Saturday, November 22, 2014

Windsurfing Shoes and Knives

This post is of a slightly commercial nature. Since it can be difficult to find reviews of windsurfing equipment, I hope you find this kind of content useful. I've purchased all of the items mentioned below with my own money. Excepts the socks, which I've never tried. You can find a full disclosure at the end of the post*.


Last year I had the unpleasant experience of falling off my board and getting a nasty fish hook and a length of leader wrapped around my ankle. Luckily, the water wasn't rough. I was able to stand on one leg, hold my rig, and tediously unwrap the leader one-handed. I then sailed the hazard back to shore to dispose of it. Surprisingly, I managed the feat without tearing my skin.

This incident, along with sharp rocks, is why I suggest folks wear some kind of footwear when windsurfing on the Laguna Madre. There is a lot of stuff hidden in the mud.

Until recently I had been windsurfing in Vibram Five Fingers. These are form-fitting, glove-like shoes with a thin rubber sole, and separate "fingers" for each toe. I liked them because they are quite low to the ground and so present less of a risk for twisting your ankle like some modern water shoes. You can feel the board through the sole too.

The Five Fingers also do a good job of sticking to your feet so they don't slide as much inside the shoe. They got lots of comments for their strange cartoon-like appearance.

My first pair was a basic model with a velcro strap. Once I wore a hole in those, I purchased the KSO model (i.e. “Keep Stuff Out”). Each of these expensive shoes developed holes between the toes after about one season of windsurfing use.

Although the "board feel" was good, I didn't find them very comfortable for more than an hour or so of windsurfing. My small toes began to feel crushed by the shoes, especially if I was surfing in the straps. The shape toe area made it difficult to get into the straps on my board. Somehow it was always my poor pinky toe that wouldn't make it through the strap.

The Five Fingers could also get very uncomfortable if your toes were forced to share their pockets with sand, pebbles, and tiny shells. Even the “keep stuff out” model still ended the day with a random sampling of beach debris stuck to my feet. It was a relief to peel off the shoes at the end of the day. The KSOs were especially difficult to get on and off.

Since both pairs of Five Fingers had holes in them, I started researching other kinds of footwear for windsurfing. There weren't many thorough reviews, but I did discover some interesting products like kevlar socks.

Before my most recent trip, I purchased a pair of O'Neill Superfreak Tropical 2mm split toe boots to replace the Five Fingers. Sorry, Swiss Protection Socks!

I've only used them for two days, but so far I like them. Because only your big toe gets an individual pocket, the boots are much easier to get on than the Five Fingers. Like the Five Fingers, the boots have a velcro ankle strap to hold your foot in place. Unlike the KSO, there isn't a connecting strap behind the ankle. Because of this difference, I think my feet tend to slide more inside the boot when applying board pressure. The Vibrams seemed to really lock on to my feet.

My favorite feature of the boot is the elastic strap around the ankle opening. You can tighten it to create a snug seal. I didn't get any noticeable debris in either boot on either day, which is a lovely thing. After a day of surfing in the Five Fingers, my feet would be crusted in stuff like a holiday cheese log. Getting bits of shell ground into your feet isn't a pleasant thing.

Since I've only used the boots in light wind, I didn't try getting into board's straps. Considering the rounded design of the boots, I think they will be easier to slide in than the Vibrams.

The boots also seemed to have a grippier sole than the Vibrams, which tended to slip on the deck of my board. I won't know for sure until I have stronger winds to contend with.

Overall I think O'Neill boots are more comfortable for windsurfing, but not perfect. I did have pressure on the big toe when pushing the board forward. It became a little uncomfortable after a few hours. Next time I'll try tightening the ankle strap more to see if that reduces the pressure.

O'Neill also makes a version of this boot without the separated big toe. Those might help with the toe pressure, but maybe at the cost of less robust connection to the front of the feet. In principle, I like how the split toe gives you more to push against than just the side of the shoe. I don't know if it makes a practical difference or not.

I'm curious what these O'Neill boots will feel like in summer. Unlike the Five Fingers, they have very little ventilation, and cover more of the foot. The boot is made from a 2mm neoprene material which has some insulating and padding properties. This is good for preventing sand and rocks from bothering your feet, but it might get hot.

Neither the O'Neill nor the Vibrams feel very comfortable for walking on uneven surfaces. They're especially uncomfortable for walking over gravel and rocks. They have very thin soles. That’s nice for feeling the board and making a solid connection to it, but unlike sneakers, there isn't much of a padded barrier to rocks beating up your feet. It helps to walk with more weight on the toes, which requires some effort.

