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ISLE OF WIGHT: NEEDLES MISSION!

15/01/2021
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From our September issue here is the story of a hectic Summer Solstice mission to the Needles off of the west tip of the Isle of Wight involving a windsurfer, a kite boarder, a wing foiler and their support crew in a RIB and a zap cat!!

Words: Tom Buggy // Photos: John Carter.


The Needles, off the west tip of the Isle of Wight, are renowned for the treacherous waters that surround them. Complex tidal patterns combined with strong winds and underwater rock shelves combine to make some gnarly, choppy conditions that are punishing for any sort of watercraft. With lockdown behind them and yearning for an adventure, Tom Court, Ross Williams and Tom Buggy organized a mad mission out to these colossal rocks on a kite, wing foil and a windsurfer to celebrate the summer solstice! John Carter was on hand in the safety boat with his brand new flagship Canon 1DX M3 camera to capture the images, while Tom Buggy, a well-known Extreme Sailing Series sailor, was thrown into the deep end on Ross’s slalom kit and tells his story of the mission.

BACKGROUND 

tom buggyTom Buggy – “I have been living in Cowes on the Isle of Wight for the last 19 years, but grew up sailing and windsurfing at Stokes Bay and Hill Head with an active bunch of young windsurfers. It was a great time to be a keen youth sailor with time on your hands. We travelled a lot to places like Maui and Western Australia and all competed on the UKWA and spent every other spare bit of time windsurfing locally on the south coast. 

For the last eight years I have worked with a busy sailing world series in large performance multihulls as a sailor, and also in technical support and logistics. The series later moved onto foiling multihulls, which got me more into foil racing and the technology and maintenance needed. From about 2014 I have been kite foiling, and then sailing caught up. We then realised the excellent conditions we have on the island for surf and downwind foiling. I have been lucky enough to integrate all of this into my work. I am now part of the shore, delivery and technical support crew on the grand prix maxi race yacht circuit. The boat is based in Palma Majorca, so most of my work is now overseas. I also work with the GC32 foiling multihull series for one of the teams. 

THE PLAN 

We have an active chat group with a bunch of keen foilers, who surf, tow and downwind on the Isle of Wight where we regularly get together and tow foil, surf, or dock start in any bit of water we can utilize. I suggested at the start of June we should do something fun for the summer solstice, as it was due to fall over a weekend. Maybe there would be waves and we could do tow-ins, but as it got closer to the date that idea started to fade and it started to look windy instead, so we decided something wind sport orientated might be a better option given the conditions. 

Part of the group is resident pro kiter Tom Court and pro windsurfer Ross Williams, both amazing wind sport riders, who also have lots of equipment, so we would be sorted kit wise with kites, windsurfers and wing surfers! Living on an island, most of us are proficient in several watersports, so we had a lot of bases covered and the more surf orientated riders were happy to volunteer to do safety cover in a Zap Cat and R.I.B. Druids have Stonehenge for solstice carry-ons, but on the Isle of Wight we have the incredible Needles landmark to the far west of the island. So with three different watersports (kite, windsurf and wing) set for a solstice raid on the Needles, the plan was set with the riders, and a R.I.B. and a Zap Cat for the essential safety cover!

GEAR 

I arrived at the beach around 7 p.m. with an 86-litre tri-fin wave board, kites, surfboards, and a foil board, but with no idea what to ride. It was around 18-22 knots with a strong flooding tide. There was a fair bit of head scratching until Ross decided to take his new GA wing foil setup, Tom Court was foil kiting to stem the tide and then planning to change later on to a twin tip kiteboard, leaving a brand new 2020 GA Vapor slalom sail and Tabou Manta slalom board from Rosss van for me to pilot! The plan was that I would ride the slalom gear upwind and swap over at the Needles with Ross so he could windsurf and I could have a session on the wing! I was super stoked to jump on some amazing new slalom kit safe in the knowledge I could beat the strong flooding tide and also fully send it home. It has been a good few years since I’ve hung onto a large cammed race sail for dear life, this was going to be a challenge, but after lockdown I was totally up for it! 

Being fashionably late, Ross had already made up his mind he was winging up and piled the new slalom gear by his van. I think to save a box-fresh race sail and board being totally destroyed, he was very keen to assist me setting up! I was allowed to adjust the footstraps and that was about it!

UPWIND MISSION

First thing you notice in the Solent, especially the Western approaches, is the raw power of the ebbing or flooding current. Its immense. One thing I have learned from years racing yachts here is you always try to avoid any long legs that involve a fullfrontal attack on the current. Even on a fast planing craft, its pretty futile and requires fast tacking inshore and local knowledge of back eddies and coves for tidal relief.

Once in Alum Bay you can fetch towards the cliffs and get mega lifting breezes and big current relief. That said I was toasted by the time I got to the stunning outcrops of the Needles fairway. The Solent is always changing. Knowledge of this water and its idiosyncrasies is key. The waters are always moving and rarely still. A mere one hour’s difference can mean an amazing session like the Gorge, or a trip down the coast and off to the English Channel!

