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Carnage on the Course

Back in 2015 ExPix partnered with Defi for their Defi Kite and Defi Wind events. We’d never had the chance to go to

Gruissan before, but having heard so much about these events, the huge numbers of windsurfers and kiters on the water at any one time; when the opportunity came to see it for ourselves; we just had to take it.

Gruissan, in the Languedoc region of France is a place of two halves; a quaint little village, with a fishing harbour and a 13th century castle, full of tradition and nostalgia and surrounded by almost 400 hectares of salt pans, gives way to a bustling marina with moorings for 1300 boats, holiday apartment overlooking palm-lined quays, a casino, an amusement park and array of bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
And in a similar way with its 1,200 competitors; young and old, amateur and pros, all on the water at the same time, competing in the same races, this juxtaposition carries through to Defi Wind.
For those in the know, the kudos of not only taking part in Defi but actually finishing a race is a badge to be coveted. But for anyone new to Defi, the experience can be unimaginable as 4 guys from Essex found out in 2015.
ExPix first met up with them as they wandered about the local supermarket in Gruissan. Like us, Defi had captured their attention and like us, they were keen to see what all the fuss was about. With years of sailing experience between them and tons of Essex confidence thrown in, these guys, all Defi novices, were out to prove that they could do it.
But were they prepared for what Gruissan, the Tramontane and Defi had in store for them?
ExPix caught up with the Essex lads after the drama of Defi was all over and we asked them what it felt like to take part, their thoughts and feelings about the whole experience and whether the event lived up to their expectations.
In honest and frank interviews the guys share their views about what Defi Wind 2015 meant to them. And they give useful tips and advice to stop anyone thinking of taking part in Defi from coming unstuck by arriving unprepared.
Their views are unbiased, impartial and open. Laying it on the line, they put aside the stereotypical Essex bravado as they speak of emotion, disappointment, exhaustion and relief.
 

TOWID - THE ONLY WAY IS DEFI!

The Essex 'boys' at Defi Wind thanks to them for supplying this imageSteve Wright
Q. What’s your name and how old are you?
A. My name is Steve Wright; I am a 54 year old, overweight, passionate windsurfer.
Q. How long have you been windsurfing and what level are you at?
A. I have been windsurfing 35 years, would call myself a competent sailor but not exceptional by any means. I go out in most conditions; I am not a wave sailor, but, more sail in the waves. I have also done a bit of speed sailing (at the Ray in Southend, have got to 36.6 knots), can sail quite easily for a few hours, making most gybes. My kit ranges from 145 to 62 ltr boards and 7.2 to 3.7 m sails and have used them in all conditions.
Q. When did you first hear about Defi Wind and how did you hear about it?
A. A friend, Tracy Meade, put the link on his Facebook page asking “Anyone fancy having a go?”
Q. Did you think about entering Defi Wind in previous years, if so why didn’t you?
A. No I had never heard about Defi Wind before.
Q. What made you want to enter Defi this year; was the opportunity to ride with pro riders a main feature in your decision or was there something else?
A. A lot of my friends seem to be doing challenges recently (triathlons, marathons, bike rides, etc.), which got me thinking - this challenge is right up my street. My main question was “Am I good enough to do this race?” I have often sailed in off shore winds at Sotavento in Fuerteventura and thought “how hard can this race really be?”
Q. Is this one to tick off the Bucket List?
A. This wasn’t a Bucket List item, however, to complete at least once race is now on the Bucket List.
Q. What did you expect to find when you got to Gruissan; did it meet your expectations?
A. Expected to find a light hearted young party/festival type atmosphere and to be overwhelmed with all the manufacturers and private retailers selling equipment. I was looking forward to entering my first windsurfing race and for it to be achievable.
Q. What do you think of the organisation of the event; is there anything you particularly liked or found useful and was there anything that you didn’t like or found unhelpful or even a hindrance?
A. What we did find was slightly different. As Canadian Jon said “where’s the atmosphere?” Everyone seemed to be nervous, concerned and serious. They had obviously seen the forecast and knew what was to come - naively we didn’t! On the commercial side of things - there were a few main manufactures, but, for the size of the event we expected more. The organisation was good; however, being a foreigner we feel we missed some things. The main racing rules and safety were explained well. Rescue facilities were excellent. The finer points about conditions seemed to be missing – we learnt more from speaking to a local French sailor who explained about the local conditions and what to expect much better.
