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Kite foiler Maddy Anderson reflects

by Maddy Anderson 5 Apr 16:35 BST
Seconds after the start © Santiagro Grimm

It's hard to believe that less than a month ago I, along with the majority of the British Sailing Team's Kite foilers, had spent the preceding two months training in La Ventana, Mexico. We'd been lucky enough to escape what sounded like a particularly spiteful British winter. We arrived home just in time to avoid being stuck in Covid-19 induced isolation a long way from home. Now, looking out my window on a windy, grey Dorset sky under the pall of self isolation, I have plenty of time to review our most recent training block and a year of training and development.

We had gone out to La Ventana at the beginning of January for what proved a successful training block culminating in our first major international competition of the year, the Mexico Hydrofoil Pro Tour. This event is a special one in the calendar, as it is normally the first opportunity for everyone to test whether their winter training has paid off. This year however, has been even more significant as it proved to be the final testing ground for the equipment that will be registered for the Paris 2024 Olympic cycle. As a development class, both our foil kites and our hydrofoils have seen incredible technological progression as the sport has grown, but the technical arms race has been given a deadline now that the Games include Kite foil racing, and this deadline has just passed. So the equipment we will be using in 2024 has been finally designed, developed and locked down until the next Olympic cycle.

A week before competing, the biggest Northerly swell I had ever seen in La Ventana had rolled through; unfathomably big, considering the Sea of Cortez is a body of water penned in from three sides. It had been preceded by a couple of down days, which always left us girls a little stir crazy with a craving to get on the water. With the swell came a punchy, powerful El Norte, strong enough that in normal circumstances we would have been inclined to take surfboards and twintips instead of foils, but the Pro Tour was round the corner, and we were highly motivated to train. It was epic. Over this winter, the five of us have learnt to really train together. This is in part due to the fact that we're not consecutively crashing every five minutes, but also that we've learnt to communicate more effectively on the water, and we've learnt from more experienced kiters, how best to push our limits. On an upwind tuning run, in which each of us, kite included, would dramatically disappear from view as we were engulfed in the trough of the long, deep swell, pushing exceptionally hard to keep our foils waterborne as we passed through wave peaks, I crashed hard. We've become fairly ruthless these days, in that when one of us crashes, the rest of us carry on so as not to ruin the training session; but both Katie and Jimmy stopped for this one. They had seen me crash and were more aware than I was about quite how messy it had been, with limbs and foils tumble turning round each other. The upshot was an MCL tear, that had me off the water for 6 days, and doubt cast about whether I should race at all. Needless to say, I did race, but major crashes weren't really an option.

Typically, La Ventana in Baja California, is renowned for its 'El Norte', a Northerly breeze that consistently blows over 15 knots, sometimes up to 30, almost every day. But leading up to the Pro Tour this year, it was clear we weren't necessarily going to see a classic 'El Norte', as the forecast was predicting some fickle Easterly days. Nevertheless, day one provided the goods, with a steady 15 knots for race one, gradually building throughout the day up to a punchy 20 knots plus. With 45 kiters on the start line, the final approach to the first start of the day got the adrenaline pumping. Having dinghy raced all my life, often in big international fleets, I'm not intimidated by a crowded start line, but I can tell you, there is nothing quite like a racked up foil race start line. You have no rights pre start if you are not foiling, so everyone approaches slow foiling, kites high. This is one of the major features that differentiates kite foiling start lines from displacement or even some skiff dinghy racing equivalents, when you can keep flow on the foils at speeds as low as 3 knots, but slow foiling while kiting is generally about 10 knots, so the approach in that respect is much more similar to the AC50s (only there are 45 of you, not 5, thankfully no reaching start though). This is also undoubtedly the most common point on the race course for tangles, which can sometimes cost more than just a race to anyone involved, so generally best avoided. However, this isn't always possible when the best in the world are approaching the start line alongside kiters who have only been racing for 6 months. Certainly, us girls were in the latter category last year, and keeping out of trouble was a herculean task. This time around, we had a year of kite racing experience behind us, both the mishaps and the successes. The details of every race on that first day are a little hazy now, but I certainly remember that not every start line was without tangles (thankfully not with me). Indeed, I seem to remember at least 4 kiters attempted a port flyer in race one, on what was a congested and only marginally port bias line. Needless to say, they didn't make it.

Despite some mishaps on day one, it was incredibly exciting to be racing again, especially after an intense winter of training. After a disappointing 2019 summer season for me, I was determined to change the way I train in order to see my results improve. Consequently, I think it's fair to say that this winter, I made the jump from a rookie kite foil racer, to one who is vaguely capable of strategising and performing well, instead of being dictated to by wobbly, crash-prone manoeuvres. The evening of day one, though exhausted, I was happy to have got through the day without having thrown my series away. A common maxim from past sailing coaches came to mind, that you can't win a series on day one, but you can certainly lose it, and my goal of a top five female finish was still within reach.

Racing on day two, I was determined to find some real form off the start line, pushing as hard as I could to match the speed of the boys around me. In order to race well, just like sailing there are an almost infinite number of variables to master. Broadly speaking, they are decision making, speed, technique, reaction times; the list goes on. However, the most tangible difference between the likes of Théo De Ramecourt, the overall winner who took a staggering 9 bullets from the 13 races, and me, is that he is simply faster than I am in a straight line. To be able to line up with these guys, I can learn so much, and that is the beauty of open fleet racing. The margins between the top of the fleet and the middle are getting tighter as we steadily hone our skills. Much like the previous day, I was satisfied coming off the water after the 6th and final race, because I'd had no major incidents and my mistakes were largely tactical rather than technical; highlighting that my winter focus on manoeuvres and speed seemed to have paid off.

Day three brought an enforced day of rest, since the wind never materialised. The fourth and final day, TDR, Connor Bainbridge and Maxime Nocher had already secured the podium, but the next few races would determine whether that order would remain. However it was another overcast day with a sketchy forecast, so it was touch and go whether we would get any races in at all. Finally, a weak and unstable breeze came in, maxing out at maybe 7 knots, with lows of 4 knots. Late in the day, the race committee managed to squeeze a race in; the most marginal conditions I've foil raced in, without a doubt! Just to finish was an achievement; the race was a showcase in the lower limits of the sport. Foiling in 5 knots is a completely different art to foiling in 25, and certainly just as hard a skill to perfect. There is also the added curveball that if you crash or stop foiling out of a manoeuvre, you lose your apparent wind, and it is marginal whether you'll be able to start foiling again. In the end, only around 15 kiters finished. Thankfully I was one of them and actually ended up having a great race with Gisela Pulido, who was 4th female going into the final race; as I was in 5th, she was my target for the day. I beat her in the race, but the points deficit I had on her was too great to overtake her overall, so I remained in 5th place.

It's such an honour to race in this fleet. It's incredibly challenging, physically and mentally; it's completely diverse, no two races are ever the same; but predominantly, it's a hell of a lot of fun. I race and train at home and abroad, with four of my closest friends, and while holed up during this unprecedented crisis, I remain positive, thinking of that first day back when we can share a session on the water again.

Maddy Anderson

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