THE NEEDLES 

 It felt like I had already had my arms lengthened by 1 metre before I even made it to the Needles and I was taken by surprise how the water jacked up on the tidal race that stems west from the famous lighthouse. It went from choppy to 2 metre vertical head on chop on both tacks combined with a noticeable strong undertow. The amazing Needles form the western tip of a band of chalk that traverses the centre of the Isle of Wight, stretching right over to Culver Cliff on the eastern tip of the island. This chalk ridge continues west under the sea to Dorset and is believed to have been connected at one time to the ‘Old Harry’ rocks, located off Poole, about 20 miles away. As if these incredible rocks are not dramatic enough on their own, the 80 metre tall red and white lighthouse stands boldly at the end of the outermost chalk stack, to warn ships of the perils of this dangerous stretch of water!

You would not want to swim, or even be on a small boat there long, even with tide and wind moving the same way. To the east it was strangely calmer with a slow rolling ground swell. After the sail up with the strong flooding tide I had got used to the head-on chop, but after the relief of Alum Bay I wasn’t aware of how gnarly the sea state would turn at the end of the Needles lighthouse. You would get picked up on a vertical 2 metre wedge of chop and driven full speed into another coming 180 degrees the other direction. As you can imagine, being fully lit on some slalom kit with only marginal control, this sea state was not ideal! Even though the wind was generally good, the current, the undertows, back eddies and overfalls made this stretch of water scary, and a place I was not keen to fall off in. Once you got around it and footed off to the east and towards Freshwater Bay, the sea instantly became more manageable with a rolling ground swell. I wasn’t too keen on turning around and heading back into that maelstrom. Ross is heavily involved with GA Sails R&D, so I imagine he was keen to see how the new kit felt, but given the fact I have only wing foiled once and that it was pretty gnarly conditions, we decided against a mid-channel kit swap, well that and he’d forgotten his leash!

THE GEAR 

 The GA 7.1 Vapor felt amazing, (given my limited big sail knowledge), and although fully lit was surprisingly easy on the back hand and soaked up the pressure with massive forward drive. The fun really started on the way home when I turned it downwind, I felt like a warp speed captain! 

It was a slog to get there, but once under the lighthouse the huge natural beauty and geography of the white cliffs takes over! It is quite an intimidating place, but also incredibly beautiful. Half my mind was on enjoying my sail and the other half was on pure survival.

THE SOLSTICE 

 Sailing under such an iconic landmark and with the wild elements is always a special experience, but the fact it was the longest day of the year and the sun came out after the rain around 8 p.m. made it even more special. After coming ashore, we were having celebration beers on the beach just after 9 p.m. and with another hour of light left. I could have gone out for another hour’s session if I wasn’t completely toasted after hanging on at 30+ knots downwind all the way home. 

THREE SPORTS 

I think the fact we were on three different sets of wind sports equipment really made the session. The three of us are able to do all three sports to a point, but have a weakness in at least one.

I’ve windsurfed for almost 30 years and kited for 15 years, but only wing surfed once, so the thought of dealing with that out there was less than appealing. It was super cool having Tom boost massive airs right in front of the lighthouse while Ross effortlessly glided down neverending swells along the cliff walls. All the while I mowed the lawn at Mach 3, albeit with amazing scenery. 

ALUM BAY 

 After the intense session off the Needles, the trip back down was a much-needed relief. The sun was out, the breeze was pumping along the huge vertical white cliffs and the sea far more manageable.

The only problem was I was about 90% cooked by then. Alum Bay is right before the Needles and provided a bit more shelter from the chop and crazy tides of the Solent. It is also famous for the variety of coloured sands in the cliffs formed by three minerals – quartz, felspar and mica, which in their pure state are white, but are coloured by their contamination by other minerals.  

AFTERMATH 

 With family its hard to justify more than an hour here or there on the water, so to suddenly jump on a powerful race setup, concentrate on the conditions and sail for over 2 hours fully maxed was full on. I felt a bit stiff before bed, but the next day was next level. I could feel the old windsurfing muscles in there somewhere, but they were drowned out by the creaking foundations.  

After lockdown it was a good way to dust off the cobwebs after all that time locked inside. We were lucky on the island, with extremely low Covid-19 numbers and a run of amazing weather, life was good, if not a little strange.

It also helped that over the eight weeks of lockdown there was only maybe 1-2 windy days missed. That said running and cycling is no substitute for actually doing your sport, so there where a few areas that I noticed due to such a long hiatus off the water. 

Being out in the wild sea off our island gives you the ultimate feeling of freedom and appreciation for natural beauty and the power of the sea. It felt good to be alive, lucky to have this where we live and lucky to share it with talented friends, and all on a day when the sun shines the longest!” 

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