Thursday, January 22, 2015

Practicing for a race, weighing in on Butt Buoys

It has been a long time since the last CGT paddleboard race I did, which was in September. There was another in October but I missed it because I was out of town. Anyway, the races are starting up again on Sunday. I think they're going to be a different kind of experience this go-around, for a couple of reasons:

1. The race course is actually different. It's still on the Imperial River, and it's still 4.5 miles. However, instead of going way downriver then back up to Riverside Park, we'll go upriver, turn, go downriver, turn, and then come back to the start. That should make for more variety of scenery, more time under the shade of the trees, and more strategically challenging curves and turns. Hopefully CGT won't use "butt buoys" again to mark the turns and finish lines. Don't get me wrong- I like butts. Butts are a beautiful and useful part of the body. But in my opinion butt-shaped plastic buoys wearing bikini bottoms are in the same a-little-bit-funny-but-quite-a-bit-offensive category as the plastic testicles that people hang from their truck trailer hitches. It's not worth alienating any prospective sup race participants over something like that.

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2. I'm going to use a different board. Since September I've actually tried out two different 14' racing SUPs and settled on a Fanatic Falcon 27.25" wide model. It's not the absolute fastest flat-water SUP out there, and it may actually be a little slower than the 404 Zeedonk Pintail that I traded back to CGT, but it's definitely faster than the 11'8" Exocet WindSUP that I used in the summer races. My best average speed over 4.5 miles on the WindSUP is 4.96 mph, whereas it's 5.58 mph on the Falcon.

3. I've been practicing pretty hard and getting in better shape. I've gained about 0.6 mph from practicing, which is about equal to what I gained from getting the new board. My times have kind of plateaued recently, but I still think there's room for improvement in my technique and conditioning that could help me go faster. The folks who raced last year have been practicing even harder than me, but I'm cautiously optimistic that between my fancy board and training I'll be close to keeping up.

Below are some pictures my dad took of the current SUP setup in action:

This is the little creek near my house where I walk the board to launch it and paddle to the Imperial River.
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This is the bridge that was the starting line for the course last summer.
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This is me looking cool.
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This is paddling pretty hard.
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Curse of the In-Laws

My family loves my wife's family, and I think the feelings are mutual. But we seem to have picked up a curse. Now every time a member of one family visits the other, a terrible medical crisis must occur. It started last winter when my parents arrived in Florida just as Rhonda and were hospitalized with mega flu. Then when Rhonda's sister and brother-in-law visited, bro-in-law had to go to the ER with creepy chest pains (which turned out to be nothing, thank goodness). I kept the tradition up by arriving at my New England in-laws' this winter with a bad cold that segued into an abominable vomiting thing that forced me to delay my flight home. The worst came last week when my parents drove down to Florida from North Carolina. This time is wasn't Rhonda and I who got sick, but my mom. Her appendix burst on the first night here and we had to rush her to the hospital in dire condition. Fortunately, Dr. Brockman at North Collier Hospital diagnosed it and operated pretty quickly, probably saving her life. Still, I'm sure it was a bummer for my mom to be laid up uncomfortably for days in the hospital when she would have been swimming under the palm trees.

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Let's hope this is the last of it.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Using 14' Fanatic Falcon Race SUP for Windsurfing

As my wife Rhonda says, I am a notorious "min-maxer" when it comes to choosing and fine-tuning my watersports equipment. I proved this recently by swapping my nearly-new racing paddleboard (a beautiful blue 14' x 26" 404 Carbon Pintail Zeedonk) for a different model (a beautiful red 14' x 27.25" Fanatic Falcon).

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The Fanatic was on consignment at CGT Kayaks and I put my Zeedonk on consignment in its place. If you're in the market for a super-lightweight, all-carbon race sup for under $900 you can find my Zeedonk at CGT. Say you saw it on my blog and they might give you a discount. Here is why I did the switch:

1. I wanted to put a mast-track in the race SUP to mount a windsurfing sail, but I wasn't sure the 10 kg Zeedonk would hold up to the extra abuse it would take in windsurfing mode. The Fanatic is a few kg heavier with a thicker skin more like a standard windsurf, so I figured it would be a safer bet for windsuring use.
2. The noses on the two boards are different. The piercing bow of the Zeedonk works really well for paddling in flat water, but I could imagine it being tricky to negotiate through chop at higher windsurfing speeds. In contrast, the bow on the Fanatic is blunt and upturned, which I figured would make it more "self-trimming" in rough water. (Both boards are supposed to be good for open-ocean "downwinder" paddling and "catching bumps," but I think the Zeedonk takes a more active approach to fore-aft trim when doing that.)
3. When I borrowed the Fanatic for a test-paddle in the Imperial River I found that it was only a little slower than the Zeedonk. That was important, because I didn't want to totally sacrifice my hopes of keeping up with the faster SUP racers in the CGT race series this year.

