Bjorn Dunkerbeck was born on July 16th 1969 and during his illustrious career has achieved legendary status as one of the greatest windsurf competitors of all time, racking up an incredible 42 world titles! John Carter caught up with the big man in Gran Canaria during his 50th birthday celebrations for an appropriate return of the ‘big 50’ interview!
Words John Carter // Photos John Carter, Victor Couto, Jean-Marc Cornu & Lukas Pilz/Red Bull Content Pool
So how did you celebrate the big 50?
BD: The big 50! First I had a nice dinner with my parents and my family on the 16th, with my sister as well of course, her daughter and my four kids, also one friend of my parents, the first windsurfer of Pozo Izquierdo, Klaus. Then last night we had a dinner for 40 as well, some friends and family. So two parties, well two dinner parties! We went to a place in the south of the island, my old friend Vidar Jensen was there as well. It was just a dinner party, so finished reasonably early!
How do you feel now you are fifty, mentally and physically?
BD: Well I’m pretty happy that I made it to 50 still intact with only a few small adjustments, and I’m actually feeling much better right now than I was a few years ago.
Are you scared of getting old?
BD: No! I’d be more scared of not getting old! Unfortunately I know quite a few who didn’t make it to 50. I’m very happy. I still have both my parents who are over 70 themselves, and they are still very fit. So I guess I have good genes and I would definitely like to make it through to at least 80, and still be on the water. My father is 75 five right now and he still goes windsurfing a few times a week. So that is the plan.
Do you feel 50 in your mind and body?
BD: I don’t really feel 50 for sure. I used to look at the 50 year olds 20 years ago and thought they were really old. Now I’m there myself and I don’t think that way anymore. I guess that has to do with still doing a lot of sports – windsurfing, biking, stand up paddling and diving, and that all keeps me relatively young. In Gran Canaria we have strong winds to sail in and that keeps you sharp as well! It all helps to become a 50 year old that’s maybe only a 40 year old!
How does it feel to be back to full fitness after your hip issue?
BD: Well my hip was completely bone on bone for a few years, so I got a complete change with a titanium and ceramic head replacement. And I must say I’m really happy and in no more pain. And I’m even wave sailing and the movement is better than ever.
So how much pain were you in?
BD: Put it this way, I didn’t sleep through the night for three years before actually getting the operation. It was constant pain the whole time. And if it happens to any of you guys out there, and there’s no other option, I can tell you that you’re going to feel much better after you have it done than before. Obviously you want to trust the doctor. I got mine done with Ulrich Veilwerth, he’s a windsurfer as well and has a clinic close to Munich. And he’s already worked on a few of my friends with a different kind of operation – knees and elbows and shoulders, and also a few other guys with their hips. So I advise you guys to talk to him. He’s on my website as well, Dunkerbeck.com. If you have a problem, he is definitely a good guy to go to. He is relatively young, only 54 years old, and has been windsurfing for the last 30 years. So he knows what we go through, that all helps.
How long after the operation before you were back on the water?
BD: The operation was on the 17th of February. I was one week in the clinic to make sure everything healed ok. And then I was two weeks at a rehab centre in the south of Germany. Then I was actually windsurfing on a stand up paddle board with a sail, just two and a half months after that. The first time I actually sailed a 90 litre slalom board was during the Dunkerbeck speed challenge in the South of France at the beginning of May, and I actually did the Défi Wind Caribbean at the end of June and was fourth in that.
How does it feel to see Liam grow up and be so passionate about windsurfing?
BD: He has been on the water since he was a very young kid. He’s been surfing a lot and has been a multi under 12 surfing Canarian champion, and also under 14 twice. His windsurfing is definitely getting a lot better because he is getting a little bit more strength. He is really into competition, I guess, also because of his surfing. He has done lots of competition surfing and a few in windsurfing. And if you’re competitive and have the best guys in the world around you, that’s going to motivate you as well.
Does he remind you of yourself when you were young?
BD: Yes, I spent a lot of hours on the water myself and with Liam it’s always been hard to get him out of the water whenever it’s good conditions! It doesn’t matter if it’s surfing or windsurfing, and that is definitely a key factor if you want to be good, you have to spend the hours on the water.
