By Marina Chang and Gary Martin
In the beginning there were five. Then there were seven. Then three. Over the past ten years we’ve flown kites featuring one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and even nine struts. This year, for the first time ever, we are seeing production kites with zero struts.
While their designers all claim they are lighter, more compact when packed, and feature better low end performance than kites with struts, they each took different approaches to their creations. Just as existing strutted kites can’t be put in a single performance category, strutless kites will each have their own unique personality.
Strutless kites promise to be cheaper to build and easy to travel with, but the sudden appearance of multiple strutless kites on the market got us interested enough to look into why companies are suddenly so interested in this concept.
In 2013, four companies that we know of will introduce strutless kites. The Zero is Airush’s 18m kite designed for kiting in ultra-light wind conditions. Naish is introducing the Trip, a 10m strutless kite targeted at riders who want one all-around go-to kite. Former Naish board designer Greg Drexler launched Boardriding Maui in 2011 and released the strutless Cloud kites in January of this year.
The Cloud is available in a full range of sizes from 5m to 17m. Liquid Force is currently refining a strutless kite with the expectation of offering a full range of sizes with their 2014 line.
Strutless kites are too new for us to get any meaningful consumer feedback in terms of overall performance, value, durability, and fun factor, but we spoke with each designer to find out what they believe is so promising about strutless kites and what we can expect from each brand.
“We started development on the strutless kite concept back in 2009 after trying to go one more step towards simplicity from the ONE kite,” said Airush Kite Designer Mark Pattison. “At the start we just wanted to see how simple we could go. After a while we figured out how suitable the kites are for light wind because of the radical power to weight ratio.”
A strutless kite was also the natural progression for Naish. “We went down to three struts with the Park and then played with the idea of one strut but weren’t happy with the result,” said Naish’s Damien Giradin. “I then went to two struts with the Ride which turned out to be such a good kite that it felt natural to move forward and design a strutless kite.”
Greg Drexler started out with the premise that a kite that could go flat would offer greater depower performance and that reducing the parts that can fail would be a nice added bonus. “Having never seen it done, I kind of expected it wouldn’t even fly,” he said. “In the end we got better performance than we thought possible, but not for the reasons we imagined before we started.”
Liquid Force is refining their own strutless design and sees great promise with the concept. Designer Julien Fillion said, “I decided to start flying our current kites without inflating the struts after seeing a strutless kite in Maui last year. I was stunned with the results! I’m excited about the design as I think strutless kites offer a significant weight reduction which allows them to feel lighter in the air and easier to fly in the low end wind range. Less parts translates into less things that can go wrong and less cost which will also allow us to offer them at a more affordable price point.”
Most riders, including ourselves, have a lot of questions about kites with no struts. How stable are they? How well do they relaunch? Drexler understands the skepticism as he had the same questions when he first started the project. “When on the water the wingtips expose enough of the canopy for it to open without input. It’s normally not necessary to grab an outside line to roll the kite on its side. The swept back leading edge allows you to keep two hands on the bar while relaunching. For stability, this can be looked at in different ways. Plenty of absolute statements have been made that struts are necessary to stabilize the profile and that higher pressure must be necessary to support the leading edge. That’s really not the case for this design. The profile is set by the broad seaming in the canopy and does not require any further support. Struts do not support the leading edge so there’s no unique requirement for this design.”
Airush believes their Zero kite opens the door for a super light wind segment of kiting to emerge. “Don’t use the Zero if anyone else is kiting on a normal 18m kite as you will get blown off the water!” said Pattison. “The Zero is designed to be used in wind that almost no other kite would relaunch in because there would be not enough wind to make the kite roll over. The Zero has special long wing tips which help to open the canopy and lift it off the water. It works really well.” In terms of stability, Pattison said, “regarding the kite’s ability to stay over your head without falling in light or gusty winds, then it’s more stable than any kite with struts. If you mean stability in terms of the kite’s canopy fluttering in high winds, then it suffers a bit from this.”
