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Freeride, Freerace or Slalom?; April '09

15:52 20th April 2010 by Ed Davis
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three's a crowd

If you’re looking for a blasting board in the 64-66cm range (arguably the most popular blasting size for relatively competent sailors), you’re spoilt for choice. Which in itself poses quite a problem, as it means you have to decide which type of ‘blasting experience’ you require: freeride, freerace or slalom. Almost all the brands have at least one of each of these in their range, so you need to know exactly what you want from your blasting board and be honest about your ability level before making any buying decisions.

The reason for the wide choice is simple – blasting is for everybody! So this category has to span a whole range of different people with varied sailing abilities; pretty much anybody from first-time footstrap / harness users right up to pro sailors at the very top of their game. However, while all are essentially wanting to sail in the straps as fast as possible, there is a marked difference in the blasting requirements of, say, the early intermediate yet to make a carve gybe, and Antoine Albeau looking to get past Bjorn Dunkerbeck in a PWA Slalom final. There is a big spectrum of choice in how boards react to chop, cope with different size sails, cope with power (i.e. their wind range), and of course cope with cornering. Which – unless you’re aiming to emulate Cribby by staying on one tack from Cherbourg to South Dorset – you’re going to need to do at some time.

trio

Our aim with this test was to see what the differences really are between the three categories of freeride, freerace and slalom, from the point of view of the average intermediate to advanced windsurfer wanting to go for a blast in a variety of windstrengths and conditions; your classic ‘burn-&-turn’ sailor. With this in mind we chose to test six different boards. Going by the manufacturers’ descriptions, the Tabou Rocket and Mistral Screamer were our freeride boards, the freerace line-up featured the Fanatic Ray and JP Super Sport, and the Mistral SL and Exocet Warp Slalom were the two slalom boards.

It would seem a fair assumption that as you go up the scale from freeride to freerace to slalom, the required skill and technique from the rider would increase to match. Yet we did not find this to be the case. Obviously we’re not saying that an early intermediate could jump straight onto a slalom board and find it as easy as a freeride – slalom boards are more technical and intermediates will be much better off purchasing a freeride or freerace that has plenty of footstrap options and offers more in the way of progression. However, it is true that once you’ve reached a certain level of ability (for sake of argument, let’s simply call it ‘advanced’), you may well find a slalom board almost as easy to sail as a freerace or freeride. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best option for all advanced sailors. Being the fastest doesn’t simply mean owning the fastest board. It depends what you want to be the fastest at. On a short figure-of-eight course the winner would probably be on the board that planed the earliest and could hold its ground upwind, which may well not be the same board that holds the record for the top speed. Whilst testing, we found that our own sailing ability had a lot more to do with what speed we could squeeze out of a board than whether or not we were on a slalom, freerace or freeride. All of the boards in the freerace and slalom categories felt pretty fast and were generally quicker in a straight line than the freerides. But when raced on a gusty figure-of-eight course, while the Exocet Warp Slalom (slalom) was the board of choice, the Tabou Rocket (freeride) was often at the front of the pack even though it felt noticeably slower in a straight line.

freeride doubles

All of the boards were comfortable for blasting on, although some definitely required a higher skill level and were therefore more geared towards the advanced level sailors than the intermediates. Luckily each board seems to have been marketed reasonably accurately, so there shouldn’t be too much confusion so long as you understand which category – freeride, freerace or slalom – you want to go for.

The freeride boards tended to be comfortable and easy boards to blast along on, with numerous footstrap options catering for differing ability levels. The Tabou Rocket would be great for someone moving down to this size of board for the first time, being extremely user-friendly and offering a huge range of footstrap positions. The Mistral Screamer would be a great choice for an intermediate looking for more of a challenge or an advanced sailor looking for something lively but not as technical as a freerace or slalom. Both actually performed pretty well in terms of overall speed, too.

