Kite with the Wind
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Kite with the Wind

It’s like being a Formula 1 driver. That’s why we do it is the power you can hold and harness is just spectacular.

Rob Douglass has for the past 3 or 4 years basically established a standard for speed racing that’s unmatched in the world.

In 2010, I set the speed of 55.65 knots. To hold the outright world speed record is an absolute honor. It’s something that I constantly have to remind myself that it’s something I accomplished.

Here in Martha’s Vineyard, the professional kite boarder Rob Douglas, is training to reclaim his title as the fastest human under sail. Douglas is part of a new breed of sailing athletes accomplishing feats of speed that were once thought impossible.

The nice thing about the Vineyard is in the fall in the year, we have low-pressure systems that give us the kind of conditions that kiteboarders love.

So what’s going on behind us, we have a 250 meter course, which if you look behind us now, we have two buoys, these guys are all hitting the entrance right here. Usually the fin is no deeper than two inches deep. So our limit of water depth is about 2 inches. Literally today, they can ride, you know, 6 inches from the shoreline and be in this much water, and not be hitting the bottom. And you can see, when you’re very close to the beach, it’s literally almost mirror smooth. And when it’s flat, it’s fast.

In the last decade, kite surfing has exploded—from a recreational pastime to a full-fledged competitive sport. Disciplines include slalom, freestyle, and course racing. But among them, one of the most exciting is speed sailing.

He could be perfect! 27…33 knots…37 knots…(1 knot = 0.514 m/s) he’s out the track….he could do it, he’s up to 40…41, 41…he’s nearly at 50…50! He’s nearly done it…he’s done it! He’s done it! He’s beaten it! Rob Douglas is the fastest man on water! Is he gonna win? He’s the fastest man…Oh no! He’s all right….

You know, a lot of excitement, a lot of kind of emotions at that time. I wasn’t intending to kind of push it that hard, but once I got, you know, within 1 or 2 seconds of the run I knew something there was pretty special, we’re going to go into unchartered territory for myself.

For more than two years, Douglas held the outright world speed record of 55.65 knots, or over 64 miles per hour. But on November 11, a new record was set in Namibia by the VestasSailrocket 2, a radically designed foil based boat, built in Great Britain and piloted by an Australian Paul Larson. The strangely shaped craft reached an astonishing speed of 59.39 knots, or over 68 miles per hour. Now, Douglas is fighting back.

There’s going to be a lot of competition coming up in November and December, in France and in Africa.  

Right now, we are building a new speed stadium in the South of France. I will invite Rob. I’m sure as soon as the Mistral wind can blow strong, it can blow really really strong, I will be able to break a new world record.  And I am happy to defy Rob there.

For kite boarding, to recapture the speed record will depend on the whims of the wind, but also whether kiters can take advantage of specially designed courses, man-made canals, edge out of windy waterways, like the one in Luderitz, Namibia. The new canal was build there earlier this year, and Kiters will make a go at the speed record for two weeks beginning December 3.

The biggest benefit that we see out of the canal in speed sailing is that it reduces the amount of chop on the water. It only takes a couple of feet from the shore before you have, you know, 6 to 12 inches of chop. Going 65mph, that’s not a recipe for speed.

In fact, it can be a recipe for serious injury. On the run following his world record in Namibia, Rob Douglas fell hard, and shattered his wrist.

Uh, we had a good run going together, but at the bottom kind of just ran out of some room and ended up, you know, going onto the dry beach probably at about 48 or 49 knots, about 55mph. And uh yeah, broke the wrist pretty bad. So the competition was over for me at that moment.

The growth of kiteboarding in general has raised concerns about safety, as more people take to the air and try to pull off increasingly difficult stunts. In 2010, kite boarder LewisCrathern jumped Brighton pier  in the United Kingdom, during heavy winds. Some criticized the move as reckless. And in 2008, Kevin Kearney was severely injured when he went out kite boarding during tropical storm Fay in southern Florida. He has since recovered, but the accident remains a touchy subject in the kite boarding community.

First of all, it’s hurricane winds. It’s his choice to go out, and nobody would go out. So some of these things, it’s pilot error.

After savoring more than 2 years as the fastest sailor on earth, Rob Douglas says he’s committed to getting his title back. But he recognizes that his time to do so may be short because of life’s encroaching limitations.

I’m currently 41 years old. We are going faster and faster but at a certain time, I understand that the laws of nature and the laws of gravity are going to take its toll, take its effect. So cherish it as long as you have it, and then prepare yourself for another challenge when the time comes.


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