On the expansive white beach of Poetto, a village of white tents is erected and lines of flags are raised as kitefoil racers from all over the world arrive in the Sardinian capital of Cagliari for the return of the Sardinia Grand Slam IKA KiteFoil World Series race. Layered with centuries of antiquities stemming from its strategic perch on the southern tip of the Sardinian island, the old-world streets of Cagliari are the perfect backdrop for the extreme speeds and hyper-competitive action of modern foil racing. Just beyond the city’s famed Poetto Beach, lay the protected waters of Golfo degli Angeli, where the world’s best kitefoil athletes return year after year in their bid for the 2024 Olympic Class racing program.
On the descent into Cagliari’s international airport, the window seat offers up a bird’s eye view of Luna Rossa’s America’s Cup compound and harbors filled with almost every class of racing sailboat, ranging from small junior sailing fleets to big competitive monohulls and catamarans. With a consistent supply of wind, Cagliari has deep roots in competitive sailing, often hosting America’s Cup class races and more recently becoming a frequent destination for kitefoil competitions.
One of the reasons that the IKA KiteFoil events continuously return to Cagliari is the ideal conditions that make the racing both challenging and highly competitive. On the first two days of this year’s event, the Mistral wind blew strong from the north, with offshore flow coming over the land and filling into the bay. Under these conditions, the bay’s waters are flattened by the offshore wind, allowing riders to push top speeds without having to navigate the rise and fall of swell. However, the Mistral is also known for alternating slightly back and forth in direction. When the wind shifts, racers have to constantly tack and choose different sides of the course, anticipating the wind’s next move. According to competitor Connor Bainbridge, “A lot of kite racing happens with low winds and big kites where you are doing two tacks per leg, but with Cagliari’s strong offshore conditions, we were on small kites doing four or five tacks per leg.” If a racer correctly plays a big change in wind direction, they might land in first place. If they wind up on the wrong side of a wind shift, they may fall back a couple of positions. During the first few days of offshore wind, competitors were forced to tack more often to stay on favored wind shifts, and in a highly-evolved fleet where few riders make mistakes, the difference between winning and losing came down to smart tactical moves and small incremental gains made through tacking transitions. With Frenchman Axel Mazella, fellow countryman Théo de Ramecourt and Britain’s Connor Bainbridge duking it out for the top spots in the first rounds of heavy air, the following days brought lighter sea breezes and fewer directional shifts. While steady wind allowed for longer tacks, the sea breeze also brought more swell, making board control at high-end speeds more challenging.
As the Formula Kitefoil fleet approaches the 2024 Olympics, the competitive level of racing is climbing to near perfection. The differences that set racers apart are becoming increasingly smaller, and races are won not by big bounds but by razor-thin margins; a podium-winning racer must push themselves to unimaginable speeds while not making a single mistake. One of the keys to maintaining the speed required to win races is to confidently handle extreme amounts of power while preserving enough control to prevent small errors and time-consuming crashes. According to Connor Bainbridge, the hunched over riding position you see in the fleet comes from the need to access the full depower stroke of your bar and keep your center of effort over the board and foil. Spectators from sailing backgrounds often ask why racers don’t lean back for more leverage against the kite as you would on a sailboat, but the demanding level of precision control over the board at high speeds makes the hunched position the most secure stance for surviving gusts, maneuvering over waves and flawlessly rounding the course’s buoys.
The Grand Slam is often cited as the racers’ favorite event of the year because the layout is geared towards the spectators. The public can stroll through the riders’ pavilion between heats and rub elbows with racers, and since every part of the event is organized around viewership, there’s a professional-grade video livestream that allows fans from around the world to follow all the action. While foil racing action often occurs far offshore with maneuvers too complicated to be seen at a distance, Sardinia’s racecourse is laid out so that the intimate details of racing action can be watched from Poetto’s long sandy beach. The final leg of the race finishes with competitors rounding an upwind mark before entering one final drag race within close proximity to the sand. It’s intense high drama with racers pushing themselves flat out at extraordinary speeds, fighting for the finish line with excitable spectators cheering on the entire extreme spectacle from within earshot.
Beyond Cagliari’s perfect racing conditions, scenic hilltop castles and impressive granite cliffs, Sardinia is dedicated to its racing events and organizes a professional competition that every stop on the competitive kitefoil tour should aspire to. With spectators ranging from young children training in optimist fleets to America’s Cup engineers quizzing kite racers on their technology and technique, the Sardinia Grand Slam is one of the biggest events of the year that wraps the entire sailing community around kitefoiling and keeps competitors coming back for training and racing, year after year.
This article was featured in our winter 2022 issue, Vol. 18, No. 4. To read more, click here.