Philippe Bru is the man who has put long distance windsurf racing on the map and most certainly has a vision for our sport, he gives us an insight into his life and his legendary Défi Wind events.
Words Philippe Bru // Photos Jean Siouville, Christophe Gaston, Jean-Marc Cornu & Hoalen.com
I was born in Africa 53 years ago; it is where I spent the first 20 years of my life! During a summer stay in France in 1977 when I was 13 years old I discovered windsurfing through my uncle, one of the first windsurfers in the Mediterranean. Back in Dakar, Senegal, our “elders” had brought back some windsurfing kit and quickly set up a structure to take people from initiation to competition standard. And now here I am in 2020, still with a passion for windsurfing intact! I have been practicing our sport for more than 40 years now. I have tried everything, done everything, practiced all aspects – Windsurfer / Dufour / Open / Pan-am / Funboard … and of course more recently foiling!
Back in France in the 80s, I studied sports management in Montpellier and then went to Gruissan, the land of Tramontane wind, and never left! For 20 years from 1990 to 2010, on assignment for the town of Gruissan, I organized, structured, promoted and developed the practice of watersports in the region. My first ‘event’ was the French championships back in 1991. Now in 2020, my headquarters remain in Gruissan, but I spend most of my time travelling around the world, windsurfing and surfing, accompanied by my sons, Paul & Julien, who are now friends and business partners. I am currently president of PBO – “Philippe Bru Organisation”, an event agency specialized in watersports.
“The Défi Wind wants to be and will always be “different”.
DÉFI WIND JAPAN
Miyako Island in the province of Okinawa, 2000 km south of Tokyo, near Taiwan, is a small tropical island. There is not much going on there beyond tourism, 99% of which is the domestic Japanese market. It’s a peaceful place and the leisure market is oriented towards golf and cycling, with little devoted to windsurfing previously. Some people are windsurfing there, but there’s a really strong potential for Miyako to become a prime windsurfing spot given the island’s tropical nature and wind stats. Défi Wind Japan is a tool to promote the destination and show its suitability for recreational watersports. The first edition of the Défi Wind Japan took place in 2019. Its origins began in 2017 when a Japanese delegation came to the Défi Wind in Gruissan and asked me to duplicate the concept in the land of the rising sun, and here we are!
After the first edition in 2019, the local organizer wanted to add a second part, reserved for the best sailors in the world wSuperstars was born. When you have in front of you the best windsurfers on the planet, big prize money and committed organizers providing good logistics, the game will be clear – for racers it won’t be “easy money”! It will be a question of “playing” with the natural elements and variations of the water, islands and landmarks, without limits and without rules except “your responsibility”. It will be a question of being more than the best, it will be necessary to have endurance, speed and be a real seaman.
The Défi Wind wants to be and will always be “different” by proposing really committed races. For Défi Wind Superstars we gave a nautical chart of the event site to the riders and had done a scout by boat beforehand to check the area was clear and all routes were possible. We could start from point A and come back to point A and the distance was about 70 km – and we did it! One cannot organize an ambitious event like this, bringing together the best in the world, without being fit for the task and without placing the riders at the heart of the event. Discussions on the amount of prize money were therefore along these lines. The local organizer, who has significant financial means, wanted to follow my lead and do something exceptional and in the end we offered a 50,000 euro prize fund!
DÉFI WIND GRUISSAN
The first Défi Wind Gruissan brought together over 100 participants! Which at the time was already a lot! Since 2011 the Défi Wind Gruissan registers at least 1000 participants each year! It is therefore very different, in its approach, its organization and its safety. We are lucky to have evolved and learned as the event has grown, 100 in 2001, 200 in 2002, 300 in 2003 and so on!
In the beginning, the idea was not to have mass participation, of course to get the largest number of participants, but above all, it was to create a mix of pro and amateur participants, to challenge them, to showcase very good non-competitive windsurfers (outsiders) and also, to propose an undeveloped race format – the long distance race, and simplifying the rules and structure – wind minimum 15 knots and long legs of 10 km. It must be said that Gruissan with its flat water, offshore wind and 10 km runs seemed to be the ideal place! In the early days we didn’t imagine one day it would have over 1000 entrants, but we soon saw rapid growth, which was quite stimulating!
Défi Wind Gruissan has one particularity – it occupies the mind! So I work on it all year-round. Strictly speaking, the organisation files are opened more or less five months before the event start date. During the production phase of the event, about 250 people are mobilized. There are of course key people, particularly the nautical and technical managers. The first tasks are organising and preparing the whole sporting aspect (safety, results, nautical equipment, etc.), the second tasks are building and optimising the Défi Wind Gruissan site in order to be able to welcome more than 1000 participants from more than 40 countries and some 50 exhibitors. The Défi Wind Gruissan has also become one of the most important shows for brands. Défi Wind Gruissan benefits from 19 years of evolutionary production; all that unique experience allows us to optimize its required workup time. Nevertheless, we need four people mobilized full time for five months to make it happen. During the event the nights are short for everyone and we all work round the clock!
Défi Wind Gruissan uses about 50 boats for safety, race management and results. We train (in order to pass on our skills) a few trades, in particularly future sea rescuers from SNSM (Editor’s note: SNSM is the French equivalent of the RNLI) and future sports management graduates from a college in the region.
“The idea is to make the events accessible.”
