Friday, 13 April 2007


It had been a while since I’d windsurfed, January I think was the last time—I drove down to the Ebro Delta for 30 knots of Mestral and wore my arms to over-stretched elastic holding down 4.2 square metres of sail cloth. A 4.2 is a small sail and 30 knots is about its upper limit, after that I’d change down to my smallest sail, a 3.5 which is a tiny, nervous sail for survival sailing in nuclear conditions. It doesn’t come out of its bag very often but when it does it’s usually a memorable session.

It was good to get on the water the other day. With a steady 20 knots out of the east and a 3ft swell I rigged a 5 metre sail and skimmed over the water towards the horizon, leaning back in the harness, hooting with joy as the wind and the spray flew around me.

13 years ago I took up windsurfing as being the simplest and cheapest way of getting on the water. I wasn’t after the thrills at that stage, it was a straightforward desire to potter about on the sea and get a bit of distance on the land. I lived in Barcelona at the time and took my first class at a town north of the city called El Masnou.

13 years ago the sport of windsurfing was living its darkest hour, the drive had been to develop faster and more specialised equipment and the result was that only the real hotshots could make it work. There was a vast difference between the large beginner boards and dedicated planing boards which were unforgiving speed machines. To bridge the skill gap required serious application and many left the sport in frustration. Windsurfing manufactures had cut off the sport’s life blood by alienating its participants.

I didn’t know any of this on the day that I turned up at Masnou marina for my first lesson, I just wanted to go sailing. With fewer people entering the sport there was less onus on instructors. There was no standard teaching method like there is today and instructors were hired by a school if they had windsurfed. Rather like the practice in Spanish primary schools whereby a teacher is assigned to give English on the basis of a blustery fortnight spent in a bed and breakfast in Brighton last summer.

Instructors were left to develop their own methods and mine had a curious one. Their were four of us, two had already completed a course, they could up-haul, sheet in and get going but they couldn’t turn, then there was myself and another fellow who’d never windsurfed. Our instructor tied a string of four boards behind a dinghy and piled us and two sails into the small craft, then we puttered out of the marina and into the open Mediterranean. Just the dinghy ride was bliss for me after the immersed city life I’d been living but even so I thought it odd that we went so far out to sea. As the instructor untied the boards he explained that there was a bathers only area near the beach and as the light, easterly wind was slightly onshore we’d be rapidly blown in if we started off too close. The veterans up-hauled and made towards the shore on a broad reach. Meanwhile the instructor told us our mission; we were to practice our balance on the bare boards. I jumped in and clambered on eager to demonstrate my good balance but the instructor started the engine and zipped off to retrieve the other two who were nearing the watercraft exclusion zone.

Soon the dinghy was but a speck and I gazed over at my companion standing on his board about 30 metres away, I waved then lost my balance and fell in. Boards in those days were long, narrow and very tippy, it was a challenge to climb on from the water but after a few attempts I managed and diligently got to my feet again. Now I concentrated on staying upright and after a while felt I had the measure of the game, by flexing my knees as the swell moved under me it seemed I could stay on my feet indefinitely. Feeling comfortable I looked around. There was the marina to my right with the coastal mountain range of the ‘Serrelada Litoral’ behind, and a distance off to my left, beyond the factories of Badalona, Barcelona’s new Olympic port and, on the southern horizon, some large container ships awaiting clearance to the commercial harbour. It was a nice view and it would have been perfect had I been able to see my companion and the instructor’s dinghy.

It later transpired that the instructor had got impossibly tangled up amongst the bathers as he entered the exclusion zone to retrieve a pupil who’d driven his board up on to the beach. Bellowing instructions and insults he got the lad back into the water and sailing away from the beach but then had to dash off to catch the other one who was flailing about some way off. Apparently, in what must have been a bad moment for the instructor, he drove the outboard over the sail and got a load of Dacron wrapped round the prop. The silent dinghy drifted in to the beach.

My companion, I later found out, paddled the half kilometre back to the shore, ditched his board, walked back to the marina, got in his car and was never heard of again. And I, in my British way, remained standing on my board as I’d been told to do. The current, set up by the latent easterly swell, taking me parallel to the coast and, I noticed with interest more than alarm, slightly out to sea.

No rescue operation was put in motion, no helicopters plied the skies. I was simply picked up, sunburnt, a long hour later by a very peeved instructor who wanted to know what the hell I was doing bearing down on a container ship.

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