Interview: Windsurfing UK
Pics: Joe Cockle, Duncan Coombs, Steve Thorp, Mark Ingram
Pounding the miles in an effort to score killer conditions on a fickle forecast, Steve Thorp is the ultimate nomadic wave slayer who has one eye on speed sailing too. Based in the middle of the country puts Thorpy in an efficient position for hitting any of the four coasts around our green and pleasant land. Also owner of mellow yellow K4 Fins, Steve’s passion for wind, waves, plastic and dogs is tangible.
Tell us about your early days of windsurfing – when did you discover the sport, what appealed and what caused the bug to bite?
It’s all a little cloudy now, being over 30 years ago, but I remember my first time was with the EMGAS (East Midlands Gas Sailing Club) for whom my mum worked at the time. I’d already done a little surfing on holiday and this seemed like a good alternative for the flat water near Leicester – flat water surfing, kind of.
Where did you take those first forays and do you ever pay the spot a visit these days?
It was definitely at the best local spot, Rutland Water, but we all sailed in ‘the creek’ back then. I popped over for a Rutland demo recently but it really is a rare occurrence to be honest. Not that I don’t enjoy sailing there, it’s just that there’s always somewhere better on the coast, especially now that freestyle isn’t my main thing.
At one point you were competing fairly regularly. How long did that last and which type of events did you gravitate towards?
It was always slalom in the early days. First locally at Rutland when I was around 18, organised by Eric Holts WFA (Whitwell Funboard Association). Success there soon lead to sponsors and the BFA (British Funboard Association). Longboards never appealed, so I missed out on that whole scene and I think my starts suffered! Though when ‘short board’ course racing became an option (upwind legs) I got really into that, especially the big ‘M’ courses in rolling swell at places like Marazion.
Wavesailing contests seemed like the preserve of the Hawaiians at that time, it wasn’t all about the Canaries so I never felt like someone from Leicester could compete, but I guess hanging out with guys that did the wave events soon rubbed off. I also got into freestyle competition when that came around. But other than minor dabbles, I’ve never had a decent go at the PWA or had the opportunity to train for it.
Who were your sponsors at that point? What was expected of you?
My first sponsors were Midland Diving Equipment (which became Sliders Distribution with Anton Poll, who now distributes Hot Sails). I guess they expected me to carry on winning local races, promoting the shop and being an ambassador at the lake. I had a brief spell with Cygnus Sails when I was using Gaastra (now GA). Then a long, happy relationship with Dave Noble Windsurfing when I was picked up by WhiteBoarders after doing well in national events.
They of course expected you to get results, train hard and drink hard too! It was also a time when you had to ‘earn’ your sponsorship – turn up at all the race events, the demo days and the boat shows, regardless of the forecast! I then sailed for Simmer for a long period with help from Farrel O’Shea. I’ve been sponsored for 26 years so there’s been a few!
What about now? Who gives you support?
My boards are from Moo Custom. Jon originally made me a speed board to suit my light weight and it soon expanded to wave boards (the strength and weight compared to production kit means I’m happy to pay good money for Jon’s boards). Sails are Hot Sails Maui through Anton, but for 2017 I’ll be getting support from Ezzy which I’m pretty excited about! Fins, I seem to have plenty of kicking about (wonder why, smirk – ed).
Everything else is from Unifiber Windsurfing Equipment who have been really good to me and supply me with all the gear I need. It’s excellent quality, reliable stuff that I love. Also a mention to Bluesmiths and Dryrobe who sort out keeping me warm après surf. I think myself pretty lucky to still get so much help so I do my best to promote the brands.
Can you recall when you decided that competitive windsurfing wasn’t for you? What drew you to that conclusion? Any plans to revisit comps at some point?
