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In the Press: Man Overboard in Men’s Fitness

There’s a great article on windsurfing in the July issue of Men’s Fitness magazine, featuring MUSTO-sponsored Skandia Team GBR’s Nick Dempsey in the ‘out there – live life in the fit lane’ section:

‘In expert hands the RS:X Olympic class windsurf racer can reach speeds of 48km/h.  So what would happen if MF’s Nick Hutchings got hold of one? 

Speeding straight towards a moored yacht is not the ideal end to your first windsurfing lesson, but it’s exactly where I find myself half an hour into a session at the sprawling Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy.  To make matters worse, the imminent threat of an almighty crash wipes my mind off all the training I was given on dry land. 

The only reason I don’t end up with a massive repair bill is that 2009 RS:X windsurfing world champion and 2012 medal prospect Nick Dempsey swoops in at the last moment and blocks my board, bringing it to a gentle stop a metre from the yacht’s hull.  “You were pulling back on the sail, which sped you up,” he says.  “If you get into that situation again, take your back hand off the sail and you’ll de-power it.”

This isn’t some chance encounter.  I’ve come down to Weymouth to get some coaching from Dempsey and his friend Tristan Best, who runs the nearby Official Test Centre.’

Suit up

The session starts with me pulling on a windsurf-specific MUSTO wetsuit and a buoyancy aid.  The wetsuit contains more neoprene and less nylon than a surf suit because – theoretically – you’re not in the water as much, so it has to protect you from cold winds for extended periods.

“Today you’re going to be sailing a beginner’s version of one of the RS:X-style set-ups I won the 2009 world championships on,” says Dempsey.  “It was created for the 2008 Olympics by windsurf brand NeilPryde and it can sail in wind conditions from three to 30 knots (5-5km/h).  It’s made up of three parts: the board, the sail and the rig.”

What Best hands me is an absolute tank of a board.  It’s 286cm long and 93cm wide and looks as if an elephant would have trouble falling off.  Dempsey uses a 9.5m sail, but I’m given a smaller 8.5m one which has less area for the wind to catch.  “This makes it easier to control but you won’t be able to go as fast,” say Dempsey.

Once I’ve got all the kit, we move on to learning how to manoeuvre the set-up on dry land.  The board features a retractable keel, or daggerboard, that you have to deploy to stop sideways drift and generate forward movement.

“Stand on the board in a split-legged stance and pull the sail up by the rope attached to the boom,” says Best.  “Then pull the mast into the safety position, perpendicular to the board.  When it’s like this, it has no power in it.  To control your forward motion, you pull the sail back or let it out.  Back speeds it up; letting it out slows you down.”‘

‘Do the twist

Next I’m taught how to steer.  Holding the boom and tilting the sail to the left turns the board clockwise, to the right, anti-clockwise.  If you’re turning into the wind, it’s called tacking, away from it and you’re gybing.  If you want to turn 180 degrees, you pull or push the sail away from the direction you want to go, wait until the board starts to come around then let go of the boom, but keep hold of the mast and step around it so you’re facing the opposite direction.  Oh, and you need to grab the boom on the other side as you walk around the mast.

It’s pretty complicated but there’s no time to complain about information overload because Dempsey has one more pointer to give.  “Remember not to sail directly into the wind because it will cause the wrong side of the sail to catch it and you’ll get slapped straight off your board”.

Nice to sea you

Dempsey and I carry our boards down the slop that leads from the centre to the sea.  Once in the water I clamber onto my board and am surprised how stable it feels compared with a surfboard.

Technique-wise, moving forward turns out to be simple, if a bit draining on the arms.  “Brilliant,” shouts Dempsey, who’s sailing along next to me.  “Pull back more and you’ll start to speed up”.  I do as he says but in concentrating on leaning back, I unconsciously turn the sail into the wind and it whips back, smacking me in the face and straight off the board.  On the second attempt I get up what feels like a considerable head of steam but I’m concentrating so hard on the sail that when I finally look around I’m shocked to discover that we’re half a kilometre out to sea.

“Put in a 180 turn,” Dempsey shouts over the wind.  I pull the mast hard towards the back of the board but trip over my feet as I try to get around it and bellyflop into the sea.  After a couple more attempts my shimmying improves and I perform a workable, if somewhat ragged, version of a gybe.

After 30 minutes of holding an unfamiliar half-sitting position behind the sail, my shoulders, forearms and back are really beginning to ache so we head in.’

Wind speed

As we get closer to the shore I resolve to get up to a speed that will shock the Olympian.  I pull back fiercely on my sail until my body is almost 45 degrees to the board and start scything through the water.  This is great! 

Then, all of a sudden, I’m staring down the nose of the aforementioned yacht and need Dempsey to step in for teh sake of my bank account.

After that, I’m almost spent so decide to push my RS:X onto the rigid inflatable from which MF’s photographer is shooting us and get a lift back.  Although my day ends rather ignominiously, I’m pleased with how much progress I’ve made – possibly more down to the RS:X’s ease of use than any innate skill – and am determined to come back for seconds.  I’ll let the local yacht owners know in advance though – they might want to moor their precious vessels elsewhere before I return.

Board power: Nick Dempsey talks us through RS:X racing and how he’s preparing for the 2012 Olympics 

How do RS:X races work?
A race normally comprises 40 competitors racing around a course marked out by buoys.  Each race lasts around 35 minutes and you get one point for coming first, two points for second, three points for third and so on.  There are two races per day for five days, and then the top ten sailors go through to the final medal race where points are doubled.  The person with the lowest score at the end of the regatta wins.

How’s your training for the 2012 Olympics going?
Very well.  I don’t really sail with many British guys because the level of RS:X sailing in the UK isn’t world-class.  I train with a group of sailors from places like Portugal, Spain and Brazil and we all travel together – sometimes we’ll sail in Brazil, other times in Weymouth.

London 2012 will be your fourth Olympics.  Does it feel any different to the previous three?
I do feel a little more pressure.  It’s at home and it’s going to be my last chance to win a gold medal, so there’s no room for any mistakes.

What does it take to be a windsurf champion?
Most important is aerobic fitness, which is why I do a lot of cycling.  Power-to-weight ratio is also very important – you need to be powerful for the start of races where it’s a mass sprint to get clear wind.

How do the sailing facilities for the 2012 Olympics compare with those in previous games?
The facilities in Weymouth and Portland are pretty small compared to Qingdao (where the sailing events for Beijing 2008 were held) but the venue doesn’t really count for all that much – it’s the sailing conditions that matter most, and Weymouth is one of the best places in the world to race.

For video footage of Nick making a splash with Nick Dempsey, go to mensfitness.co.uk/links/windsurf

Anatomy of an RS:X – Here are the key features of an Olympic class racer

Comprised mainly of polyester with some Kevlar mesh to reinforce weak points, RS:X sails have a big wind range so you don’t come to a stop when the wind dies off a bit or get buffeted about too much when it picks up

The carbon handle that runs around the lower part of the sail and allows you to transmit power from the sail to the board

An adjustable shaft – normally made of carbon and plastic – that allows you to add length to the mast so you can change how your RS:X handles different wind conditions

RS:X race boards use ‘carbon sandwich’ construction and normally weigh about 15.5kg.  They have a daggerboard to help you control direction and speed, and are concaved at the end to reduce how much of the board gets submerged’


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