‘What’s wrong with this photo?’ a friend posted on Facebook – a snapshot of Rhosseneigr Bay, in Anglesea, accompanying his comment. Rhosseneigr, or ‘Rossi’, has been a mecca for windsurfers for decades and, throughout the nineties and naughties I’d make regular pilgrimages to this small Welsh village to enjoy its great wind stats and un-crowded shores.
But this Facebook photo showed an unfamiliar scene. Rossi’s grassy rigging area, once laden with several generations of Mistrals, Starboards and Bics was strewn with material and tangled strings. And the horizon I remember – crowded with flick-flacking sails and angled masts – was criss-crossed with wire-thin lines, and I had to direct my gaze towards the clouds to find the billowing kites that powered the dancing surfers below.
The scene at Rossi is far from restricted to Wales. A trip to Tarifa – Spain’s former windsurf central – last year, painted a similar scenario, and instructors told me how they’d ditched their windsurf sails for kites a few years ago, and hadn’t looked back since.
Has windsurfing finally had its day?
Windsurfing had its peak in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when some say as many as 1 in 3 households in Europe owned kit. It joined the Olympic agenda in 1984 and rising stars such as Robby Naish became the face of the sport.
After the honeymoon period, there was a slight drop in interest but by the late ‘90s, new board shapes, a flourishing free-style scene and fast-forward sailing techniques gave the sport a resurge. Legendary destinations such as Vas, Dahab and Maui become known, even outside the windsurfing world, and the launch of Team-15 in 2001 created a competitive outlet for young sailors. So what’s happened over the past decade to cause a decline in interest?
Kitesurfing has played a major role
When kites become popularised in the late-90s, out of control boarders attempted to launch in crowded areas, metres of line threatened to garrotte onlookers and cries of ‘out of the way, dangleboarder!’ would carry on the breeze from scornful windsurfers. With kiteboarding kit in its infancy, accidents were fairly common and the sport earned a reckless reputation.
But technology quickly moved on. Boards and kites developed fast, quick-release mechanisms and better kill-cords reduced the accident rate and strict safety standards and designated launching areas changed attitudes and made the sport safer.
Soon, kiteboarders were singlehandedly skimming along the shoreline, pulling off graceful aerial tricks and jumping over piers on days when windsurfers were struggling to get planning. With a faster learning curve than windsurfing, kitesurfing has been quick to take off – within a week or so, a new kitesurfer could be planning and tacking, whilst a windsurfer might still be up-hauling.
Kit is also an issue. Kites can be packed down into easy-to carry rucksacks and lightweight boards can be carried under the arm or slung on a backseat. Windsurf kit, on the other hand is a whole different board-game: heavy boards, rigid masts, long booms and a quiver of sails require a car, roof-rack and plenty of straps to get them down to the water, whilst Kitesurfing kit can be walked or even skate-boarded down to the beach and easily put on a plane or train – no driving licence needed.
Co-existence and Co-operation?
For many windsurfers, the birth of kitesurfing came as great news, rather than posing a threat – an easily transferable discipline offers a second sport for lighter wind or flatter water days. Many envisioned the two co-existing well into the future but the degree to which kitesurfing has started to replace rather than supplement windsurfing has taken everyone by surprise.
The International Sailing Federation’s announcement that 2012 would be the final year that windsurfing would feature in The Games, came as a real blow.
Olympic medallist, Bryony Shaw, likened the axe to the death of a family member; “It’s like someone in my family has died,” she told interviewers. And GB champ, Nick Dempsey, described the decision as ‘a massive mistake’.
Other members of the windsurfing community say they saw it coming, aware that there would never be room for both kites and sails in the Olympics. But the haste at which windsurfing was removed threw them off. Shock and backlash has been voiced across the globe and thousands have signed an online petition to get the sport reinstated. But many windsurfers, including Shaw, have suggested that they’re willing to embrace the new discipline.
Other tell-tale signs, such as the closing-down of ‘Windsurf Magazine’ last year and the international drop in kit sales, also point to the decline of windsurfing, but some devotees are more positive. Longstanding windsurf centres, in destinations such as Vasiliki (Greece), Dahab (Egypt) and Jeri (Brazil) are still going strong; windsurfers still fill inland waters in the UK, in destinations such as Rutland Water, where kitesurfing isn’t suitable; and those with a true passion for the sport will ensure that the community stays strong.
“So what if it’s not in the Olympics anymore,” my windsurf buddy Will told me. “I’ve never in my wildest dreams considered entering The Games; I windsurf for the pure love of it and that’s never going to change.”