Sheet In, Turn Left – How To Speed Sail At West Kirby

Want to take on speed sailing at West Kirby for the first time?

Adrian Jones takes an in-depth look at how to sail West Kirby, recalling his virgin speed sailing experience with legends Farrel O’Shea and Zara Davis.

Farrel O’Shea

In 2012 I flew out to Gran Canaria to go head to head with slalom World Champion Bjorn Dunkerbeck on his own gear and later I returned to spend a day with wave World Champion Philip Koster. This year, our editors decided against board shorts and sun cream, I was to go head to head on a UK speed course with the UK’s fastest man, Farrel O’Shea and the Worlds fastest lady, Zara Davis.

So now I find I’m stood waist deep in brown water in West Kirby, about to do my first speed run, on a Monday morning in February. Despite a wetsuit numbing the senses, I can still feel my booted ankles deep in mud and icy splashes of water and wind chill sneaking through my palm-less mittens. My back is leaning against the West Kirby sea wall and I’m doing my best to hang on to the luff tube of my sail. It’s solid 4.0m fun sailing conditions and I’m holding onto a 5.5m. Not just any 5.5m though, this is the set-up of the UK’s fastest man: Farrel O’Shea.

With a solid Westerly forecast for Monday Feb 4th, I got the call from Farrel saying he would pick me up at 8:30am. I would be using his gear, and was to bring only my wetsuit, harness, boots, mittens, hat, thermal vest etc!

En-route to Kirby, I gave Farrel a bit of a grilling, hoping to glean some tips for the day. Farrel is a super nice guy and a unique entertaining character. He has a very calm and controlled manner and is very direct. Everything is well thought through before he opens his mouth and the same seems true in how he handles speed sailing. Hours and hours of thought, preparation and testing go into every aspect of his gear.

His dedicated speed quiver consists of a 6.2, 5.5, 5.0 and a 4.6 (which he has never used!). He uses 47cm and 41cm wide production boards from Mistral (Anders holds the production speed record on the same 41cm board with a speed in excess of 51 knots!) And for the real record breaking days Farrel has a 38cm Moo Custom. He says that the equipment is absolutely key to getting the best speeds. Not just choosing the right tools, but perhaps more importantly, tuning up correctly. But I don’t have to worry about any of that, as I was using his personal record-breaking gear, and he has volunteered to be my caddy.

Adrian Jones

Farrel set me a target of 40 knots peak speed for the day, which I thought was pretty ambitious for an 80kg first-time speed-sailor on unfamiliar equipment! I had used a GPS only once before, on a Fanatic Hawk 110 with a 6.7m twin cam sail. I remember blasting down the face of swells, on the edge of control, thinking I was going ridiculously fast, only to find that I never once went above 32 knots! The thought of doing 40 knots seemed pretty unrealistic to me, but I didn’t say too much as Farrel had more confidence in my ability than I did!

I ask Farrel about harness type, as despite racing in a seat harness for many years, I only ever wear a waist harness and was not sure whether to stick with what I know or to switch to a seat, as that is what most speed sailors use. Farrel confirms what I was hoping to hear. Most guys on the tour, including him, use a seat harness as it can better lock everything into place. But he adds that waist harnesses are perfectly valid and sailors such as Steve Thorp are proof that they work. Next, I move onto harness line length. I use 36 inch lines, albeit mostly for wave sailing, so I was a little concerned that Farrel’s lines at 32 inches might feel a bit short for me, particularly as I like the control that longer line offers when headed broad off the wind. Farrel quickly points out that because race booms are wider, you have more distance from the rig and therefore the lines feel longer.

During our chat I struggle to get anything of much use about technique from him! Similar to what I found with Bjorn, these guys have gone way past the stage of working on their technique. That’s automatic. What matters to them, is having the gear set-up to maximise that technique, and that’s what they focus on.