Does he want to be a world champion?
BD: He says so! (Laughs.)
What do you think about that?
BD: I think he’s got a lot of talent, he has got all the doors open and lives in one of the best training grounds in the world. So of course I will support him. We have been sponsored by Red Bull for the last two years and he has also had his own Starboard limited edition kids 65 litre model for two years too. Severne sails are making a new range of sails that’s going to be dedicated to lighter and smaller windsurfers and it’s going to come out later this year and Liam will definitely be the ambassador for that line. So all that is really helping to make him a better windsurfer, and also more motivated!
Are you going to make sure he does all of his exams first?
BD: You don’t have to worry about that because his mother is on him for that the whole time! He is reasonably good in school too, so it’s actually quite a good situation.
What do you think about the kids competitions in the Canaries?
BD: Kids are the future; what I always say is that windsurf parents should be more responsible to bring their kids to windsurfing schools, just like skiing in schools when the kids are between five and eight years old. That’s the perfect age to learn windsurfing. And once they have learned at that age they are probably going to stay with windsurfing all their life. If you wait to like 15 or 18 or 20, then it doesn’t go into the body in the same way. And there’s less of a guarantee that the kids will stay windsurfing! My advice for any windsurf parents is bring your kids to a windsurfing centre as soon as possible. I recommend between five and eight is the perfect age to start.
Do you miss competing like in the good old days when you were dominating?
BD: I don’t miss it really, I did it for thirty years straight and I am still doing a few competitions like the Défi Wind – the Japanese one, the French one and also the Caribbean one. On top of that, I organised and competed in the last five years of the Dunkerbeck speed challenge World Championships and European Championships. This year there was none, but that doesn’t mean that next year there won’t be one again. And I also did the Lüderitz speed challenge as well. I’m always down there for three weeks trying to push my personal best up from 51.09 knots and a top speed of almost 99 km/h. Hopefully this year I will make 100 km/h, the magic hundred, that’s my main goal! I have the new hip and I’m feeling much stronger than last year so it’s definitely going to help.
So all these things kind of replace the days of PWA competition, doing the tour and all that stuff?
BD: Of course, I did it for so long as well, there’s hardly any spot that I haven’t competed in and not been on the podium for, or actually won. You have to prepare yourself for it as well, it’s not like something you can just go out and do. So I’m pretty happy I managed to stop at a good age with a really high ranking still!
It was a good transition time?
BD: I think it was the right time to let the younger and stronger sailors have their way. I still have a lot of fun on the water. I go windsurfing almost every single day, depending on conditions it will be in the waves or freeride or slalom or speed. I want to keep that going for as long as possible.
You still enjoy travelling or do you find that a pain?
BD: I travel as little as possible. When I have to I will do it, but I prefer just staying here and going windsurfing in my backyard.
You seem quite a businessman these days, do you enjoy that side of life?
BD: There’s no way around it! I have the Dunkerbeck windsurf centre here on Gran Canaria which is 42 years old right now. We started that one in 1978 in Maspalomas next to the lighthouse. And now I have a surfing Centre in Playa De Ingles with a shop, which is surfing, stand up paddling and body boarding. And we also have vacation rentals and there is windsurfing and stand up paddling there as well. We have summer camps, winter camps and Easter camps with a lot of kids – 40 to 50 kids on a weekly basis. And I always try to get as many kids windsurfing as well between 5 and 16 years old!
You are quite active on social media these days, do you quite enjoy doing that or is it just part of the job?
BD: It is part of the job obviously, but I like motivating other people to go in the water and I can share my experiences around the world of what I have done on the water with a lot of windsurf fanatics, or fans of windsurfing! Passionate windsurfers follow me and that’s cool because there’s always a lot of people who are in my age group, or 10 years older / younger and have been around my windsurfing career all their lives. And I think that I can motivate quite a few people also to join the Défi Wind series in Japan, France and the Caribbean.
I heard you have a new centre in Bonaire?
