Like it or not, the pace of the world we live in just keeps getting faster and faster. Our weekends pass away far too quickly, we spend our working week relentlessly tapping away at keyboards, connected to faster, more powerful computers; we drive faster cars and we eat too much fast food. While we might reminisce longingly about the times when the pace of life was much slower, there is simply no getting away from the fact that mankind is obsessed with speed.
In December 1889 a Frenchman with a rather long name risked life and limb to set one of the first official land speed records. He achieved an incredible speed of 39.24mph. Just over 120 years later the speed record now sits at over 400mph. Even cyclists in the Tour de France are at times exceeding 50mph!
Only 10 years ago, sailing fast on a windsurfer meant sacrificing control, comfort and cash to fork out on the latest and greatest race machines of the time. That was all well and good, but despite being fast they weren’t much fun to sail and required a fair bit of ability to get any level of performance from them, let alone stay dry around a corner.
But now things have improved somewhat. Now we have a breed of board called the ‘freerace’. Not only are they fast but they’re also comfortable and, dare I say, relatively ‘easy’ to sail. Just as Lance Armstrong might have had a wry smile on his face as he pedalled past our French friend and his 40mph record breaking car, we can now cruise in comfort at speeds that not long ago wouldn’t have been possible even on the most dedicated of race boards.
If you don’t sail in waves then the chances are you have an interest in speed and don’t want to be overtaken. Freeride boards (as we tested last year) are great for learning to gybe and mixing manoeuvrability with straight-line performance, but if you want real pace you need to look elsewhere.
If your body is clad in 100kg of muscle and you have your heart set on seeing Antoine Albeau wallow in your wake on the PWA slalom course, then you should probably look straight at the race lines that most brands offer. But if you’re of more average stature and hope to have some cartilage left in your knees in a few years’ time, then freerace boards are where the action is. These are designed to blend slalom board rivalling speed with a hefty dose of comfort and ease of use thrown into the mix.
We decided it was time to check out what was on offer in the freerace market, so took nine of the top offerings and sent our Clones camel-backing into the Egyptian desert to check them out.
As their luck would have it they stumbled across an oasis that they later named ‘Dahab’ and a tour operator called Neilson who pandered to their every need and desire. While the Clones are unable to vocalise their gratitude for the unbelievable hospitality that Neilson showed our team, I’d personally like to say a massive thank-you for the huge effort their staff put in to making sure our trip was a success. As the famous advert states: “If Carlsberg did test trips...” Well, let’s just say Neilson made it happen!
But before you go and check out the results to see how each of the boards fared, we decided this was a good opportunity to give the brands a grilling over this style of board and find out how each one makes them work. So let’s hand over to our panel of experts:
Starboard – Tiesda You
Mistral – Anders Bringdal
Naish – Michi Schweiger
Thommen – Peter Thommen
Fanatic – Craig Gertenbach
Tabou – Daniel Richter
RRD – Ovidio Ferrari
JP – Martin Brandner
Who are freerace boards designed for?
Starboard: For the sporty freerider. Unlike plug-and- play type freerides our freerace boards are designed to unlock huge levels of performance and cover a very wide wind range through tuning and sailor skill. The plug-and-play freeride board may have less outright performance, but it’s all available right away to anyone who jumps on.
Mistral: Freerace boards to me are for guys who like to go fast and have control of the board, especially in chop. They may not be the guy who sails 20 days a month with a full race sail, but enjoys sailing with twin- cam or no-cam options.
Naish: For the ambitious higher end sailor who uses cammed sails. To us that’s one of the biggest distinctions between freerace and classic freeride boards, meaning that the performance needs to be matched with the potential that those sails offer without overloading the rider’s skill. Freerace boards still need to offer great gybing performance and easy handling – the goal is boards that go fast with as little effort possible.
Thommen: For people who want to go fast yet still want some versatility and comfort and don’t want to be always ‘flat out’ and overpowered.
Fanatic: Ambitious freeriders or amateur racers who want a fast board that’s slightly less technical to trim than a slalom board and can also be used with no- cam, single or twin-cam sails. The boards will be less demanding to ride than full-on slalom boards but with only slightly less absolute top speed.
Tabou: Freerace boards are a natural evolution from the freeride range. Over recent years we’ve come pretty close to achieving a near perfect mixture of speed, gybing and easy access in the freeride section of the Rocket range. To give them more speed and acceleration would harm this blend too much, but there are thousands of freeriders out there who’ve pretty much mastered their freeride board and want to be faster and like the extra kick that comes with it.