Q. Was there anyone that you were hoping to meet at Defi, such as a particular pro windsurfer and did you get the opportunity to do that?
A. I am not a groupie! I was interested in the event not the personalities there.
Q. How did you feel in the build up to the start of the race?
A. Absolutely terrible – nervous couldn’t eat, anxious, but still excited. At this point there was no wind. As we went to the first briefing meeting the wind went from nothing to 30/40 knots and the race was due to start in 60 minutes time. Now it’s panic!! As soon as you hit the water all nerves and anxiety disappear.
Q. How did you find the conditions on the water – effect on the body mentally and physically emotions, stamina, power/wind, did the number of windsurfers on the water affect how you sailed?
A. The start beach was the worse conditions I have ever sailed in, huge gusts that ripped the sail out of your hands and then nothing. Off shore winds that were gusting 50 knots on a sinking 82 ltr wave board and a 4.2 – was not the best decision I have ever made. Problem is this is what was required on the flat part of the course after the start line. As I took off from the start gate I remember reading some wise words “If you get past the start line and are overpowered – go back and save your energy for the next race”. With that ringing in my ears, I turned round and headed back to base. In hindsight I later found out that conditions further down the course were better than the start – I should have continued down the course.
Q. How did you feel once the race was over for you?
A. I felt annoyed that I was totally beaten by the conditions, but, glad to have got back to the beach under my own steam.
Q. Were you glad you entered & would you come again?
A. Glad I entered; will be coming back next year. Although at the time, we all said we were not coming back again, ever!
Q. How did you travel to France; plane, Euro Tunnel, ferry etc; which route and why did you choose this? Did price, speed of journey or proximity to where you live, where you were heading to affect your decision?
A. We drove there via Euro Tunnel. We travelled from Calais to Gruissan via Rouen, Druex and Chartres to avoid Paris traffic. We wanted to take our time and enjoy the scenery, stopping off in a motel along the way to break up the journey.
Q. Where did you stay for the event, in your van or in accommodation, if accommodation what kind, hotel, B & B or apartment and would you recommend this?
A. We rented a large house in Narbonne Plage approx. 10 kilometres away from Gruissan; would prefer a house onsite next time.
Q. Is there any advice or tips that you wish you’d known before you came to Defi or started your race?
A.
  • The start beach is nothing like the race course. You launch in extremely gusty conditions, from the sail being ripped out of your hands to nothing at all. So make sure you take enough volume in your board to cope with the holes. It’s quite choppy water out by the start boat, then as you get on the race course the wind picks up by about 2 forces, becomes more constant with less holes and flatter water. It was extreme conditions when we were there – the wind was up to 71 knots.
  • Be aware of wind changing direction– on one of the races it went from directly off shore at the initial start but at the gybe mark it was cross off. So everyone gybing round the first mark found themselves going out to sea and having quite a few tacks to get back.
  • Water – Most sailors took a camel drinking pack with them – it’s a must.
  • Keep Bib with you at all times –Whenever to go to the stage/briefing area always have your Bib with you – you could win a prize? If you’re not there or have not got your Bib they pull another number out of the hat!
  • Fitness levels – This is a seriously long way! Get fitter!
  • Signing in and out – The biggest mistake people made. So many forget to do this. Ask Andy?? Your mind is preoccupied by many other things it is so easy to forget – if you are with other people make a point of reminding them.
  • Car parking – Big issue. The car parks get very busy. There is a height limit of 2.0 meters in some of them. Our group had 3 vans between us. We left two of them in the car park for the duration of the event and shuttled everyone in and out in the 3rd van. That way we had prime frontage and rigging space every day.
  • Spares – take everything with you. Very little replacement spares available there.
  • House – The off-site house (in Narbonne Plage) allowed for a peaceful night’s sleep, however, we found it a bit too far away from the event location and lacked a choice of restaurants for our evening meals.
  • Information flow missing –In the briefing meetings English speaking people only seemed to get a proportion of what was being said in French.