Farrel says that Kirby works best with a bit of North in the wind, as it gives a broader angle on the Starboard tack course, which runs all the way down the side of the marine wall. The ideal angle for speed is somewhere around 140 degrees, although Farrel quotes a saying from the speed scene which goes along the lines of “it’s never too broad for speed, it just has to be windy enough”!

On arrival at West Kirby, there are nearly 30 vans parked in the car park, with guys already rigging. Ant Baker has driven 5 hours from Shoreham, Oisín Van Gelderen has come from Dublin, and Martin Van Meurs had driven his car and poor wife all the way from Holland! And from what I can see the forecast has delivered. It looks windy to me and occasionally; there is even a small break in the clouds for the sun to shine through. I’m feeling quite excited! And then I step out of the van and remember how cold it is!

I get to meet Pete and Zara Davis for the first time. Both are welcoming and friendly. The whole vibe in the car park is sociable and not at all intimidating and I’m just starting to relax when I hear something discussed that comes as a surprise…

What?!! Are you crazy?! It’s absolutely howling! Farrel starts talking about setting me up on the 6.2m, but I am much more into the idea of the 5.5m – I would probably be on my 4.2m if I were free sailing!

Luckily for me, the wind gusts through – enough for Farrel to take the sand bags out of the back of his van in preparation to pin the gear down. I get the 5.5m. Farrel is a fair bit bigger than me at 6’3’’ and 96 kg, but to make it easier to swap gear, he also punts for a 5.5m sail. To be fair, this seems to be a pretty standard size. Most guys (and girls) in the carpark are rigging something between 5.4m and 5.7m. I’m impressed that Zara is also straight onto her 5.5m. Bear in mind that we are using sandbags to hold our rigged gear down! It is windy!

Farrel pairs me up with the bigger of his two Mistrals (while he takes the smaller), to allow me to get used to sailing a speed board, and suggests I have a go on his smaller one, and perhaps even the Moo custom later in the day if I’m up to it!

While I walk to the water, the phrase “all the gear and no idea” comes to mind, and quite honestly it couldn’t have been more appropriate. As I slither down the algae slope into the water my good friend, Irish Speed Champion and co-editor of this magazine, shouts a final bit of advice – “Hey Ade, remember… Don’t sheet out, and definitely don’t turn right!” – with a wry smile on his face, making a jibe about how close you are to the wall on the way down the course!

West Kirby speed sailing etiquette:

Kirby etiquette is that you wade in line in the waist deep water along the edge of the wall from where you launch until it’s your turn to set-off. Once you set-off, the trick is (apparently) to sail as tight as you can for 100 meters or so until you reach the wall that forms the course. This then positions you as high up as possible, ready to bear off and accelerate as quickly as you can for the actual run. The further down the run you go, the choppier the water becomes. Combine this with the fact that the run is only just long enough for the full 500m, meaning it is very important to stay as high up as possible at the beginning.

So with a numb set of hands and absolutely no idea what the next minute or so was going to entail, I waterstart up onto the board, hook into the harness and wiggle my muddy, booted feet into the straps. Straight away I am surprised at how easy the bigger Mistral is to sail. It feels very similar to sailing a slalom board and is no problem really to get going on. I am fully lit on the 5.5m, as I try to sail as tight as I can towards the wall. To keep everything planted, my shoulders are inboard, my legs slightly bent and I’m pushing out on my waist harness. It’s not the fastest technique but it’s keeping everything locked down ready for the start of the run. As it’s my first run, I am a bit conservative in how close I get to the wall before I bear off. With so much power in the rig, it takes a fair bit of technique to bear off the wind and knowing that if you get it wrong you are going to pile straight into the concrete wall, definitely keeps the attention! The acceleration is incredible! I have never felt anything like it on a windsurfer before. It’s like being slingshot and to be honest was probably the most memorable part of the whole course for me!

Farrel said it was best to keep within a couple of meters of the wall on the way down as that is where the water is flattest. Of course, in the interests of self-preservation, I completely ignored this advice and was more like a couple of van lengths from the wall on my first run down!