RRD: Riders looking for high performance and speed allied with a high level of comfort. We call it ‘Gran Turismo’: sportive but with comfort and style!
JP: People who like to go fast but want something a bit easier and more comfortable to ride than pure slalom boards.
Do you consider freerace boards to be more a race board with extra handling, or a freeride with extra speed?
Starboard: Neither really. Freeriders want as much speed as they can get and racers want as much handling as they can get, so why hold back there? No, our Futuras are here to offer their own unique mix of characteristics: lots of fun and performance on a challenging platform that has lots of hidden potential. This potential is untapped as the rider gains experience with it. A freerace board needs to challenge the freerider to achieve not only higher top-end speeds but also higher average speeds, a wider wind range and earlier planing. It’s not just a faster freerider.
Mistral: The Screamer is the same shape as the slalom board, but with the footstrap inserts more inside to make it easier to get into them. It also has less carbon for a softer, smoother ride. Freeride boards would have a rounder rockerline with a higher 150cm from the tail measurement and a different vee setup. The freerace is for more control at speed, while freeride is more about early planing and real ease of use with footstrap setup and so on.
Naish: We consider the Grand Prix range as being more towards a full-on slalom board but with easy handling. You can close your eyes and be able to go fast with as little effort and skill as possible.
Thommen: My FX boards are based on a slalom and race rockerline. They’re not super-short. I believe in flowing lines in both the rocker and the outline, since these enhance a smoother, easier ride. Also, the rails on my FX boards are softer and thinner than on my race boards – especially in the tail area. This makes it easier to maintain rail pressure through manoeuvres, hence it provides easier control.
Fanatic: Race board with extra handling is probably the same as a performance freeride really, but in general these shapes come from the slalom R&D.
Tabou: Well, fortunately we’ve always had slalom boards (Manta Pro) with exceptional control, as our team riders, such as Ross Williams, for example, are sort of average weight (no offence here Ross!) and they need the control more than a 120kg guy to be successful. So yes – race board with extra handling.
RRD: The Fire Storm is definitely a slalom board with pimped extra handling features, since the concept and DNA of this line comes from the X-Fire 112, a real World Cup weapon.
JP: Race board with extra handling.
If someone wants to go faster than a freeride can offer, why wouldn't they just go straight to a race board?
Starboard: It’s possible if the rider feels confident with outboard strap positions and a more powerful tail design. The Futuras, as freeracers, offer intermediate strap positions and a less powerful tail outline that will help a rider through some intermediary steps if he or she wants to. In this sense it’s valid to see the freerace as a board that sits between freeriding and pure racing. On the other hand, some freeriders don’t need to go as far as pure-bred slalom boards. A very high top-end speed packed into a chassis that gybes easily and handles more comfortably is often an excellent formula for many riders.
Mistral: Price, and also the fact that, due to the need to save weight, race board construction isn’t as durable when it comes to banging the board around. Freerace boards normally have an extra layer on them to accommodate that.
Naish: Because dedicated slalom boards don’t offer the same gybing potential and will require a higher skill level to make them faster. The more direct feel is also not always an advantage. Slalom pro riders who are using and developing those boards are also usually bigger and heavier than the average sailor.
Thommen: Freerace boards are generally easier to ride than full-blown race shapes, and they’re usually offered in more durable, less expensive constructions. These are all good reasons to opt for a freerace instead of a race board.
Fanatic: To really get the most out of a race board you ideally need a race sail, as these provide the lift and drive that a wider / more powerful slalom shape needs. Race boards are developed 100% with race sails, whereas freerace boards are tested with a variety of sails so they’ll function well for different sail designs. Freerace boards are designed to work with less lift and don’t need to be sailed as powered up as a pure race board.
Tabou: The Manta FR offers more inboard footstrap positions so you can jump on it and feel as at home as you do on your freeride board. After a while you can slowly tune your straps more into slalom mode. Additionally, freerace boards offer much more comfort with bigger / thicker deckpads – more suspension, so to say.
RRD: Even if slalom boards today are way easier than in the past, compared to a pure freeride board they are still much more demanding technically and physically. So the gap between these two ranges is still too big for a well skilled freerider looking to maximise both performance and fun during their windsurfing sessions, and these sailors would also not have the goal of winning slalom competitions and the commitment of a slalom sailor. Therefore our RRD Fire Storm range sits perfectly in this gap between pure freeride and pure slalom boards.
