|The judges view of the Cornwall Wave Classic. All images thanks to Splashography.com|
“After the recent XXXX [redacted because I should probably try and keep my job] meeting in October, I want to accumulate the XXXX Strategic vision, objectives and priorities from all the main groups. Could you please collate this information on behalf of the XXXX and file it via the online portal?”
9:16am. Scan inbox to see 47 other emails of equal pointlessness. Sip tea. Bit hot, otherwise nice. Blow on tea and notice how tiniest ripples form, join together and travel across surface. The birth of waves. Allow mind to wander back to the weekend just gone. My first time entering the BWA amateur fleet at the Cornwall Wave Classic…
I only decided to go on the Thursday, egged on by Clyde Waite who has been a regular competitor for years at this and other UK wave events, and Emile Kott, who has in recent years been entering and even winning similar contests. I’ve always been put off by being not good enough, not really knowing anyone there, scared (as a south coast mush sailor) of real waves and terrified of looking stupid by coming last. And then of course there’s the port tack problem.
Like the majority of normal, well-adjusted windsurfers in the UK I sail almost exclusively in starboard tack conditions. That means sailing out and jumping with my right hand forwards, and coming in riding with my left hand forwards. As God intended. And since I’ve been windsurfing for nearly thirty years I’ve got to be competent, possibly even quite good. Forward loops are a cautious tick, although they’re anything but pretty. The occasional landed back loop. A certain specialisation in x onshore front side waveriding that I’m rather proud off, tick. Sure, my delusions of grandeur get put to shame when Southbourne local James Cox shows up, but generally I can hold my head high, it’s not been three decades wasted.
But all you have to do is flip the wind around to the other side and I fall right off my comfortable plateau. In rare moments of high tension I have been known to throw a port tack forward loop, but the last time was in 2007. I can claim zero port tack backies, and wave riding just doesn’t feel quite right. I would say it’s like asking a right handed artist to paint with their left hand but that sounds way too pretentious. It’s more like someone’s switched my knife and fork around at dinner time and I’m smearing mashed potato into the side of my nose.
Cornwall does get starboard tack conditions, but they’re the exception not the norm. So just like in nearly all wave competitions in the UK and actually the rest of the world too, the chances were it would be port tack jumping on the way out and starboard tack riding on the way in. If this were the case, chances are I’d be crap.
However. Nearly forty. Last chance to enter the amateur fleet before I’m too old. A good forecast. Clyde hassling me to go down (it turns out because his van is broken and he needs the lift). My partner booked to visit her sister with the kids… Port tack problem or no port tack problem – I’ve officially run out of excuses.
We travel down on Thursday night, me, Clyde, and Olly Wood, another teacher and first time competitor. Basecamp is the Hayle travel lodge and we arrive around midnight and fall asleep to the PWA livestream in Maui where Giant Waves put the fear of Cornwall into me. Clyde and Olly both snore so I sleep worse than at home with my screaming 5 month old baby. The morning dawns, we get to the beach and...
...It’s pretty small. And windless. I’m both disappointed and relieved. The forecast is for both to pick up, but it doesn’t look possible that either will reach ‘epic’ scale, meaning my fear of big Cornish waves shouldn’t get found out.
The Amateurs don’t compete until the Saturday and local windsurfing policeman Andy King directs our little gang a half hour up the coast to Perranporth. It’s both good advice and a sick joke since although the waves here are bigger and the wind cleaner, the rigging area is located at the top of the world’s largest sand dune. Hundreds of miles below us port tack lines are rolling into a sandy beach ruffled by steady five metre weather. From this altitude it all looks very mellow and inviting.
I rig my special treat 5.0 Tushingham Rock. I call it this because I also have a 5.2 and it’s a luxury to have another sail so close in size, then I plug in the Goya quad 84 and hike down the dune.
On the trek down I work out my competition strategy. I need this session to rapidly improve my port tack sailing. I have to learn at least one jump and convert my wave riding across to the other side. A tough ask but surely doable. First run out it all feels a bit weird. I gybe onto a wave and try a bottom turn. Bits of mash get stuck in my ear but I get around back to the wave, mistime an awkward top turn and fall out the back. Second wave, same thing happens so third wave I really try and power the bottom turn. Unfortunately I do this by putting my knee into the foot of the sail and catching a rail. My knee rips through the window and the (fairly small) wave I’d been aiming at cackles with delight as it tears the sail clean in half from the boom cut out to the clew.
I’m sailing with about 20 people, some of whom are also sailing in the Amateur fleet and who I don’t know very well. This isn’t what I’d hoped for in terms of psyching them out.
