Travel: Gone with the wind

When the levant blows, windsurfing goes ballistic, as Alex Sedgwick found at Spain's Tarifa beach
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The Independent Travel
High in the coastal hills of southwestern Spain is a roadside bar that serves passable coffee and a nice slice of sea view. To the east, Gibraltar's grey mass rises from a sea of hazy blue like the jaws of a great whale; to the west, the pale jade shallows of the Atlantic deepen into an opulent cobalt. No wonder this area is called the Costa de la Luz - the Coast of Light: the shift from overexposed Mediterranean pastels to brilliant Atlantic clarity is so beautiful, it makes my heart thump.

But I am not here to admire the scenery; I am here to test my mettle at Tarifa, the notoriously gale-tossed windsurfing venue that lies hidden to the west of these hills. Throughout much of the summer a meteorological phenomenon known as the levante blows straight offshore there with freakish force, creating flat water conditions close to the beach which are ideal for speedsailors, equipment testers and other professional lunatics whose day job is hurtling along a knife-edge of disaster at 50mph. And for average punters? Well, for us a levante is about as windsurfable as the blast from a Jumbo Jet during take-off.

As I sit drinking my coffee, I decide that far, far too much wind is the very kind this particular punter desires. The only thing worse than sailing at Tarifa would be not sailing there - and just to prove that, a VW van roars into the lay-by and pulls up inches from my table. The door opens with a rusty grunt and a huge bear-like thing descends stiffly from his seat. At his feet, a little pool of sand forms.

"Long trip?" I ask Sandy Bear, noting Berlin numberplates and half a dozen boards lashed to the roof of his van.

"Ja, maybe too long," he mumbles. He starts to massage his forehead with the raw, blistered palms of both paws. "Two days I was in Tarifa."

I blink, feeling a little confused, since I didn't know 6ft 5in Germans were so big on irony.

"And all the time, levante," Sandy Bear sighs. "Ohhhh man, that's some real wind down there," he moans. "You like this kind?"

Like it? So impatient am I to experience the Real Thing for myself, I jump back into my car and drive off in a cloud of burnt rubber. All too soon, impatience turns to awe. According to my guidebook, once the hill road bottoms out I should be looking at six miles of the most gloriously pristine beach in Europe. Except that there is no beach. All I can see is where the beach used to be. In its place is a wind-whipped blur.

I have sailed gales. I have even sailed Hurricane Hugo's dying gasps. But I have never come across wind like this. Clumps of trees flap like flags on poles; fields of scrub and brush flatten as if hit by water cannon, and beyond the scrubland the mighty Atlantic flinches as a thick mist of sand shrieks across its shallows.

Now I understand why so much of the Costa de la Luz remains unspoiled by general tourism. Only somebody truly desperate for a free exfoliant is going to lie around on a beach in a sandblasting semi-hurricane.

On the water, it is a different story. The coastline is a riot of colour as at least 200 windsurfers dart and dodge between each other like Paris taxi drivers jockeying around the Place de l'Etoile.

Fortunately, catching a ride here is far easier than in Paris: anybody wanting to rent equipment along the beach is spoilt for choice. But on a day as windy as this, choosing your launching spot is almost more important than choosing what type of kit you use. Near the town of Tarifa itself the levante blows straight offshore: if you are a world-class speedsailor with good medical insurance and arms like treetrunks then this is where you should come to break records. On the other hand if you're just an 18-stone weakling like me, sailing here will be the start of a one-way trip to Bermuda.

Six miles further along, the coast curves around to the northwest, making an upwind leg and the prospect of an eventual appearance back onshore just that little bit more realistic. At least I hope it does. Noting how pale my complexion is when I walk into her office, the friendly Swiss manager at Surfbase Spinout draws my attention to a feature of the local conditions I might have overlooked.

"It's fine now," she says.

I nod. "How fine, would you guess?"

"Only force 8. Or 9. Or maybe ..."

Then she grins. It's the kind of crazed grin that faces into a sandblasting force 10 storm and says "party time". I'm having second thoughts about the wisdom of attending this particular party. But despite these misgivings I valiantly get kitted up.