A Windsurfing Knife

After the fish hook incident, I've also begun to carry a two and a half inch Spyderco Ladybug3 H-1 serrated knife on a lanyard around my neck. I've carried it on several trips where it has been immersed in the hypersaline water of the Laguna Madre. It's unusual formulation of stainless steel shows no sign of rust, and seems to stay sharp.

The knife blade has round opening about 1 cm in diameter on it's back, just large enough to pry the blade open with my thumb. Even after spending time in the salty, muddy Laguna Madre, I can easily open the knife using one hand. This is a critical feature for a knife you might need to use while holding on your board for flotation. The blade locks open automatically.

The lock release mechanism requires two hands to close the knife safely. The release is located on the back. The natural way to press the release puts your fingers between the blade and its home in the handle. This lock arrangement is common, but will make it a little trickier to close the knife when you're on the water. In a knife that's less than 6.5 cm long when folded, there probably aren't many other options.

Hopefully I'll never get tangled in another nasty piece of fishing gear, but I'm quite happy to be prepared.

*Moving Average Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Buying items through these links indirectly helps sustain my Windsurfing addiction and is much appreciated! :)

Windsurfing in November

The Peconic Puffin is right, there is a lot of fun to be had in light wind. Two weeks ago, I enjoyed the lowest winds I've ever windsurfed in. Saturday’s winds were forecast in the 6-10 MPH range. Even the flimsy flag on that old mast over Worldwinds looked disappointed. 
Light Winds on the Laguna Madre
Clearly it was uphaul weather, not water start weather, so I initially wanted a lighter sail than my 6.5 Meter. Something nice for practicing freestyle tricks. When I asked Olivier at Worldwinds about renting equipment, he told me to consider renting a Kona longboard with a 7.5 meter sail.

I've never sailed a longboard, but I've seen them used when an instructor wants to round up a wayward student. Olivier sold it when he said that I could do some "actual sailing." That sounded pleasant. Why not? 

Olivier advised me to put the daggerboard down when I'm sailing upwind, but to only lower it to a 45 degree angle to discourage seaweed from wrapping around it. He also promised that I could sail downwind on the Kona without any problem.

After my first beach start, I practiced tacking on the Kona. The giant board turned slowly in the light wind, but it felt no more difficult to turn than any other board. The real sticking point was getting the daggerboard down. It took some elbow grease to get the lever to loosen up.

From the shore of Bird Island Basin, there are a handful of islands visible. One of them is a spoil left from the dredging of the Intracoastal Waterway. It has several fishing cabins on it, and that’s where I aimed the board.

I crossed the shipping channel and tacked just 50 feet shy of the docks on the spoil. It felt strange sailing in the backyard of a fishing cabin. When I say cabin, don't think of a log cabin, or Walden Pond. These cabins look more like pre-manufactured homes. Boxy shapes, siding, and a foundation of raised piers.

On the tack back to Worldwinds, I made significant progress upwind. When I hit the shallow water near the beach, I performed the first half of a jibe, tilting the mast windward, then I stood square on the board as I sailed straight downwind. As promised, running downwind was easy. I balanced the sail on its tack and trying not to rock the board side to side much.

When I got close to my launch site, I pulled the mast back, pointing the clew skyward to turn the board upwind. I then flipped the sail to complete the second half-jibe.

Now I was roughly aimed me back at the spoil where I could see two other windsurfers circumnavigating it. It looked like a fun way to test my skills, so I decided to follow their lead. 

I didn't quite make it far enough upwind of the island on my initial approach. I had to tack two or three times to get upwind of the docks that reached from each cabin out to the deeper water surrounding the spoil. I was impressed with how much progress against the wind I could make with each short tack. Daggerboards are nice in light winds.

As I passed near the end of a dock, it occurred to me that the spoil was probably uninhabited. There were no boats docked, no sounds, and no visible inhabitants. I later learned that the cabins on these spoils are leased out in five year increments by the Texas General Land Office. They're intended for recreational purposes, not as residences. If you look at the satellite view of the area on Google Maps, you can see the hundreds of cabins built on or near spoils along the Intracoastal waterway.

I grew up in Florida where the spoils are unspoiled. They're just piles of sand with lots of vegetation growing on them. It's interesting that Texas allows folks to build on them, although I can't say that the boxy cabins do much for the view. I bet it's a lot of fun to camp in one though!

