RUMINATIONS OF A BROKEN OLD WINGFOIL RACER - SHAAN MILLER
Shaan Miller comes from a wealth of salt water experience after being part of the late 1980s windsurfing scene and an early adopter for kiteboarding, everything to do with a SUP and now Wing Foiling. After stalking his Facebook profile he Wing foiled on New Zealand shores on 30 June 2019 (the first?), and organised the first New Zealand based Wing Foil race off Orewa, Auckland on 26 October 2019.
Shaan is an absolute frother, he founded the “Kiwi Foil Froth” page on facebook, and previous author of wind and kite magazines published in early 2000’s.
After last weekends New Zealand Wingfoil Nationals, Shaan posted the following message on the Kiwi Foil Froth page. We thought it captured not only the event so well, but also the wing foil culture here on the shores of Aotearoa.
Shaan may not have needed the above introduction to many ole salties out there, for new comers to the sport, he is a central part of the NZ wing foil scene and a OG of water sports in New Zealand.
Thanks to Wing Foil New Zealand for providing these photographs from the event.
RUMINATIONS OF A BROKEN OLD WINGFOIL RACER – SHAAN MILLER
I won’t be alone in admitting I got my ass comprehensively whipped by kids, women, newbies, Aussies and all-comers at the inaugural NZ Wingfoil Nationals last weekend. It was a pure unmitigated beat-down. Strangely though, the experience was enjoyable on many levels. I love wing-foiling, so why not spend the whole weekend doing it in epic conditions while challenging body and mind against the best in the business? The voice inside my head reminded me plenty of times: you’ll lose any dignity you’ve got left!
Disinformation Warning: This wasn’t written by AI and could be politically incorrect, factually debatable or legally defamatory. Based on his dire results the writer is the least qualified of anyone in the country to comment on any aspect of racing.
The weekend before Nationals when race geeks were wet-sanding their foils and doing start drills, I’d got myself severely bent out of shape at a fishing comp, but after recovering somewhat from that self-induced trauma I promised myself I’d start race-training a few days before the big weekend which was scheduled to coincide with the arrival of yet another ferocious sub-tropical low.
A wing-nut mate flew in from Queenstown to get some of the wind / wave action and we made pigs of ourselves free-surfing endless bumps and boosting airs at Takapuna backed up with an incredible side-shore surf sesh at Orewa on the Friday night before racing. In between sets I practised a couple of token heel-side tacks – a maneuver I’ve still never had the balls to use in earnest on a race course. After scoring 100+ uncrowded shoulder-high waves I finished in the dark, quietly confident the yachties wouldn’t run the racing the next day in the forecasted 30-40 knots westerlies about to hit the wind-weary Hibiscus Coast.
It turned out the race committee were up for it! Sam Thom’s welcome was blunt: We wanted breeze and breeze is what we’ve got. His uncle, Manly Sailing Club Commodore Barry Thom acknowledged at the Saturday morning briefing: We’re making this up as we go along, and Race Director Ian Clouston and team said: We can handle breezes getting up to 40 knots – the only thing that will stop us is the sea state if it starts threatening the safety of the officials heading out in small boats. It was a stupendous show of commitment from the organisers who would also have to spend the day on the brine themselves. They wouldn’t allow practice runs so we watched as they laid their course in trying conditions. The wind raged relentlessly – filling the whole bay with rugged chop, and we all knew it would steadily increase to some insane crescendo late afternoon. As it happened, extreme driving conditions closed the Auckland Harbour Bridge five times that day.
I pumped up a couple of smallish wings, put my MTB helmet on for the first time ever, had a drink of water, pulled on my day-glow yellow vest and whistled out into the maelstrom on my 3.3m with scores of other warriors. I felt comfy on my kit – quickly regretted not having my smallest, fastest front foil – but reasoned I could always swap this later in the day. No chance. We were to learn our America’s Cup officials were going to be timing Nazis – there’d be no time to head back to the beach without missing at least one start. You’d already made your final gear selection for the entire day – come what may.
Upwind at the rocking start boat I encountered about 70 wingers streaking in all directions across the wildest seascape you could imagine, some hucking airs, some exploding for no apparent reason, some floating beside their board in 1m wind-chop staring at their watches or the flags – everyone wild-eyed and fired up – it was getting close to business time!
Baaaarrrr went the horn, down came the flag and we were off – a stampede of over 50 frothers on a tight starboard reach. I had a good position with clear air at the boat end, but hadn’t switched from toeside so had a slowish, twisted run to the first mark watching the mob growing in size and colour downwind through the windows of my wing and ahead. It was super-exilhirating to be in such a massive fleet – well worth the entry fee – and there were bonus explosions of white water as racers sheeted in too hard. I rounded wide and bore off, not remotely worried about dominating anyone, just concentrating on intact course completion. Hurtling downwind I realised how much debris and seaweed was in the water, and concentrated on dodging that as well as tracking multiple incoming hydro-foiling missiles from every direction.
The bottom mark was a double-buoyed gate where you could choose which way you headed back upwind. I followed the majority left and settled into the upwind grind watching many people ahead simply blowing up getting too much lift off the steep waist high chop. When I came close to tacking I had heavy leeward traffic that’d already tacked to contend with plus others breathing down my neck. Somewhere through this mess I chicken-gybed, switched feet, got settled but immediately had to jump off to avoid a head-on collision even though I had starboard rights. Up flying again, I calmed my breathing, hooked in and aimed for the top mark, realising I’d actually over-laid it, then got headed hard in a shift, then a 30 knot gust saved me and I only just squeaked around for the final run down to the bottom mark. Every now again I could feel the flick of seaweed getting sliced by my foil, besides that the downwind calm was only punctuated by people yelling whoop whoop or warning others near them they were going to gybe or just suddenly dissolving into massive white sheets of spray drifting downwind.
