The rise of the foil kiteboarding era
- 02 March 2018 | Kiteboarding
I was a latecomer to using kites as sails and didn't make a start until 1987 when it seemed to me that enough ducks were in a line to make a major shift to kite traction achievable.
I had also temporarily run out of interesting single-line kite challenges.
By then, I'd been strongly influenced by Paul MacCready winning the Kremer Competition for the first man-powered aircraft to fly a one-mile Figure 8 course, in 1977.
MacCready's "build quick and dirty' approach was what enabled his success, and where well-funded attempts by various other experts and institutions had failed.
These attempts had, conventionally, split their projects into the design, build and fly phases. MacCready mixed these all up, establishing a team that could design, make and test ideas, quickly and cheaply, through multiple iterations.
In essence, this is the Silicon Valley "move fast and break things" system - which has spawned the tech giants that now dominate our lives.
It is well established and widely copied now but wasn't back then when innovation and business development were much more ponderous processes.
I was very taken by MacCready's example and went about getting or improving various useful skills: machining, fiberglassing, stainless steel fabrication, tig welding, sewing, of course, and lots of traction kiting.
I wanted to be able to test stuff myself rather than having to interpret other people's impressions. I was very aware of the handicap that Jalbert, the inventor of ram air kites, imposed on himself by not sewing.
Having all these skills in-house cuts development costs enormously and speeds the process up. Successes flowed immediately: kite buggying, for example, Peels and C-Quads, and Arcs.
And failures, as well: twenty years trying to get kite sailing established, with a succession of monohull and multihull craft that worked technically and bombed commercially.
But, with the benefit of hindsight, this "try as many new things as possible and move on quickly when something doesn't work" approach also laid the groundwork for another failure.
A kite traction platform I thought of using was something based on the sit-down hydrofoils that were developed for water skiing from the 1960s.
These were reasonably widely known by the late 1980s and commercially available as the AirChair from 1990.
I recall seeing one built by a local waterskier in the late 1980s, and kite fliers I knew did try variants. Their verdict was always the same.
"Yes, it's possible to get up on one using a kite, but control is virtually impossible."
So, everyone's efforts went instead into unidirectional planning boards, then bi-directional - developing kites, boards and skills in a leapfrog process that by the millennium had begun to establish kiteboarding as a sport.
Kites were improving rapidly. The key to kite traction is depower (enabling fliers to control the amount of pull).
The first really successful depower kite was Bruno Legaignoux's "Bow" that came out in 2002, developed from his original 1980s breakthrough inflated leading edge, single skin "marine wing."
As kites (and flying skills) improved, it gradually became possible to use hydrofoil boards, though only in smooth water and light to mid-range winds.
A dedicated user group then established it but made little impression on the world until a further small technical step occurred - fully bridled depower ram air kites (first developed for buggying and snow kiting) coming into on-water use from around 2010.
Derived from Jalbert's 1950s invention that also led to skydiving foils, paragliders and single-line ram air inflated theme kites, foil kites go windward better than Bow kites can.
This combination of improved aerodynamic efficiency and hydrofoil boards makes for sailing that is faster around a course (and in a straight line) than almost every other sailing craft excepting America's Cup foilers.
And fit in a package that can be carried on a bus or bicycle. That has been one of the biggest surprises of my life - not just that it's happened, but that it's happened so quickly. Just 30 years ago, kiteboarding didn't even exist.
I deserve a caning for not having seen this coming, even though I had all the elements in my hands before 1990. Except the depower foils. But I was working on them too. It's Paul MacCready's fault!
But I'm in an excellent company because, even more astonishingly, hydrofoil boards are now being used for open ocean surfing!
How come nobody did this ten years ago, or even 100 years ago?
There is no technical reason why they couldn't have because hydrofoil principles and practice were widely known by 1910 when Alexander Graham Bell - inventor of the telephone - popularized their use for powered boats.
And surfing applications didn't need to wait for engines or depower-capable kites to be developed. The traction force is gravity in the form of a slope (generally called a wave).
Nor is it necessary to go to some special surfing spot with regular breaking waves and offshore wind. A swell of 500mm or so is enough, and it's easier if it's not breaking - a description of the sea pretty much everywhere, all the time.
It's even possible to ride one wave, and then pump back out to catch the next one without dropping off the foil.
Except that its undoubtedly more difficult than it looks - slick YouTube presentations notwithstanding - but it's in its infancy and can only improve from here.
I can see no reason why ocean crossing won't eventually become possible, limited only by human endurance.
I've always known that better answers can sometimes come from refining existing solutions rather than by breaking new ground.
But it would have surprised my younger self to know that two of the greatest advances in kite flying in my lifetime - depower foils and hydrofoil kiteboards - would come from an incremental development rather than original acts of invention.
Back then, I regarded the field of kite traction as an unploughed field in which every furrow would turn up some exciting new discovery while refining existing ideas was boring.
Somewhat of a character flaw that. How much more progress could I have made with clearer thinking!
But better late than never.
So, I've changed how I'm going about single-skin, single-line kite development to trying small changes in panel shapes, leading edge construction, tail attachment, and bridling, combined with exhaustive comparative testing.
And just one year of boring incrementalism has yielded more improvement than the previous three years of much more exciting "rip it up and try something different."
There's an Octopus that flies great, really stable, with a wide wind range but has a seemingly terminal tentacle tangling problem.
A Serpent that's excellent until the wind drops, when it slides off to one side or the other. And that doesn't improve relations with neighboring fliers.
And 1Skins, the most interesting form, because they herald a generic type rather than a specific design, which occasionally dives over to one side in strong winds.
Another year or ten of this and the Serpent and 1Skins will be in the business, I reckon.
Damn, but I hope I can stay on the wagon!
Words by Peter Lynn.