I turned the board downwind to sail behind the spoil, making another wide jibe that pulled me around the island. As I passed the sandbar on it's downwind side, I flipped my sail and glided back to Worldwinds.

Before the sun started to set, I aimed the Kona at King Ranch, on the opposite shore of the Laguna Madre, which is more than two miles wide at this point. After crossing the channel a bit downwind of the fishing cabins, the pond-like waters gave way to a little more chop.

This would have been fine, but the wind dropped even more and the waves slapping the board’s bow made the job of holding the sail more tricky. It's amazing how much more effort a sail is to handle when the wind is so low.

At first I didn't realize what had happened. I thought that things were becoming more difficult through some failure in my technique. I used my usual trick to get reoriented: I tacked. The slowness of my tack, halfway between Worldwinds and the King Ranch, revealed the truth: the wind was dying. I didn't want to get stranded on the wrong side of the shipping channel as the sun was setting, so I started slogging back to Worldwinds.

As I sailed back across the channel, I saw a barge approaching from the West. Despite my fears of the wind dying, I couldn't resist hanging out to get a closer look. I timed a few tacks so I could stay a safe distance from the main channel. The towboat was pushing a wide rust-colored barge towards Corpus Christi Bay. Other than a few bits of piping sticking out here and there, it was just a feature-less geometric shape plowing through the water. Happy seagulls followed in the wake, feasting on something stirred up in the foam from the tug's props.

After satisfying my curiosity, I tacked again towards Worldwinds. Just outside of a comfortable walking distance from the shore, the wind dropped again. I adjusted my stance and hoped that I wouldn't have to make a cold, exhausting walk back to the beach. My headway was barely evident in the tiny ripples behind the board. Soon the wake looked more like wrinkles than ripples. As soon as the daggerboard hit bottom, I carried the rental equipment back to Worldwinds, satisfied that I had wrung the last puffs of air out of the day.

On Sunday, the wind conditions were similar. The Kona was already on the water so I rented a 190 liter Fanatic Viper, a stubby board in comparison, but still equipped with a daggerboard. I stayed closer to shore this time, renting a smaller sail and choosing to practice technique instead of repeating yesterday's expeditions into deeper waters.

I played with more tacking and jibing, including clew-first sailing. I even did some clew-first tacks, awkwardly pulling the clew over my head instead of stepping in front of the mast. I also practiced some back-winded sailing. Mostly just goofing off and making things up. Why not?

Jennie rented a beginner board. In the light wind, it wasn't much use. The small sail and table-shaped board makes balance easier in the wind, but it just behaved like a mule in the light breeze. The table-sized board only wanted to go downwind. At Randy’s suggestion she traded the beginner board in for my Viper's twin, and a 5.3 square meter sail.

The smaller, more rounded board and larger sail were much more suited to the conditions. Jennie had a much easier time staying upwind, tacking, and jibing, and quickly remembered her skills. Soon we were both sailing around each other on the Laguna Madre. Slowly.

The winds were so low that an instructor taught her student how to self-rescue when becalmed: lay the sail down on the back of the board, lie on the nose of the board, and paddle home. They paddled much faster than I could sail. I sometimes forget that walking isn't the only method of self-rescue, spoiled as I am to sail the (mostly) shallow Laguna Madre. It was a nice reminder.

I knew it was time to drive back to Austin when the winds died nearly completely. It was difficult to know if my tacks worked because of the wind, or just from my flapping. Judging by the bubbles I passed, the wind was blowing enough to move me at a rate of about 1 foot per second, which is around 1 MPH. 

Corpus Christi News

I have sad news for starving surfers. Ichiban, the Japanese buffet on South Padre Island Drive has closed. I guess we won't be stuffing our faces with all-you-can-eat sushi anymore.

The Surfside Sandwich Shoppe serves delicious hot and cold sandwiches on the island off of SPID near Whitecap. Nice guys, tasty food, and I loved their craft beer selection. 

JB’s German Bakery is another good option for food on the Island. We stopped here on our way back to Austin. I highly recommend their German Burger, which is giant meatball with german potato salad and a freshly baked bun. I also enjoyed a fresh apple strudel. It’s not health food, and they definitely operate on Island Time. The burger makes up for it.

I'm happy to report that Dragonfly is still a great place to get a fancier meal, and a decent cocktail on the island.

Speaking of Dragonfly, I noticed a castle-like structure being built behind it. My first thought: huh, that looks like Schlitterbahn! So it is. Schlitterbahn is opening a new park and restaurant on North Padre Island in 2015. It looks like a lot of fun!