Kiting’s rising stars in podium push

By Ian MacKinnon

It was nearly a clean sweep for siblings Erika and Johnny Heineken as the stars of kiteboard course racing came out in China, in the tropical waters off Boao, Hainan on November 18-24, 2013.

Erika (USA) was crowned International Kiteboarding Association (IKA) women’s world champion, sealing back-to-back titles with a series of almost flawless performances. Despite varying conditions, from light to moderately heavy airs, she dropped just one point in 14 races.

The men’s title so nearly went to her brother, Johnny Heineken, but it was prised from his grasp on the fourth day by 19-year-old Florian Gruber (GER, shown leading above). Until then, Johnny had scored bullets in every one of his races, his 10-metre kite screaming across Boao’s King Bay, where the windward-leeward track was laid inside the reef.

One unforeseen obstacle for the riders in the opening races of the event were two-metre breaking waves close to the weather mark. These threw even top racers among the 160-strong fleet off their boards, before the track was shortened slightly.

Still more unexpected were the plastic bags and debris in the water, the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan that had just devastated the Philippines. The detritus often wrapped around riders’ fins, forcing many to dismount to clear the obstruction, dramatically slowing progress.

“The first and second days in particular were like a slalom course,” said Nuria Goma (ESP).

Even in the final race on the concluding fifth day, sixteen-year-old Olly Bridge (GBR) caught a patch of heavy tar-oil on a fin. A devastated Bridge, the European course racing champion, said this deprived him of an overall podium finish.

“I sailed that whole race with an oil-covered black fin,” said a visibly upset Bridge, who nonetheless took fourth place overall and bagged the U18 world title. “Normally, if you have some bad luck it averages out over entirety of the series, but this was the very last race.”

Another sixteen-year-old, Elena Kalinina (RUS), also impressed before surrendering the leads in three races: twice to Erika Heineken and once to Olly Bridge’s mother, Steph (GBR), who ultimately finished runner-up to Heineken.

With 120 men racing, they were divided into three qualifying fleets for the first two days of competition. Johnny Heineken and Gruber dominated their respective fleets, entering the ‘gold’ fleet for the subsequent racing.

On day three, Gruber drew first blood but Heineken took the remaining three races to give him a commanding lead. Day four’s lighter conditions were less to the liking of Heineken though, who trains in the strong winds off San Francisco Bay’s Crissy Field. He failed to win any of the day’s races, edged out by Gruber in two, and the young Frenchman Nocher, 19, in the other two.

It left Gruber with a lead over his American rival going into the final day of competition, intended to be a three-race ‘platinum’ fleet showdown with only the top ten men out on the track.

In the event, the breeze filled in just enough to get the men out once, with their largest 17-metre and 19-metre kites. Nocher scored a bullet to give him an overall podium finish, with Gruber following to claim the overall title, and Heineken in third.

Markus Schwendtner, IKA’s CEO, said that the mixed conditions meant that both world champions were worthy winners, especially in a fleet where new riders are fast rising up the rankings.

“I would love to have seen Olly Bridge on the podium”, he said. “That would have been two sixteen-year-olds, with Elena Kalinina’s placing in the women. But with Florian Gruber so young too, who knows what’s to come? Having an U21 winning the worlds is quite outstanding.”

Related articles:

KTA: A roundup of the 2013 season | Tacking north | Charting a new course