JP: We believe that there’s certainly room for another line between true slalom boards and freeride boards. If you look at our range I wouldn’t really recommend a Super Sport to someone who’s making the next step after starting out on a big board and learned how to sail in the straps / harness and wants to get closer to pulling off every single gybe. To someone like this I’d recommend our X-Cite Ride or Funride. But for more experienced sailors who like to do race gybes and go fast but aren’t planning to go into serious racing where you always need to sail right on the edge (actually slightly overpowered) I’d recommend the Super Sport over a slalom board. We want to make sure that our customers buy the right product for their needs. This is why we don’t have fantasy names but try to describe the range of use of a board line with its name.
How do you design more control into a board? What do you actually do to the shape?
Starboard: That’s a pretty complicated question. Each parameter affects another like a domino, so changing the control level will affect top-end speed, acceleration, wind range, planing threshold – well, pretty much every characteristic to a certain extent. Given this context, the shape of the Futura is designed to achieve a certain blend that sets itself apart, so there is no one thing that’s done to achieve another specific thing. To give something of an answer, the Futura has a narrower tail outline and less powerful rail shapes than the iSonics – but please don’t regard that as an absolute answer.
Mistral: There are lots of ways. I look at the water entry and make sure there isn’t so much curve there. It helps keep the board from being bouncy at speed. Then you can also look at having more vee in the board, and play with the outline so that it’s not so round. But when it comes down to it we do try to design the board for a purpose. If getting going as fast as you can is the number one issue then we do the board in one way. If you’re looking for control once you’re going then we design the board in a different way. It’s kind of hard to make a board do everything at the same time...
Naish: Slightly softer rails in the nose section, a touch more vee in the board – and you also need to keep in mind that we’re talking about a sail / board combo. It always needs both elements performing well to go fast, including the rider as the third part of the equation.
Thommen: It’s a mix of different design features that will enhance the handling and control of a board. Compared to race boards, freerace boards will generally feature outlines with somewhat narrower tail widths, thinner rails and some additional centimetres of length. Also, the contour of the bottom can change – usually to promote a softer ride in choppy conditions.
Fanatic: Outline is usually the biggest difference, especially on the max width and tail width. Also, the rails are mostly a bit softer to allow easier gybes, rockerline is slightly lower to keep the control, and the vee is slightly different. With a lot of smaller changes the nature of a board on the water can be completely different and tailored to the rider’s needs. In the case of freerace boards this means control, speed and ease of use.
Tabou: Fabien Vollenweider built these pretty deep double concaves in the front of our pure slalom boards a while ago, and as he expected they softened / absorbed much more chop. From there this feature found its way into our freeride range (but don’t tell anyone!). With the bigger boards the cut-outs at the tail help. The rest involves advanced scoop rocker rail shape design details, which I wouldn’t want to bore you with!
RRD: As mentioned earlier there’s much of the X-Fire slalom DNA in these Fire Storm shapes, but overall the shape is more round than our pro slalom shapes and (most of all) the rails are thinner, allowing the board to have better grip and control, especially during the gybe process. The tail also features the typical kink, allowing the board a good water release and an extra turning ability. Talking about the scoop rockerline, this is less straight on the Fire Storm than on a pure slalom shape, and with some more vee, which further aids control.
JP: If you look for more control you need a board that’s stable in a straight line, therefore we use a more parallel outline and a wider tail. Many still think a narrow tail is easier, but that’s not the case anymore. Also, thinner boards with a flat nose rocker are easier to control. You need to combine this with the right amount of vee (you can’t generally say more or less – it depends on the outline and scoop rockerline, but vee is a big factor for control) and you get an easy to control board.
How important is the fin to performance and how do you choose it?
Starboard: It’s extremely important. But put aside the fin model, shape, construction and flex for now. Not only is that important, it’s also a question of how many fins that is also extremely important. You need at least two fin sizes for one freerace board. If you’re counting the stock fin supplied with the board, then you’ll need at least three: one smaller and one larger. As conditions change, changing fin is as critical as changing sail size. Every windsurfer has at least two sails (and often three) but usually just one fin. It’s crazy to see sailors struggling with one fin in all conditions. It’s like watching a car driver going down the M29 at 60mph in third gear with the engine revving its head off. It makes you want to shout out “Change gear!” You guys at BOARDS and Boardseeker should be doing technique and equipment articles to demonstrate just how much more top end control and bottom end power you can get by changing fin size.
