Warnung: Wind in Warnemünde!
Fresh off her first experience attending a windsurfing competition last month at the US Nationals, author Janice Anne Wheeler hopped on a plane to Warnemünde, Germany to accompany Steve Uhthoff to the 2019 Raceboard Worlds. The event took place July 7-13 in the famous sailing resort town on the Baltic Sea, and it turned into the hardest racing Steve has ever done on a raceboard! In her reflective style, Janice recounts the play by play, but also the little daily adventures and how this trip made her realize that windsurfers are truly a special breed, regardless of nationality.
By Janice Anne Wheeler | Photos by Janice and International Raceboard Class
“Even windier than yesterday,” he tells me: concise, to the point. It is early morning and has been light here for hours at a latitude of 53 degrees north. One hundred and fourteen competitors from twenty-two countries are arriving, dragging equipment to the beach, getting sand-blasted in the process. There is a giant bucket loader constantly moving the dunes from in front of the doors, from the walkways. There is nowhere to move it that solves the problem, an endless battle.
The surf is 5 ft, winds are 22 kts gusting to 30. That’s over 35 miles an hour, he translates, looking over his glasses at me carefully, so that I understand how impactful this news is. “That’s the biggest wind I’ve ever sailed a raceboard in, that’s for sure,” he tells me, putting the forecast down and sipping his coffee reflectively.
Yesterday, during practice, when the winds were less, we watched the Korean national champion get tossed around a bit like a rag doll, and after a few minutes and a couple of inversions, he changed his mind and came ashore, a challenge in itself. “It is not easy,” the Argentinian racer had told me, breathlessly, understating the conditions, as he exited the water after his first trial run here.
It’s a thinking sport, I had acknowledged, when I attended the US National competition in Worthington, Minnesota a few weeks ago; a bit less about athleticism than it is about the knowledge of sails and wind and force. All the competitors are definitely thinking here, right now, and they are thinking hard. How to outsmart it, how to not break equipment or yourself in such conditions.
The long white strip of fine sand in this resort town faces north, the wind is north-northwest. The surf is dramatic, beautiful, as is the beach in this quintessential European coastal town where city dwellers flock for the weekends. There is a music festival here, too, as there was in Worthington. Turns out the only thing they do in English here is sing. They don’t understand ‘red wine please’ but they can belt out every word of ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ without any hesitation whatsoever. Such an interesting anomaly. We laugh. We dance. We, too, sing along.
We seem to be the only Americans wandering these ancient cobblestone streets. We understand nothing: not the menus, not the schedules, not the road signs (it seems we unintentionally disregarded the one-ways to get where we needed to be – and no one reprimanded us). Last night our car disappeared from where it was parked half a block from our rental. The police (Polizei) were astounded, confounded, amazed, that our car had been stolen in their quiet little town. “I’m sorry but,” the officer politely asks me, “Are you sure this is where you left it?” his voice trails off. We call the rental company. The German on the other end said, “They stole a Ford Focus?!” We laugh. It was, indeed, the least interesting car on the street, flanked by a green Jag and a very shiny Mercedes SUV.
So it is the first day of the World Raceboard Championships in Warnemünde, Germany and there’s too much wind. Postponed. The irony is not lost on anyone. A sport that requires wind transformed to energy can be delayed, postponed indefinitely, when Mother Nature gets too enthusiastic, too powerful even for the most advanced equipment and techniques. Any sport that depends on Mother Nature can, indeed, get dangerous, unpredictable. The most important thing is the safety of the participants, and while they are disappointed, I did not speak with anyone who questioned the decision. I make a mental note of the GPS on our contender’s wrist. This modern technology will be activated if he doesn’t check back in after each race, if he is missing. I don’t find this particularly comforting.