The idea is to make the events accessible and therefore open it to everyone. The leading sailors complete the course in around 45 minutes and the last sailors sometimes take more than 2.5 hours! The ability to use a harness and footstraps are the basic requirements. The guys in funny costumes, tandem boards and all the quirky side of Défi Wind Gruissan I have no problem with that. It proves that it’s fun, and that Défi Wind Gruissan is more than a simple competition, it’s a gathering of enthusiasts who meet once a year, in the same place, at the same time and on the same starting line. Défi Wind Gruissan evolved into a Woodstock type festival as the number of participants (and companions of participants!) attending and countries represented increased.
Beyond making the competition accessible, the responsibility of putting more than 1000 participants in the water is not to be taken lightly and it is still a lot of people on a body of water! It should also be remembered that Défi Wind Gruissan takes place in offshore winds, in an area 900 metres deep and 10 km wide! And the wind can sometimes blow at more than 80 km per hour! The Défi is also about offering a sailing experience that no one would be able or dare to do alone! Knowing who went into the water and who came out is the main rule. There are no exceptions! Some riders have paid the ‘price’ (Anders Bringdal, Pascal Maka, Andrea Cucchi and Arnon Dagan) for forgetting to sign in or out! They were disqualified. The same rules apply for everyone! When I see so many riders on the start line, as well as responsibility, I feel pride too, because all sports need a big gathering, and I’m in charge of it. As a windsurfer too, doing things that will be part of the history of your sport is a nice feeling! I do feel annoyed that the PWA Costa Brava usually clashes with the Défi Wind Gruissan. Largely because our sport remains fragile, and the Défi Wind is the only opportunity to bring together all the “players” (pros, amateurs, brands and influencers) in the same place and Costa Brava is only a few km from Gruissan. On the other hand, I can understand! It is not
100% the PWA’s fault either! Basically it is a filling operation of the campsite on dates decided by the local organizer. We tell the PWA it is these dates or nothing and the PWA does what is in the interest of their tour and their riders. That is normal business practice. I think the PWA should start doing similar concept races, at least once for the promotion of their athletes and therefore of the sport! No collaboration with Gruissan is a mistake! As far as the racers themselves are concerned, of course they will want to compete, the Défi Wind is one of those events you don’t want to miss out on. I am convinced the Défi concept has helped keep windsurfing in the limelight because the impact of the Défi Wind has now gone far beyond its community! There can be no real sporting evolution without mass participation of its practitioners. The Défi Wind is a laboratory, the only one, and this worries me a little! Behind us, the next biggest event has maybe 300 participants.
I have created in association with Bjorn Dunkerbeck a “Pro Centre” in Bonaire in the Dutch Caribbean – www.dunkerbeckprocenter.com. Bonaire is an extraordinary place! It is extraordinary because beyond the promised postcard conditions of wind, sun and temperature, we have an incredible shallow lagoon. This gives the best conditions to train in and young children can go in the water and progress through all the intermediate stages of learning safely. It is “THE” destination that can change things for the better in your sailing and is also a good spot for your soulmate too!
It was a personal ambition, certainly due to my background, to spread our sport around the world using the Défi concept of long distance racing and a pro-am fleet. The idea was formed a few years ago and since then a lot has happened. We have already organized events in Morocco, French Polynesia and Mauritius! I am currently working on having five Défi events on five continents and a European Tour – finances depending! Currently, Noumea and South Africa are under consideration and in Europe we are looking at Tarifa, Italy, Holland and Poland. In Défi Wind Gruissan, to provide safety cover for 1000 plus participants in strong winds is difficult. Abroad, this is not the objective! We are talking about hundreds of participants. The most complicated part is finding out what boats will be made available to us! Very simply, if you don’t have in your hands boats that go faster than a windsurfer, you can’t control a long distance race! Défi Wind events really help promote and highlight their host location. There’s a positive energy in the eyes of local windsurfers and it often forms a desire locally to run races simpler in their organization (except for safety), no more flags but rabbit starts, simplification of rules and countdowns, long or medium distance. Just a better reflection of the reality of windsurfing for most people and a simpler, more accessible route to competition.
HIGHS & LOWS
There are two Défi moments that stand out from all the rest – the countdown launch – let’s go, let’s go!, and the rabbit start which is always exciting! There has been no bad moments, a few scares on the starting line but nothing serious! In fact, I’m lucky, the “Défieurs” fully adhere to the project’s rules and the common sense of each sailor makes it work. If there is a year with no wind, it is not a disaster. The Défi Wind is way beyond that stage! The possibility of no wind is just the reality of our sport, but put thousands of enthusiasts together from 40 countries with all the major players in the windsurf market and the party happens whatever the weather!
I don’t know where I’ll be in ten years time, I feel like I’m already there and in a good place! I’m split on if windsurfing is in a good place; I feel it is a sleeping market certainly. A passionate niche, clearly, but it’s not enough to grow big in its current form.
My ambitions with Défi Wind Gruissan? I think 1500 is the maximum. For safety reasons first of all, and secondly so that the event remains a committed race beyond its festival aspect. 1000 is the reasonable and efficient number, maybe we will have to limit our numbers to that in the future. My ideal with Défi Wind events is to make people dream your dream and ‘challenge’ athletes. That’s what I wanted to do with the Défi Wind Superstars in Japan, and I think I succeeded! You have to be a visionary when you claim to be the manager of a sport!