I guess racing wise, when it went to huge kit to cope with light winds, a lot of the original crew drifted off and it was never quite the same. I did have a brief comeback to slalom but my heart was never in it enough to get up at 7am and rig three fully cam’d sails before breakfast or spend a fortune on competitive fins. Especially when half the sailors can only cope with three races a day rather than the 20 I’d have liked! I guess the main thing for me is that if I’m not at work I want to be on the water having the most fun possible, and contests don’t always fulfil that requirement. If there’s a windy wave contest though, I still love to enter.
These days you’re more noted as a wave sailing road warrior – searching out the best conditions for the forecast. How hard is it to score and what tips would you gives others considering such a life?
Yeah, it’s usually not that difficult. I guess it helps to not mind driving long distances at the drop of a hat, and have an understanding partner.
Forecast wise, I really just use XC weather to get a rough idea of the whole country every day, check the charts to be more certain nearer the day and keep checking until I get in the van to leave. I’ll give Big Salty, Magicseaweed, WindGuru and the Met Office a check too the night before. Experience helps decide which beach to head to, but it’s not rocket science. 10 minutes on Google maps can tell you a lot. I also check the local surf shop forecasts for swell if I’m not sure, and any eyeball reports first thing in the morning. I guess it’s the ‘almost’ forecasts when you’re desperate for a sail that are the hard ones to call. Top tip is not to make plans until the very last minute, sometimes even half way down the M5!
What’s the longest journey you’ve taken on for the shortest session? Was it worth it?
We drove overnight to the south of France for a speed session on an epic forecast. We honestly thought we were on for a guaranteed record day. We arrived to find the speed strip destroyed by storms we hadn’t spotted and Lance (Newbury) hurt his back pulling his downhaul on. I sailed for half hour to wash the sleep out of my eyes and we set off home again. Definitely not worth the drive, but you’ve got to be in it to win it, if you don’t go you’ll never know etc…
Although you do rack up the miles, do you seem to end up in similar places? If so where’s your usual stomping ground – if there’s such a place for you?
Yeah, I think it’s a strange one. I’ve scoped a hell of a lot of the British coastline looking for options, but there really aren’t that many places that work that well! Rhosneigr is a classic example, you think ‘there must be somewhere else’ but I don’t think there is.
So yes, I’m usually at the same places and only really stray from my usual spots when there’s an unusual forecast. St Ives Bay, Yorkshire and Rhossi are probably where I end up most. The unusual forecasts do usually offer up the truly classic days though and there are a few I’m still waiting for.
If you had to sail one spot for the rest of your life where would it be – home or away – and why?
If it was always firing and empty? Probably Cloudbreak! Imagine that! I don’t get out the UK much, so I’m no expert on faraway places. If I had the money, I’d do some research though! I do love UK sailing and I’d be more than happy to ride at one or two of the spots here every day for the rest of my life if that once every five year day became ground hog day!
How much overseas travel do you do?
Not a lot at all. I just go surfing in Portugal a fair bit as it’s dirt cheap for flights, dirt cheap when you get there and I’m 20 minutes from a budget airport, so it actually works out cheaper than a weekend in Cornwall (when you take into account the parking fees, coffee prices – never mind a B&B –remember when they were £18 a night?!). My last windsurf trip abroad was Maui in 2011. I’d love to go again, but basically I’m too tight. If I won the lottery the carbon footprint would be horrendous.
What about your home spot? You live almost in the middle of England but there has to be a stretch of water close by?
It’s Rutland. It’s a great spot but lacks one major ingredient. Redcar is probably my local break – two hours away with a clear road.
It’s not just hardcore wave sailing with you, however. Speed sailing plays its part. Which area of windsurfing do you prefer – speed or waves? What are the hardest conditions to line up?
I prefer the waves at the moment, my speed mojo has taken a hit lately. Since it changed from £100 diesel to a £6,000 holiday to basically compete with the same people. Great for a record attempt, not so great for Joe Blogs. That and losing too much weight! Speed sailing’s not easy at 75kg!
Perfect speed days are ridiculously hard to line up. You just really do ’never know until you go’. A five degree shift in wind direction can make all the difference. There are some dreamy spots like Roa Island, but the fairly simple looking forecast on paper – honking WSW wind and neap tide – just never seems to happen.
