I arrived on the sunny island of Fuerteventura late on a Monday afternoon. “Fuerte” is one of the more popular of the Spanish Canary Islands, just a stone’s throw away from Gran Canaria, Teneriffe and Lanzarote. Having never been here before I only knew Fuerte by the photos on the PWA websites, the long stretches of white sandy beaches and crystal clear, flat water. The taxi drivers at the airport are prepared to deal with surfers and after selecting one with roof racks I had my 80kg triple board bag strapped tightly on the roof and began the one hour drive to Sotavento beach (right in the south of the island).
The island was a stark contrast to what I was expecting. Barren and desolate desert as far as the eye could see in all directions. This was as close in appearance to Mars as you will ever encounter; a pale reddish stony and dusty landscape, with no plantlife dotting the horizon other than a few shrubs, not more than 30cm off the ground. Small but steep mountains surround the entire island, and it is easy to see how the years of constant wind have shaped their features, very smooth transitions and sharp peaks on the taller of the mountains.
After you’ve head about 40km south from the airport, there the signs of civilisation stop, and you enter the farming areas and more desert. The farms are generally for some variety of mountain goat, and it was incredible to think just what these goats are eating on a daily basis as there nothing more than rocks and sand on these mountains as you get further south. Every now and again you will spot a house, one of the more endearing things of Spanish culture as their tiny one level houses are a perfect white stone with rich terracotta coloured roofs, allowing them an abrupt difference to the colour of the surrounding environment. Nearing the end of our drive we can begin to see the ocean. Its 8pm now (two hours before sunset) and I can already see at least fifty specks on the water which I can make out to be windsurfers, and a small number of kiters a little further down the beach. The water is alive with white caps and I estimate it would be blowing at least 25 knots from my vantage point on the road high above the water.
The taxi drivers says in his broken english, “near, soon”, which I translate to be we will be arriving at the hotel very soon. A little surprising as I still haven’t seen one hotel for the last 20 minutes of the drive. The only indication I see is a large sign stating “Rene Egli Pro Centre”, the massive windsurfing and kitesurfing centre in which the PWA event is run from.
I arrive at my apartment; quite nice, but the island is fairly expensive as there is only 4-5 star hotels and resorts at Sotavento, which is where you want to stay if you want the best windsurfing. I’m about 5 minutes walk from the beach and about 50m above sea-level, giving a great view of the ocean (always important to wake up to white-caps on the ocean if you’re a surfer on holiday).
I knew this place was going to be windy, but I really wasn’t too prepared, a 5.8m was my smallest rig I had with me in Europe! The two days I sailed before the PWA event started was in a good 35-40knots! The water remains relatively flat considering the wind, although there is a bit of a shorebreak along the front of the beach which made for some good ramps if you planed out of your gybes. I promised myself I would only sail an hour or two to get used to the conditions (not wanting to be too shattered before I raced), but it was just too good, and I found myself after 6 hours saying â€˜just one more gybe, then I go in “ok, maybe two more gybes!
Day one of the PWA Slalom 42 Grand Slam came around pretty quickly and in my first heat I drew Bjorn Dunkerbeck and Micah Buzianis (amongst a few of the names). Although admittedly these guys punished me around the course, it was really something to line up against Bjorn on the race-course. He is really as big as he looks in the photos, a solid 110kg and carrying at least 1m bigger sail than me at all times!
Being my first pro-level slalom event I wanted to treat it more as a learning experience than just a windsurfing experience. I made sure I was always out on the water 10-15 minutes before my start to watch the startline of the heats before mine. To the untrained eye it looks as though everyone is just sailing hell-for-leather at the line, hoping to get the timing within 1 second of the start gun, but I could see there was a lot more going on than this. Position is everything on the slalom startline. You need to tailor your start to what aspects of your gear are fast. If you are running faster than most on a deep broad reach maybe starting at the boat and coming down over the fleet is best (Bjorn Dunkerbeck style) or if you know you can keep the speed heading upwind a little, there is clear wind at the pin end â€“ where the distance to the first mark is shorter (which was Kevin Pritchardâ€™s style). Myself, carrying usually a smaller sail than most, and not as fast on the straight line run compared to the heavier sailors, started usually at the boat end (upwind). Although this was where most of the traffic was and it was easy to get stuck behind someone and punished, I found I needed to be in the clear wind, upwind of the fleet and would sometimes head a little high to keep above the fleet. At times losing some places, but making sure I wouldnâ€™t get the whole fleet running over me and fall off the plane. I would take my places on the first gybe mark; gybing from my widepoint upwind and gybing so tight I would usually punch my face against the mark. It was easy to scoop past a few sailors who had either crashed their gybes, or were in the vacuum of no wind behind the leaders. Peter Bijl (Top 10 sailor from Netherlands) would later tell me, â€˜its not how you go into the gybe, its how you come out of the gybeâ€™: a very important lesson in slalom racing.