BD: Yes we also have a windsurf centre together with Philippe Bru from Défi Wind and Jan Hendrik from the Sorobon Beach Resort, it’s working very well. It is the perfect place for a centre, you can stand for the first 500 metres. So good for any age! You see kids, five year olds windsurfing in a harness. You see old ladies and men over 80 windsurfing and being passionate in really nice 15 to 25 knot windsurfing conditions, with 27 degrees water temperature, even in winter.
What do you think of foiling?
BD: Foiling is definitely a lot of fun, especially in lighter winds, in strong winds it is quite difficult still. I’ve been foiling a bit myself with Liam, he is quite good already. And I enjoy that, especially in light winds.
Are you glad that wasn’t part of the racing when you were doing it?
BD: Back in the day as you call it, I really enjoyed course racing with the longer races more than I did the slalom races, just because there’s more of a tactical element involved with that. And obviously if we would have been on foils, I would have been a foil sailor. I would have raced on foils as well for sure!
Have you got any ambitions left at all?
BD: As I told you, my ambitions are to keep my windsurfing going, stay happy and enjoy my time on the water with both Liam and also my daughter who was out on the speed beach a few days ago as well. She is also getting a little bit better as a windsurfer. And the two young ones, they both really like the water too, they are 11 and 6 but they both windsurf and also stand up paddle and surf as well. I try to spend as much time in the right conditions with my younger ones and hopefully they’ll be out here with me windsurfing in Pozo in the near future too.
What would you rather do, slalom or waves these days?
BD: I think that variation is the nice thing about windsurfing. You can go speed sailing, slalom sailing, freeriding or wave sailing, and so it always keeps it interesting. So whatever the wind and waves are telling me to do, that is what I’m doing!
You are quite a family man it seems, do you enjoy that side of life?
BD: Yes, I am really lucky to have my wife Maria and the four kids that we have, they are all wonderful and it was the right moment in life as well to start the family. We had our first kids when I was 35, and it’s definitely enriching my life, and I couldn’t imagine life without kids.
Would you still like to sell Jaws again?
BD: Well I did it so often you know, both towing and windsurfing, that I’ve pretty much put that page behind me. Obviously if I could prepare myself for it, I could definitely go and windsurf at Jaws again. But you definitely have to do your free dive training first. Lots of people go sail Jaws and they are not even prepared for it. And I hope nothing will go wrong, but it’s just way too many people out there now. It’s due something to go wrong.
Were you scared of that wave?
BD: You have got to respect Jaws, but I was well prepared the times I was sailing there, and I wasn’t one of the guys who was risking everything to hit that lip. That lip was like getting 10 swimming pools of water in your face if you got it wrong. So I was always playing a little on the safe side.
Were there any special titles in your career that you look back on and go, ‘That was the one that meant the most to me?’
BD: That is a tough one. I guess that first one when I beat Robby Naish in 1988 in slalom and the overall titles. Then obviously in the mid 90s when I managed to win slalom, waves, racing and the overall title three years in a row. That was a pretty satisfying moment as well. Then being the first European to win the Ho’okipa Classic, also in the mid 90s, will always be a big moment in my life! I managed to win in Sylt, in the Netherlands and Hawaii and Diamond Head as well as in Japan. All this was the combination of doing the slalom and the racing as well; not many people have done that! Probably the only other person that has won all three disciplines at any competition is Robby Naish!
When you were at the height of your rivalry with Robby Naish. Did you ever just not like him at all, or was it like a professional sort of rivalry on the water?
BD: We had moments together, but obviously, you cannot try and beat everyone all the time, and then be best friends with them as well! Now we are best friends, that is all behind us. Robby sent me a text for my birthday, so did many others you know! We talk on the phone once in a while and when we’re at a trade show we go and have breakfast together and talk about old times! He says the same thing, ‘You darn kid that came and beat me!’ He didn’t like that at all! That is the way it is, competition is competition. Once you get older and everything’s behind you, you become friends.
Do you now look back when people used to call you the Terminator and find that funny?
BD: Oh, it’s funny because I was big, I was blonde and I managed to win quite a lot of competitions and that was the time when Arnold Schwarzenegger did the Terminator movies and I always said ‘ I will be back!’ That kind of made it, so it was pretty funny!
