‘Défi Wind de Gruissan’, is the original ‘Défi Wind’ event and doing a ‘Défi’ has become a must do on windsurfing bucket lists. Seasoned ‘Défi’ dude John Skye and first timer, Karo van Tonder take us behind the scenes of the world’s largest windsurfing race with their ‘Défi Diaries’!
Words John Skye, Karo van Tonder // Photos Jean Souville, Jean Marc Cornu & Karo van Tonder
I opted for a relaxed start to my Défi 2019 with a mid-morning flight. It’s always fun checking in with gear and this time I had a few extras to deal with – proto sails for the team, including some massive foil sails, that rolled up were around 3 metres. I somehow persuaded the check in staff that what I had was 1 windsurfer and that each bag was around 25 kg. Thankfully as they rolled down the oversize baggage belt she didn’t notice that they were both closer to 50 kg!
At the other end I was hoping for a smooth exit, but that was not to be. I have had the same experience in Barcelona before, that windsurf gear (especially big race stuff) doesn’t come up the standard oversize belt. Instead they send it up a special lift. The problem is that most of the staff don’t actually know this. So after waiting nearly an hour, I took matters into my own hands and went to investigate, only to find 2 lift engineers working on the broken lift. They confirmed they had seen my bags at the bottom, but had no idea how long it would take to fix. I wandered off to try to find help, but then eventually saw a lost looking airport worker trying to find out what to do with 2 x 50 kg bags that he couldn’t move. I quickly grabbed them and got on my way.
The plan was that I would meet our marketing manager Matteo Guazzoni at the airport, but he got bored of waiting and went off to explore Barcelona. Once I had the car, and had managed to fit all the gear inside it, he sent me the location to meet. I barely checked it and just followed google. His amazing meeting point was basically a roundabout next to a massive hospital, which was not ideal. I found a sketchy spot to stop and whilst I waited I reorganized the car to make room for him and his girlfriend. Eventually we met up and the rest of the journey was pretty uneventful, except for a couple of emergency stops to sort out the gear on the roof that was desperately trying to escape! We arrived at the event site just in time for aperitifs and the welcome meeting in the VIP lounge. The first of many beers that weekend was sunk within minutes of arrival!
DAY 1 – THURSDAY 30TH MAY
The forecast was not the best for the weekend. The first day looked the best and only chance and everyone was aware of it. The call was made to bring forward the briefing and first possible start in the hope to smash out 2 races on the first day.. Registration was done early for me and I was keen to test the conditions. I headed straight out to test my 6.2 X-Wing on one of my favourite boards, the X-Fire 90. I had an amazing new 32 speed/slalom fin from F-Hot that I thought would be a bit of a secret weapon and wanted to give it a blast too. As soon as I hit the course area though I realized the wind was pretty light. Enough to plane around, but when you add 1000 riders to the start line I knew I would need more juice. I headed back to the event site and prepared my 7.0.
Speaking with some locals they said the wind was forecast to shift a bit, making the return leg more upwind. So I opted to take the 114 rather than the 90 to give a bit more upwind drive. It turned out to be the wrong move though! The briefing was a slightly condensed version of last years, but still dragged on for the best part of an hour. Eventually after going through all the safety issues and course area, Bjorn Dunkerbeck climbed onto the stage to begin the countdown for the start of race 1. With huge fanfare, the giant clock began its 60 minute countdown.
My strategy was to go for my medium 114 board. I knew I would not be quite so quick, but I was sure I would make up for the speed difference over a 10 km. upwind leg. The start is pretty critical like always. The Défi has a rabbit start with a boat powering upwind at 30 knots and the fleet passing behind in its wake. It’s pretty terrifying to be honest. Last year I had an epic start in 50 knots, lining up just behind the front row and then powering up early to fly through it into clean wind. This year however I failed to account for the lighter wind, and when I sheeted in to power through the front row, nothing happened. The wind shadow from 1000 other riders is quite large, and I was forced to watch the fleet blast away into the distance. Last year in 50 knots it had been relatively easy to pick people off and make up ground, but with nice easy 7.0 conditions, EVERYONE was fast and the effects of dirty air and water are much more critical. Consequently it was pretty hard to make up much ground. After about 5 km. I started to get some cleaner air and then I could start to really push, but by then the front runners were long gone. Last year I remember the race being sooooo long. After 5 km. I was nearly dead. However, maybe because there was 20 knots less wind, the first leg flew by and suddenly I was at the first mark. Arriving with a pretty big pack there was carnage everywhere, but I knew it was critical to get away cleanly. I gybed slightly lower, knowing I had the big board to get me away and it came out nicely. There’s something very satisfying about taking 20+ places in one gybe!!!
