At the Speed of Kite

These days, top kitesurfers blow away the fastest sailboats, maxing out at more than 60 miles per hour. Dangerous? Yep. Especially when the world's best converge on storm-raked Martha's Vineyard to duke it out.

Movin' it on Martha's Vineyard.     Photo: Damien Leroy

Current record holder Robbie Douglas.

I arrive at the boathouse in Edgartown, Massachusetts, on Martha’s Vineyard, late and underdressed for what turns out to be a semiformal dinner at a very formal yacht club. Blue blazers, slacks, and penny loafers predominate, a bagpiper pipes, and conversations are conducted half in French and half in English. During cocktails, a handsome young man named Brock Callen climbs to a balcony suspended between the cathedral ceiling and two small brass cannons shelf-mounted over a fireplace. “Welcome to the first-ever North American Speed Sailing Invitational,” he announces, raising a flute of champagne.

Below, 10 of the fastest “sailors” in the world lift their glasses. The quote marks are there because the competitors on hand are actually kitesurfers. In 2008, the International Sailing Federation decided that, since kitesurfers rely on the same wind, water, and physics as sailors in boats do, they should be allowed to compete for the speed record kept by the ISF’s World Sailing Speed Record Council. Both windsurfers and kitesurfers broke it pretty quickly, and before long a burly Vineyard kiter named Robbie Douglas edged them all out—on his first try, at age 37—to officially become the fastest sailor in history, hitting a top speed of 49.84 knots, or roughly 57 miles per hour.

The fact that Douglas and others broke the existing record of 49.09 knots so easily blew open the insular and largely French world of speed sailing. With Douglas leading the charge, a scrappy new generation of competitors flooded into the sport. The record has been broken repeatedly since 2008, but Robbie, now 41, is still the fastest sailor of them all, hitting a speed of 55.65 knots in 2010.

Notably, all of the records were set in southern Africa, on a man-made, seawater-filled trench near Lüderitz, a tiny desert town on a remote part of the Namibian coast. There, the proximity of hot sand to cooler ocean provides the wind, which regularly blows in at 50 knots. The trench is less than a foot deep—the shallowness cuts down on chop—and it’s situated at the precise angle kiters need to get the most out of the gusts.

In addition to being fast, the African trench is very dangerous, mainly because it’s only six feet wide. Douglas shattered his wrist there at the 2010 competition. Charlotte Consorti, a 33-year-old kitesurfer from France, lost consciousness in a 50-knot crash that same year. Another French hopeful, 40-year-old Jerome Bila, broke his back after running into another kiter.

So this year Namibia is out, and all but one of the world’s top speedsters have come to the relative safety of Martha’s Vineyard in late October to do their thing on natural courses: inland waterways protected from the open ocean by sandy shoals. They’ve picked the Vineyard not because they’re likely to break records—nature can’t compete with a custom-built trench—but because three of the world’s 10 fastest kitesurfers live here. Robbie Douglas is number one, and his brothers Jamie and Morgan are nine and 10, respectively.

After a few welcoming remarks at the yacht club, Callen starts calling out questions to competitors. “Charlotte, what’s your max speed?” he says. “Cinquante,” she answers: 50. Callen continues around the room until he comes to Alex Caizergues, 33, one of the fastest of the Frenchmen.

“V max?” Caizergues asks, deliberately misunderstanding the question. In the jargon of kitesurfing, max speed refers to the average velocity between two points on a course. V max (maximum velocity) is the highest attained at any point during a run: a fleeting rush on an extra push of air.

Caizergues answers his own question with a shrug: “Over 60,” he says. While it’s possible that Caizergues momentarily hit or surpassed 60 knots during one of his runs down the Lüderitz trench, that speed is unconfirmed. By mentioning it at all, he’s suggesting that he could beat Robbie Douglas’s course average of 55.

A gauntlet has been thrown. Callen, who’s the race director as well as the emcee, milks the moment. “How about you, Robbie?” he says. “What’s your V max?” The room quiets. “Fifty-nine point five,” Douglas says. The crowd titters. Is the famously fierce competitor admitting the possibility of defeat? Then he adds: “Here on the island.”

MARTHA'S VINEYARD IS AN 87-square-mile triangle of superprime real estate south of Cape Cod, a longtime destination for politicians, media stars, and entertainers. These days the island is usually in the news for being President Obama’s summer hideaway, but among locals Robbie Douglas is arguably the biggest name around.

