Windsurfing doesn’t get a lot of media in Australia, even though it’s been an Olympic sport and is still the largest single class of competitive sailors in the Island Nation.
Is any windswept headland in Australia that doesn’t have its scattering of sails when the breeze is blowing?
But in the world of extreme windsurfing, naturally endorsed and nurtured by the energy-drink company Red Bull, only the very elite can get a place in the highest, wildest and most spectacular level of competition.
The competition’s called Storm Chase, and even by extreme-sport standard, it’s a gut-churning turnout.
Hurry Up and Wait
The first thing competitors have to overcome is the wait for the right weather conditions. If the waves aren’t going to be big and scary enough, competition is abandoned, and for a few years that’s what’s happened.
While they’re waiting to see whether conditions will eventuate, the eight invited competitors must be patient. They carry on with their wind-surfing training and competition, ready to drop everything and bolt if the phone should ring…sometime between October 20 and March 15. Except for the Chissy holiday between December 10 and January 6, Storm Chase could happen any time, with 72 hours’ notice, in that period.
The conditions the organisers look for include Force 10 winds – which means something between 90kph and 100kph – in a northern-hemisphere location that will suit.
That doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, does it?
But it’s not as common as you might think. It didn’t happen in between 2015 and 2018, for instance.
But when conditions are right, Sports Director Klaas Voget gets on the blower (ha! Get that? ‘Blower’. We’re hilarious), tells everyone to grab their gear and head for wherever the action is, and he’ll see them there.
In 2019 things fell into place off the coast of Ireland when a massive low-pressure system headed for the Leprechaun Coast.
The Chosen Ones
For 2019 the elite consisted of Leon Jamaer, Dany Bruch, Thomas Traversa, Adam Lewis, Robby Swift, Ricardo Campello, Jaeger Stone and Philip Köster. The first backup rider was Jules Denel, who said he was disappointed to be so close to being inside this event with conditions that he particularly loved, but wished all the best to the eight competitors
“Enjoy the storm!” he’s quoted as saying, probably as he headed somewhere sunny and warm for a rubdown before another tough day at the beach.
A series of squalls was expected to hit the Irish coast driven by two big systems early in the second week of March. Wave heights were predicted to reach 10m, ensuring plenty of high-flying action and probably some carnage. Temperatures were expected to hover around 5°C, and the specific location was a last-minute decision based on the direction of the storm system.
All Systems Go
As it happened, everything fell into place. Wind gusts hit 130kph and 8m waves smashed their way onto the Irish coast.
Saturday was a warm-up day and competition was scheduled for Sunday, but the real-deal hard-core weather was expected on a Tuesday. Magheroarty Beach in County Doneghal was the venue, and after a calmish start things quickly went berserk and the riders took to the boards and started duking it out. Helicopter and jet-ski safety crews kept an eye on things as riders headed out in pairs for 20-minute heats in surprisingly warm, 8°C temperatures, and judges watched from above the reef as wind and waves became increasingly more mental and riders began their eye-popping aerial acrobatics.
Competition during the first two rounds was set on the reef upwind, mostly on wave rides, but as the waves became more monstrous and wind direction changed, competitors moved to the beach break for the final round.
Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!
When it was all over Australia’s Jaeger Stone stood on top of the windswept, cold-as-seven-bastards podium, as proud as punch, with Germans Philip Köster and Leon Jamaer in the minor placings.
“It was absolutely insane to compete in these conditions,” trembled the 28-year-old. “It was ballistic, massive, and freezing. Winning the contest feels unreal, and it still hasn’t sunk in yet – I’m still just trying to warm up my hands!”
Good on ya, Champ!
Sports Director Klass Voget added: “Over all the Storm Chases we’ve done, this was the hardest. The conditions were radical, and it was just so cold. Temperatures were just 5ºC and I didn’t think we’d see such high-performance sailing in these temperatures. That was impressive. And finally, today was the windiest day that many of these guys have ever sailed in.”