Light wind, good fun!

Caribbean Compass Yachting Magazine - April 2020

By Chris Morvan.

Anyone who has ever been to Orient Bay on the French side of the island shared between St. Martin (French) and St. Maarten (Dutch), will probably remember it as being breezy. That is what makes it bearable, because Caribbean beaches with white, sun-reflecting sand can roast you like a chicken.

One end of Orient Bay (or Baie Orientale, to give it its Gallic version) is the island’s only official naturist beach, and if we’re going to get damaged by the rays, let it be on our backs and arms, not the areas where the sun doesn’t usually shine. We have to be careful at the best of times and that breeze might, in fact, compound the problem, as it brings the apparent temperature down to a tolerable level. It’s like the opposite of the windchill factor.

But the weather has been unpredictable in these parts recently, and February 21st, the first day of the inaugural Caribbean Foiling Championships, which relies on wind, was hampered by a lack of the blowy stuff.

But first, what exactly is foiling?

The key word here is foil, an abbreviation of hydrofoil. The concept has existed for many years, and certain boats around the world have been using it since at least the 1960s. The hydrofoil is a relatively thin, sleek piece of metal (or nowadays maybe carbon fiber), attached to the hull. It starts off beneath the water but the hydrofoil’s design lifts it as it gathers speed, much as an airplane flies because the shape of the wings produces lower pressure above than below, making it rise naturally. So, with a boat you can see how the foil rising takes the hull out of the water, creating less resistance and therefore more speed.

Apply the concept to a board smaller than a conventional sailboard with an air-plane-wing-shaped foil underneath, and you have a recipe for speed and elegance with a dash of mystery, as the board appears to be standing on the water on a slim pole. It is the forward motion that makes it work, and the board is powered by a windsurfer-style sail (windfoiling) or a kite (kitefoiling) that the sailor holds onto by a sort of trapeze handle.

The organizers of the Caribbean Foiling Championships, Max van den Pol and Sacha van der Wouden, are a charming young couple from the Netherlands, who came to the Caribbean to work at St. Maarten’s Heineken Regatta and, noting that yachts tend to be the preserve of older sailors, started thinking about how they could offer a similar experience to younger people, with equipment that is both less expensive and more portable.

Max describes kitefoiling as a “discipline,” rather than a sport of its own, because the skills needed to perform it generally grow from previous incarnations. A seasoned foiler himself, he brought this first-hand knowledge to the setting up of the event, including the vital area of safety. Sacha, meanwhile, is what might be described as an “improver” in the sport, quickly gaining experience but modest in her rating of her ability. She is the Caribbean Foiling Championships’ PR person, the link with the world’s media and, this being a youth-oriented event, there is plenty of modern technology involved, not least in the safety aspect. Electronic tracking is used to keep tabs on competitors.

As with any water sport, there is a potential element of danger, and, as Max points out, “It’s not a question of how fast you can go, it’s how fast you dare go.”

All the technology in the world, though, can’t bring wind to a Caribbean beach if nature is not cooperating, and as 40 hyped-up competitors gathered at Orient Bay, silent prayers were going up for a large breath of moving air.

The first race was supposed to be around the island, but as we all waited for wind, there was plenty of time to talk to some competitors. And remarkably young they were too, some of them.

Nolan Bourgeois, a 14-year-old windfoiler from Guadeloupe, said, “I am a bit ner-vous but I really want to make it to the finish line, and I think I can even challenge some of the adults.”

Women were well represented, including Cora Mazière, who had flown in from Martinique with a little band of supporters. “It’s not my first time in St. Martin but first time foiling here,” she said, eyeing the sea and keen to get started.

Contestants had come from as far away as Greece, the Netherlands, France, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Antigua & Barbuda and Martinique, while the Guadeloupe wind-foiler team had even chartered their own plane to come, because they had so much equipment to bring.

On the beach, casual visitors couldn’t help but notice that something special was going on, and many now know they were there in the infancy of a sport destined to be in the Olympics.

With the sky overcast and no wind, eventually it was decided that the round-the-island race could not take place, and the course was changed to circle the nearby tiny island of Tintamarre. Then, after lunch, the wind picked up and there was a collective sigh of relief.

A highlight of Day Two saw a victory for 16-year-old professional rider Tiger Tyson from Antigua & Barbuda. Tyson stole a march on his rivals with a tactical tack that had the connoisseurs purring, although he was suitably modest in his assessment. “It was super light and gusty wind, but those are actually my favorite conditions,” he said.

Oliver Blotière came second and summed it up in a way that exemplifies the spirit of the event: “It was complicated but we were able to foil for a while, even before the start of the race. Orient Bay is a beautiful playground for foiling.”

Sunday was another calm day weather-wise, and some riders who were not able to compete were disappointed. Stan Rodriguez, who lives in St. Martin, spoke for many when he said, “I trained every day for this and it never happened in 20 years in February to have less than ten knots of wind here.”

Race Officer Sacha Daunar, from the French Federation of Sailing of Guadeloupe, explained, “When there is light wind, we have to find solutions and try to wait for the best conditions of wind to launch a race in order for racers to score official points and allow them to move up in the international ranking. In those conditions, the only thing to do is to be patient.”

So, not an ideal outcome for the first staging of the Caribbean Foiling Championships, but a good time was had by all. Bruno Kancel from Guadeloupe, who won the Friday’s race around Tintamarre said, “I am trying to get more small events to happen in Guadeloupe, and with the official side, the Caribbean Foiling Championships is the perfect format.”

Eliott Pierre-Heym from St. Martin, who took third place in the windfoiling, was very upbeat: “I can’t wait to try it again next year.”

To read entire April 2020 Caribbean Compass Yachting Magazine, click here

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