With swells of vicious black water the size of four-story buildings, and chilling, 30-knot winds, the Atlantic Ocean is, to the vast majority of windsurfers, an option ruled out by common sense. But to a very small contingent, it is the nautical equivalent of Everest.
In describing the world of Everest climbers as “a self-contained, rabidly idealistic society, largely unnoticed and surprisingly uncorrupted by the world at large,” Jon Krakauer, the author of the bestseller “Into Thin Air”, observes that ‘prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable.’ And what could be more “minimal and unforgiving” than hurling yourself off the deck of a pitching ship into cold, gray water, then pitting your strength against the Atlantic’s, while attached by a thin line to a few square meters of Mylar, threaded onto a skinny, carbon pole, screwed into a thin, eight-foot-long plank of epoxy that weighs, maybe twelve pounds?
Who, but a tiny élite of a similarly ‘self-contained, rabidly idealistic society, largely unnoticed and surprisingly uncorrupted by the world at large,’ would even want to attempt it?
“Dancing with the Wind: Part Four” by Laurie Nadel
WINDSURFING ACROSS the Atlantic definitely ranks up there with Everest on the list of the “world’s most…” list. Ask any yachtsman who has trans-oceanic experience, and he or she will tell you that the Atlantic has some of the world’s most strenuous sailing conditions. Now, if that’s true for someone sailing a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art boat, with GPS navigation devices, radar detectors, power winches, automatic rudder control, and gizmos up the wazoo, imagine how frightening it must be to launch with a classic, low-tech windsurfer. Even with a GPS navigation device fitted into a helmet, and a two-way headset to call a rescue boat if you need help, standing in the straps, hooked in, surrounded by 360 degrees of heaving seas, and no landmarks for guidance, has got to be among the most intimidating of days at sea that anyone could dare to experience. “Windsurfing across the Atlantic has got to be one of the last great adventures available to us,” says John Chao, Editor and Publisher of American Windsurfer, and organizer of TAWR2000’s TeamUSA. “It’s unfortunate that we have gotten so little support from the industry, and not much attention in the media. The trans-Atlantic windsurf races are pushing the envelope of windsurfing.”
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it, anyway) that this event is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it recreational windsurfing. The first trans-Atlantic windsurf race, in 1998, saw about a dozen of the world’s strongest sailors hurling rigs and boards off the stern of a Russian icebreaker that was listing, easily 40 degrees, then jumping off themselves, and swimming to their gear. After waterstarting, they had to get their bearings amid swirling water patterns that bear no resemblance to the sets of waves most of us learn to read at home. On one day, with the wind blowing about 40, Anders Bringdal, Micah Buzianis, and Ken Winner—three of the world’s top pros—braved swells the size of two-story buildings for a marathon session, during which one pro’s board cracked in half! (No, Sally, this is not Club Med.)
During TAWR2000, each team will be based in a 35-foot, covered, custom-designed Rigid Inflatable Boat, capable of motoring at 45 miles an hour. The boat will also serve as a chase and rescue vessel for each sailor. GPS navigational equipment will make it possible for teams to race at night, so the upcoming event will give new meaning to the term “endurance windsurfing.”
As you might expect, only the most determined, capable, and rugged windsurfers are willing to subject themselves to these conditions. Along with there being no room for mistakes, there is also no room for anyone who is not at least 100 percent committed to the challenge. Only a few tough souls make the grade.
Which leads to the most obvious question, the one that probably springs to your mind as soon as you see any of the trans-Atlantic windsurfing pictures: Why would anyone choose to take this on, when he could be drinking a cold one, instead, and watching the highlights on CNN or ESPN?
While there are no easy answers, there are certain characteristics that make those who windsurf the Atlantic different from the rest of us. As someone who has been privileged to interview several of these windsurfing legends in the past, I can point to such qualities as extreme determination, self-discipline, and both physical and mental endurance. As Media Director for TeamUSA, I have had a great opportunity to work behind the scenes as TAWR2000 gears up. I have had a chance to meet–in person, on the phone, and online–each member of the American team. Without a doubt, each sailor has his own unique athletic abilities to contribute to the US effort. But at least as important as his windsurfing skills are qualities like endurance, sense of fair play, and grace under fire. Confined to close quarters for the better part of three weeks, these five men will be sharing limited bunk, head, and storage space, equipment, cameras, water, and specially prepared, nutritionally balanced freeze dried food. They will have to pitch in to repair broken masts or booms, when needed, and to make split-second survival decisions in life-threatening conditions. They will need to agree on who is the best sailor to relieve a teammate on the water, during the grueling 250-mile legs. Personality styles, different ways of coping with stress, decision-making strategies, and ways of handling conflict will all come into play during this three-week event, and it’s possible that they will take on equal importance to the physical skills needed to master giant swells.