Within seconds of stepping off dry land I am clinging to the boom by my fingertips like a man hanging on to a skyscraper ledge. And I am heading out to sea faster than is wise, or healthy, or indeed humanly possible. So just imagine my surprise when some Pamela Anderson clone rockets past me with a whoop and a pitying smile. Scarcely giving me time to blink, she pilots her board skywards in a huge jump.

Perhaps the moment has come to get up, up and away myself? Not quite the way this Amazon of the air does, mind. Jumping off flat water, even in a hurricane, is for experts only. A much easier take-off method would be to head further out to where the sea has been whipped into huge ugly ramps. While Pilot Girl gybes, lights up the afterburners and accelerates back to shore, Punter Boy here maintains his course. Within seconds, the ocean changes from lawn-smooth green to an unprepossessing white. The sea is not just angry now, it's rabid. Limbs a-tremble, heart raging in my chest, I shut my eyes.

The board fires me up the face of a supersteep ramp like a stray Exocet missile in a skateboard park. Primed with the mighty expertise of just about every instructional article ever published in a windsurfing magazine, I am soon executing a picture-perfect How Not To Jump jump.

This is just the warm up. My next trick is to sail off and try a no- handed double forward loop. Yet I'm in heaven, or pretty high above the water at any rate. And as the warm wind embraces every bit of my body, I feel the thrill of riding beyond the edge of my abilities and fears, living the storm, joining as one with the sport of windsurfing at its hardcore heartland.

Then comes the landing. And with it, pain. A ton of pain. The pain in Spain falls mainly ...

TARIFA TARIFFS

GETTING THERE The closest airport to Tarifa is Gibraltar, served from Gatwick and Manchester by British Airways (0345 222111), and from Luton by Monarch (01582 398333). From the airport, walk across the border to the Spanish town of La Linea. Buses run frequently from here to Algeciras, where you change for Tarifa; the total land journey should take an hour or so.

Fares on scheduled services to Gibraltar start at pounds 167 (including tax) on Monarch; it may be cheaper to find a charter to Malaga and travel by road from there. You can rent a car in advance through companies like Avis (0990 900500), Europcar (0345 222525) or Hertz (0345 555888). Expect to pay about pounds 130 a week for a small car such as an Opel Corsa.

ACCOMMODATION The Pension Correo (00 34 56 680206) in the centre of town is clean, central and pounds 12 a night. Posher places overlook the beach; a double at Club Mistral's Hurricane Hotel (00 34 56 680329) will set you back pounds 45 to pounds 125 a night, depending on the time of year.

EQUIPMENT HIRE

Bic/Dos Mares (00 34 56 684035), Fanatic/Spinout (00 34 56 236352) and Mistral/Hurricane (00 34 56 684919) are all on the beach. For the latest kit you pay about pounds 30 a day, pounds l25 a week.

EATING OUT For tapas, try El Pasillo, a friendly hole-in-the-wall bar on Guzman El Bueno. Bar Sevilla on El Bravo may be the world's best chippie: mouthwatering mountains of prawns, squid and cod, all for a pittance. Meson Guzman El Bueno on Calle del Alcantrillo has a delightful outdoor patio and charges about pounds 10 for dinner including drinks.

WIND In spring, force 3 to 6 westerlies (poniente). June to August is levante season: force 5 to 9, sometimes more. Bring your crash helmet.

EXCURSIONS Sixty-five miles to the north-east, the exquisite Moorish hilltop city of Ronda is worth an overnight stay at least. Or you could pop over to Morocco for the afternoon; ferries run from Tarifa in summer, and throughout the year from Algeciras.

PACKAGE TOURS If you want to stay in a hotel where you can eat, speak and sleep windsurfing, then contact Freedom Holidays (0181-741 4471) or Sportif (01273 844919).

MORE INFORMATION Spanish National Tourist Office, 57 St James' St, London SW1A 1LD (0171-499 0901; brochure-line 0891 669920).

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