The top four finishers from each heat would progress to the second round. With only 6 heats in each table, you were hard pressed to find a heat that was easy. Being a PWA event there is really no wannabeâ€™s here. Everyone is fast! And everyone is out there to win. I managed a few times to get through to the second round, which meant you could either qualify for the winnerâ€™s or the loserâ€™s final. Miss the second round and you sat on the beach until the next table began. On one such occasion quite a few of the top sailors started early (OCS) and were disqualified from their second-round heat, putting them into the second final with me. Imagine having to race Bjorn Dunkerbeck, Micah Buzianis, Antoine Albeau, Finian Maynard and Cyril Mussilmani in the loserâ€™s final! That was a tough raceâ€¦
On the third day (of the 5 day event) I managed to slice my foot open quite badly on the sharp volcanic rock that litters the beach. I normally wear boots to sail, but the water is just so inviting on Fuerte I couldnâ€™t resist to give my feet some air â€“ bad mistake! Although the PWA doctors did a good job to stitch and tape me up for the racing I found it incredibly difficult to gybe, not wanting to put to much pressure on my sore foot. Of course this would have to happen on the windiest of the days, as late in the afternoon we had some 40knot gusts coming down the course, making my â€˜safetyâ€™ gybes incredibly difficult when I couldnâ€™t commit the foot pressure to keep the rail engaged. Down I went in a few of the gybes which meant the whole day I never got through to the second round â€“ a little disappointing.
On the second last day we were given a short reprieval from the wind. It teased us a little till about 4pm, gusting around 10-15knots most of the day, but the PWA organisers were reluctant to start till it was a solid 20knots. Right on 4pm the wind just kicked and it hammering in at 25knots in the space of one minute. I was hoping for a dayâ€™s break to heal my foot but this was not to be. Being so late in the day the race committee decided to run a massive split fleet race. Ie. Two heats of 27 sailors (instead of 8 per heat). There was some serious carnage around the marks on these races with so many people vying for positions. After a great start I got to the first mark in 5th but collided with the Dutch sailor Ben Van Der Steen (NED-52) at the mark which lost me about 20 places in the space of a few seconds. It was back to the beach for me as only the top 14 went through to the final of this round.
The final day was again windy (its ALWAYS windy on Fuerte!) and we raced 2 more rounds to make the total of nine for the event. I had another hit and miss day, making it through to the loserâ€™s final in the first round but crashing out in the first heat of the second round which meant my day was over. Not to worry, it was still a great dayâ€™s sailing and the event party later that night was set to be a real eye-opener.
The PWA had built an enormous tent, capable of housing around 2000 people, complete with 3 working bars and a massive stage and dancefloor. After the presentation of the winners of the slalom event, some live bands from Spain and later on a DJ kept the music pumping all night long and a plethora of local Spanish girls came from all ends of Fuerteventura to party with the windsurfers. After spending a week and a half just burning money here on Fuerte it was nice to actually get something cheap â€“ as drinks were around 2 euro (AU$3.20) and shots of tequila were 1 euro (AU$1.80). The tequila seemed like a good idea at the time but I was really struggling when I got up at 6am the next morning to catch my flight back home to Holland.
Now I say 6am was when I got up, but really it was 7am. Fuerte is one hour behind Europe-time and stupidly I had changed my watch and computerâ€™s time back but not my phone. Thinking my loud phone alarm would be the best thing to wake me I relied solely on that as my wakeup call. Showering and eating breakfast in my drunken stupour I headed down to the beach to collect my gear on the truck to the airport, thinking it was about 6:20am. A quick glance at my watch and I realised it was in fact 7:20am! Iâ€™m usually an organised person so this was the first time in a while I had done something so horrendously stupid. The truck had already left and with it my transport to the airport. Taxis are impossible to get on this end of the island so I missed my flight.
This began a 26 hour ordeal where I spent a long day at the Fuerte airport, trying to find people who spoke english enough for me to buy tickets on the next flight back to Holland (happened to be the same night, but airlines only fly to Holland once a week from Fuerte as I found out later). This is not something you should be doing on a tequila hangover, but finally at 10pm that same night I was on a flight full of Dutch holiday-makers back to Holland. Just in time to begin my next adventure which involved being having my van break down on the way to picking me up from Amsterdam airport which left me stranded there for another 8 hoursâ€¦but thatâ€™s another story.
I was sad to leave Fuerte, but its only made me keener than ever to get back there. It really is one of the worldsâ€™ windsurfing meccaâ€™s. Words canâ€™t describe how consistently windy this place is, and the water is so clear and beautiful â€“ we who have been there are truly spoilt. Only a stoneâ€™s throw away from central Europe, and with plenty of the cheaper European airlines flying there, itâ€™s a â€˜must-seeâ€™ on any windsurferâ€™s travel list.