The second leg is always harder. More upwind and the air is really dirty, with the whole fleet sailing upwind of you in the other direction. This is where I thought the medium board would come into its own. I had rounded the mark 1 board length behind Pieter Bijl and as he shot out to sea, I kept my eyes on him closely as I took a more upwind approach. After 10 km., it turned out my strategy had worked to an extent. I had gained around 50 metres on Pieter. Unfortunately however I don’t think that made up for the difference in speed I would have had on the way out had I been on my 90 litre board. Next time I will know better. One of the hardest things in the Défi is working out tactics. It’s very hard to practice a 40 km. race with 1000 people! Slowly however you can piece things together. In the end I finished a fairly average 35th. I think the start cost me pretty dearly to be honest. Maybe on the smaller board I could have made some bigger gains on the first leg, but realistically I think top 20-25 would have been about the limit.
After race 1 I was absolutely knackered and the thought of doing a second race was not really something I was looking forward to. However the organizers were keen (obviously they are not actually windsurfing it, so the torture of 10 km. reaches has no effect on them!), and we patiently waited for the last finishers to check in. The Défi operates with a sign in, sign out system. This makes sure there is nobody lost at sea. However after surviving 40 km. of racing, most people just want to eat, drink, sleep, lie down and recover! The last thing on their minds is signing out, so things often take a while whilst they search for the last few names. I can’t really say I was hoping someone was lost at sea, but I was definitely hoping that someone had packed up and gone home without signing out! Unfortunately at around 4:30 p.m. the last remaining rider showed their face and the giant watch on the wall started the second countdown. This time with only 45 minutes to the start.
The wind now was much lighter. I was already on the biggest gear I had – a 7.0 and my 114 board, and it quickly became clear it was not enough. My start was much better this time, finding some space low down and passing right behind the boat. Unfortunately though, I lacked power and lacked speed. With a 7.8 I think I would have been flying, but underpowered on the 7.0 I could not really fight. In the gusts I would accelerate and start to overtake people, then in the lulls they would all come flying back past me. Very frustrating. At the end of the 2nd reach I went into the gybe and suddenly saw Ben Profitt 2 riders ahead. The competitive side of me kicked in straight away, as there was no way I could let Ben beat me. I started pushing and driving and after a couple of kilometres I had overtaken him and left him in my wake. By the next gybe I could barely see him and I was feeling smugly satisfied inside. The final leg was again tight, but I kept a pretty good upwind line and was cruising towards the finishing line. Around half way there is a river mouth, and some sand banks so they recommend staying out to sea a bit, with some buoys to mark the deep water. I kept tight to those, but then suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw the distinctive yellow of a Simmer. It was around 50-100m upwind and absolutely flying. I took a second look and to my horror it was Ben. He had ignored the warnings, and just followed the beach. He was now level with me, in perfect clean wind, on dead flat water and had a huge upwind advantage. There was absolutely nothing I could do despite all my best efforts. I was forced to watch as he blasted ahead, finishing some 10 places ahead of me. I was gutted.
So that was the end of the day, and as it turned out the end of the racing. I disappointingly finished 43rd, which after lasts year’s 13th place was a big anti-climax. I think a large part of that was gear choice and next year I will definitely bring a 7.8. There was also a much larger PWA slalom fleet involved this year, with at least 10 of the top 30 riders doing battle that were not around the year before. Spare a thought for poor Arnon Dagan. In the second race he had fought through the pain barrier on the last 5 km. to pass the eventual champion Nicolas Warembourg. He said he was dying, but kept pushing until the final metres to eventually win the race. Imagine after all of that, arriving at the beach to see the world celebrating, and then finding out that he had failed to sign in before the race and was therefore disqualified completely! That night there was a party, but from my side at least there was not a lot of energy left. Bjorn was full power and the party was on fire, but I headed home destroyed!
DAY 2 – FRIDAY 31ST MAY
Not the earliest start! My alarm had gone off early, but my body was having none of it! Eventually we headed to the event site to put the finishing touches on the RRD stand. The day before had been windy, so having sails standing up outside was impossible. Today however was a beautiful beach day, so it was time to make a show. The Défi is not only about the windsurfing. There is also a huge brand presence, with everyone showing off their latest toys. On the RRD stand that meant the new Pocket Rocket foil board and of course our Compact sails, stood centre stage.
