Saturday, November 22, 2014

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!

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