After the initial acceleration, the power in the rig eases off and because the water is flatter than anything you will have sailed on in this much wind before, the board is pretty settled and doesn’t require much attention.

I’m reluctant to use the word ‘easy’ because it clearly isn’t, but compared with doing a broad run in chop on the open sea, this is much more controlled and manageable. It’s certainly well within the realms of most recreational sailors.

The rig feels rigid, stable and very controllable, but in the bigger gusts I feel the board lifting on the fin which forces me to sheet out a little to bring it back into check. One of the strangest sensations I found at West Kirby is that because you are sailing next to a wall, with a sandy beach behind it, you don’t really get much visual warning of the gusts coming. As a lighter rider, it’s pretty useful to be able to see the gust coming, so you can be braced and ready for it.

In between the gusts, the board feels super smooth and low on friction, compared with anything I have sailed before. The rig is light and effortless in the hands and it’s actually quite a ‘relaxed’ ride, until the gusts hit me. The whole 500 meter run is over in approx 25 seconds, but it feels a lot longer! At the bottom of the course, it’s much choppier, so you have to be a bit sharper. To stop you bear off to create some space from the wall, then turn up into wind, towards the wall. I’m exhausted and my arms are fully pumped up, but I’m really eager to see the speed! It felt a fast run, so I’m hoping for something good, but I have no idea whether it was 25 knots or 50!

The wind was actually pretty square (about 110 degrees) meaning that rather than having to walk back up the wall, you could sail back up in the other direction, particularly on the bigger speed boards. This gave me time to hatch a plan for the next run. I saw two obvious areas for improvement. Firstly, stop being a chicken and get closer to the wall and secondly, try to gain control in the gusts. I might have tried moving the mast track forward a little, but as it was Farrel’s set-up and I had only had one run on it, I thought it best to think about my technique first. I tend to sail quite a lot off my back foot, leaning back and driving against the fin, so I decided to try and move my weight a bit lower and further forward to keep the board planted during the gusts.

After waiting my turn in the queue, I go through the same process of heading as high as I can towards the wall. This time I try and hold the power as I bear away to improve my acceleration and get a bit closer to the wall. This seems to work, as I achieve an even stronger slingshot acceleration than I did on the first run and I edge myself to within 3 or 4 meters of the wall, but no closer as I hadn’t entirely got to grips with this control issue, and didn’t fancy popping a wheelie at 50 mph within crashing distance of the concrete! As I head down the strip, I concentrate on keeping my weight forward and the power driving into the board. I get the big gust in the middle of the course, and instead of lifting up on the fin, I keep my weight low and forward to squeeze the power into speed by letting the sail sheet out a tiny bit, while keeping the board trimmed and accelerating. This works much better, from a control point of view, as the board stays down through the gust. It’s not the technique I prefer to use, but it feels like an improvement. As soon as I reach the bottom of the course I look for the speed on the GPS and am delighted to see 39.18 knots. That’s a big improvement on the first run, but I know the next improvements are going to be harder to make.

The next couple of runs I build my confidence, getting closer to the wall and get more familiar with the equipment and how to get the best out of it. The speeds slowly nudge up and by run five, I get the big 40, with a peak speed of 40.16 knots. It’s probably the fastest I have ever gone on a windsurfer in the 25 years since I first stepped on a board!

Getting a bit more dialled in to the bigger kit, I find that I can do 40 knot peaks reasonably consistently. In fact, on some of the runs, I am starting to feel so comfortable that I’m not sure what else I can do to go any faster, except wait for more wind. And that might just be the case, but perhaps the smaller board will make a difference?