When it comes to decision-making, both tactical and strategic approaches are going to be necessary; however, these differences can cause friction. In everyday life, these two styles pop up all over the place. For example, when you go to lunch with someone for the first time, you can see the two styles at work. Some people look at the menu and make up their minds right away. They are called Drivers. Others study the menu, then go around the table, asking everyone, “What do you want? What do you want? And what do you want?” When the waiter arrives, there are even more questions before these people, called Riders, choose what they want to eat. As the waiter is leaving, however, a Rider may call out, “Just a
second..I’d like to change that…”
As the members of Team USA have been getting acquainted, these two different styles are already apparent. Methodical, organized Race Captain Guy Miller, 44, sent an itemized questionnaire on everything from board preferences to shoe sizes, to all team members back in February. “Apart from the fact that we are six weeks away, it serves to illustrate my point on being ready for everything,” he wrote. Two weeks later, he had compiled a list of additional supplies, including 2 Barz Goggles, 1 White Gath Helmet, 12 Boom ClamCleats, 4 Tug Cleats, 40 feet of Black 5mm Line, and 4 Wetsuit Odor Eliminators. “I figured if we were going to have to smell each other for several weeks, then wetsuit odor eliminator is a good idea!” he observed. In addition to organizing and cataloging the team’s equipment and supplies, Miller has been hard at work making a waterproof high-intensity light setup to mount to the helmet for night sailing. “Once again, we don’t know what is going to be provided, and we need to be prepared for all contingencies,” he said.
When you’re windsurfing in uncharted waters, however, there are so many unknowns that sail designer Monty Spindler, 43, comments, “The Trans-Atlantic Windsurf race takes us into new areas of windsurfing. Yes, the Atlantic has been windsurfed already. But we will be exploring new conditions and courses.” Coordinating with Guy Miller, who has been studying the wind patterns over Portugal, Spindler wants to be sure TeamUSA has the best quiver and gear selection for the probable winds. From the starting line in southern Portugal, where the wind tends to blow SW at nine, to the Canaries, where it drops to six out of the south, TeamUSA will be using long boards with 10.9 sails. “This should give us an advantage since it’s unlikely any of the other teams will have longboards,” notes Miller, adding that “they may look down their noses at them, but we can whoop them with a longboard and a 10.9.” At Cape Verde, the wind can pick up to 26 or more, out of the east, but during the Atlantic crossing, says Spindler, “We may be racing upwind in very strong winds. This is not normal!” Because most racing courses take the sailors up- and downwind, “there is a lot of gear developed for these conditions,” he adds. “Upwind work in strong wind is not happening in the Word Cup racing scene, but we may well have this situation all the way to Brazil.” If so, then upwind course racing gear is excellent when beating, but “the question is whether the monster boards with their huge width and fin sizes will be faster over long distances downwind than a well set-up slalom rig. Slalom gear will not sail as far off the wind, but its speed leaves course racing gear behind,” he says.
As a Rider, Organizing Captain John Chao believes that there’s only so much advance planning you can do under these conditions. In comparison to Drivers, Riders like to live in the moment and enjoy the unexpected. A Driver believes you can plan for the unexpected and can be impatient with a Rider’s seemingly freewheeling approach. As the organizer of the US team for TAWR 98, Chao is the only member of the team with first-hand knowledge of how gnarly conditions can get in the middle of the ocean. “There will be many unsettling things up ahead, including not having all the information needed to make the best technical decisions,” he observes, recognizing at the same time that this very point makes Drivers uncomfortable. “How we approach these weaknesses is as important as how well we sail,” he notes.
Understanding how team members cope with pressure can be as valuable up-front information as what sail or board to use. When it comes to grace under fire, Marco de Moraes, 37, is one of the pros. “Even though we are still trying to determine who can do what, and we haven’t had a chance to sail together, I am very proud at how well our teammates are communicating,” he says. “Windsurfers in general, myself included, tend to just go and do it. That’s a good attitude, but we need to be cautious, as well.”
Even higher on the priorities list than sailing skills, equipment, or personality traits is the issue of safety. TAWR2000’s sailors will eat, sleep, and launch from their team’s 35-foot boat. The R.I.B. will serve as a chase and rescue boat, as well. “The number one priority is each sailor’s safety,” says Chao. “Our rule will be that a windsurfer must never lose sight of our boat. That may mean we can only go as fast as the boat, which could slow someone down. On the other hand, if a windsurfer loses sight of the boat, we could lose time trying to find each other.” Winning or losing doesn’t count as much when rough seas turn treacherous. Miller agrees, “When you’re out there, alone, on a windsurfer, it must be pretty daunting. I have a lot of empathy for the original explorers. When they left Portugal in the 1500s, they didn’t have weather maps or GPS systems. They didn’t even know about hurricane seasons!”
“Even with the best preparations a lot could happen,” says Chao. “If our boat breaks down, we will have to call for help. We will all need to pull together and fortunately everybody is doing just that.” Although TeamUSA is the underdog in this event, he points out that “everybody is a team player. And positive energy in the midst of chaos will lead to positive results. When all is said and done, we could even have a good chance at winning.”
Associate Editor Laurie Nadel is the Media Director for the TAWR2000. You can follow the event and read more reports by Nadel starting March 18 at; www.americanwindsurfer.com