So far I've been quite happy with the Fanatic Falcon. After pushing myself through some more training runs on the Imperial River, trying a new fin, and adjusting to the board's different style, I've got my course times down to where they were on the Zeedonk. The board is definitely an unusual shape, but it works. The bulbous nose is its most notable feature.

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The nose is supposed to help it bob over waves and chop that it hits at a straight-on or side-on angle, and help prevent it from "pearling" under the water when riding down a wave. I paddled the board one time in choppy waves on the Gulf of Mexico. Though it was a lot less stable and less maneuverable than my Exocet WindSUP and Angulo Surfa, it was pretty powerful for catching waves and getting long, fast rides.

Balancing out the bulbous nose is a long-tapered, narrow tail with the fin set unusually far forward. This makes the overall outline of the board a teardrop shape, like the cross-section of a fin. There's minimal wake behind the board when in motion which implies minimal turbulent drag.

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The weird straps on the front of the board are like suitcase handles for when you're running the board into or out of the water at the start or finish of a paddle race from the beach. I'm not sure I'll ever use them when racing, but they came in handy as tie-down points when I improvised a windsurf sail attachment system for testing purposes. (I wanted to see roughly if the board was sailable before I put any permanent holes in it.)

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For the improvised system I taped a foam block to the bottom of a universal joint so that it could rest on the deck of the board without denting it. Then I tied the universal joint in place with a line to each of the straps, and a line to a little block of wood that I wedged into the recessed carry handle of the board. The carry handle is about in the middle of the board, and I assumed that the mast base would need to be just a bit in front of that.

When I got the board to the beach to test it with the jury-rigged sail attachment it was windier than I had expected; about 10-15 mph with some chop on the Gulf of Mexico. I rigged a 6.4 sail and took off like a shot. The board definitely accelerates quickly and goes fast in a semi-planing mode. In gusts it would get into fully-planing mode, but with a rooster tail of spray behind the tail, indicating a less than optimal pattern of water release from the unusual tail. The board handled the chop very well and went upwind at a steep angle when railed to windward. It took some work to tack, as expected, but it did tack. Jibing was easy because it would keep gliding on the long, voluminous tail even when I stepped far back on the board to make it pivot around. Overall it exceeded my expectations as a windsurf board, so decided to go ahead with the mast track installation.

The first step was to peel away the deck pad where the mast track would go.
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The next step was to route out a hole a little bigger than the mast track. I filled the hole with a sandwich of high density pink insulation foam, with a layer of fiberglass between the two thin slabs of pink foam and a layer of fiberglass and filler between the pink foam and the foam of the board's interior.

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After that cured I routed a hole within the pink foam just big enough for the mast track itself. (I bought the mast track from Roy Massey at Ace Performer.) The next day I put the mast track itself in, in a manner similar to that used for the pink foam. The final phase was to fair the excess fiberglass and epoxy off the top of the mast track and lay three layers of fiberglass over the area, overlapping with the mast track, pink foam, and some of the original decking of the board. I topped it all off with the piece of deck padding that I'd saved so it will look good less conspicuous.

I'm now on vacation at my folks house in North Carolina, but I'm looking forward to testing the real mast track when I get home in the new year. I'm curious how the board will work in really light conditions with an 8.0 or 9.5 sail, as sort of a poor-man's Starboard Serenity / K15.

In other news, my dog gave me a scare the other day when she fell off the back of my WindSUP and took a moment to pop back up to the surface, swimming poorly. To be safe we're going to have her wear this lifejacket from now on. I think she looks good in it.

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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Cool Way to Measure Surface Area of a SUP Paddle Blade

I've been enjoying flat-water standup paddleboarding a lot since doing some informal races this fall and buying a 14' race SUP a few weeks ago. A big part of the enjoyment is striving to go faster. The three main ways to do that seem to be, 1) paddling harder, 2) getting more fit, 3) using better equipment, and 4) developing better technique. I've noticed definite improvements that I can attribute to 1, 2, and 3. Changes in technique have probably had some effect, too, but it has been hard for me to distinguish those effects from the others.