BOOM round the bottom mark then tighten up for a 300m drag race to the finish boat at right angles to the howling wind. I hooked in and accelerated across steepening chop concentrating on keeping my foil in the water. For some inexplicable reason I unhooked with 50m to go and backed off the gas – then crashed spectacularly literally metres in front of the finish boat no doubt soaking them but without enough momentum to actually cross the line – definitely one of my top five most humiliating kook-slams of the day!
I’d already been going pretty average but that trip-up cost about another half a dozen places – racing is brutal like that. The next couple of races were equally eventful and demoralising. Everything that could possibly go wrong did at least a couple of times. It’s evidently true: the more you train – the luckier you get and I was down on my luck! Everyone on the water is a multi-talented legend, everyone hits weed, gets bad starts, unlucky gusts and doldrums but the true champions keep flying.
You’re primarily racing yourself and the internal squabbling between your inner coach, pilot, flight controller, main-trimmer and tactician while your pumped old body tries to hold it all together. Then there’s the vengeful weather – dark SW squalls raking the ocean throwing everything but snow at you – plus the equally uncontrollable dimension of every other maniac zipping round the race-course. It’s not easy, not for the faint-hearted or those nursing fragile egos. Racing at a national level is ultra-tough as it should be.
The windiest, final race of day one was my modest PB as I kept it mostly together in maxed-out survival mode to set up for a finish inside the top 20 – for the first time in vague sight of the leaders. However, close to the finish line I thought I was clear enough ahead and backed off too soon, then got instantly smoked by three racers, one upwind and two below me metres before the line, relegating me from 16th to 19th in the blink of an eye!
Despite that I drove home stoked to be a part of this wild day which may never repeat with that weather intensity – replaying all the drama in my head.
Reading the interim results that night with a stiff drink I considered leaving the country, but ultimately resolved to give it another honest attempt. Never mind the Open, I was sitting in fourth in the Men’s 50+ class and there was a chance I could make that podium if I could post some reasonable results on Day 2. The old farts above me on this irrelevant leaderboard were all mates I’ve battled with for decades in related sports so that adds to the fun. At least I could out-last them?
Sunday dawned much tamer, but even more unstable – everything from 0-25 knots with more roaming, torrential rain-squalls on offer. The race course was set further out to sea in wind averaging 10-15 knots but it was calm and offshore at Manly with only occasional 5 knot gusts making it a lottery to get off the sheltered beach. Once again I pumped up a variety of wings and took the biggest 7.2m as that was the only one I could trust to get to the start line at the time. Even that failed and I missed the first start. Another chance of redemption down the tubes.
I was well-powered in race 2, had a crap start, cruised around the course without too much calamity but felt slow with too much rag up. Going upwind was fine but then PING my harness line snapped! Ye Gods! Now I was muscling one of the biggest wings on the water with forearms pumped in increasing wind! I finished in about last place, and missed ANOTHER race start re-tying my harness line back together with a double fisherman’s knot. In hindsight I should have forfeited another result, headed back to my truck and grabbed the 6m or 5m but I’m sure I’d have just sat down and drunk a beer.
The following races were a blur of catastrophes but I zeroed in on my imagined 50s rival and beat him by slim margins in the last three. Even this Herculean effort was completely in vain as he’d only screwed up one race instead of two and another old dude unknown to me had relished day 2’s mellower conditions and spanked us both to move into third place.
The final kick in the guts was immediately after finishing, the day’s gnarliest 25+ knot gust came through and for me at least, made the 2km back to the beach a dangerous hell-ride.
So that’s that. I enjoyed myself so much I’ve decided I’m going to increase the amount of resources I devote to racing from 0.01% to 0.02% this year and hope my performance doubles accordingly at the next nationals.
I sincerely salute all the worthy winners – and every single winger who fronted up and took their beatings. There’s so many keen young rippers and that’s amazing to see considering some sports struggle to attract groms. Volunteers aplenty also – inspiring stuff!
As national windsurfing coach Grant Beck remarked at prizegiving: This is the fastest class to achieve this level of competition where a large fleet with depth can go out and compete in 40 knots (and in just over 3 years). I concur and recall as a militant windsurf racer, when I started kitesurfing 23 years ago – I was ultra-keen to race from day dot but it took ten years before anyone else was up for it, and by then I’d run out of testosterone.
Likewise when I started winging in mid-2019 I was ready to race but it was just me and the seagulls! Some time later I organised the first ever wingfoil races in NZ and amongst the first world-wide. Since then Sam and Wingfoil NZ have done a far more comprehensive job facilitating racing, heavily oriented towards yacht-racing through networking with sailing clubs, YNZ etc, with pathways towards potential Olympic glory.
It’s exciting to see so much energy heading in this direction and long may it last, but I’m not 100% convinced it’s the be-all and end-all of winging or even the best overall path for grass roots wing-racing, which in my humble opinion deserves its own unique formats. Time will tell…
Nevertheless, I’m stoked to have a little more race experience as you can’t buy that – and to be a part of the fun circus. What doesn’t kill you, makes you smarter? There’s a lot to learn and re-learn about racing and plenty to be taught by the elements about humility, fortitude, patience and respect for all.
I write this excessive account, partly because that’s what I do and I share it for others to glean anything along the way. I’d love to hear your stories of your own race-mares! Until we meet again on the big grey wobbler…
Words: Shaan Miller
Photographs: Wing Foil New Zealand