Almanack: Fabulous surfers gone with the wind

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EAT your heart out, Baywatch fans: there we were among the cream of the world's windsurfers, shooting the breeze. You couldn't move for boards and sails, everywhere you looked there was a bronzed haunch or a thoroughly filled wetsuit. Blondes everywhere. The only snag: we were in Brighton, not LA, and it was raining cats and dogs.

The British round of the Windsurfing World Championships was suspended, and everyone dived for cover into the competitors' tent. There was local boy Nik Baker, the world No 2, in a sort of rubber duffel coat with the hood up, rain dripping off his nose; over in the corner Jutta Mueller, the tall, blonde German star, singing along to a Eurythmics tape. One of the other female competitors was performing an elaborate and scandalous mime with the public address microphone; the women's world champion, Jessica Crisp of Australia, was throwing pebbles at a damp Cornish pasty.

It wasn't the rain that was keeping everybody onshore: when the downpour arrived, the wind dropped. 'This is what drives people mad on the World Tour,' said Barrie Edgington, who competed for Britain in the Barcelona Olympics, 'waiting for the wind. You get yourself psyched up and then sit around all day with nothing happening.' It is not unknown for entire events to pass without a breath of the right stuff.

Luckily, Brighton got to see a bit of action. Earlier, when the sun was shining, there had been a good, strong, blustery wind: just right. Races were sailed on a zig- zag course around six marks between Brighton's two piers, starting from a point about 400 yards from the shore.

Getting to the starting point was everybody's biggest problem, because Brighton has the most violent 'shore break' encountered anywhere on the world tour. To explain: the waves may not be particularly huge, but they break very, very close to the shore, making it difficult to launch your board between breakers. 'It's really vicious,' Jessica Crisp said. 'I've been out once today and I don't want to go again if I can help it.'

There were some spectacular wipe-outs. An ideal launch goes like this: you hold your board straight out in front of you with one hand and keep your sail horizontally above your head with the other, and walk into the shallows. Then you wait, spot a brief gap between killer waves, shove the board forward, and simultaneously vault up on to it and pull the sail up into the wind, ready to leap over the next breaker. What happened fairly often at Brighton, though, is that people ran out of time (the heats start whether all the contestants are there or not) and had to try and vault into six-foot breakers, with predictably dramatic consequences. Windsurfers call this 'trashing' and the process is indeed very like what happens to a bag of rubbish in the mechanism of a dustcart, only a lot quicker.

When the racers did get going, though, they made an impressive sight: a phalanx of shiny sails glinting in the sun as the boards skipped over the waves, flying from crest to crest. It looks graceful, but apparently it doesn't feel all that smooth. 'It's very choppy,' Nik Baker said, 'very bumpy. The thing about Brighton is the piers, you see - the water between them gets all churned up.'

Jessica Crisp liked the conditions. 'Choppy is good for me because I'm small,' she explained. 'A low centre of gravity helps on days like this.' What about life on the windsurfing world tour - it must be a fun way of making a living? 'Oh, it has its moments,' she almost sighed. 'But it's pretty hard work, as well. We have to book all our own tickets, stuff like that.' And it's hectic: 27 events this year, all over the world. We asked Jessica where she lived, and she looked a little confused. 'Home base? I dunno. Er, Maui, I guess.' Eat your heart out, Hawaii 5-0 fans.

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