What’s your fave speed sailing location and why?
Kirby. It’s just so easy. Mirror flat and so much fun next to the wall scaring the dog walkers. But Southend and Roa are also pretty special and potentially a lot faster.
Outside of windsurfing you also chase solid surfing conditions. Is it easier to nail offshore barrels than solid sailing sessions?
It’s easy, except for one major factor which is the ruin of surfing in the 2000’s – crowds. We all know the best spots and when they’re going to fire, but catching them empty is nigh on impossible these days. Even on the north coast of Scotland and beyond. This is really the great thing about wave sailing: you can catch an amazing all time session at an epic wave with just a handful out, no pecking order and zero attitude. We’re lucky to have that.
What’s better – double over head kegs or mast high and 40 knots?
The best 10 seconds of my life is probably being gifted a wide double overhead set wave at Uluwatu, Indonesia, and getting a dry hair, stand up barrel without trying. I’ve not come even remotely close since. But 99% of the time windsurfing in good waves is better and the bigger the wave the better it is for me.
Talk to us about K4 Fins. Why did you decide to set up a fin company?
It was very much by accident. I thought, why not try to mould some fins as I had access to everything? And they turned out pretty good! So good that I knew I was onto something.
How hard has it been building a UK windsurfing brand? Any plans to expand into other areas of the sport?
It’s been pretty easy, to be honest. It’s a small community and word gets around pretty quick, especially with the advent of social media. Murray Saunders has been a great help in distributing and promoting the fins for us with ‘Windriven Sales’. He’s the man when it comes to working with shops and brands.
We recently saw pics of a foil system you’ve developed with the help of fellow UK sailor Sam Sills. What made you decide to embark on this project?
Foils. These have been on the radar for a long time. A couple of years back someone came to us wanting plastic wings for their carbon set up, which seemed a great idea, and we’ve been waiting on them but nothing’s happened. So that kind of threw us off course from working on our own.
Sam Sills came along with a great design for a carbon performance foil and it seemed good to manufacture that and we were very excited about getting going. Once we weighed things up a little more carefully, we realised it was an awful lot of work and investment with no guarantee that we’d sell many. We have something in the pipeline, but not much to say about it just yet other than we’re approaching it from the opposite end of the scale.
I’m definitely keen to get into foiling myself, it seems like a great light wind weapon. I’ve got hold of a board, I just need to find time to build a foil prototype! I think eventually it will be huge but there are some big problems limiting the market – cost and availability of suitable boards being the two main hurdles.
I can see it moving into the extreme end of the market with wave and speed foils – people are already looping them, of course. It would be great if they could be utilised in speed sailing, as it would open up a lot of new courses for record speeds and maybe make the specialist canals redundant. But we’re a long way from that at the moment. I’m sure there will be a whole new level of wipeout hilarity getting there!
Any comments on UK windsurfing in general?
I like where windsurfing’s at and I love the UK scene! I honestly don’t care that it’s not as popular or as ‘cool’ as surfing, despite being a brand and wanting to make a living from selling equipment.
I think it’s a cool sport. When you think we can actually sail up into the lip of a 20ft wave and smash it one, get air and sail away. We can ‘rip’ BIG waves far more effectively than any surfer (barrels aside). We can do motorcross style jumping. We can get just as big a ‘speed’ buzz as bike racing by going speed sailing. We can do skateboard style tricks with freestyle windsurfing – crazy stuff. We can do all this on one day if we put the time in to get that good. I’m pretty sure it’s the best sport ever invented and I’d also say we’re one big, happy family. It’s always good to see another windsurfer. UK-wise we seem to do pretty good, there are a lot of legends about.
Final shouts, thanks and praise?
Well, big thanks to everyone who has helped me over the years and my current sponsors. Thanks to those that share the epic days and thanks to those who have got windsurfing to where it is.