The afternoon was spent rigging sails with Cyril Moussilmani. This event had come at the perfect time to work on some ideas for next year’s X-Wing race sail, which was why I had had to carry so many prototypes with me. We spent the afternoon rigging and checking things and having a look at some different mast options. All very positive and exciting for 2020.
The sun shone and it was a spectacular day. As the day drew to a close and the night started, it was clear this was the night to party. Unfortunately however the old, sensible and mature side of my brain overpowered the darker side and I went to bed early to avoid being drawn into the carnage. I had a busy day planned for Saturday and I knew what was in store if I stayed out! Sure enough the stories the next day were another level. Teddy bear suits, beer showers, stage diving, people being thrown into the ceiling fans and of course, Bjorn in the middle of it!
DAY 3 – SATURDAY 1ST JUNE
At the same time as the Défi, the PWA were running the Costa Brava foil event, which is around 2 hours down the coast. I had pencilled in to go and see what was going on and today was the day. First however we had a presentation planned on the main stage to show off the best of RRD. At 11 a.m. we took to the stage to talk about the new racing program, and particularly the new X-Wing race sail, and again the Compact concept of folding sails and portable rig parts, together with the ultra portable Pocket Rocket foil board. As with all the presentations, the only reason people come I think is to get the free goodies at the end and we nearly had fights break out over the RRD t-shirts that were tossed into the crowd. Eventually the presenter of the event took to the mike and started up a Zumba dance contest to decide the winners. Not quite sure how it all happened, but I made a sharp exit stage left before being dragged into performing a dance routine in front of the large audience!
As the Zumba music died down, I hit the road straight away and headed south, back across the border to Costa Brava in the north of Spain. As I arrived I watched the first ever foil slalom take place, ending in a 16 man final, which looked thrilling, although at the same time somehow terrifying. There were a few big crashes on the reaches, but thankfully nobody got in any trouble, and it looks like this could be the future of light wind slalom. Exciting times ahead for windsurfing.
The night was topped off with the Champions League final, which I enjoyed with die hard Tottenham supporter and amateur photographer John Carter, as well as Liverpool fan Ross Williams. Together with the rest of the UK PWA event crew we celebrated as poor JC slumped into his chair in misery. As the 2nd goal went in for Liverpool at 86 minutes, JC stormed out the room never to be seen again. Happy days!
DAY 4 – SUNDAY 2ND JUNE
No wind today and the feeling that at least half of the 1200 competitors had left already. The prize giving was held around 2 p.m. and then the frantic packing up began. Somehow it’s much easier to set up a beautiful stand than pack it all back into a van at the end of the event. Eventually we stuff it all inside and after a nice dinner enjoyed a relaxed (but still full power) wrap party with the organizers and many of the top riders. Around 10 p.m., French rider, Thomas Goyard arrived fresh from his first PWA win, trophy in hand and celebrated by spraying champagne over the largely French crowd. I personally ended up sat on a table with the lovely Karo and the legendary 3x MotoGP Vice Champion Dani Pedrosa, who is apparently a keen windsurfer and friends of Bjorn through Red Bull. He is certainly one of the smaller sportspeople I have ever met, and when he was stood next to the colossal form of Bjorn it was quite a sight!
The evening ended and Matteo decided to move the van back to the house for an early getaway in the morning. Unfortunately having been sat still for the best part of 2 weeks (it had been driven down for the Kite Défi the week before) the battery was dead. Unwisely we decided to try and bump start it, and gave the wheel to Matteo’s girlfriend. She couldn’t see anything through the misted up windows and whilst we pushed at breakneck speed, she steered straight into the one and only tree in the car park! Luckily there was not much damage, but the battery was now so dead it needed jump leads. Costa Brava winner Thomas Goyard arrived on cue with a set of leads and we eventually got it going and arrived back home. I finally hit the sack at 3 a.m., knowing that in 3 hours I needed to be on my way to Barcelona airport again!
DAY 5 – MONDAY 3RD JUNE
I was not too happy as my alarm sounded at 6 a.m., but I also know that missing my flight would be a much bigger problem so I fought through the tiredness, grabbed a coffee and pain-au-chocolate and set off back to Barcelona airport.
