Foil Racing - It's Cheaper Than You Think

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As an avid windsurfer since childhood I was excited to try foiling as soon as the first video clips hit YouTube. After moving to Moreton Bay, in Brisbane QLD, and having no nearby wave breaks (my previous passion), I was looking for a way to refresh my enjoyment of windsurfing. I tried slalom racing first; it was intoxicatingly thrilling, especially driving into the gybe at full speed with ten or more other sailors doing the exact same thing around you. The opportunities to race in the area were dwindling though. Luckily the foiling craze hit at the right time.

I started off with a freeride foil on various boards, including an old Fanatic, which I chopped down and installed a foil box. This was, and still is, great fun. I can head out in anything from 10 to 30 knots with small sails, carving downwind with little sail input for as long as I desire (or until I hit the bottom!). As I started to get more confident, I started jumping, though this stopped abruptly when the aluminium masts started bending. Getting airborne is now on hold until some stiffer masts are available for my foil or I learn to jump properly!

While I enjoy freeride gear I was drawn to the increasing number of windfoil sailors racing 'off the beach' every Saturday at the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron (RQYS). The speeds and angles they achieved were incredible, annihilating race boards around the course in the lightest of winds with what looked like minimal effort.

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With the Australian foil nationals coming to RQYS in January 2020 I decided it was time to bite the bullet and try it out for myself. But I needed to get into the discipline without spending half a house deposit and get my hands on the equipment despite very little advertisement on shop websites. After doing a lot of research I came across Zulu foils, a small operation out of Cape Town, South Africa. Robbie Bense, the owner, had produced a budget race foil of similar design to the Starboard models that were winning races worldwide. I purchased this foil, with shipping, for under AU$1500. A bargain compared to other offerings on the market.

Scouring the Seabreeze website for windsurf bargains is a twice daily habit for me at the best of times. Now that I had my foil and was looking for a suitable foil race board my screen time went through the roof. I knew that a formula board was my best and cheapest option. After a few weeks of clicking and hoping, one finally came up close to home: a 2017 Fanatic formula for a bargain price. It didn't have a reinforced foil box, but Robbie at Zulu installed a small flange on the foil mast at the board connection to distribute the load better over the board which meant I could use the regular box.

In terms of rigs I couldn't afford to buy a foil sail, mast and boom in one go - especially when I wasn't sure I would pursue the sport after the nationals - so I settled on using what I already had: an 8.5 m KA Koncept. I figured this would be enough to get me round the course in most breezes while I learnt all the techniques and transitions.

Three months out from the first race of the Nationals my gear all came together. I knew I needed to do as much training and as many Saturday races as I could to get used to the equipment. I also hadn't competed in a windward/leeward windsurf race for twenty years. To say I was rusty and unknowledgeable was an understatement. After only one afternoon training session before the first available race I threw myself into the deep end on my new gear.

The regular racers at RQYS were (and are) more than helpful. Windsurfing is a very inviting sport in general and this was emphasised when I first arrived to sign on. Everyone is excited to see new people racing, especially in the foil class. At RQYS you share the start line with race boarders, Techno Class and the RSX Class. It is also home to many of the best windfoilers in the country who are more than happy to share their knowledge.

After some general instruction I hit the line out of the way of the race boards and other foilers and headed upwind. I noticed early on that my upwind ability was severely lacking, however it was too early to say how much of it was gear related versus my experience and technique (or lack thereof). I still managed to reach the top mark before the race board fleet.

It was on the downwind run that I realised how infectious foil racing can be. The feeling you get from flying over the chop as you scream almost dead downwind is hard to beat. Enduring multiple touchdowns and crashes I sorted out the best stance to maintain control. I tried to take it easy on the gybes by touching down as I flipped the sail while still maintaining some forward momentum.