Zara Davis

I have a quick chat to Farrel and Zara. Zara isn’t too happy as she prefers the course to be broader. She explains that when the course is square to the wind like this, it helps to be heavier so you can keep everything pinned down. At around 75 kg, she is one of the lightest riders, yet still hanging on to the same size sail as some of the heaviest. Both Farrel and Zara reckon that if the course were broader (nearer to the ‘perfect’ 140 degrees), speeds could have been up to four knots faster.

With the smaller of the two Mistrals attached to my rig, I waterstart and immediately notice the size difference. It definitely submarines a lot more when you stand on it, so you have to be careful not to catapult before it clambers onto the plane. The single back strap, instead of the double on the bigger board, makes the tail feel narrower and the nose looks more purposeful. Other than that, it sails pretty similar to the bigger board until you bear it off the wind! Oh…my….God! This board feels fast!! Scary fast!! There is noticeably less friction and it feels much smoother and less rattled.

For me, this board doesn’t have any control issues in the gusts and I am able to use the technique I am more familiar with to lock against the fin. At the bottom of the run, it all felt pretty composed, so I am intrigued to see what the GPS reads…39.32 knots. Well that’s a surprise! It felt a lot quicker than the bigger board, but I’d gone slower! After a few more runs, I noticed that I was in more control, and felt there was nothing more I could possibly do to go quicker, except hope for more wind. Generally, I was in a lot more control, but not as quick as the bigger board. However, when the wind gusted up, I managed to score two 41 knot runs showing the potential this board has over the bigger one when conditions allow.

This speed sailing business is pretty hard work! My arms are fully pumped and I am feeling jelly-like in all my limbs, so I decide to take a break. On the beach I chat to a few of the guys and find out that a few of them are peaking at nearly 45 knots! You can really spot the good guys (and girls) on the water by their technique. They manage to keep everything locked in and it looks as the sail never moves – just the leech opening to spill the gusts. Those with less honed technique are making much more adjustments on the way down the course. A lot of this is about having the set-up to allow you to do this, and I think a bit of extra body weight must help.

When I used to do slalom and formula racing, I felt a bit too light at 80 kg to really pin the kit down at the top end, and I expected this to be even more evident on the speed course. Surprisingly, it wasn’t. I think because the water is flatter and you are sailing broader, things are a bit more subtle than rattling over chop on a tight reach. Therefore, a lighter rider is more able to brace themselves more on a speed course. Nevertheless I am keen to try a weight jacket to see what difference it makes.

Some of the other lighter riders like Steve Thorp and Oisin are carrying up to 12 kg on their back, but being uninitiated, Farrel hooks me up with a measly 7 kg. After this morning’s stint, my legs are struggling enough to carry my body weight back down to the water, let alone a load of lead on my shoulders! You really notice the extra weight walking around, but it’s most apparent when waterstarting as it takes more power to lift you from the water. Once up and running, it feels great! 7 kg extra on your back is probably worth 10-15 kg of regular body weight, because it’s in the position for best leverage. And what a difference it makes. On the tight reach in to the wall, I no longer have to adopt the ‘toilet’ stance to keep everything in control, however, it’s when bearing away I notice it the most. Being lighter, as soon as I weight the toe rail of the board to bear off, the wind gets under the heel rail which can cause control problems, so I have had to sheet out a bit, lean forward and try to carve the board around more slowly – without piling into the wall! With the weight jacket, suddenly the whole kit feels more pinned down and I am able to bear away more aggressively without sheeting out. Boy, what a difference!

Not only have I got better acceleration around the top corner onto the course, the wind has picked up a little. With this extra weight I am really able to focus on keeping the sail locked in and instead of sheeting out, I can bear off a little to make the most of the gusts. When the front of each gust hits, you get a power surge and the opportunity to boost your speed for the next bit of the run. If you fumble it, the opportunity has gone. Make the most of it though, and each gust accelerates you faster and faster. If you get enough gusts on the way down, you get a good speed. Sounds a bit simplistic, but that’s pretty much how it seems to work. The key is being able to turn each gust into speed, and the weight jacket combined with bearing off slightly each time, definitely makes a difference. And the GPS confirms this with a peak speed of 42.959 knots! I’m happy with that! It’s as good as 43 knots and way better than I expected to be capable of. What’s more, with a broader course, a bit more wind and perhaps a bit more lead, I’m sure I could go faster. I have to admit, it’s really addictive!