Q. And your final thoughts?
A. I think we were very unfortunate to see this race in the windiest conditions they have ever to run it in. The first race went from 30 to 50 knots, 1200 started, 377 finished. People were being rescued before the race even started. Multiple ambulances were called; even a rescue boat was sunk! That set the scene for the rest of the races with the wind peaking at 71 knots. I don’t think any amount of training could have prepared me for these types of conditions. I didn’t expect to sailing in survival mode. We ended up just sailing up and down the start beach in awe of the people who completed any of the races.
 
 
Brian Endean
Q. What’s your name and how old are you?
A. My name is Brian Endean and I am 54.
Q. How long have you been windsurfing and what level are you at?
A. I have been windsurfing for nearly 30 years but for the last 15 years it has eased down a lot maybe only going for 5 or 6 good sessions a year. I have therefore gone back a bit in level but I am a reasonable intermediate I guess.
Q. When did you first hear about Defi Wind and how did you hear about it?
A. Just after Christmas this year, Steve suggested we give it a go.
Q. Did you think about entering Defi Wind in previous years, if so why didn’t you?
A. I have never heard of Defi wind before.
Q. What made you want to enter Defi this year; was the opportunity to ride with pro riders a main feature in your decision or was there something else?
A. The pro guys are great but I never considered them before I signed up. Being out on the water with so many others and sailing over such a long distance was the main draw. I really could not comprehend what this would be like; there really is nowhere else like it that I know of.
Q. Is this one to tick off the Bucket List?
A. Kind of, at least that’s what I expected to do but it has left unfinished business so……
Q. What did you expect to find when you got to Gruissan; did it meet your expectations?
A. I had no pre conceptions. I have very little time at home to spend hours looking up Defi wind stuff so I left that to Steve. I made my decision, signed up and if there was any important stuff Steve let me know about it. It’s a steep learning curve when you get there but I bet every year is different anyhow and when it boils down to it its only windsurfing on flat water, what could possibly go wrong……….
Q. What do you think of the organisation of the event; is there anything you particularly liked or found useful and was there anything that you didn’t like or found unhelpful or even a hindrance?
A. It seems to be run well; my French is very poor so it’s hard to tell. There is very little information in English; you get the basics which are ok; nothing drastic happened because of a lack of info. There seemed to be nowhere to go if you did have a problem or needed info so perhaps an information desk would be useful.
Q. Was there anyone that you were hoping to meet at Defi, such as a particular pro windsurfer and did you get the opportunity to do that?
A. I was really hoping to meet lots of friendly windsurfers from all nations and I certainly did that. It was like being down your local beach only with 1000 odd others. If the pros are your thing then they are there next to you on the beach sorting out kit like you are and signing in and out.
Q. How did you feel in the build up to the start of the race?
A. I was unduly nervous, after all I was only looking to finish not win and believe me finishing is a major achievement. It was a real step into the unknown.
Q. How did you find the conditions on the water – effect on the body mentally and physically emotions, stamina, power/wind, did the number of windsurfers on the water affect how you sailed?
A. Ok, for a start this year was a windy one. It never dropped below 35 knots day or night as far as I could tell. I weigh in at 62 kilos so I tend to be happy and would normally sail nicely powered up but avoid being overpowered and I sail on the coast so in strong winds the sea is big and you are looking for control. I took part in two races the first one was the first race of the event. It was 30 knots with major gusts on the beach at the start, increasing all the way to the 10 km jibe mark maybe around 45 knots. I got through the start line underpowered crossed the river mouth and all hell broke loose. To say I was overpowered was putting it mildly; I have never sailed like that. The only saving grace was if you could stay close to the beach the water was flat. I got half way down the course turned round and came back gutted. The rescue service which looked very professional had their work cut out. The wind increased for the next few days so I just did a bit of free sailing on the Chalets’ beach, very windy, very gusty. I took part in the last race feeling I understood the conditions better; gusty 30 knots on the start to I guess 40 knots on the course. Again I wobbled over the start and within 300 m it kicked in and I hung on all the way. I completed one lap of pure adrenalin and had to give up. Totally and utterly overpowered for 20km, if that had been the first race I would have been better prepared for the others. It was amazing sailing with 1000 other windsurfers, from pros to one guy I saw up hauling! I managed to avoid everyone and they avoided me; no chance of feeling lonely 10km away from your van. Mentally it’s also hard, I focused on the next 200 m and tried to block out any negative thoughts like what the hell am I doing out here! Again it’s a steep learning curve and after your first race you learn to deal with it. I found it strangely comforting having lots of company racing towards you at 30mph; they made it to the jibe mark so can you. The one thing I needed when I eventually got to the jibe mark was water, the type I could drink, you would not run a half marathon without water and if you take your time over this race you are out there a long time. I reckon I could have completed the race if I had a drink with me, overpowered or not.