Anyway, as I was geeking out reading about SUP gear and techniques online, I came across some guidelines for what size paddle blade you should use. It makes sense that there would be an optimal size for paddle blades, since a very small blade wouldn't catch enough water to push you forward effectively, while a very large blade would make your strokes awkward, slow, and tiring. Body weight seems to be the main determinant of optimal blade size. Since I weigh around 175 pounds / 80 kg I ought to use a paddle blade with an area between 90 and 100 inches squared.

Its a little more complicated than that, though. Apparently there are at least two other things that affect optimal paddle size: your strength to weight ratio and the length of the race you'll be paddling in. If you're super strong for your weight, like a wrestler or a gymnast, then you can benefit from maybe a 10% or so bigger paddle blade than someone your weight would normally use. If you're doing a short "sprint" race then you might also benefit from a bigger blade. On the other hand, a smaller than normal blade could help in a long-distance race by preventing muscle fatigue. I think I can ignore the race length factor, since the race I do is medium length. Regarding strength to weight ratio, I have no idea how that might be calculated, but I can do about 15 pullups so I'll go out on a limb and say I'm above average in that department. So 100 inches squared would probably be better than 90 inches squared for me.

The only thing is, I bought my paddles a long time ago and I had no idea how big the blades were and whether they were the right size for me or not. Since they're odd shapes with rounded edges it would be hard to figure out their area by normal math and measurement. Fortunately, I'm a scientist, and I realized that I could use the same image analysis software that I use to quantify seagrass blade areas to quantify my paddle blade areas. The software is "ImageJ," a free program that you can download from the US National Institute of Health. I think it was originally developed to help medical doctors measure the size of suspicious moles, etc. It takes a little fiddling to figure out all the features of ImageJ, but the basic method I used to measure my paddle blade areas is this:

1. Put the paddles on a flat surface with an even color that contrasts sharply with the color of the paddles.
2. Lay a ruler or other object of known size next to the paddles.
3. Hold a camera steady and level above the paddles and take a picture.
4. Shrink the file size a bit so ImageJ can manage the picture.
5. Open the picture in ImageJ.
6. Use the line tool to trace 0 - 12 inches on the ruler, and use "Analyze, Set Scale" to set that scale at 12 inches.
7. Use the "Adjust, Color Threshold" menu to turn the image to black and white, and twiddle the levels so that the paddles show up as a simple block color on a blank background.
8. Use the paintbrush tool to cut off the heads of the paddles where they meet the shaft, and fix any gaps or spillovers in the paddle shapes.
9. Use the magic wand tool to select a paddle head, and then use "Analyze, Measure" to get its area, which will be in inches squared.

Original image-
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Processing image in ImageJ-
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I found that my Angulo carbon fiber paddle head is 97.2 inches squared, and that my cheap aluminum and plastic paddle head is 106.8 inches squared. It will be hard to make a fair comparison of the two paddles since the aluminum one is about twice as heavy, but I'll give the big one a try on the race course to see if it seems like the extra size is in any way helpful.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Trip to the other side of Florida for REAL wind and waves

Saturday morning started in the typical way: sipping coffee and looking at the iwindsurf forecast to decide the if, what, where, and when of the day's watersports. The IF was easy. A strong Easterly wind had been ringing our wind chimes all night, and it was forecast to last all day. What, where, and when were more difficult. The options were:

1. Drive 15 minutes to sail from my usual launch on the Gulf of Mexico, where there would be no waves and the wind would be straight offshore and gusty. I do sometimes sail offshore winds, usually on a big board like my formula or the Exocet WindSUP. But it's always hard to tell what to rig, and it takes a long time to get back to shore, especially if you're on a smaller shortboard. Plus, you're screwed if you have a breakdown or injury miles offshore. So I wasn't super keen on that.

2. Drive 45 minutes in traffic to sail relatively steady sideshore winds and flatwater chop at the Sanibel Causeway. An upside of the causeway is that it's one of just a few places in Florida where you can regularly see other windsurfers. The downsides are that there are no waves, and there are some sharp rocks and shells at the launch that require booties.

3. Drive 2 hours across "Alligator Alley" (Interstate 75) to the windward, Atlantic side of Florida to sail in wild ocean conditions. The East coast launch that seemed to have the best combination of being close to I75 and having rideable waves was North Ocean Park in Pompano Beach.

I called my buddy Dr. Alex and he was up for a windsurfing road trip, so that set option #3 in motion. We carpooled over in my van and soon found ourselves staring at a raging sea through the wind-blasted, kiter-crowded parking area in Pompano Beach. The intimidation factor was enhanced by a wind-tunnel effect of the tall condominiums on either side of the parking area, which made it hard to even walk to the beach.

