Rob Douglas sets sailing record
If he had been in a car, on any Martha's Vineyard roadway, Rob Douglas, CEO of The Black Dog Tavern Inc., could have been given a speeding ticket and a substantial fine.
But he wasn't on Martha's Vineyard, he was in Lüderitz, Namibia, on the southwest coast of Africa. And he wasn't in a car, he was on a small board, not much larger than a water ski, powered by a huge kite. And he wasn't on a roadway, he was skimming over about six inches of water in a protected lagoon.
So he didn't get a speeding ticket for traveling 49.84 nautical miles (knots) per hour (57.35 miles per hour). Instead he got the applause, recognition, and the acknowledgement that he was the fastest sailor in the world. According to the World Sailing Speed Record Council (WSSRC), the organization that keeps track of such things, nobody had ever gone faster on water, powered by a sail.
Photo courtesy of Roger Hislop
"On the first day of the competition," said Mr. Douglas, "we set a new American record. The second day of the competition, we set an overall world record."
The competition continued for a month, with the best kite sailors in the world pushing the record past the elusive milestone of 50 knots. Eventually, French sailor Alex Caizergues captured the world record at 50.57 knots (58.19 miles per hour). Mr. Caizergues's fastest time measured just .03 knots per hour faster than Mr. Douglas's best effort. That is one-tenth the time it takes to blink an eye. Mr. Douglas's time of 50.54 knots stands as an American record.
"It went back and forth for almost the full four weeks out there," said Mr. Douglas. "It was a lot harder to have the world record than to try to beat it. You find yourself kind of defending, versus going on the offense. It was a mental challenge for me. I knew I was up against the best guys in the world, and they weren't going to stay below me."
Kite + board = speed
Kite sailing, a recent outgrowth of wind surfing, is accomplished with a small board, and a massive arc-shaped kite. Wires attached to a harness around the competitor's waist are used to steer the kite. In addition to speed, the equipment allows, literally, a new dimension to the sport. By manipulating the kite and the angle of wind, a kite sailor can lift himself as high as 30 feet in the air. If speed is the goal, however, staying on the water is essential.
The speed competition, in September and October of this year, was held in the tiny town of Lüderitz, because of its nearly unique geography. The town's wide, shallow lagoon, where the wind is consistent and strong, and centuries of desert sands have been blown away leaving only a solid rock bluff, turns out to be the perfect place for kite sailors with a thirst for speed.
"The two biggest criteria are the amount of wind, and surface condition," said Mr. Douglas. Wind angle is also critical. Competitors need a wind angle of about 140 degrees, a broad reach in sailing terms.
It turns out, Martha's Vineyard is a very good place to train for kite sailing. An avid community of about 20 kite sailors pursue the sport here on Martha's Vineyard. Sengekontacket Pond, Cape Pogue Bay, and Katama Bay are the three locations where they usually gather, depending on wind and water conditions. While Mr. Douglas works out at Vineyard Fitness three days a week and practices yoga five days a week, the most important part of his training regimen is sailing.
"You have to sail whenever you can," said Mr. Douglas. "Being on the Vineyard, we don't get the similar strength of wind, but we get consistent wind, with occasional 30-40 knots. The conditions here allow me to sail frequently. In between, the most important thing is to maintain flexibility."
When sailing faster than 50 knots over a 500-meter course in six inches of water, a lot can go wrong. "I spent a lot of time trying not to think about it, but you know it's there," said Mr. Douglas. "Crashes happen all the time. You try to maintain a flat position. A crash can go 200 feet, easy. The more times you crash, the more comfortable you become with it, and the more the fear gets removed."
The equipment he uses, including a Cabrinha kite and a John Amundson board, is only slightly modified from "off the shelf" status. But that may change as the competitors chase higher and higher speeds.
"In order to go faster, we're going to have to find a way to apply the power of the kite to the water more efficiently," said Mr. Douglas. "We're going to do that through primarily two things next year. We're going to add more flex to the board, and we're going to add more concave to the bottom shape." There are no limitations on equipment in kite sailing. The only rules are you have to be on the water, and you have to be powered by the wind.
Mr. Douglas is looking forward to the next big event in the kite sailing world, to be held next spring in France. But for now, he is thrilled with his experience in Namibia. "To be in my second speed event, and with the best guys in the world, I had to come away grateful, and thankful for it," he said.