Q. How did you feel once the race was over for you?
A. My first effort upset me which I couldn’t quite believe, only managing to get 5km away. The second I was happy with at the time, if I had tried to carry on I could see myself having a wipe out, not a good look.
Q. Were you glad you entered & would you come again?
A. There were times when I wish I had never heard of Defi but really I am glad I went. The experiences were many, not all good but mostly positive in retrospect and yes I would go back.
Q. How did you travel to France; plane, Euro Tunnel, ferry etc; which route and why did you choose this? Did price, speed of journey or proximity to where you live, where you were heading to affect your decision?
A. I went down on my own in my van carrying every bit of kit I have, which is nothing compared to the more serious racers. It’s a mighty long way but easy driving, I have done trips like this to the south of France before and it’s something else you can get used to. I take a couple of audio books and can recommend any of the Harry Potters read by Stephen Fry. I live in Norwich so went on the ferry as it gives you a break from driving. I caught the midnight ferry slept, then drove for 3 hours, then slept again, then headed down to get there late afternoon; with 2 drivers you can keep moving.
Q. Where did you stay for the event, in your van or in accommodation, if accommodation what kind, hotel, B & B or apartment and would you recommend this?
A. I went down for 10 days in all, sleeping in my van on route and stayed at the municipal camp site in Gruissan for a couple of nights which is good. I also left my van in the main carpark nearest the event when it all started, staying in the van one night but spending the others at a house we’d rented. If I was to stay in my van at the event again I would choose the third carpark along the beach; it’s quieter there and the toilet block has an inside but cold shower.
Q. Is there any advice or tips that you wish you’d known before you came to Defi or started your race?
A. Where do I start?
• If you can, get down a couple of days early and sail. I would head down to the main sailing area; take the road to the left of the campsite in Gruissan that should take you there or go further along the beach, take the road on the right of the camp site, yes the camp site sits in a kind of V!
• If you have a box trailer or can leave your van at the Defi site with your kit in, you could take bikes and camp in Gruissan, it’s about a 10 min cycle.
• There is a selection of shops for food at Plage de Chalet (main beach where Defi is based)
• Gruissan is a nice village with all you need.
• Make sure you have lots of decent food available during the event you don’t get much spare time to mess about.
• Take a camel back.
• If you want to stay in a house try and find one on Plage de Chalets, lots of them seem to be privately owned. Or somewhere in Gruissan, hotels etc.
• Learn French fast!
• You can use whatever kit you are happy with from wave to camb sails or combination of all; just make sure it’s in good nick.
Q. And your final thoughts?
A. Everyone I met there was very friendly like it is at your local beach just a bit busier. I will never forget trying to down and out haul my sail until the guts fell out of it half way down the course in a sand storm. Having Bjorn Dunkerbeck coming at me around 30 knots (I swear it was him)!!!!!!!
 
Tracy Meade
Q. What’s your name and how old are you?
A. Tracy Meade aged 61
Q. How long have you been windsurfing and what level are you at?
A. 30 yrs. + ….... up and until the Defi Wind I thought I was quite good, I have had to review that as I did not complete any race for the 2015 Defi Wind. I sail 84 ltr a 105 ltr and a 124 ltr board and have clocked 38 knots using a GT-31 on the Ray at Southend, but no racing.
Q. When did you first hear about Defi Wind and how did you hear about it?
A. Probably 5 years + ago
Q. Did you think about entering Defi Wind in previous years, if so why didn’t you?
A. Family commitments
Q. What made you want to enter Defi this year; was the opportunity to ride with pro riders a main feature in your decision or was there something else?
