Blowout, flight vehicles and innovation


Special to the News

Kiteboard racing is, in some ways, a microcosm of the more general area of flight vehicle development. Take, for example, the Ford Gorge Games Blowout, a yearly downwind endurance contest along 17 miles of the awesome Columbia River Gorge, where wind gusts typically exceed 40 knots and opposing wind and water currents set up steep waves.

In the early 1980s, a small fleet of catamarans invented the Blowout, but most were destroyed by the river and ended up trailering to the start to lick their wounds. The only rule was that you finish with the same boat you started. Swapping rigs or boards mid-race was not permitted, although conditions often change dramatically from one part of the course to another. During the 1980s the average sailing speeds increased from 10 to 20 knots, as sailboards and athletes enjoyed unregulated development.

In 1988, Blowout history was rewritten when the first kite boat finished in a time of 80 minutes, in the middle of a fleet of nearly 200 starters and 100 finishers. This revolutionary flight vehicle was able to handle the big gusts and windblown spray, kissing the wave tops to keep power in her 10 square meter stack of ram air kites some 200 feet overhead. The planning surface provided by a pair of honeycomb core “jumper” waterskis proved fast and stable in the demanding conditions at the interface between wind and water.

Our first victory came in 1989, when my son, Cory, started two minutes late, then carved through the fleet and arrived first at the Hood River Marina. The first windsurfing finisher took home the $4,500 and the Yamaha Wave Runner for first prize.

Race rules by that time had changed, making the kiteskier an “unofficial” entrant. The sailboard industry was technically interested in the new way of sailing, but the politics and regulation of the governing body were set up to protect the interests of the pro windsurfers and would not allow prize money to be distributed to a maverick kiteboarder who had invented a better way to sail.

In 1993 there were several kiteboards in the race, but none expected any prize money. Cory won again, in a new record time on a production Kiteski, one of two pioneering commercial entries in the new kiteboard industry. He repeated this effort in 2001, setting the current course record at just over 47 minutes, 12 minutes ahead of Dale Cook, who had by then become the fastest boardsailor.

By that time, some of the prominent board sailors had switched to kites, mostly derived from the French Wipika design, and there was a small cash prize for the top kiteboard. But the 50 or so windsurfers still outnumbered the kites five to one. Innovation in the kite industry was very rapid, driven by a thousand test pilots with close to a million hours of flight-testing by the summer of 2002. This time the prize money and rules were equal for men and women, equal for kiteboards and sailboards.

But the regulatory forces were still present, now placing new rules on the start and finish so that prizes could be awarded to the technical finishers, not necessarily to the fastest sailors on the water.

Boards still outnumbered kites by nearly three to one. Thanks to substantial prizes from Ford and the other Gorge Games sponsors, 140 of the fastest sailors in the world were on hand to take on the mighty Columbia River.

History was once again rewritten, as 21 kites, including Renee Hanks and Julie Prochaska, had finished by the time the second sailboard, last year’s champion, crossed the finish line at 112 minutes.

The highly variable winds and waves took a heavy toll on kites and boards alike, and less than half of the fleet had finished within the three hour time limit. Kites outnumbered boards at the finish by nearly two to one. The new 14 square meter Gaastra kite gave Cory the fastest time by over five minutes, but the confusing marks at the finish cost him the first-place prize money.

Government has regulated and controlled aerospace to the point where free innovation is nearly impossible. Much of this regulation in the name of safety is actually designed to keep corporate America in business while making the price of admission prohibitive for all but the best-funded startups.

It’s nearly impossible for startups with less than a couple million in venture capital to get into aerospace. Kiteboarding, on the other hand, still presents opportunities for free innovation, and I applaud the kite sailors, engineers and designers who are feeding new life into these awesome flight vehicles.

The Airush team with Erin Sales on his hydrofoil show great potential, not only for the popular freestyle competition, but also for course racing and slalom, where the industry is sure to go in the years ahead.

Overt or de facto regulation has always stifled innovation, but somehow the better ideas always seem to win in the end. Sometimes it just takes a little longer.


Billy Roeseler is an aerospace engineer at Boeing. After playing key roles on the 747 and 767 during the 1960s and 1970s, he spent 20 years on military programs prior to his current assignment on a development team for the 200-passenger Sonic Cruiser. He lives in Kirkland, Wash.

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