Windsurfing: All aboard for a whole new wave
A freak accident 16 years ago left Alex Wade vowing never to set sail again. But thanks to one venue's modern technology and coaching, he soon rediscovered the rush of being a high-speed water baby
Sunday 11 June 2006
The sense of exhilaration was something I'll never forget. Likewise, the pain. But Jamie Knox, a former professional windsurfer who now runs an eponymous watersports centre in Brandon Bay, Ireland, felt I had been concentrating too much on the pain, not enough on the sheer fun of windsurfing.
"You should get back on a board," he said, as we chatted at his home on the Dingle Peninsula. "It'll be like riding a bike."
Knox knows what he is talking about, having spent most of his life either windsurfing or surfing. He set up his watersports business, offering tuition and accommodation, 16 years ago on the Dingle Peninsula, in an area framed by mountains and not far from the pretty town of Dingle.
I had tracked him down while researching a book on surfing, and ventured that I used to windsurf, but that an injury 16 years ago had put paid to my love of the sport. "You should forget about that and give it go again," he said. "Everything's different now. The kit is so much better."
I had no doubt that Knox was right about changes in windsurfing technology, but to rewind to September 1990 is to induce a nasty flashback of my last day's windsurfing. Conditions at Flag Beach, Corralejo, on the Canary Island of Fuerte-ventura, were perfect, with warm sunshine, a moderate swell and a constant cross-shore wind blowing at Force Five.
On the water that day were a number of top-class professionals, including the then windsurfing world champion, Bjorn Dunkerbeck. Inspired by Dunkerbeck and his fellow hotshots, I was pushing my modest skills as hard as I could.
I was a long way from the shore before deciding to turn the board on the face of largeish wave. The turn I tried - a carve gybe - involves putting the board on its edge before flipping the sail, catching it and sailing away in the opposite direction. All went well until the apex of the turn, at which point the lip of the wave reared up, caught the sail and threw it back against me. At that point my right shoulder popped out of its socket.
The pain was something I had experienced before, having already dislocated my shoulder a few times, but familiarity did not ameliorate a rather difficult situation. There was no way I could even clamber on to my board, let alone paddle it in, and the shark-infested waters of Los Lobos, an island off Fuerteventura in clear view from Corralejo, seemed all too near.
Thankfully, a passing Italian windsurfer saw my plight, sailed back in and told people on the beach. After about an hour of bobbing around in the sea with my shoulder hanging loose I was rescued and, back on dry land, trying to put my shoulder back, I made a resolution: nearly drowning while windsurfing just isn't worth it.
"Yeah, I remember that happening," said Knox, when he heard my sorry tale. Remarkably, it transpired that he had been windsurfing with Dunkerbeck on the day my shoulder went. "A few of us in the bar that night were talking about the poor sod whose shoulder had gone." But painful though the memory was to me, it seemed only to add to Knox's fervour. He gestured towards my elder son, Harry, aged 10, and said: "Come over with him - I'll have you both up and riding in a day or two."
"Sounds cool," was Harry's response. And so we arrived at the Jamie Knox Watersports Centre for the early May Bank Holiday weekend, Harry unfazed, me more than a little apprehensive. Was Knox right? Would it really be like riding a bike? And even if it was, would the shoulder pop out again?
Knox greeted us with the excited air of the true believer, because two of the world's best windsurfers were due to arrive shortly. The 2000 and 2005 world wave champions, Francisco Goya and Kauli Seadi respectively, would be demonstrating their skills. "They'll be here in two days, and the charts look great," said Knox. "You'll see some great action. You should go out with them."
Knox's idea struck me as nicely symmetrical, but first there was the delicate matter of remembering how to windsurf. Fortunately Brandon Bay, known as one of the best windsurfing spots in the world, has beaches facing a variety of directions, so that even if it is blowing a gale on one side, it will be calmer on another.
The following day, Harry and I made our way to the nearby Straggane Beach, facing north. A westerly was blowing at about Force Two, gusting Three. This made for ideal conditions to reacquaint myself with windsurfing. I found that Knox was right. The kit is very different than in my day: boards are fatter but lighter, and rigging up (setting up the sail, mast and boom) is a piece of cake. My turns were so ropey that I fell virtually every time, but if anything, having once been used to windsurfing in strong winds, it was a little too mellow for my liking.
Sam Robbins, 26, was the instructor in charge of my efforts, and the next day, with the wind having dropped a little more, he took Harry out for his first lesson at Sandy Bay, a beach which faces east and thus avoids the prevailing Atlan-tic swells, making for perfect beginner's conditions.
Harry got the hang of windsurfing immediately. Within just a few minutes he was zipping across Sandy Bay, tacking back and forth, not once - as he pointed out gleefully - falling in: "Better than you, Dad! You fell off earlier!"
I'd made a bet with Harry that he would, like practically every beginner, fall in during his first session, and losing meant I had to take him out for a posh dinner. This wasn't too great a hardship, for across the Conor Pass, a very scenic half- hour's drive away, the town of Dingle is brimful with superb restaurants.
Our final day dawned with both of us well fed and desperate to windsurf again. I feared that Harry wouldn't get his wish: it was blowing a Force Five, just right for me to see if I could enjoy blasting across Straggane Beach, but surely too windy for a 10-year-old.
After two hours, I'd got some of the moves back: water- and beach-starting, hooking in and planing. Despite these modest successes, though, I couldn't make a single carve gybe.
But no matter: the sense of speed, the exhilaration of flying across the water, was wonderful. The shoulder stayed put, and I briefly toyed with maybe going out to Dumps, the nearby break where Goya, Seadi and Knox were in action. After all, it was sunny, the wind was strong, the waves were three- to four-footers - it was just like Flag Beach 16 years ago. But no, I would quit while I was ahead.
And as it turned out I had something much better to do. Sam reckoned that Harry would be fine for another beginner's class at Sandy Bay. This time he had some wind to contend with, but the sea was still flat. I watched my son windsurfing as if he had been doing it since he was five, shepherded by Sam, and thought: Jamie Knox was right. We'll be back.
Jamie Knox Watersports (00 353 66 713 9411; jamieknox.com) is open year-round, offering accommodation plus classes for all abilities. Prices start at £40 for a 1.5-hour taster session
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