The conditions are the same as yesterday, perhaps even a bit more erratic. Regardless, it was determined, at 3pm, that there would be no further delays. Simple, straightforward, right? The wind is repositioning everything that is not rock solid or tied down. The flags are out straight. Constantly. The call has been made, so at least the waiting is over. Some choose not to risk it. “This is crazy,” our American hero tells me, and then makes it look easy to get out past the crashing surf, plowing through waves that vary from 3 to 5 ft. He mounts the Exocet with his classic grace and glides too fast, too far out to follow for more than a few seconds; I lose sight of him among the 100+ other competitors trying to find their space, jockey for position. Not everyone finishes, not everyone even gets to the start, and some of the beach landings make me wince, knowing they hit that sand hard, legs and forearms tired. Both the sea and the air are in the low 60s, without the wind chill. There is palpable relief, no matter how you fared, that the initiation is over. Let the games begin!
Unbeknownst to us just to the east one sailor gave up his chance to race in order to rescue fellow competitors less accustomed to these conditions. That gentleman from Korea went above and beyond before the German rescue teams arrived, and we thank him sincerely for that heroism: he was presented with an award and will not be forgotten. The camaraderie that I discovered on a small lake in Minnesota for the US Nationals certainly exists here as well, making this sport the exception, not the rule. As a rule, they take care of each other before all else.
The forecast is still the same, he tells me over coffee. The wind is strong, steady, 17 to 27. The sun is shining. Some of the time. Two inflatable rescue boats, after yesterday’s scare, are prominent along the horizon line. Extra lifeguards are in place, Coast Guard, Polizei, a fire truck and ambulance close by. They take no chances today with their international visitors. Everyone has dug in, found their place, found a bit of rhythm. The results are on the board. Several don’t finish this day, either. Our guy takes a tumble or two and still ends up better than yesterday. We sit on the beach and try to warm up surrounded by the best windsurfers in the world. It is an intimidating, honorable place.
“Downtown” here consists of rough, cobbled streets and homes dating back to 1250. As in most of Europe, the church steeple is the landmark, and can be seen from everywhere. It is picturesque, and must have been designed to block Mother Nature’s fury, because as you walk north toward the beach the wind increases exponentially. Exponentially. No matter how warm it feels two blocks south, take your coat. Just sayin’. You might need your sunblock, too, but definitely take your coat. And they found our boring Ford Focus, towed by the municipality, apparently unbeknownst to them; $320 later we learned not to park on those beautiful cobblestone streets.
“This is my wind, a little lighter,” he slings the pack over his shoulder for the walk to the gear tent, two hours before the skippers meeting, four hours before the start. To ensure that he is on his game, he is always early, rigged, ready. You can see the concentration, the determination. I arrive mid-day as he is heading into the surf, and he concedes that the wind has risen more than he wanted it to. He is, however, smiling, in his self-proclaimed ‘happy place,’ exactly where he belongs and up for the challenge.
Again, he improves his rank, his performance. Each race takes more than half an hour; the course is long and complicated, impossible to follow from shore. “How did you do,” I ask when I see him again, not by speaking but just a raise of the eyebrows, handing him a box of his favorite German cookies. “I have no idea. It’s the hardest racing I have ever done,” he tells me, still smiling after more than three hours on a twelve-foot raceboard in rough seas. It is indeed where he belongs, where many of these athletes belong. On the water.
Day Five, the Last Day
“I cannot picture this place without the wind blowing 20 knots,” I tell him as he reads a forecast that is the opposite of our first eight days here: calm winds, 3 to 4. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” I laugh, shaking my head as the leaves outside the window barely tremble.
Ironically, and not good news, the forecast is correct. The Baltic is calm and turquoise, almost the color of the Caribbean. There are three simultaneous sailing events and it is a beautiful sight to see. I’m glad I am not on a raceboard with these light winds, even I know that much.
Our competitor was tested in all imaginable conditions in this event, from perhaps slightly ‘too much’ wind to too little. He did very well, placing 17th in his age class and 36th in the world! I’m very proud of you, Steve. For making it happen. For doing well. For checking it off your bucket list. For considering Hungary 2020 for another go. For always wanting to do better.
Not wanting to say farewell after such an epic week together, most competitors stayed an extra couple of days to race in the Nations Cup, a friendly team competition, and being the lone US athlete here, Steve was recruited by our Argentinian friends to form ‘Team Americas.’ Unfortunately, the week took a toll and he caught a bug that kept him off the water for that contest, but the team will surely be a staple at future world events!
More pictures: https://worlds2019.raceboard.org/gallery
Full results: manage2sail