When it all goes wrong – a windsurfing tale

Words: Mic Brignall

Pics: Lauren O’Dwyer Buckland (Capture Photography), Nadine Moore, Maddie Day, Sally Reynolds, Ellen Rachel Waite

This is the tale of my worst windsurfing day, ever. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. A concoction of teenage idiocy, annoyance and over-confidence played big roles in what happened, and I will never make any of these mistakes again…maybe…

It was a sunny, windy and altogether perfect day in Scotland. Not something that happens very often! I had just bought myself a new board, a Kode 80, my first ‘sinker’ (if that’s still a windsurfing term). I checked the forecast meticulously, looked up ideal wind directions for different beaches, and ensured that I had the right masts for the sails I was bringing.

With the car loaded, the straps tight, my favourite ‘Get Pumped’ song blasting (Meat Loaf & Cher, Dead Ringer for Love),  I set off in my Alfa. The twenty minute drive passed quickly, with good tunes playing and me anxious to get on the water. I arrived at the beach, leapt out and ran towards the dunes so I could see the conditions. It was underwhelming to say the least. The forecast had failed me again. Still, it was cross shore, which had potential, and I’d brought a bigger sail just in case, though I’d been hoping to avoid using it as the mast I had wasn’t a great fit, so the sail never felt quite at ease. This turned out to be the least of my worries.

I took everything out of the car, got changed, and set about rigging. Firstly, the ill-fitting mast, then the mast extension. Normally I’d now put the boom on. That wasn’t going to happen today, as my boom was still sitting where I’d left it – in the garage back home. As you can imagine, I was feeling a bit of an idiot at this point. Never mind though ‘I’ll run home and get it!’ I thought to myself.

Quickly derig the sail, chuck everything in or on top of the car and drive home still in my wetsuit. As I get to the gate, I jump out leaving the car still running and grab the misplaced boom. It gets thrown in the back along with everything else, and I head back to the beach. The wind still looks as it did before, and my kit gets rigged up. Time to hit the water!

I thought I’d had enough bad luck already that day but I was sadly mistaken. It’s very easy to say ‘I’ll be fine’ when you’re at home, or even en route. At the beach, in the water, is when you realise you might not be as good as you thought you were.

At one of my old centres we had a rule: if you can’t beachstart within three attempts you shouldn’t be on the water. This rule was for when it was windy and particularly wavy. Admittedly, sometimes it was rather harsh, but I wish I’d paid attention to that rule on this day. In my defence though, I hadn’t actually worked at that centre by this point in my career.

It took me an entire hour to get off the beach. A couple of reasons for this: I had never sailed as small a board before; in fact the smallest board I’d been on was 115L, so I have no idea why I thought I’d survive on an 80L in conditions I wasn’t used to. I’d only sailed waves once, on a much bigger board. My skill level really wasn’t what it needed to be.

I’m a stubborn character and wasn’t going to let some water upset me. I persevered and eventually managed to get onboard AND get going! It was the most fantastic feeling, with the board being so light underneath my feet, responding to every little weight transfer. This of course was the downfall – as soon as I put my back foot in the footstrap (I’d been used to much bigger fins), it span straight into wind and I fell backwards. I was happy though: I’d managed to get out of that ever so frustrating shore break!

It took a few attempts to waterstart, but I managed, and set about sailing back towards the beach. I was out further than I’d realised – at least 500m from the shore. As it happens, I was knocked off by unexpected wave as I was trying to get going again. I went for another waterstart but the wind had chosen this moment to drop, and it didn’t come back for the rest of the day.

The next half hour was spent swimming, sitting in the waterstart position, and partially panicking. It was genuinely the most worrying experience of my life – I really thought I was going to have to be rescued. Initially I’d hoped the wind would be slightly more off-shore. Oh boy, was I glad it wasn’t! Eventually I got back, and as my feet touched the sand I only had one thought in my mind: ‘Never, ever, ever, do that again!’

The walk of shame up the beach is never fun, I was just glad it was a walk rather than a safety boat in this case. I made it to the car with no injuries other than a severely bruised ego, and set about heading home. To this day I have never pushed myself beyond reasonable limits again.

This experience has taught me several important lessons. Firstly, know your limits! And if you do want to push yourself, go to an enclosed piece of water, or a centre which can provide safety cover. At the very least sail with others. Secondly, there’s no shame in giving up, if it’s the safe option. And finally, windsurf with people! I’ll mention that twice as it’s super important…

I think that if I had been windsurfing with a buddy on that day, many of these things wouldn’t have happened. They might have spotted that I had forgotten my boom, or possibly even had a spare themselves. After seeing me fail to launch, they probably would have told me to pack it in (unless they were more idiotic than me!), and when the wind died, at least someone would have known I was out there.

Even on better days, however, having a buddy is still ideal, even if nothing goes wrong. Someone to sail with is someone to learn from, to push you to try new things, and someone to have a laugh with when you have a big catapult. You can also trade kit so you both can try different styles of board/sail/fin, and of course stop you from making potentially fatal mistakes.

Finding other windsurfers isn’t the easiest of tasks, but luckily we have the internet at our disposal. Search the web, especially Facebook, for local groups of sailors. The RYA also have a list of clubs on their website. You can always go old-school, and just turn up, but don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to the regulars. It’s always nice to have a few recognisable faces when you arrive!

Of course, sometimes there’s no one free. In this case you should really question your ability, the conditions and whether you can sort yourself out should it all go south. However, having a mate (or several) brings so many great benefits to windsurfing that it seems silly not make the effort to sail in company! Windsurfing doesn’t have to be a lonely sport, make it social, make it safe, and above all, have fun!


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