Mistral: It is very important. On a freerace board sometimes the fin comes with the board and other times it doesn’t. In any case the basic stuff is always the same. Try a few different ones in the board to see if the fin fits your needs. Maybe the one you have is too big and will make the board want to lift too much. That would turn into drag, and if you can’t hold it then the result is spin-out. A good fin will provide just enough lift to allow you to hammer down and go for it. Lots of guys sell the board with too big a fin just to make sure that you’ve got lots of pressure at the low end. The problem is that you may have a bit too wild a ride at the top end.
Naish: Fin tuning can be essential in size, stiffness and style. For a production board we always select a fin with a wide range of use. For sure the performance can be kicked up a notch by choosing different fin sizes for different conditions, as well as possible changes in stiffness for the rider style. But this draws pretty far away from what a ‘freerace’ board is meant for. Hook in and go!
Thommen: Fins are the most important ‘accessory’ – they can make or break a board. Hence choosing the right fin is crucial, yet remains a subjective choice, too. I’m always looking for a certain feel in my boards and it applies to my fin choices as well. I like the ride to be lively, yet solid and predictable. Over the last few years we’ve been working with MeanLine Fin Systems for our initial equipment. For freerace boards I recommend a slalom / race fin with slightly more rake than a regular race fin. It enhances control and is more forgiving in manoeuvres.
Fanatic: Extremely important. However, on the freerace boards we try to find a fin which has a very good all-round performance, with the right balance of lift, speed and control. We recommend then that customers looking to add performance choose a pure race fin. So the fin supplied has a touch more rake for control and isn’t quite as stiff as a pure race fin, and it’s also slightly smaller for less lift.
Tabou: I’m not sure if all readers know, but most racers have a fin stash that’s worth as much as a reasonably priced car. So yes, very important. Our race team decides which fin and size comes with the board.
RRD: A good fin is always a turning point for a board’s performance. That’s why we provide our boards with a pure slalom fin – a Maui Fin Company RC 2 CNC G-10. From our rigorous testing process we’ve found this fits the board well, complementing the speed, control and gybing performance of our Fire Storm.
JP: The fin is super-important. We took a performance oriented fin based on an SL Race design and adjusted it to the needs of freerace, employing slightly wider profiles and rake to make them easier to use. We choose the size to the recommended sail sizes the boards are designed for, which goes straight to your next question...
Should buyers have more than one fin to get the best out of these boards?
Starboard: Yes! See last answer.
Mistral: I would say so, but it also depends on the board. Some boards work great with just one fin as the shape requires less lift from the fin to go. Flat and concave boards in the tail need more fin, while vee in the tail needs less fin.
Naish: They will be able to extend the range of the board dramatically by adding another fin size. It is something we would recommend.
Thommen: Today most boards cover a much wider range of use than a few years ago. Hence it absolutely makes sense to have a couple of fins to get the best performance from your board. Usually the stock fin is somewhere in the middle of the ballpark, so adding a fin one size up and one size down is something worth pondering.
Fanatic: Yes, as said, race or freerace boards can be used with different size fins (up to 4-6cm), which really adds to the range of use – much the same way as changing sails does.
Tabou: Obviously the one which comes with the board is the best compromise, so you might as well try a bigger and a smaller fin later on.
RRD: For sure having more fins is the best way to improve performance, and depends on the sail sizes the rider is using and the wind / sea conditions they sail in. We suggest using good slalom or freeride fins (similar to the one we provide) to allow the board to perform to its full potential, and you could size up and down by 4-6cm in fin size to further extend the Fire Storm’s wind range.
JP: Yes, for sure. As mentioned the standard fin matches the recommended sail size. If you go bigger or smaller you should also change your fin accordingly.
Where and in what conditions did you mainly test your board?
Starboard: The Futuras were tested in Vietnam (high wind, tough chop), Thailand (light wind, normal chop), Maui (high wind, normal to tough chop), and Australia (medium wind, normal chop).
Mistral: I test them all over, but here in France I do sail a lot in Le Jai. It’s flat in easterly winds and kicks up 40-50cm of chop in the northerly Mistral winds. Most guys like the way my boards ride in chop. I think it’s because we’ve tested them in some pretty insane stuff, and if they didn’t handle I’d hear about it real fast as guys would be going over the handlebars all the time. Bottom line is that Le Jai going off in a Mistral wind makes most other places around the world easy to sail!
Naish: We design our boards in Hawaii and they’re tested in a variety of conditions ranging from Maui, which is mostly cross-shore, to Oahu, where we can find lighter winds and onshore conditions. Between those two islands you can find pretty much any type of sailing conditions to reflect the water and wind scenarios around the world (with the advantage of not having to freeze).