Morgan Douglas, 31, is the captain of the Alabama, an iconic 126-foot, two-masted, all-wood sailing schooner beloved by locals and tourists. Robbie and Jamie, the two elder brothers, run the Black Dog, a well-known tavern-cum-clothing-brand that keeps the Alabama afloat.

Robbie is the taciturn cowboy type: he dips wintergreen tobacco and listens to country music. The extroverted Jamie, a year younger than Robbie, prefers the music of the family’s Highland ancestors. Morgan is the youngest and preppiest of the three brothers. They’re all big—each stands around six feet and weighs 200 pounds, more or less—and they all wrestled in high school. Not surprisingly, they pounded each other growing up.

“There hasn’t been a good fight in a while,” Jamie wistfully tells me one afternoon.

“We tumbled one time about a decade ago,” Morgan adds, recalling pieces of furniture that didn’t survive. “That’s when I realized it wasn’t going to end pretty.” Nothing has changed much now that they’re adults, except that the high-octane feuding has moved from the wrestling mat to a new arena: kitesurfing.

The day after the opening dinner is a beautiful, sunny, 20-knot breezer that finds the contestants at Cape Poge, the most remote of the Vineyard’s many shoals. Poge extends from the corner of Chappaquiddick—a small island on the eastern end of the Vineyard, like a long finger, bony and crooked in a permanent come-hither to the Atlantic. With handfuls of wet sand ballasting the kites to the narrow beach, canopies flutter like fluorescent pterodactyls. Out here it’s just us and the scallopers. “No crowds, no big sponsors to manage. An underground event on the water,” Robbie says. “Fight Club.”

The first rule of Fight Club, at least in the Douglas family, is this: Win. Jockeying for every possible advantage begins before the race does. To get the angle just right, Brock set up the course downwind of a dilapidated dock that extends into the bay. Entering the roughly 800-foot track, marked by buoys, is a dangerous matter of swooping around the end of the pier and then straightening out for the run.

“Can we just move the course to clear this fucking tetanus bomb of a dock?” asks an exasperated Morgan. Given the day’s prevailing wind, the only alternative would be to run the course up the beach instead of down. In that case, it would change from a starboard to a port tack. Which would put Jamie at a disadvantage. He cut down the tail of his board the night before—making it a decidedly starboard craft—so he’s against changing anything. Robbie breaks the impasse with a shout: “Let’s roll!” The race is on.

During the competition, Alex Caizergues discovers a way to hit the starting line while going fast and avoiding the clumsy dock turn. After a dozen runs down the watery drag strip, he flies his kite straight at the dock, pops his tail, stiffens his sail at the last minute for a burst of lift, and soars over the thing. Robbie follows, and soon most of the field is leapfrogging the dock and landing at the starting gate.
“That’s a great entrance until somebody fucks up,” says an EMT on the beach who’s watching the action with me. Soon enough, Christophe Prin-Guenon, the largest of the Frenchmen, comes to grief when his rear fin hits a barely submerged rock in the rapidly receding tide. It trips him, and he flies into the pier at 20 miles per hour.

Consorti is the first to the scene, dragging a stunned and bloody Prin-Guenon from the water. The EMT quickly cuts off the Frenchman’s crash vest and whips a cervical collar around his neck. Jamie kites in to the dock, apoplectic: “Who’s calling the helicopter?!”

Ultimately, Prin-Guenon is evacuated by speedboat and limps home to France with a divot-size hole in his foot, a fractured wrist, a bandage around his head, and a wicked shiner. “He’s a big guy,” Robbie says flatly. “He can take a lot of punishment.”

The next morning, at a postmortem over coffee and eggs at the Black Dog, Jamie speaks up. “Considering the multiple infractions to the rules as we understood them,” he says, “including the obstacles in the course, I think that race should not be counted.” It’s a passionately argued point somewhat undercut by the fact that it can’t be untangled from self-interest: his times were abysmal. He was beaten, badly, by both his brothers.

JUST AFTER PRIN-GUENON leaves the island, the barometer starts falling. A nor’easter is coming in. Darkening skies make for lighthearted racers. “Yesterday we found a virgin to sacrifice,” Caizergues jokes. By the time the storm really shows up—the second-to-last day of the competition—the weather is so bad that flights are grounded, and even the ferries don’t dare venture in or out.