However you look at it, the Défi is absolute punishment, but punishment in a good way. I have never run a marathon, but I would imagine the feeling is similar. Exhausted, legs destroyed and needing a week to recover… but at the same time a hugely satisfying sense of accomplishment. This year the exhaustion came slightly less from the sailing, but more from the whole experience. The racing, the parties, the show, but this time I only needed 1 or 2 days to recover. The funny thing is that as you leave the event, all you think about is coming back next year. Especially this time, as next year is one that cannot be missed, the 20th anniversary, it’s going to be HUGE!
KARO VAN TONDER
Waking up on the 29th of May felt like Christmas. The excitement was reaching fever pitch a day before the start of the biggest windsurf event in the world. We prepared all our bags to catch a high speed train in Barcelona that would take us to the windy French holiday town of Gruissan. After spending many hours on planes, trains and buses, travelling from Cape Town to Barcelona via Paris, I was super keen to get out on the water alongside 1200 windsurfers. We used our layover to explore the magical city of Barcelona on our way there for a day… a must see if you haven’t been there yet. Taking part in the Défi has been a big dream of mine for a very long time. For us South Africans, it is a long way to travel and careful planning is vital. It’s also a costly exercise, but I was fortunate enough to secure a couple of big sponsors that made it possible, Nashua Paarl & West Coast being the biggest contributors.
Getting my gear there was a logistical nightmare, but we managed to get to know the ropes and it turned out to be part of the adventure. One of the funniest moments was watching puzzled expressions of bystanders as we weaved our way down ‘La Rambla’, the famous street in Barcelona, with people just staring at us dragging along what eerily looked like a body bag!
My first introduction to the Défi was unforgettable. My husband, Charl and I were engulfed by an ocean of like-minded windsurfers who all share the same passion for the sport – a windsurfer’s heaven! On arrival, I was warmly welcomed by the legend himself, Philippe Bru, who is the mastermind behind this epic event. It was not long before more big names crossed my path – Bjorn Dunkerbeck, Francisco Goya, Boujmaa Guilloul, Pascal Maka, John Skye, and the list goes on. Meeting these windsurf legends in person and talking to them is an unreal feeling… most of the time it felt like I was featuring in a windsurf movie! The beach was packed with colourful flags and windsurf stalls were neatly constructed; each one had on display the most exciting new windsurf kit and were run by some of the biggest names in the sport. Upbeat music filled the air and I was welcomed by all my windsurf friends from overseas whom I hadn’t seen in a long while and also those who I have only met through social media. It was a surreal experience to have the privilege of meeting so many friends from all over the world all in one place and it felt like I was right at the heart of windsurfing.
After sustaining a serious shoulder dislocation injury in November 2018 speed sailing at Lüderitz and a subsequent dislocation 3 weeks before the Défi, I was rather nervous about gybing and doing waterstarts etc. with such a very limited range of motion and muscle weakness. With my shoulder operation booked exactly a week after returning from the Défi, I was determined to give it all I had and used the last bit of power I had left to experience this epic event! The wind was absolutely nuclear on my day of arrival – typical of this spot. Eager to get on the water for a practice run and to get a little bit familiar with the location, I rigged up my 4.2 wave sail, with the help of my husband, Charl, and fellow South African teammate, Louis Naudѐ. We paired it with a Gasoil 26 fin and 87 litre slalom board I borrowed from my sponsor, Surf’n’Curve. I was fortunate to be able to borrow all my boards and sails from Surf’n’Curve for the event and I only brought along one board bag with my 4.2 and 3.7 wave sails as I was warned that the wind easily reaches 50-60 knots in Gruissan. The wind strength was about 40 knots and I was flying on my Blade Pro 4.2 – relieved that I was able to sail with some careful manoeuvring to prevent the shoulder slipping out and feeling a little more prepared for the following day’s racing action. The opening night was spectacular- live music, amazing food in the VIP lounge and a festive vibe! The Tramontana was forecast to give its last puff of wind on day one of the event, so it was all to play for on the first day!
Finally our first and possibly only windy day of racing arrived! Picking the right size gear that morning felt like buying a lotto ticket. When you are not familiar with a spot, anything is possible, especially with long distance races. The stress levels were on the high end. The wind was howling and after going out for a few practice runs on my Severne 5.2 Mach 2, 87 litre Patrik board and 30 Gasoil fin I felt a little more confident and it was just about manageable in the high wind gusts. During the safety briefing we were warned that the wind can be as much as 10 knots stronger over the second half of the 40 km. course so I decided to rig a small 4.5 Severne Overdrive to make sure my shoulder would not take too much of a hammering if the wind peaked mid-race.