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After this first taste I trained every afternoon after work that I could, however, due to other commitments (like photography for SurfSailKite) I struggled to get in anymore race practice leading up to the nationals. On occasions during afternoon training I got to sail alongside some of the local hotshots to see where I was at. It was still evident that I couldn't match the angles they were able to achieve upwind and downwind but my tacks and gybes and general technique was improving. The nationals were always going to be a learning experience. I knew it would be a great opportunity to be in a race environment with many top sailors and took note of everything they did on the course and shore. My goal was just to get around the course and try to improve in each race. Sadly, my rig had other ideas.

With the nerves building on the start line for the first race I wanted to steer clear of the pack in order to get clean wind and foil across the line. This meant heading for the pin each time as the majority went for the boat end. It was apparent to them (not me though) that the line was boat favoured. I managed to start cleanly and head upwind for all my races. It was daunting to notice straight away that I was towards the back of the fleet and heading at a very low angle in comparison to most, but I kept reminding myself that I was never going to be up there and focus on my own race.

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I managed to have some competition at the back and enjoyed racing around the course with a large number of windfoilers for the first time (a fleet of 34 competed). It felt good to finish the first few races within the time allotted in the grand prix format (15 min to finish the race after the winner crosses the line). Unfortunately, during the third race I caught an edge and fell on the sail, blowing the foot to luff seam to pieces.

The next race wasn't until after the lunch break and the wind was increasing. I rigged my next largest sail, a 7.5 m KA, and headed out. The wind slowly died though and I struggled to get foiling downwind. This was extremely frustrating with the top guys flying past me as if there was all the wind in the world. With no ability to complete the course I had no option but to call it a day.

I started day two with my 8.5 m sail and a seriously dodgy looking tape repair completed the night before. It was my only real option as the wind was similar to day one. I had some good starts using the same pin end tactic and managed to stick closer to the main fleet with a slight increase in wind in races two and three. It felt great to get around the three laps without getting lapped or falling off the foil. The repair lasted until the finish of race three before blowing out again and effectively finishing my regatta.

On the third and final day of the regatta I reverted to my calling of sailing photography for SurfSailKite. Being so passionate about windsurfing and foiling in particular, I wanted to try and capture some great content to promote to the windsurfing/sailing world what a great class the windfoil is. Starboard brand manager Ian Fox said the eyes of the windfoil world were on us, so I thought anything I could do would be a big plus. With some spectacular drone footage from local ripper Matt Chew to go along with mine, I managed to produce some great content to be distributed online.

Taking stock of my performance I'm happy with the fact that I completed the courses when the conditions allowed and was able to keep up with some of the sailors in the fleet. My foiling gybes improved greatly and my ability to start in clean air was a definite advantage to take into future races. I also noticed that as the wind picked up so did my ability to keep up with the fleet. When I wasn't struggling with equipment (mainly too small a sail and wing in light winds) I was more competitive. It makes me want to eventually purchase the good race equipment to see where I stand on a level playing field.

Overall, I enjoyed my first course racing experiences and I plan to continue to pursue the class. With some small equipment upgrades and more time on the water I'll be more competitive and above all enjoy my time in a larger variety of conditions. It's an exhilarating form of racing that can't be easily matched. Plus, you're sailing with a great group of fun and supportive sailors. What's not to like!?

Further Information

What I would like to convey with this article is that windfoil racing is more accessible than a lot of people realise. I have heard countless people state that they would be interested in joining the race fleet if they had a spare ten grand sitting around. Although I mentioned above that it is hard to be competitive with lesser equipment, it doesn’t mean you can’t get out on the course and enjoy the sport. It takes a lot of time on the water to learn the techniques and transitions required which do not depend on having the top of the line foil or foil sail. Just get out on the course and learn. There will be others doing the same which will provide you with good friendly competition and comradery. This is even more logical in the coming year as new equipment is having production and distribution issues.

Below is a breakdown of what I believe is the cheapest way to get out on the course as well as a slightly more expensive option for when you have improved and want to be competitive.