We gather on the east side of Sengekontacket Pond—a long, low barrier beach on the northeast side of the island. This cuts down the chop but does nothing to slow the winds coming in from the ocean. Just after noon, the tide and wind start changing in big jumps. At 30 knots, just getting kites up and flying becomes a hazard. At 40, a flock of seagulls passing overhead appears to be flapping backward. When the wind works up to 50, fat droplets of sideways rain sting like rubber bullets.

Once up, the kites deform and occasionally turn inside out. Even the Douglas boys are getting blown away. “It’s spooky out there, man,” says Morgan, coming in to the beach after losing a kite on the far side of the pond. Rob loses one, too. “I had to punch out!” he says after he’s nearly overpowered by a too-large kite and pulls the rip cord that severs the connection between kite and rider. “I’ve never had to do that before on the Vineyard.”

By the end of the heat, visibility is nearing whiteout conditions: thunderclouds above, whitecaps below. With Brock off on the jet ski chasing runaway kites, I’m stranded on the shoal, holding his start flags up against the wind—which, I realize, turns me into a bull’s-eye. The fastest line down the course, both Alex and Rob discover, is the one that points directly at the sandbar I’m standing on but then swerves to barely miss it.

From my perspective, the kites rip by so close and so fast that they’re gone before they register. Speed in conditions like these is a matter of digging a channel in the water with the edge of your board and flying the kite almost at the horizon. Press firmly on the edge and pull hard and the forces add up, slinging riders down shore in a shower of spray.

Robbie’s rooster tail is the biggest, since he’s flying the biggest kite. At 220 pounds, he leans back across the water and deadlifts kitefuls of wind. On the other end of the spectrum is the lithe, ponytailed Caizergues, who flies a relatively tiny rig but carves his lines with a precision that keeps his spray down and his speed up.

There are no big injuries during this race, but there’s a close call: a kite on the beach loses its ballast and self-launches, snaring a bystander in its control lines and dragging him into a busy road.

BACK AT THE EDGARTOWN Yacht Club, the awards ceremony is a raucous affair. Robbie hoists the trophy for highest speed: one of his runs the day before averaged 51 knots, unprecedented on natural waters. Caizergues takes second place. Speaking on behalf of his countrymen, he says, “I’ve never raced so much in any competition: so early, so late at night, in such light wind, in so strong winds like yesterday.” He says they’ll all be back next year.

Jamie has the third-highest speed of the event, bouncing back from his disastrous day at Cape Poge with some truly remarkable runs down Sengekontacket Pond. Fourth through eighth places go to the French, while Morgan comes in a disappointing ninth, just ahead of Charlotte Consorti.

The next day, after the champagne and oysters are all gone, Team Douglas retreats to their own yacht club—a tumbledown board-shack across the lane from the Black Dog and behind the pier that leads to the Alabama. “Sometimes tourists come by while we’re hanging out and ask, ‘What’s going on in here?’” says Robbie. There’s not much for a tourist to see: just three beefy brothers, two ratty couches, and a quiver of kiteboards hanging in the rafters.

“I always tell them the truth,” he says. “ ‘This is the fastest yacht club in the world!’ They laugh in disbelief and walk away.”

This year, at least, that unlikely boast remains true. But kiters won’t be the fastest forever. Boats are stuck at about 50 knots by a physical limit called the cavitation barrier—the watery equivalent of the sound barrier. Breaking through it is a knotty engineering problem, but, in theory, trick foils, hard sails, and radical streamlining should do the job. After four years of kiteboard dominance, the boatbuilders are starting to emerge from their sheds with sailboat designs that should be capable of 65 knots, minimum.

Robbie is confident that with another shot at the record in Africa, he can break 60 knots, but it’s unclear how much longer he can play the game. “The human body has its limits,” he says. “Physically, I’m on the downside.”

At 34, Morgan is still near his physical prime. And, the thinking goes, he has what it would take to fend off the yachtsmen for the rest of the decade by capturing another 10 or perhaps even 20 knots. So I ask him the question that has hung over the entire event: Does he have the commitment and the courage?

“I don’t know,” says Morgan, hedging, “but I am not going to snap my neck chasing a world record in a trench.”

“I learned a lot from the French,” says Robbie. “They really believe that their life has a purpose.” Then he pauses to make sure Morgan is listening. “And if their purpose is to be a speed sailor and get injured rather catastrophically? To pay the ultimate price?” he asks. “Well, that’s romantic.”      

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