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Fortunately the wind was less insane once on the beach; 20-ish knots.

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The waves breaking on the offshore reef looked big and scary. The shorebreak looked challenging but not impossible- the straight-onshore wind is what would make it tricky.

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Alex rigged a 4.7 Hotsails for his 100 liter board, and I rigged a 4.5 Ezzy for my 83 liter board. In retrospect I should have rigged a bit bigger sail, or maybe used a floatier board.

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We both managed to get out through the shorebreak, after a try or two, and we took some cruising runs through the more sheltered inside area to the north of the launch. The picture with the lighthouse is the view looking North into the most sheltered part of the cove. There was an interesting eddy-like current at the North end of the cove, and some strange swells forming or re-forming near a jetty in the cove.

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We were making it work, but a lot of floating Sargassum was getting stuck on our fins and preventing us from planing consistently, so we switched to weed fins. The combination of being slightly underpowered and having inefficient weed fins made the conditions harder than they should have been, but we did OK. Where we really paid our dues was when we'd try to get into the outside break further south of Hillsborough Inlet. If you fell or stopped planing there, or had to run downwind to avoid an impassable head-high closeout wave, you'd get stuck in an area where the waves were breaking all the way to shore, with lots of surging current. It was nearly impossible to waterstart there and sail back North to the launch area while relentless walls of whitewater were hitting you broadsides. I went through the "rinse cycle" many times; holding onto a piece of my gear while the surging foam swept the whole mess towards shore.

On the last run or two out I avoided the trouble area and made it at least partially into the area I'd call the outside break. The waves were enormous by my standards, definitely over my head and looking mean and unpredictable (though beautiful Gulfstream blue). I didn't do any great waveriding turns or anything, but it was super thrilling to be out there. I'd like to try the spot again on a day with more sideshore wind and smaller waves.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

New SUP: 404 14' Pintail Zeedonk

CGT Kayaks and Paddleboards is the outfitter / shop that organized the Imperial River summer race series that I did the last part of this fall. CGT recently opened a new brick-and-mortar shop in downtown Bonita Springs, just a few blocks from my house. When I heard that they had a line on some barely-used demo boards I called dibs on a 14' carbon fiber race sup. I'd had the bug to get a race-specific SUP since doing the summer races, but was waiting for the right deal to come along. This one was just $800, which is real cheap for that sort of thing.

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The sup is a "Pintail Zeedonk" from the brand "404 Paddleboards." It's 427 x 67 cm, with a very pointy nose, a long flat section, and some slight vee and rocker in the pintail section. "Zeedonk" is supposed to mean it's fast as a zebra but stable as a donkey. I'm not familiar with donkey stability, but I did notice that it was a lot more stable than the only other race sup I've ever tried- a 61 cm wide Starboard.

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Of course the Zeedonk was less stable than my 360 x 80 cm wide Exocet WindSUP (right side of picture), but it's also significantly faster.

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I took the Zeedonk for a practice run on the 4.5 mile Imperial River SUP course yesterday and finished in 0:51:27, which is about 6 minutes quicker than my best ever time on the WindSUP. Having to change out of my wetsuit top during the course, and getting some pine needles stuck on the non-weed fin I was using might have slowed me down, so I'm thinking that with some more tuning and training I could break the 50 minute barrier. That's going to be my goal for the time being.

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One of the things that I gather is important for getting the max speed from these race sups is standing in the right spot; not too far forward to or too far back. In the picture above it looks like the middle of the board is low and the nose and tail are high, but when it's in motion its own wake wraps around it in such a way that the bow entry and tail release seem pretty good.

As one might imagine, I'm already contemplating putting a mast track on the board to see how it works as a windsurf. I think the rocker is flat enough that it could plane, or at least glide really fast. My only hesitation is that the construction is quite light and I'm not sure the board would stand up to bouncing through chop at windsurf planing speed. I'll enjoy it as just a SUP for a while before I decide if I'm going to do a conversion or not.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Goodbye Gertie

Our sweet doggie Gertie passed away swiftly from a heart attack yesterday. We are heartbroken as can be, but we know we did everything we could to make her life as long and happy as we could.

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We adopted Gertie in 2012 from the same Florida English Bulldog foster home where we adopted her "sister" Grace. We knew Gertie was already 9 years old and had some heart conditions, and we didn't expect her to make it all that long. However, with lots of love and expensive medications and vet visits, she had a really good life for two years. Though angelic Gertie has gone on to the "rainbow bridge" as they say, impish Grace is still holding down the fort and we expect her to be cutely causing trouble for some time to come.