A. I have taken early retirement and have the time and money to do it
Q. Is this one to tick off the Bucket List?
A. Not necessary a bucket list item but more an itch I had to scratch
Q. What did you expect to find when you got to Gruissan; did it meet your expectations?
A. I thought I had the ability to take part (not necessarily compete) and the wind to be little more consistent.
Q. What do you think of the organisation of the event; is there anything you particularly liked or found useful and was there anything that you didn’t like or found unhelpful or even a hindrance?
A. I was disappointed with almost everythingabout the event with the exception of the rescue system which was amazing; the parking was very restricted ( I left my van in the carpark for the whole event and commuted backwards and forwards to my accommodation), the rigging was very difficult, the near total lack of information for English speakers,(i.e., the fact there was a rash vest number lottery, how you got your free drink etc), the skippers meeting had Phillip talking for 3-4 mins, then the English translation for a minute. I thought there would be more of a music festival supply of eating available. I was surprised that the organisers were caught out by the wind strength, (i.e. they didn't warn people more to secure their gear better for when the wind kicked in)
Q. Was there anyone that you were hoping to meet at Defi, such as a particular pro windsurfer and did you get the opportunity to do that?
A. Not really, but I was impressed how approachable the World cup guys were.
Q. How did you feel in the build up to the start of the race?
A. At the venue I thought the whole atmosphere was rather subdued, but the Facebook campaign was good in the weeks previous.
Q. How did you find the conditions on the water – effect on the body mentally and physically emotions, stamina, power/wind, did the number of windsurfers on the water affect how you sailed?
A. I know that it was exceptional conditions but it was the gustiness that I came to hate. It was very much out of my league, such that I hardly sailed at all. The 2015 event conditions made me really doubt my own ability and that eroded away at my confidence, so much so that come the last race I completely bottled it; this beening more to do with where my head was. I also came to realise that I was not fit enough; I felt that I did not have enough reserves of stamina for such extreme conditions.
Q. How did you feel once the race was over for you?
A. Very disappointed, I had thought almost of nothing else for such a long time and it had come to this. Ok I had got back under my own steam and none of my friends had been rescued or injured. But (and there always is a but!) if only the first race had the conditions of the last race, I could have had at least had a good chance of completing one race.
Q. Were you glad you entered & would you come again?
A. Yes I am glad I had entered for the shared experience, meeting and chatting to other like-minded people from a lot of different countries, the lovely French countryside, and that I now know what it is like, but I won’t be back.
Q. How did you travel to France; plane, Euro Tunnel, ferry etc; which route and why did you choose this? Did price, speed of journey or proximity to where you live, where you were heading to affect your decision?
A. We all drove via the Euro Tunnel; I rented a van for the gear. Our convoy avoided Paris and went the west route, and the trip was much easier than I thought, over 2 days.
Q. Where did you stay for the event, in your van or in accommodation, if accommodation what kind, hotel, B & B or apartment and would you recommend this?
A. We rented a house in Narbonne which was basic and probably a little further out than we all would have liked. I don’t think I would want be on site.
Q. Is there any advice or tips that you wish you’d known before you came to Defi or started your race?
A.
  • Train and be a lot fitter, I was also under finned and over sailed; I wanted a sail smaller than a 4.5. I thought that the wind would be a lot cleaner; it did not match my experience of sailing in Fuerteventura.
  • I had read and been told that Defi is one of the better organised events but it was a disappointment, (perhaps it was over sold to me).
Q. And your final thoughts?
A. I had a lot of scenarios in my head, no wind, gear failure, illness, but NEVER too much wind.
 
Andy
Q.What’s your name and how old are you?
A. Andy, 58 years old.
Q. How long have you been windsurfing and what level are you at?
A. 20 years. Intermediate (I can carve gybe happily enough).
Q. When did you first hear about Defi Wind and how did you hear about it?
A. 3 months before the event from a friend who was already signed up to go.
Q. Did you think about entering Defi Wind in previous years, if so why didn’t you?
A. No. I'd not heard of it.
Q. What made you want to enter Defi this year; was the opportunity to ride with pro riders a main feature in your decision or was there something else?
