Get to know Kite Foil Racing and Australia’s Brieana Whitehead

Kite Foil racing is one of the classes making its debut at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, and Townsville local Brieana Whitehead will be one of the athletes to watch in the exciting foiling discipline.

Whitehead, who started kiting just six years ago, has made her mark as one of the newest members of the Australian Sailing Team off the back of a very impressive 2022 international season. Where she placed sixth at the European Championships in October and backed it up with an impressive seventh place at the World Championships in Italy.

The 22-year-old started her sailing journey at Townsville Yacht Club and progressed through Lasers and 29ers before discovering her passion for kiting. On her introduction to the new side of the sport Whitehead shared, “I lived near the local kite beach and once I discovered that racing on the foil was a possibility, I was really determined to learn how to do it.

“I can’t forget the first time I finally stopped crashing every 10 seconds and started to properly foil, just the feeling of flying over the water. Everything goes quiet and it’s just you the wind and the waves.”

The Queenslander started competing internationally in 2018 and impressed in 2019 with a bronze medal at the World Championships and a fourth at the World Beach Games.

For those watching ashore, it can be tricky to comprehend the elements at play, however, Whitehead confirms that it’s just like racing a sailboat, except a lot faster as they foil above the water at speeds beyond 30 knots over a 12-minute race.

Racing action at IKA World Championships CREDIT Robert Hajduk
Racing action at IKA World Championships CREDIT Robert Hajduk

“There is a lot going on that’s for sure,” she laughed. “Once you have the foiling skills, the racing feels very similar to sailing, most of the tactics and strategy I learnt through racing dinghies and skiffs applies, but everything happens really quickly.

“The close racing gets pretty intense though; with so many kites, lines and people on foils all trying to get around the marks without tangling or crashing in the water.”

One might be wondering just how they avoid or recover from entanglement. With the racing rules of sailing applying, Whitehead explained, “Everyone has pretty good respect for each other because usually it doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, you both end up with a big mess of kite in the water.

“Sometimes it’s easy to get out of a tangle, but often both kites wrap around each other and end up in the water. So, you’re out for that race and however long it takes you to untangle your kite back on the beach or rig up a new one if you’re lucky to have another size that fits the conditions.”

It requires some time to get your head around the racing format. Unlike traditional sailing races there are progressive stages of knockout, and the further you proceed the more critical race wins become.

The top 10 competitors from fleet racing progress into the final round, with first and second in the standings fast-tracked to the Grand Final. The riders ranked third to eighth are split into two even Semi-Final groups, with the winner of each semi proceeding to the 4-person Final.

Both in the Semis and the Final, it’s first to “three wins”, with a point structure skewed to benefit those with a strong qualifying position. In the Semis, the highest-ranked rider needs one win to move through to the Final, the second-ranked rider needs two, and with third and fourth needing three.

The Grand Final mirrors this structure with the overall regatta leader given two “wins” ahead of the final whilst second is granted one “win”, whereas the Semi-Final winners go in on a clean slate in the first to “three wins” battle.

Whitehead commented, “What makes the Final so exciting is that anyone in the top ten could win overall. Race wins mean everything – it’s brutal but extremely exciting to watch, once you work out what’s happening.”

Formula Kite racing also has the element of equipment choice, with competitors allowed to register four different size kites to account for the different conditions, however they have just one foil setup for the duration of the regatta.

“We pick the kites on the day or for a particular race,” Whitehead explained. “We can change kites between races, but have to get back to the beach to do this, so making the kite decision is really critical.

A lot of the preparation for the day goes into making this choice from the weather forecast alongside how quickly I know I can change the kite in the venue we are racing at.”

Brieana trains alongside her brother Scott Whitehead and is looking forward to a big stint in the Southern Hemisphere with a stacked program, including both the Australian and New Zealand National Championships.

“My big focus for the summer is the format of the finals and being able to perform under the pressure and intensity that goes along with the new finals format.”

Whitehead has her eyes firmly set on Paris 2024 and is looking forward to showcasing the sport to the Australian sailing fans and a wider audience in Marseille in just a few years.

“I’m really excited for the world to see just how exciting Kite Foil Racing is,” said Whitehead.

“Hopefully it encourages people to get involved in water sports, being outside and enjoying the ocean, lake, or wherever they can experience and value the world we live in.”

Words: Lisa Darmanin

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