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confessions from the gower

Like most windsurfers, I am proud of the fact that I have never had to be rescued and have helped rescue several people myself so feel I have several "credits" in the bag, however this is not excuse or justification for the situation I sailed myself into during the away day to Port Eynon.

As Mike described in his report, there wasn't an awful lot of wind on the away day (usual story, wind all week leading up to the away day and on the Monday after it, but not on the Sunday). Port Eynon is a large and relatively sheltered bay looking out across the Bristol Channel to Devon.

Inside the bay the water is reasonably flat, then as you head out you get into the swell in the Bristol Channel. On this particular day there was quite a good swell and although the wind was below the planing threshold for most mortals, if you caught a swell right and pumped like a madman you could get the board planing sufficiently to squeeze one foot into a strap before you ran out of swell and had to start thinking about getting back up the board again. During the afternoon the tide turned and started running out. This meant we had wind against tide, making it slightly easier to get on the plane out in the channel and also increasing sharpness of the swell.

On the Western end of the bay there is a large rocky outcrop. Out to sea from the outcrop the swell was obviously much larger and the tops of the waves were breaking making it look windier than it actually was. When you are wallowing on a short board and there are white horses a short distance from you it is always tempting to go over and see what is making those white horses in the hope of getting that extra little help towards planing. Unfortunately this is exactly what I did.

The rocks themselves were upwind of where I was sailing, so a few long tacks out to sea later I was heading towards the steepest swells, just round the headland from where we had launched. As I got closer to the swells it was obvious that there wasn't any more wind around the swells, however the waves were quite awe inspiring; I have never seen such big steep waves generated in such a localised region before and continued sailing towards them so that I could enjoy the pleasure of sailing / wallowing through the waves. I think it is fair to say in hindsight that I was completely mesmerised by the waves. When I was down in the trough the water breaking off the top of the next wave was above my head and yet the wavelength was so short it was really close as well, I was just amazed by the whole spectacle.

It was around this point that I remember thinking it was just as well it wasn't planing conditions, as there was no way I could have kept control of the board (a Screamer2) going over such short and steep waves in planing conditions, it would have been a case of continuous airtime each time you got to the top of a wave and by the time you landed you would have been rising up the next ramp ready to go through the cycle again. While I was contemplating how you could sail through these waves in planing conditions I realised that the wind had dropped completely.

The penny dropped about what I was doing when I realised that the wind had gone. I was sailing away from my launch site, out of eye shot of every one on the beach with no wind in conditions that I stood little chance of flare gybing and no chance what so ever of uphauling in. I had sailed myself into a situation that I stood little chance of getting myself out of.

My assessment that I had little chance of flare gybing was quickly confirmed when a wave knocked me off half way through my gybe. The other part of the assessment that it would be almost impossible to uphaul was also proved to be correct fairly quickly afterwards. Uphauling a neutrally buoyant board with a 7.9m sail is not easy at the best of times but in these conditions I was finding it very hard to stand on the board long enough to start uphauling the sail and on the occasions I did get started I was thwarted by either a wave breaking on the sail or a complete lack of wind to help when the sail did start coming up.

Your mind starts playing all sorts of nasty tricks on you at this point. I was sailing with a group of 14 Nomads so there was a reasonable chance that they would notice I haven't come back, especially Neroli as she would be expecting me to drive home, however that doesn't stop you worrying that no one has noticed your predicament. I could clearly see the waves breaking on the rocks and knew there was no way I could land anywhere around the rocks and get out successfully, even if I ditched my beloved board and rig, so that wasn't an option either. Fortunately I also realised that I was actually in a very strong current that was taking me away from the rocks (and the launch point) and off towards Ireland. While an unscheduled trip to Ireland wasn't a very pleasant prospect, it at least meant time was on my side, I didn't have to get started in the next five minutes or end up the rocks which was what I had feared at first.

I spent a long time trying to uphaul the sail, fall in, clamber on and start the process again. Much to my surprise I did eventually succeed, but then found sailing very difficult. With what little wind there was, I was trying to sail on a dead run down the swell. This means on the top of the wave you are sheeted right out. As you surf down the wave your apparent wind builds up so you have to start sheeting in, until you get to the bottom of the wave where the board stops dead, you lose the apparent wind instantly have to sheet out quickly and wait for the next wave to pick you up from behind. This is not a type of sailing I normally practise and doing it on a short board so that I was up to my ankles in water didn't make it any easier and I knew it was only a matter of time before I fell in again.

True to prediction I did fall in again. While I was sailing I had been making progress through the water, however progress against the land was less impressive, I'm not sure if I actually made any ground against the current or not, I certainly hadn't managed to sail myself out of trouble as planned.

The cycle of uphauling and falling in again began in earnest again. I was very grateful of the hours I have spent sailing boards too small for the conditions and the experience I have in uphauling sinkers in light wind conditions. All the experience helped but it was still very hard to uphaul and I spent much longer in the water this time and consequently drifted much further before I eventually managed to get started again. I'm not sure what eventually happened that enabled me to get out of the predicament I was in. Whether it was a slight increase in the wind that made uphauling easier or if I just drifted out of the worst of the waves I'm not sure, but at last I did managed to get up and sailing again and this time I had a bit of wind in the sail which made controlling everything much easier. The longer I stayed up, the quieter the sea became and the more wind I had in my sail. By the time I did eventually fall in again there was enough wind to water start and I was able to get started again without using much of my rapidly dwindling energy reserves.

Even now when there was light at the end of the tunnel for me, I found my mind was still playing tricks. All day there had been a strong wind warning on the beach. Was this the start of the strong wind? It would have been the classic symptoms, light wind all day, then the wind drops for quarter of an hour before it then comes through again like an express train. I was left thinking about my earlier thoughts of trying to control the board, vastly overpowered in a big swell with a 7.9m sail and no strength left.

Fortunately the wind didn't come up as quickly as I feared, the launch site was still a long way down wind from where I was sailing, so I had to make two long broad reaches in comfortable planing conditions before I eventually made it back, very relieved, to the launch site. While I was on my long broad reaches I noticed a small orange inflatable boat charging over to the waves where I had been stuck and I wondered if it was the inshore lifeboat. When I got to the beach I was met by a fireman who checked I was the sailor that had been in trouble and confirmed that it was the inshore lifeboat.

As it turned out, a fisherman on the rocks had seen my predicament and called out the lifeboat. I am very grateful to him because I was pretty sure that I wasn't going to be able to get myself out of the situation I had sailed into. The moral of the story I think has to be a.) always sail in a group, and b.) always think about the situation you are sailing in and certainly don't let a particular set of conditions mesmerise you and just draw you into them.

Ian Long

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