The freerace boards appear to be faster in a straight line and slightly less forgiving than the freerides, giving them slightly less appeal to the intermediates and geared more towards advanced sailors. However, as it spans attributes from both the freeride and race categories – and is therefore potentially the best because you get the speed of a slalom with the forgiving nature of a freeride – it can be the biggest minefield to buy from. For example, the JP Super Sport is definitely an advanced sailor’s speed machine, but due to the excellent array of footstrap options could still be used by a confident intermediate. Whereas the Fanatic Ray only has outboard strap options and would therefore not suit an intermediate looking for a board of this size, unless they were comfortable sailing on the rail.

The slalom boards tended to be much more technical and require more thought and sailor input, both in a straight line and around the corners, giving them much more of an appeal to advanced / expert sailors. Even in the case of something like the Exocet which really wasn’t too hard to sail, they are best only recommended for advanced level sailors and above.

‘BLASTING’

[noun] The act of windsurfing at planing speeds in the footstraps and harness, usually on a beam reach or thereabouts, and enjoying oneself immensely.

[hist.] The BOARDS Test Team coined this one back in the mid 1980s, and it has become a staple of the windsurfing lexicon ever since as a term that encapsulates the sensation and spirit of speeding over the water on a planing windsurfer.

double_slalom

Places & Faces

This test was carried out at the Oceansource centre in El Tur, Egypt. A mixture of people were involved in the testing, ranging in weight from 58kg to 87kg. The ability level was unusually high for this test with all of the guesters being very competent in a huge range of conditions. We were also very lucky to have ex Oceansource centre manager Helen at our disposal, which meant that we obtained some excellent input from the fairer sex, and didn’t end up with an entirely male-dominated view.

The conditions in El Tur were perfect for testing 64-66cm wide boards. We tested all of the boards in wind strengths ranging between a very marginal 8kts up to 25kts+, which gave us every opportunity to check their full capabilities. There were excellent freeride / blasting conditions in both the flat-water bay and out to sea in the swell.

Thank-Yous

We would very much like to thank all those who supplied the equipment for the test but particularly Aeron for helping out with their stiff aluminium booms – we have used them for a few test trips now and they never disappoint us. Also a huge thank you to Tushingham for providing us with matched quiver sails for our tests. Thanks too to Oceansource and the Moses Bay Hotel in El Tur for their assistance with the travel, accommodation and location.

freerace

OUR FAVOURITES

Due to the wide nature of the test there were many different opinions on which boards were the overall favourites, causing much debate. However, there were still certain boards that would leave the rack more quickly than others in certain conditions, thus giving a clear indication of what was most popular.

Freeride

The two boards in this category really were quite different, so it’d be hard to call a clear favourite. Either board would make a great purchase for the right buyer. The ease of use of the Tabou Rocket was liked by all and would appeal to intermediates. The Mistral Screamer was faster and more lively, which appealed to the more advanced sailors within the group.

Fast Freeride / Freerace

Again both freerace boards would make excellent purchases for the correct buyer and therefore neither really stood out more than the other. The JP Super Sport was thought to be faster and more lively, and with its inboard strap option would make a great board for a late intermediate to progress on – they could certainly challenge the local speedsters on it after a while. The Fanatic Ray was extremely user-friendly; it was easy to sail, did exactly what you wanted and would go as fast as you dared to go. It was also the preferred freerace board of the heavier sailors.

Slalom

Although we would quite happily say that both of the slalom boards we tested would do an excellent job, one of them did seem to get a little bit more praise. The Exocet Warp Slalom was without doubt seen on the water more than any other board during free periods, and in particular was adored by our Polish photographer – so much so that after lunch we would have to chase after him on the Mistral SL and wrestle the Exocet back off him so we could carry on testing! It planed extremely early, went like a bullet, but most of all was easy to sail, creating a combination that would surely win races.

IN CONCLUSION

Intermediates should only really be looking at buying from the freeride range of blasting machines. They really are pleasingly fast, yet their ease of use will help speed progress by filling you with confidence to crack those first carve gybes. However, if you already feel quite confident about gybing you may want to look at boards from the freerace ranges.

Advanced sailors are spoilt for choice. If it’s relaxed and easy blasting you’re after then go for a freeride. If you want to start racing on the national circuit it should be a slalom. But, if all you want to do is blast past your mates with a huge grin on your face then a freerace would be just perfect.

Have a read of the more detailed reviews of each board to help you make up your mind: