Woman to Windsurf Across Pacific Ocean

The first woman to solo windsurf across the Atlantic has the Pacific Ocean in sight.

Pennestin, Brittany, France: Rapheala le Gouvello, the forty year old Frenchwoman who made history in April 2000 by windsurfing solo across the Atlantic Ocean (AW, Vol 7, Issue 3/4), is planning to windsurf solo across the Pacific next year. “This is a great adventure,” le Gouvello told American Windsurfer in June. The first woman—and the fifth person in the world—to have windsurfed across the Atlantic, le Gouvello will be the first ever to attempt windsurfing across the Pacific.

“In addition to the challenge sportif, the logistics and technical challenges will be tremendous.” Le Gouvello, who successfully windsurfed from Dakar, Senegal to Guadeloupe on the same 7.5 meter long, 1.3 meter wide windsurfer that Frenchman Stephane Peyron used to cross the Atlantic in 1987, wants to raise awareness of marine conservation issues using satellite and webcam technology. “I am working with French education teams and scientific institutes to develop a whole new level of communications. We want to get maximum exposure for marine ecology issues during the crossing,” says the trim blonde athlete.

LeGouvello’s route will cover 9,000 nautical miles. She plans to start windsurfing from the French Caribbean to Panama at the end of 2001, setting sail from Panama in February 2002 with stops in the Galapagos and the Marquesas. She will end up in Tahiti sometime next year after windsurfing more than 5,000 miles. “I will sit out the cyclone season and resume windsurfing from Tahiti to Tonga and New Caledonia in 2003. The expedition will end near Brisbane, south of the Great Barrier Reef in 2003,” she says.

Describing herself as “quiet speed at the moment,” LeGouvello is working with scientists, educators, and web designers as well as with her trainers, naval architect, sail designers, and nutritionists. “We need to raise 9,000,000 francs or $1,250,000 (US) for the Pacific project.”

The woman who is to windsurfing what Amelia Earhart was to aviation, is still ready to windsurf, even after sixty days at sea on her Trans Atlantic crossing more than a year ago. The two middle fingers of her left hand are still black from an accident at sea. Strong hands, as you would expect. Square fingers. Pragmatic. Her wide blue eyes are weathered in a friendly way and while her smile is open, she is reserved. Her waist looks as narrow as a mast which is why she was so concerned about not losing weight during the crossing. She needs to eat every two hours.


Soft spoken and modest about her accomplishment, Raphaela’s eyes light up with excitement when she talks about windsufing. “I can’t sit at my desk when the wind is blowing. I get impatient with light wind. That’s what I had to contend with during the Atlantic crossing,” she says. A couple of weeks into her historic trip, Raphaela entered the notorious no-wind zone near the Equator, the Doldrums. “I only had enough food for fifty days, so I needed to radio a French Marine Nationale patrol boat for additional supplies. It was a very emotional meeting in the middle of the sea. When they left, I was completely alone again in the ocean,” she says. “I memorized a series of structured routines which included exercises, eating specially prepared Knorr food, rigging, derigging, and taking care of my skin to prevent sunburn and fungus. All I did was focus on these mini-routines to keep my mind from wandering.”

(Other Trans Atlantic windsurfers have described how easily disorientation can set in without any landmarks or recognizable wave patterns to offset the unrelenting openness of being alone in the middle of the ocean.)


To transport food, communications gear, and supplies, Raphaela borrowed the 7.5 meter long, 1.3 meter wide windsurfer that Stephane Peyron used for his solo voyage across the Atlantic in 1987. “It was important to me that Stephane took me seriously enough to lend me this trustworthy and historic board. It’s a long board with a round hull that is not stable in big waves, especially going downwind. The interior of the board is divided into three watertight compartments with a tube for sleeping in the back third,” she says. The front compartment was used to store her equipment and sails, which she rigged every morning and derigged every night before eating a double portion of a dehydrated meal that was nutritionally designed for her crossing. “My family and friends made tapes for me before I left so I would climb into the hull for the evening and lie there, listening to their voices encouraging me. It was like having them with me. The ocean would rock me to sleep. You could hear the waves crashing against the boat. Everything was dark down there but I felt very safe and cozy,” she smiles. When the moon was full, however, “It was a strange feeling. Very silent. The waves were not big enough to make noise. It’s very unusual because the ocean is not silent.”

As for the question reporters love to ask astronauts, how did she go to the bathroom every day? “I challenged my friends to come up with a good system for me and they came up with a very cute but impractical child’s potty. We had a lot of fun but it didn’t work so I took the simplest and oldest piece of equipment that has been used by navigators for years, the traditional bucket,” she says, explaining how she would fill the bucket with some water and place it in the front compartment. “Whenever I sat on it, my head would be level with the board. I would be looking at the stern, wondering, as each big wave hit the back, if the story was going to end badly. But it worked well. As for urinating, I would squat over the bucket. Each time, I prayed that no huge waves would come to cover the board and me. It was perilous at night!”


The most exhausting part of each day was rigging the sail. “Before I could start to navigate, I had to recover from rigging. I also had to make sure that the rig was tethered to the board because it would be all too easy for it to float away. One evening, I made a small mistake when I was derigging. The line connecting the sail to the board was not well tied and the sail floated away. I jumped into the water and tried to swim toward the sail but the ocean sucked it down,” she explains, adding that after this she was, “edgy and afraid of falling into the ocean because I could get lost at sea within minutes.” Having said that, Raphaela fell in ten times during her crossing, including one time when she catapulted while navigating. She recalls that, “the mast broke once, which was very dangerous and frightening. It can all change so quickly. From blue sky and calm seas to big black clouds and a small tropical storm. You learn very quickly that the sea does not exist for our entertainment.”

Among her sponsors, North Sails provided a quiver of six sails, a mast, and a boom. Four of her sails were 6.6 meters and two were 5.4 meters, all without cambers. They were made of tougher monofilm than standard sails and were designed with wider sleeves to make it easier for Raphaela to rig in open seas. “It took hours of training for me to be able to rig while standing on the board,” she says. “The waves were normally two to three meters and the winds, from three to six on the Beaufort scale. When the wind blew thirty knots with three to four meter waves, even the 5.4 meter sail was sometimes overpowering and I had to sail sitting down.” There were five days when she was unable to sail at all; two days with no wind. There were days when the winds were too strong and she was struggling with tendinitis in her shoulders and joint pain which made it hard for her to move. “I’m forty years old, and even if I’ve prepared well, I’m not a professional athlete or Wonder Woman,” she observes with a wry smile. When she injured two fingers after the cabin door slammed on them, she insisted that, “Despite the pain, I could sail.”

Why would a young woman subject herself to such discomfort in pursuit of such a difficult goal? “Ever since I learned how to windsurf with my ten brothers and sisters, I loved it so much I thought it would be wonderful to windsurf to the other side of the sea. “The ocean’s waiting. Get going,” I used to say to myself. But I kept this dream inside me for twenty years,” she confides. Her family thought she was crazy. Nonetheless, she spent several years planning, training, and raising nearly $400,000 to fulfill her dream. Raphaela’s sponsors included Beauchat divers’ watches, DeCleor skincare products, DDB, and OND communications, the regional government of Brittany, her village, and the French people themselves. After all, women sailors are extremely popular in the French media where stories about their heroism are big news, unlike in the United States where sailing news rarely rates a mention on the evening news. “Windsurfing across the Atlantic is an adventure that will stay in my mind for the rest of my life,” she says. “Despite fears that I wouldn’t make it, and days when I got depressed and even cried, the French people gave me lots of support when I called land with my solar powered IMASAT or Iridium phone.” In one of those phone calls, she told her friends, “Five more days is fine, but I’m not sure I would be able to go much longer. I’m not so tired, but my knees and all my joints and muscles hurt. After one or two hours of sailing, my hands, my fingers, ache. I have a problem gripping the boom.”
Arriving on the shores of Guadeloupe on April 24, Raphaela told the world, “It’s about time I got here. I did it. I ‘ve had enough.” Then she hopped a plane to Paris and went home.


One of the books Raphaela read during her voyage was an account of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America. “His ship also had no wind near the Equator. They were away from land for so long that the people onboard went crazy. After a month at sea, I felt an affinity with them,” she says, adding that she has been going through culture shock since returning to land. “When you are out in the middle of the ocean, you see how each wave is different from every other. Your mind becomes wind and wave when you windsurf well,” she says in her precise, even voice. “The ocean gave me lots of messages when I was out there. It cheered me up when I was feeling lost,” she says, eyes flashing.


Clearly, the sea is beckoning her to take on the Pacific challenge. If her schedule allows, American Windsurfer will host Raphaela le Gouvello at the Windsurfing Trade Expo in Orlando, September 21 to 24 and will keep you updated on her remarkable quest. If you would like to help or encourage Raphaela directly you can email: Raphaela.leGouvello@wanadoo.fr

by Laurie Nadel

Contributing editor Laurie Nadel is the author of four books, including the 1990 bestseller Sixth Sense which reported on real cases of intuitive children like the boy featured in the 1999 movie by the same name.

photos by Antoine Picard/Stadium