So what advantages and disadvantages do strutless kites offer? “Even though the high end control on the 10m Trip is really good, you will reach a limit where the kite will simply saturate and start fluttering when you sheet out or head downwind,” said Girardin. “For general comparison purposes, strutless kites are similar to battenless windsurfing sails. A soft sail with no battens has great feel, is lightweight, and has good low end power. As speeds, loads, and winds increase, a sail with battens will become better and better at keeping things stable and performing well. A strutless kite, like a battenless sail, will slowly become more difficult to handle and will lose much of its performance, but especially when riding slow and relatively underpowered, a strutless kite is great.”
Naish has no immediate plans to develop any additional strutless kite sizes. “We believe that our 10m strutless kite is all you need. It covers the low-end performance of a 12m strut kite and the high end of a 10m strut kite. Essentially you have a 9-12m range of kites with the 10m Trip.”
Airush seems to have reached a similar conclusion regarding strutless kites except they believe the design is best suited for light wind conditions. This is why they only plan on offering the 18m Zero kite, at least for now. “At the top end of the kite’s wind range the turbulence you get from depowering the kite causes drag and pushes it back in the wind window,” said Pattison. This can reduce the ability of the kite to depower as efficiently as a kite with struts. We have built strutless kites in all sizes, but we found they don’t offer much of an advantage when it’s windy due to canopy flutter. Once you are powered up and riding, say on a 14m, you may as well have struts to support your canopy.”
Drexler commented that riders can be confused by the different way the Cloud luffs. To his eye, all kites luff at a certain angle of attack. “Struts keep localized areas tight so we’ve been accustomed to a limited feeling of luffing,” he said. “Looking more closely, struts set an angle of attack different than what the canopy between them adjusts to. I don’t think this is good for performance and so I don’t experience the Cloud’s luffing as a disadvantage. In fact this was our goal in introducing the concept and we worked hard to reach maximum depower within a short throw in the bar. Some riders immediately love the on/off handling. For others it doesn’t make sense. And that’s cool because we all have our own handling preferences.”
All the designers seemed to agree that their new strutless kites really shine in the surf due to better drifting performance. Pattison claimed strutless kites offer great drifting, better than any kite with struts. He added that they unhooked well in lighter winds, but feels when it’s windy you are better off on a kite with struts. Giradin said, “Whether you’re letting the kite drift or turning it while riding down the line, the Trip is very lightweight, making it great for wave riding.”
Greg Drexler went a step further saying, “If conventional kites have drift, then we need a new word for this performance. I think weight plays a decent role, but even more so is the profile’s ability to adjust. In gusty conditions it doesn’t shoot forward and overfly. It sort of self corrects. If the wind drops to zero its tendency is to drift back, not fall forward.”
So are we going to see a rush of strutless kites hit the market this year? Chances are not likely as the industry waits to measure consumer interest and feedback on the new concept. “Greg’s work with the strutless kite is interesting and innovative,” said Ken Winner, North’s Kite Designer. “I haven’t tried one of his kites, but I’ve watched them in the air for the last year or so and I have to say it looks like Greg has done a good job. The most obvious benefits of going with no struts are low cost and low weight. The most obvious liabilities of few or no strut are lots of luffing and fluttering, particularly in sweeping turns, and weaker power spikes for jumping. These are standard tradeoffs that kite designers deal with all the time. As for whether North will produce a no-strut kite, the answer is that we’re open to the idea but experience leads us to think that we probably won’t. We’ve explored lower strut counts over the years and are pretty familiar with the tradeoffs. We would rather look for ways to lower cost and weight other than entirely eliminating the struts.”
Strutless kites are an interesting new concept that could carve out a unique niche in kiteboarding. It was 15 years ago that some of us saw the first 2-line Wipika kites. Think of how far this industry has come in such a short period of time. Strutless kites could be the next big thing, they could become a semi-successful niche product, or they might fade away as a passing trend. Only history will be able to determine the fate of this development, and we’re excited to watch what happens.
TKB will be testing the new strutless kites as they become available. Read the TKB strutless kite reviews.