Travel: Learn to fly on a wave and a prayer
A deep scoop of Greek bay, lapped by gentle waves, was the perfect place for Claire Gervat to learn to dismount her windsurfer in style
Sunday 16 August 1998
Welcome to the first principle of windsurfing: your performance is always in direct and inverse proportion to the proximity of your instructor. Unfortunately, if you're in Vassiliki on the southern tip of the Greek island of Lefkas, there is usually an instructor not too far away on the water. For this is the home of Club Vassiliki, a Royal Yachting Association- approved windsurfing school that can handle everyone from the most timid beginner to the seasoned expert, and still make you feel you're on holiday.
Club Vassiliki was set up 11 years ago by Roger Green and Tony Booth, who took one look at the position and realised its potential. In those days potential was all that the place had, apart from a run-down club separated from the pebble beach and the sea by a field and a ditch. Intrepid early windsurfers had to manoeuvre their gear across the ditch; if a gust hit at the wrong time, they fell in.
But what Vassiliki had, and still has, is the wind. The deep scoop of the bay on which the club and village stand benefits from a steady on- shore breeze in the morning that makes it ideal for less-experienced boarders. Added to that, there's not much in the way of waves, which is just as well as the last thing you need when you're trying to balance on a narrow board is a choppy sea. Consequently, most of the teaching takes place in the morning, although lessons don't usually kick off until a leisurely 10.30am or so, and every third day is a "rest day" when you can just grab a board and do your own thing.
Classes are kept small; there were 10 of us in my "one step up from beginner" group, which was one of the largest. We spent the first part of each morning lesson in the classroom, if you can call a cluster of chairs under a tree a classroom. Here we sat while Beth, our instructor, drew diagrams on a blackboard to show us how to use the wind to head in the direction we wanted to go; we watched as she demonstrated the perfect turn on a simulator - a board on a rotating platform; we had a go ourselves and demonstrated the less-than-perfect turn.
Then it was time for the real thing. Wet suits on - for protection against scrapes rather than the weather - we hauled our boards and sails across the beach to the water's edge. No fancy beach starts for us; we waded out to the end of a double row of markers, then clambered on, lugged the sail up and, God willing, headed off across the water. When things went well - not too many tumbles, no collisions with another learner - it felt like you were flying. When things went really well, I started fantasising about getting a made-to-measure little wet suit and golden tan. A line from the surfing movie Point Break would pop into my head: "It's the source, man. It'll change your life." Then something would go wrong, and I'd come back to reality with a splash.
The club isn't just a teaching centre, however. Because it has its own cafe, which is open until around five or six, it's also a social meeting point. What that means is that if your friends or partner have no interest in windsurfing at all, you can come on holiday here by yourself without being lonely or pitied: no Shirley Valentines here. The cafe is particularly busy at lunchtime - you can work up a hearty appetite after a couple of hours hauling sail. For an hour or two the colourful display of sails vanishes from the bay as everyone sits around chatting and eating.
Then, at about three, the flags fluttering at the entrance to the club suddenly drop as the wind dies completely. Not for long, though. Two minutes later they fly back into life, but this time pointing along the beach rather than inland. Eric, as the strong thermal cross-shore wind is jokingly nicknamed, has arrived for the afternoon, much to the relief of the better windsurfers who've been longing all day for this moment.
Novices like me can only watch and admire from the shore as the big sails and short boards hit the water. That said, it's not exactly a hardship to spend a few hours on a sun-lounger looking out to sea, though for anyone who craves something more active the club provides tennis and mountain bikes as well. It's all voluntary, however, so you never get the feeling you really ought to be racing around being busy. According to Roger Green, that's deliberate; he and Tony Booth walk a fine line between being organised and being relaxed, and, after 11 years, they do it well.
As early as dinner on the first evening, you realise that no one is going to make you do anything you don't want to. Nor will you be surrounded by cliques of fantastically skilled windsurfers who will sneer at you because you don't know what a Gaastra Total Flow Freeslalom is. Paul, who gives the introductory talk, does, it's true, look every inch the surf dude with his sun-bleached hair and perma-tan. But he's also funny; the practical chat is kept to a minimum, so he can tell us how to look like a pro. Simple, apparently; just stand on the beach looking out to sea, one hand on hip, the other on chin, and say slowly, "Hmmm, bit gusty".
The only other organised social event is the regular Friday night fancy- dress barbecue. Apart from the willingness of the staff to dress up to the nines, preferably in drag, the secret of the unfailing success of this bash is an alcoholic punch whose recipe, if it isn't already, ought to be classified information. As a result, like the Sixties, if you can remember it, you weren't there. Not surprisingly, there's precious little windsurfing the next morning, just a lot of fragile people vowing to give up drink for ever.
Vassiliki village itself is a one-and-a-half-horse sort of place scattered round a small harbour, about five minutes' walk from the club. Most of the restaurants have their tables outside, by the water, so the ambience is good, even if the food is a little disappointing. The best meals are the simplest: Greek salad, aubergine puree, fresh bread and red wine, followed by a tiny cup of strong Greek coffee to rev you up for a hard night's dancing at the Zeus Bar, also by the water. Everyone from Club Vassiliki, including the instructors, seems to end up there at some point in the evening, which makes for a great atmosphere.
Unfortunately, it's a hard place to drag yourself away from, which makes early rising rather an effort. However, it's an effort worth making if you want to try water-skiing or wake-boarding, both of which are on offer through the club each morning between eight and ten, with Carol providing instruction. At that time the bay is like a huge lake, with barely a ripple. Perfect water-skiing material, in fact. I have it on good authority, though, that a hangover does not enhance your performance and that it's amazing how loud a motor-boat engine can sound.
The noise factor meant that, for me, windsurfing definitely had the edge over water-skiing. Racing across the bay I felt a real sense of excitement and satisfaction every time I did something well, whether it was turning or reading the wind or just getting my stance right. After six days, I'd made enormous progress and felt a thousand times fitter than when I'd arrived. Not only that, I looked a lot fitter, too, despite the scrapes and bruises along my shins I'd acquired in the first few days before I'd learnt how to climb back on my board.
As for the relaxation factor, all I can say is that it took me two attempts to go shopping: the first time I went to buy a necklace and ended up having coffee and baklava instead. I had to go back for the necklace. I intend to go back for the windsurfing, too.
For a Club Vassiliki brochure, call the UK office on 01920 484121. It is also worth checking out their website on www.clubvass.com, which has weather reports, gossip and lots of information. The centre operates from early May until the first week in October. There is still availability for dates in September. One week in early September, including flights, accommodation (room only), tuition and use of the latest equipment, costs pounds 429.
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