A. It sounded like a good time (a bit of a road trip + an event + some windsurfing).
Q. Is this one to tick off the Bucket List?
A. I guess (if I had a bucket list...).
Q. What did you expect to find when you got to Gruissan; did it meet your expectations?
A. I'd done almost no research on Gruissan so had no idea what to expect. Maybe I thought there would be more established on the beach-side. There's really not much there on the seafront (tho the nearby shops, just inland a bit, are great)
Q. What do you think of the organisation of the event; is there anything you particularly liked or found useful and was there anything that you didn’t like or found unhelpful or even a hindrance?
A. It seemed extremely well organised; the racing, the rescue teams and the entertainment. However, being a French event, all the information was in French and not all of it was translated to English (despite a good number of English speaking participants). This was especially noticeable at the morning pre-race meetings, where something might be explained for 5 minutes in French then summarised in 1 minute in English.
Q. Was there anyone that you were hoping to meet at Defi, such as a particular pro windsurfer and did you get the opportunity to do that?
A. It was nice to see them and it gave the event a bit of gravitas having them there, but it wasn't particularly important to me. The best thing was seeing the top free-stylers at play after the racing – especially Sarah-Quita Offringa who entertained the crowds on the beach with some fantastic sailing.
Q. How did you feel in the build up to the start of the race?
A. A bit anxious. I took the easy option and launched straight off the beach (along with a lot of others) once the main pack had gone through the start line. I was wary of getting in the way of the more serious racers and possibly causing a pile-up (of which there were several). Also the stories about the wind being much stronger by the first gybe mark were a bit scary.
Q. How did you find the conditions on the water – effect on the body mentally and physically emotions, stamina, power/wind, did the number of windsurfers on the water affect how you sailed?
A. In the first race it was incredibly windy and very gusty. And off-shore. It was also very choppy. I was massively overpowered on a 4.5m sail (I'm 70kg) and my wave board just couldn't go fast enough, so I got catapulted several times (it seemed like a good idea at the time to use a wave board, and many people did). But I realised I wasn't going to finish so I retired and sailed back to the beach before I got to the stage where I needed rescuing. The next two races were even windier and the organisers requested only people who'd finished the first race go in for them. A lot of us raced up and down the shoreline of the beach to the north of the racecourse instead. The wind dropped ever so slightly for the last race (it was still nuclear) and I was better equipped with a 4m sail on an old 100litre freeride board. Not a combination I'd usually use, but although I was still horribly overpowered it was possible to hang on. It was the most intense hour I've ever spent on the water, right on the edge of catastrophe the entire time (it was common to see people blasting along and then just wiping out, for no apparent reason). A real blast. Especially being out there among so many others. And unlike an event like, say, the London marathon, where the fast people disappear into the distance; because the Defi is a figure of 8 course (often over 2 laps) everybody is very much involved the entire time.
Q. How did you feel once the race was over for you?
A. Physically & mentally exhausted. And elated.
Q. Were you glad you entered & would you come again?
A. Really glad I did it. I still find the race I did being replayed in my mind. I'd love to do it again but the overheads, in terms of time (planning & travelling) and the cost (we rented a van and a house) were high.
Q. How did you travel to France; plane, Euro Tunnel, ferry etc; which route and why did you choose this? Did price, speed of journey or proximity to where you live, where you were heading to affect your decision?
A. We hired a van and went via Euro tunnel. We took it easy and spent a day and a half driving. I know others that did it in 18 hours straight.
Q. Where did you stay for the event, in your van or in accommodation, if accommodation what kind, hotel, B & B or apartment and would you recommend this?
A. We hired a house between 5 of us, about 10km away. It was very nice but I think we probably missed out on the entertainment side of the event and perhaps didn't feel so much a part of it as those who stayed on-site
Q. Is there any advice or tips that you wish you’d known before you came to Defi or started your race?
A. I think the advice to take a camel pack and a snack to eat during the race was good (it's easy to stop during the race as it's very shallow near to the shore).
Q. And your final thoughts?
A. Sometime before the event I read the articles by Andrea Cucchi which were really helpful – I'd recommend them to anyone thinking of going.
 

The advice is loud and clear, don’t get caught up with all the hype surrounding Defi Wind, this is not your normal race. Do your homework, listen to local knowledge and be prepared to be pushed to your very limits! For more information check out the ExPix Defi Wind 2015 Event Report

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