Things only get worse. The most exhausting ninety minutes of my life and I’m back up the mega dune and deciding whether to re-rig bigger or smaller. I chose smaller, trek back down, rig up and the wind drops. Climbing up Mount Cornwall again will kill me, so I spend the next few hours worriedly sailing out non planing and hoping not to get hit by the set waves when they pile in. My port tack sailing, already an weak point in my competition armoury has got worse not better. I hate Cornwall and want to go home at this point.
That night Clyde and Olly take turns in snoring so that between them they have the entire night covered. Sleeping isn’t an option, I try to smother them but the travel lodge pillows are too thin. Luckily the PWA event in Maui is still on, so I fire up Clyde’s Ipad and watch the tactical chess game that is selecting the right wave at Ho’okipa. It’s enthralling, and a pound a minute for the travel lodge wifi, but he’ll never find out.
The forecast for Saturday is for increasing swell and wind throughout the day and the car park at Gwithian is filled with vans. Inexplicably the event organisers decide not to run the competition in front of the car park, with its nice cafe, but a half mile along the cliff, so seventy windsurfers carry the entire contents of their vans on a Himalayan style trek along the coastal path and then down a slippery cliff path that has been condemned by the council.
The heats are announced. I’ve got Emile Kott and a guy called Liam Ellis who I don’t know. This is really bad because I know Emile’s way better than me and, although I don’t know Liam but I assume he’s also better than me. He looks it. I realise I have no chance and mentally give up before I’ve even started. At least I’ll be able to go free sailing when it’s all over.
There’s a bit of time before my heat so I have a sail anyway. Freed from any expectation of progressing beyond round one, and on the right sized sail today, my nerves come bac under some control and I realise this is pretty good fun. Small and occasionally medium sized down-the-line waves are - port tack problem or not - still just about the best thing I’ve discovered on this planet, at least that I’m prepared to write about on the internet.
But the moment draws closer and before I know it I’m lined up on the beach with Emile and Liam, my watch set to countdown 12 minutes. Thankfully the wind hasn’t filled in enough to score jumps, so it’s just the best two waves to count, the best two sailors advance.
We all sail out to sea and the other guys both gybe onto waves and disappear back shorewards, little hacks of spray appearing over the back of the wave marking their top turns. There’s only two waves in the set so I’m stuck sailing back and forth waiting. The minutes tick past. I gybe onto a swell and follow it in, but it’s pretty small. My sleep deprived night of watching PWA Ho’okipa helps me out, I remember how the judges score wave selection and decide to kick out leaving it unridden. I make a point of letting other perfectly good waves go through to show how I’m waiting for the best one. Clever stuff and I must be racking up the points big time. Seven minutes into my heat and I suddenly start to panic. I still haven’t ridden a wave. Fortunately one finally comes and I track it in towards the shore as it gets steeper and begins to wall up downwind of me.
I’d taken tactical advice before leaving the beach. I was told to do as many turns as possible. Even when the wave runs out and its just white water, keep doing turns cos the judges will score it. So thats what I do. It’s not a great wave but I pester it as best I can. It still feels awkward, like a pensioner reverse parking an Austin Metro - lots of grunting at the steering wheel, not much actual turning going on. I bump half accidentally into the lip a couple of times and just keep going, mechanically repeating the same suspect bottom and top turns until the fins are stuck in the sand.
Sailing back out I realise I only need to do the same again and at least I’ll have two waves to score. And as luck would have it, a great wave appears right in front of me. I gybe onto it and drop right down into a bottom turn, a half decent one this time, followed by a nice powerful turn off the top. There’s loads of wave left, enough for six, seven more turns, and as I realise this I fall off and watch the wave roll away from me to the shore. My watch beeps and glancing up at the cliff I see the green flag coming down. The heat is over.
It’s annoying to go out so early but I’m secretly relieved. Competition is way too stressful, I’m more of a soul rider, I tell myself. I walk back to the notice board to return my coloured rash vest and notice they’re writing the results of the heat on the competition ladder. First Emile Kott, but then in second, they seem to be writing my name. With amazement I realise my first wave must have been so good it didn’t matter that I didn’t score another wave. Wow!
I’m soon brought down to earth. It turns out Liam broke his mast extension on his first wave, meaning my frantic wiggling had put me through to the second round.
It’s hours until the next heat, which I’ll definitely lose because I have to face Emile for a second time, plus Lewis Merrony, who everyone says should really be in the Pro fleet. So I go free sailing again.
And a funny thing happens. I really start to get into it. I catch a couple of the bigger waves and start to link a few decent turns together. I’m almost starting to forget about the port tack problem, and there’s such a wide variety of other sailors around, youths, pro’s, kids, ladies all having a ball that it begins to seem pretty good fun. And actually the conditions are lovely. The waves are coming in very clearly defined sets, so it’s easy to get out, and when you get on one they’re head high at the biggest, the right size to try and hit without worrying about the consequences.
