist 20 years ago, has just displaced windsurfing for the 2016 Rio Olympic games.

Phillip McConnachie, 1993 planing board, another failure.
Phillip McConnachie, 1993 planing board, another failure
Understandably, windsurfers are not happy about this, but what a bunch of sore losers they've turned out to be here in NZ: An immediate response being to raise 'safety' concerns about kite boarding.
Whether it's government bureaucracies, businesses keeping people away, or union bullying, 'safety' is often the surrogate for those wanting to disguise actual agenda.
But in this case it's not completely out of order- with ever better equipment and training, kite boarding is nothing like as risky as it was 15 years ago, but it's definitely still out there- maybe like bobsledding, and downhill skiing- and a little rougher than bicycle racing (perhaps).
In other words, an ideal Olympic sport I would say.

Amazingly, it's the (almost unknown by the general public) course racing form of kiteboarding that's going to the Olympics- not the jumping-in-the-air show-off stuff that everyone sees at their local beach.
What a truly excellent decision, not least because this removes the subjective element and kiteboarding won't therefore become a re-run of figure skating, gymnastics or diving in which the nationality and allegiances of the judges seem to have more influence on results than actual skills.
And this surprising choice is more sensible than will be generally yet be accepted by most of the traditional sailing fraternity (including windsurfers).
Because kite boarding is fast! in a recent upwind/downwind competition between three kite racers, a hydrofoil Moth ('till now, just about the fastest small craft around a course) and an Olympic 49er, a kite boarder won two out of three.

Close up image of the catamaran with a rotary seat.
Peter Lynn, rotating seat catamaran, 1989.
I'm astonished by this, thought it wouldn't happen in my lifetime, because kite efficiency (lift to drag ratio, L/D) is still poor compared to the L/D of conventional sails-on-masts ( 4 to 5 against 10 to 12).
Interestingly, kite buggies are not yet competitive with land sailers. And herein may lie the explanation. Marchaj's course theorem demonstrates that for course racing, it's not just the kite or sail efficiency that matters but also the hydrodynamic efficiency of whatever's engaged with the water- it's hydrodynamic L/D. When kite buggying in the desert, the equivalent "hydrodynamic" efficiency is very high (wheels on a hard surface can have an L/D of 50 or more) so the lower performance of kites relative to sails is significant, and sails triumph. On the water, the margin of extra performance that conventional sails have over kites is not as significant because of poor hydrodynamic efficiency- board L/D is about 3.5, boats manage 7 or 8. My theory is that, on the water, sail L/D doesn't have sufficient margin over kite L/D to offset the other inherent advantages of kite power- like less heeling (zero heeling for fully rigged kite boats), ability to develop apparent wind independently of the board's course and speed, (by looping or figure eighting the kite), and being up in stronger more stable wind.
But the rapid ascendency of kites has two other prime drivers in my view:
Firstly, the exceptional de-power available from bow style LEI's- which allow the rider to be fully powered in a wide range of apparent wind without changing kites- a tribute to the serial genius of Bruno Legaignoux.
And secondly, the competitive vacuum in a new sport- providing opportunities for complete unknowns to get to the top very quickly provided they have the talent and the discipline.

If we wanted to be really cruel, we should now throw an olive branch to the jilted party and get windsurfing invited back to the Olympics- but this time competing alongside kite boarders.
Having just lost in the committee room, they'd probably now also lose on the water- but even if they are still up with the boards, they surely won't be after a few more years of development.

The Olympics will be a huge boost for kiteboarding- I'm almost giddy from anticipating the technological improvements that this will bring for kite traction in general. About the only worry now is that the athleticism currently required will become a defining feature of kite board racing, and when we do find ways to make boarding even faster (like a rigging system that eliminates the remaining kite induced heeling) the change will be resisted; rather like the way that faster recumbents have been banned from competing in mainstream cycle racing- for more than 70 years now.

Peter Lynn, Ashburton NZ May 30 2012


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