The start line was spectacular! Coming from Africa, I can almost compare it to the great migration! There was masses of windsurfers all moving in the same direction as a unit and waiting for the rabbit boat to cross. I soaked up every moment of this spectacle. For the first two kilometres I was flying in the strong gusts, but I felt the wind get weaker and shifting the further I went. Eventually, after two hours of on and off planing, I had to abort the first race after quite a long struggle to avoid drifting too far offshore.
The rescue team did a sterling job and they handled my gear with great care. I was very relieved that race number two was still on the cards and it seemed like many windsurfers had a similar experience. Completing a Défi race had been such a big goal of mine and I was determined to make it happen! I rigged my 6.2 Severne Mach 1 sail with 107 litre Starboard Isonic and a 34 Gasoil fin – my favourite setup at my home spot in Langebaan. Funnily enough, one of the biggest challenges I had that day was finding my gear on the beach amongst the endless ocean of sails and boards!
The second race was heaven – I was perfectly powered and the wind was a lot more constant than the first race. I stayed very close to the shore to experience the famous super flat waters and had the ride of my life! As I was cruising down the course, I adjusted my harness lines to a position that took most of the strain off my left arm with the injured shoulder. This, together with leaning fully into my waist harness with a lower boom setting, ensured that I was able to complete the race successfully and miraculously finished in 478’th position. Knowing that this would be the only race day of the event, I looked around and took it all in. To me it felt a lot more like a massive celebration of this sport rather than a race against each other.
Gruissan is such a unique windsurf destination with kilometres of perfect offshore winds that allows you to sail all along the coast for huge reaches. After a long day of epic racing I was on a windsurf ‘high’ for the next couple of days and danced it all out every night to the music of live bands and DJ’s. During days 2, 3 and 4, there was no wind, but an ongoing festival vibe with foil races, music, windsurf stalls and a crowd of like-minded people all out and about to have a great time. Every day lucky draws were made and big prizes, like boards, sails, foils, fins, etc. were given away and the crowd was kept thoroughly entertained by the talented presenter who was on the stage 24/7 with lots of enthusiasm and energy. I also had the big privilege of representing my fins sponsor, Gasoil, on stage. It didn’t matter that the wind had stopped blowing; we had an awesome time browsing through the stalls, watching the foil races, socializing, meeting new people and dancing every night until the early hours of the morning!
Coming all the way from South Africa, we were curious to see the old town of Gruissan and spent an afternoon on day 3 exploring the beautiful marina and coastline by boat. We climbed up to the fort where we got a 360 degree view of the area. The town is picturesque and has a festive atmosphere and we were treated to a live band performance in the marina plaza while enjoying tapas and ice cream. When the Tramontana doesn’t blow, the temperatures are summery and you can wear shorts and T-shirts all day long. The best part was the long daylight hours that had us time-confused, as in South Africa it is dark by 6 p.m. at that time of year.
Having already completed an 80 km. Défi in Mauritius, training for this event was a no-brainer. I focussed mainly on long distance endurance running, mountain biking and SUP’ing and tried to do as much shoulder strength training as possible with resistance bands. During the race I could feel my injured arm was very weak and gybing and pumping was challenging. However, my endurance fitness and leg strength paid off and compensated for the difficulties I had with my shoulder. The Défi race is not something to be taken lightly, you need to be fit and focussed. Apart from the long distances, dodging windsurfers and being hyper alert within the moving mass is vital, not only for a good result, but also for your safety. My main goal was not catapulting or falling once, because waterstarting was challenging for me with the injury. I therefore took a wide turn around the gybe marks avoiding guys lying in the water. When one person crashes, it causes a chain reaction that you do not want to take part in!
One of my most memorable moments was looking ahead on the start line and not being able to see any part of the horizon due to the solid block of windsurfers. I learnt so much during this event: It would be ideal to arrive a few days before the event to get in some practice runs and to get familiar with the spot and the wind, definitely something I would do next time! My advice would be to opt for a slightly bigger board and medium to smaller sail so you can survive the gusts and keep on planing during the lulls, while keeping close to the beach to ensure flat waters and high speeds.
The Défi was everything I imagined it to be and so much more. Every aspect of it is organized to the finest detail and the great amount of work that was put into it was evident every day. I believe every windsurfer should have this event on their bucket list. I will definitely be back next year for a longer period of time and will bring even more of my South African windsurf friends with me!