Thommen: I build my prototypes on Maui and that’s where I’m testing them, too. The conditions are so versatile and diverse on the island that you can always find conditions appropriate to the kind of board you want to test.
Fanatic: On both Maui and in Europe, as well as South Africa. Conditions ranged from fresh water light wind thermals to overpowered ocean testing, using a variety of sail types and sizes. This is typical of our testing, which isn’t based in one particular place, and results in our boards being quite versatile and working well in different locations / conditions, as opposed to purely testing in Hawaii, for example.
Tabou: Our boards have been tested on the PWA Tour and all over the world for a long time, as they have or had the same shape as our Manta Pro boards.
RRD: Flat water is always the best option to achieve top performance of a board, but the Fire Storm will perform equally well in choppy conditions thanks to the great control the board has from its scoop line and bottom vee. This we found from testing in the open sea near to the RRD HQ in Grossetto, Tuscany, and also in Lake Garda.
JP: We tested them in Cape Town in the open sea and on the fresh water lake. We always try to make sure we test them in the conditions the consumer will ride them, and also with the correct sail size and type, which is very important.
Half the boards in this test have tail cut-outs - please justify why yours does or doesn't.
Starboard: Theoretically speaking, cut-outs increase the efficiency of the wetted area by making the surface wider and shorter (i.e. higher aspect ratio). Experimentally speaking, we’ve plugged the cut-outs and taken the plugs off again a million times: the cut-outs do increase top speed and give extra sharpness to the acceleration. When they’re plugged in a board becomes more sticky and draggy. The acceleration just isn’t there anymore.
Mistral: In the Screamer line the small boards have no cut-outs as they’re designed to stay on the water in high winds. The bigger boards have them as they are designed to lift more board out of the water. The way I run the vee and rockerlines in the boards makes for a fast ride once you lift them slightly onto the rail. In effect the cut-out shortens the rail and there’s more lift in the rocker, resulting in less wetted surface and faster speeds. It’s the opposite when sailing flat, but the added waterline is what will give the control.
Naish: Our boards feature tail cut-outs to increase the top-end speed and handling in higher winds.
Thommen: Cut-outs or cut-aways are a way of diminishing or relieving some of the pressure of the board’s tail, so you get the leverage of a wide tail without getting overpowered by its surface when the pace picks up. They also help to promote a smoother and more comfortable ride – especially in rough conditions.
Fanatic: We more or less pioneered the concept with our Thundertail cut-outs more than 10 years ago. Since then we’ve stopped using them and tried to find different shapes to achieve more or less the same advantages, without the spin-out and drag associated with cut-outs. Right now we have a special vee concept in the tail that allows all the power to be released at max speed – the same as on our slalom boards. This means that in light winds we don’t have problems with spin-out or drag that cut-outs tend to have, but we’re still very competitive in upper end speeds.
Tabou: See previous answer about control.
RRD: You need to put cut-outs on a board if it’s not free and high enough on the water, but the Fire Storm shapes allow the board to be free and high and easily achieve top performance with a high level of comfort without them. We prefer to keep our board simple and stylish.
JP: We use cut-outs to stabilise the board, as fuller tails create a lot of lift and make the nose rise. Tail cut-outs take a bit of pressure from the tail and guarantee a smoother ride.
Tuttle or Powerbox? And why?
Starboard: Tuttle. Because the best racing fins are only available in Tuttle.
Mistral: The Screamer has Tuttle, as I feel that they’re stronger in the board and more direct.
Naish: Tuttle – especially in the bigger sizes, because the boards get equipped with fairly long fins. The Tuttle Box supports stiffer and longer fins better then the Powerbox.
Thommen: On race and freerace boards I do prefer Tuttle over the Powerbox since I believe it to be sturdier and it provides a better power transfer.
Fanatic: Easy. Tuttle, as most good race fins are generally easier to find in the Tuttle fitting. We know a lot of customers will want to buy aftermarket fins for these boards and to try and ‘tune’ them. Tuttle has the best fit and is also the best system when a lot of pressure is being applied to a finbox, as happens with slalom and freerace fins.
Tabou: Tuttle over Powerbox for stability with longer fins, which put more pressure on the finbox. Not that the Powerbox would be weak, but that’s the reason.
RRD: We prefer to put a Powerbox in to keep it simple, giving us a lighter board and allowing all freeriders to use their existing fin quivers without switching to the Tuttle system.
JP: Powerbox is a lot easier to handle. To get the fins in and out is much easier, and if you hit the beach or a rock there’s a defined area on the fin where it will break (at the base). With a Tuttle fin you’ll most probably damage your board.