So, second heat. Emile and Lewis appear to be sizing each other up. The green flag goes up and we hit the water. My luck’s in this time and I gybe straight onto a wave that offers four or so good turns and a final hit on the mush. We’re in a bit of a squall and I’m able to boost straight back out and upwind meaning only a minute’s gone and I’ve got one good wave in the bag already. I fall on the next one, and the one after that closes out on me, and then there’s a bit of a lull where I’m sailing in and out searching for something - anything - with time ticking away at least twice as fast as it normally runs. Then I get lucky again and I’m on another that looks like it will connect from the outside right the way in. There’s four or five turns to be had on this one, but I’m so knackered I’m too slow to start riding and only take three, but I give them everything I’ve got and do my now trademark final turn on the mush. I don’t get anything better and when the heat ends I come ashore wondering what might have been but feeling like I gave it my best shot.
It’s probably only fair to say at this point that Emile has barely slept the last two nights suffering from a stomach bug, with full on sickness and diarrhoea. I know this as he’s barely stopped moaning about it, and because he looks pale and gaunt. It should also be recorded that he didn’t try to claim this as an excuse when he saw the scoreboard. But let’s not dwell on either of these points any longer than strictly necessary. Somehow I’d edged past him and joined Lewis in the next round, the semi final. Suddenly I’m loving this port tack business.
I have to take a walk to get my head around things. I’d always assumed that the best sailors always won, and therefore it wasn’t worth my entering, but this simply isn’t the case. The best sailors can have a bad heat, or still be suffering from the after affects of salmonella poisoning. Or other people can get lucky with the waves - especially if no jumps are counted. Wave riding is a great leveller. If you enter, you’ve actually got a chance. I may say this out loud as a woman walking her dog looks at me funny.
With so many entrants in so many fleets, the semi final doesn’t happen until nearly 5pm. The clocks have just gone back and it’s getting pretty dark. This can only be to my advantage. This time around I’ve got to face Lewis again, and Clyde Waite and Karol Bogaleski. Because I sail with Clyde nearly every time I go windsurfing, at least I’m not intimidated by him. Nevertheless, once again I assume I’m probably going out here. Once again I don’t really care either, although this time not because I want to go free sailing - it’s October and I’ve been in a wetsuit since 10.30 am. I want to get changed and drink ale in front of a roaring fire.
That doesn’t appear to be an option though, and once again I find myself lining up on the beach with the other competitors waiting for the green flag.
|event notice board|
The wind has been building all day and I’m pretty overpowered now on my 5.2, but at least this gets me out and upwind easily. I turn onto my first wave and it’s another good one to open the heat. I muscle my way through several turns, gaining confidence each time. We’d been speculating before the flag that, with the failing light and the tide dropping away, the judges can only really be counting the number of turns, they can’t possibly see details like one handed top turns, which is great for me since I can’t do them. I see Lewis get a nice wave as I sail back out, but he falls, and this gives me encouragement, but then I can’t seem to find another wave that connects from the outside to the beach. I ride one wave and get two turns only to see the whole thing close out on me. I waste time following it in and waste energy trying for a white water turn that won’t give me any points. I catch a wave with Karol, I think it’s mine and he thinks its his and we get in each others way, meaning neither of us scores much. I sail back out again, this time my timing’s off and I have to battle out through a long set of waves. Finally out the back and I’m in the last chance saloon. I need a second scoring wave now, or it’s all over. Someone upstairs likes me today and I spin gybe out the back while a swell shakes out underneath me. I’m knackered but the adrenalin of competition makes me throw my overpowered rig down into a bottom turn once again. I’m so tired I have to hook in between turns to get some breath back, but it’s a cracker of a wave, allowing turn after turn after turn, probably the most I’ve got on one wave in any of my heats. As I slide around a white water top turn onto the sand I see the green flag coming down again and my heart’s in my mouth.
I’ve just sailed the best heat of my life. Granted it’s also only the third heat of my life, so was always going to be top three, but as I’m walking back up the beach and Lewis says he had a shocker, I keep quiet. Can I have actually made the final? And at the notice board my secret dreams have come true. There’s my name again being written in the space reserved for the finalists. Lewis makes it through as well, despite his shocker and I learn later that he, I and Clyde were all awarded equal points on our best two waves, and the judges had to mark our third waves. I get the nod over Clyde because it turns out he too managed to break his mast extension while sailing against me and only caught two waves. I can’t believe how useful that hack saw turned out to be.