What’s your favourite movie?
BD: I like movies like Braveheart and Gladiator and the latest adventure and action films, not too rough, but still entertaining. I like the Mission Impossible series with Tom Cruise. When I watch a movie I want to be entertained and don’t like it to be too complicated, but still fun and interesting. The 007 movies have always been my favourites, also any Clint Eastwood westerns have been some of my favourites as well.
BD: I can’t remember the last time I read a book!
What car do you drive?
BD: For two years I have driven a Mercedes and I have a diesel right now, a XXL Mecedes Vito Tourer 116 CDI – it’s a multipurpose family and windsurfing equipment carrier!
Do you often stay in and watch TV or are you always out and about doing stuff during the evening.
BD: Well I watch the news every other day and also watch the odd movie. I mostly relax and chill out and recover from a day of action.
Are you a tea or coffee man?
BD: Definitely a coffee man, coffee and Red Bull!
Of course you would mention Red Bull!
BD: Actually they have Red Bull organics now too. It’s a healthy way to have a soft drink once in a while as well.
PC or Mac?
BD: Mac, always!
BD: They don’t break down and are easier to use. I have been on a Mac for many years. I had a PC once, but I never went back when I changed over!
iPhone or Android?
BD: Actually I am on an Android. I had an iPhone in the beginning, but I got pulled towards Android and I’m not going back.
Beer or wine?
BD: Red wine!
Favourite conditions for speed?
BD: Favourite conditions for speed sailing would be between 35 and 50 knots on the channel!
And for wave sailing?
BD: For wave sailing, three metre, four metre to five metre waves are all fun!
Do you still like strong winds?
BD: I used to always like 40 knot Pozo days. These days I prefer 4.7 weather which is around 30 knots and consistent.
Best wave session ever?
BD: I have had so many ‘best ever’ wave sessions. That’s the good thing about windsurfing, you always get a new best session, so it can always be better than the last one.
What’s your favourite meal?
BD: T-bone steaks and fresh fish! Obviously not together!
With vegetables and chips?
BD: Vegetables, always!
Are you are you a tidy person or messy?
BD: I’m actually a perfectionist. Even though my car looks messy right now, it is because I’ve been here on standby at the Pozo PWA event with Liam all week long. And the kids live half their lives in my vehicle as well, so I have to accept that. But I’m more like a tidy person, I don’t like a mess.
Who was your windsurfing hero when you were a kid?
BD: Well, I must say before I started competing against Robby and all these guys, Robby Naish was definitely one of them. I met him for the first time here on Gran Canaria in 1982. I took him windsurfing in Pozo when there was absolutely nothing going on here. And I remember having a few others from the Mistral team – Klaus Maran and Charlie Messmer, as the Mistral Worlds were in Bahia Feliz. I competed as well as a very young kid, I can’t remember how old I was at the time. But then after the contest they all came here and we had a couple of windsurf sessions together. And that’s where I actually first met Robby.
Who is your favourite sportsperson outside windsurfing?
BD: That’s a tough one too. I don’t really have one favourite, it’s more like the guys who have been at the top for a while. A few are definitely Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in tennis; in skiing Aksel Lund Svindal, who is also a windsurfer. I’m friends with Dani Pedrosa, one of the best Moto GP riders ever, he just retired a few months ago, and he also comes windsurfing here quite often. And obviously, one of my favourites in Formula One is definitely Schumacher and also Ayrton Senna, who used to be in the Hugo Boss team as well. I managed to meet these kind of guys a few times.
Have you had a low point in your career?
BD: I don’t really think so. I think my hip was slowing me down for a few years, but I’m back stronger than ever. You gotta take a couple of scratches that you have on the road and make the best out of them.
So, last question, number 50, if you had the choice to live exactly the same life over again, would you take that, or would you do something different?
BD: I would definitely take it! If I could take the knowledge that I have now, I probably could have been a bit smarter in a few things. But to become better, you obviously have to learn from mistakes, so it’s a tough one to say, but I would definitely take my life over again, yes!
“I’m actually a perfectionist.”