Budget Setup

Item Description Cost (AU$)
Foil Zulu Race Foil 1450*
Board Formula Board (2nd hand) 500 - 1000
Sail 8.0 - 9.5 slalom sail (one) 300 - 600
Mast 490 / 520 carbon (2nd hand) 300 - 500
Boom Aluminium or Carbon (2nd hand) 300 - 600
Total AU$2850 - 4150
*Depends on exchange rate

Mid - Range Setupp

Item Description Cost (AU$)
Foil Zulu Race Foil with 2 wings 1850*
Board Formula Board (2nd hand) 600 - 1000
Sail 8.0/9.0/10.0 m foil sail (one) 1200 - 1700
Mast 490 / 520 carbon (2nd hand) 300 - 500
Boom Carbon (2nd hand) 600
Total AU$4550 - 5650
*Depends on exchange rate

Handy Tips

Intro to Sailing Photography

Moving to Brisbane, and in particular the south of Moreton Bay, gave me the opportunity to pursue paid sailing photography as it is home to the largest private marina in the southern hemisphere and the many sailing clubs that come with it.

Knowing people in the industry is always the easiest step into Sailing photography and luckily I had a few contacts early on; being a professional Naval Architect (my real job) meant meeting many sailors. Having a wooden boat yard across the road from my office with the biggest larrikin in QLD sailing in charge made it even easier. My soon to be father in law was also on the committee for the combined clubs yacht racing which took place monthly throughout the year. These contacts allowed me my first opportunities at shooting yacht races, whether it be on the start boat or sitting on the deck of my in-laws cruiser / racer during the many races around picturesque Moreton Bay.

Interestingly I got my first big break (and payment) from the other big yacht Mecca down the motorway, Southport Yacht Club. I stumbled upon their website advertising their Sail Paradise regatta that takes place at the Start of January each year, bringing yachts of all shapes and sizes to race infront of the imposing backdrop of the city by the sea. By good fortune or luck their regular photographer had double booked themselves, leaving the door open for me. I stated that I had never had a paid photography gig however Bronson, Southport's marketing manager, took a punt on me.

The crux to the job offer was the amount of content Southport desired and was a rude awakening to the fact that just being a stills photographer is not sufficient in our age of online media consumption. To start with Bronwen requested up to 100 quality images within two hours of coming off the water in order to flash them onto the TV screens around the club for all the recently returned beer crazy sailors to peruse over and catch a glimpse of their yacht in exciting competition. The second part was the production of a daily video clip of up to two minutes long to showcase the racing and the beautiful location that Southport provides. This would take more time but was expected to be uploaded before the following days activities commenced.

The final criteria that Bronwen put to me was the desire for drone footage of the regatta. The latest must have in sailing media with good reason, the use of a drone reduces the cost drastically when compared to the more traditional helicopter shoot. Being drone-less at the time I saw this as the best opportunity to invest in a DJI Mavic Pro and learn to fly it. However I wouldn't call buying a drone even close to the first step in producing good quality sailing footage.

The second difficult area to negotiate was setting my daily rate. How do you work this out with no prior experience and therefore little to go off? If I set it too high does that ruin my shot at my first big opportunity. If I set it too low does that price lock me in for every job in my foreseeable future.

I decided to contact a family friend who had made it big in the sailing photography game. However with his schedule so packed and a quick answer not forthcoming I decided to turn to another one of Australia's top sailing photography talent who was fortuitously a linked in contact of mine.

The response I received after asking for an example daily rate was not what my optimistic mind was thinking.

With the regatta fast approaching I was left with a lot to ponder. How do you fit stills, film AND drone use into a days racing? Making things even more difficult is sometimes only one race is completed, making managing your time absolutely crucial to capture all the content that you require.

Experience brings answers to these questions. Both through successes and failures. I was about to learn what it took to be a professional sailing photographer. There was a lot of trepidation; would I perform how I hoped, will this bring recognition and further work. Though I guess the best term for it would be nervous excitement.