They do one more heat and fill the other two places in the amateur final, but its now near dark. Then the reality of having 70 windsurfers with all their gear at the bottom of a cliff a half mile from the car park as it gets dark kicks in, and they postpone the finals until the next day. Then it starts raining. Really set-in-for-the-night raining. A bizarre scene unfolds as an army of windsurfers grimly and silently trudge along the beach carrying their sodden gear and then queue at the goat track to take their turn braving its now treacherous 45 degree mud-filled slope. It’s like something from world war one and many good men fell to their deaths. Gwithian is by now under a thick, wet blanket of darkness which allows me the luxury of exaggerating somewhat.
But selfishly I don’t care. I’ve made the final and the world is wonderful. The rain stinging my eyes feels fantastic. The rash of wetsuit rubber against my neck feels like the delicate touch of silk, the sharp rocks bashing into open cuts in the soles of my feet feels like dancing on well-watered lawn in summer. I’ve made the final.
And so ends the story of the best day of my windsurfing life. That night it’s not the dastardly snoring duo that keep me awake but my vivid imagination wondering if I could actually win something. There’s a just a chance, I’m told, that the competition could be moved to Marazion on the Sunday as the wind is supposed to be more Westerly. That would mean starboard tack and that would mean, my slumbering mind reasons, I might just be able to pull off all the tricks that I so very rarely manage to land in free sailing. Time and time again I mentally sail the perfect heat. Landing back loops, smooth sick contortions into the pocket of huge waves, followed off by not one but two takas. The second one to show people it wasn’t a fluke, which of course it would be since I’ve never landed one in my life.
Of course they didn’t move the contest. We arrive at Gwithian the next day to see a good sized swell coming in, but not much wind, and what there is being cross onshore. The forecast is to increase, but not until around 3-4pm, when most people would have to leave to get back for work/school/reality. It looked more of a surfing day, or a doing something else entirely day. It turned into a mostly chilling out day, as the contest area was set up, but everyone waited for the wind to fill in. As time wore on the what they were waiting for reduced down until it was just about getting the remaining two finals (amateurs and masters) done.
I didn’t honestly think we’d get to run the final, and would have been quite happy (delighted) to give up and accept equal first. But you shouldn’t underestimate these contest organisers. At about 4pm I found myself lined up on the beach with the other finalists facing light wind cross-on wobble and ride conditions and logo high waves, which I don’t think it’s possible to windsurf in.
I gave it my best shot, honestly. I borrowed a JP 101 freestyle wave as I wasn’t confident my Goya 84 would float, and at least it was easy to get out over the waves on this, but I couldn’t get enough power to waveride, I wasn’t even in the footstraps. When I did pump onto a wave and try to ride I fell off with no power in the sail and got a beating. In the light winds the finals had been extended to twenty minutes, which gave time for a massive rain storm to blow through, and give three seconds of nice planing winds, and then three minutes of massively overpowered winds. I couldn’t find a wave in the squall though, they all seemed to have been blown flat. I was relieved when the squall disappeared as quickly as it had hit, and left the final minutes of heat back in no wind. With 18 minutes gone and no good waves to my name I found myself on the inside facing a big set of waves that was going to take a lot more than two minutes to get through. Meanwhile a massive double rainbow stretched across the sky. I stepped off in the shallows, admired the show and waited for the clock to run down.
It turns out the other sailors had all managed to make a lot more of it. I still don’t know how, as it was basically impossible to do so, but Niall Mellon who won, was getting proper hits on the critical sections of the waves - rather like I’d been dreaming about the night before. I think the other two were somewhere in between his performance and mine, still underpowered and finding it difficult, but giving it their all and eeking something out that looked like wave riding.
So after the success of the day before, I managed to come last in the final. At the time I didn’t really mind, but now, and especially after seeing the trophies they picked up later, I’m a bit disappointed. I didn’t know I wanted a trophy. But it turned out I did.
Overall though I have no complaints. I didn’t expect to get to the final, and probably only did through a run of good luck on my part and back luck on others (and that hack saw). It was a great weekend’s sailing and it was noticeable how being in a competition pushed my sailing.
I know it’s the winner’s duty to thank the organisers, and I know I didn’t win, but I thought all the guys organising did a great job things to get results in all fleets with just one day of wind. Well done and thank you. And to all those who did win, or get on the podium, or get through a round or two, or beat their friends, well done to you all too. I don’t promise I’ll be back, and if I do return I suspect it will be to mid-fleet mediocrity, but I think even that could be good fun. So maybe.
|Olly, first event, 2001 self converted quad known as "Quadimodo'. proving it works!|
But now I’d better get back to work. Those emails won’t answer themselves.