Having sailed Farrel’s kit all day in his exact set-up, I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t touch a thing to tune it differently for me, except for some slightly longer lines and the mast track a touch further forward, or maybe a smaller fin for more control on the bigger board. It’s a similar conclusion to what I found when I sailed Bjorn’s gear, and it’s surprising as both of these guys are a lot bigger than me. Even the boom height was right, showing that they both must sail with a relatively low boom as mine isn’t exceptionally high. Perhaps the extra power they have means they can get away with it.

Zara uses the same equipment as Farrel, but being a much lighter rider, I thought it would be interesting to see how it compares. Her sail, also a 5.5m, was identically rigged with lots of downhaul, and a touch of negative outhaul, which helps pull you off the wind. She also opted for the 41cm wide board (the very one she set the world record on), which, just like Farrel’s, was far more suited to my bodyweight. In fact, the only noticeable difference I could find was that she used shorter lines, which at around 30cm these were too short for my waist harness – but she said that she would make them longer when the course is broader or rougher.

Before the day was out, Farrel was keen for me to take a spin on his tiny Moo Custom board. Now I have to confess to thinking a little unfairly about some speed sailors previously. Having seen them on occasion making such a meal of waterstarting and getting planing, I had concluded that they were probably too fond of cream cakes and lacked a little talent. But with the little Moo fastened to my rig, and my time to go at the front of the Kirby line-up, I was rather taken aback by what happened next!

I put my back foot onto the board, pointed it off the wind and let the rig pull me (and my weight jacket) into position. In the half second or so that it took for me to get upright, the board had managed to sink to nearly waist depth! I wasn’t quick enough to ease off the power and coax it back to the surface, and so rather embarrassingly catapulted right in front of everyone. Undeterred, I swam everything around back into position and tried again. But once again, I find myself waist deep in water. This time I am fairy footed enough to get my front foot in the strap and get the board back to the surface, where you would expect all to be back on track, but it isn’t. I can think of no better way of describing it than to imagine there was a bucket strapped to the back of the board. It just wouldn’t release! There was so much power in my arms, my front foot was in the strap, but I could do nothing but catapult once again in front of the onlookers. This was getting really embarrassing and I have drifted too far downwind to start the run properly, so I abandon and swim to the back of the line with my tail between my legs, wishing I hadn’t been so judgemental of those I had seen doing this in the past!

Eventually, I sussed that you need to be overpowered in the rig before the board will release, and then once it releases, the acceleration is incredible. It’s like stepping from the big Mistral to the small one all over again. The tail is so narrow that both my heel and toe are touching the water as the board trims from side to side, but the sensation of speed and glide is something else. In practice, my speeds were no quicker than on the smaller Mistral, but I think my fatigue was starting to play a factor. Also, I reckon this board needs a bit more wind to really come into its own, and is designed for a broader course.

What an experience the whole day has been though! I set out with the aim of achieving 40 knots, and thanks to Farrel and Zara’s encouragement and perfectly tuned kit; I managed a peak of 42.956 knots. I had a fantastic time and learned about the technique, conditions and equipment that constitute the foundations of speed sailing. The social aspect of the sport was really nice. Everyone queuing up along the wall before each run, having a bit of banter and egging each other on was a lot of fun. I was surprised that I could be quite competitive with just two sails and one board.

But most importantly, I was left with the feeling that I could go faster, and that I wanted to go faster, and I guess that is the addiction of speed sailing. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what equipment you are on, as the only person you are competing against is yourself – along with the help of that little digital display strapped to your arm – serving as a constant reminder to: sheet in and turn left!


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