Are the current crop of pro windsurfers living the dream, or has life as a pro sailor become a stressful job involving pressure with a tonne of associated hard work for meagre rewards? John Carter does some research whilst on assignment for the Starboard team’s photo shoot in Western Australia.
Words John Carter, Sarah-Quita Offringa, Lennart Neubauer, Boujmaa Guilloul, Jaeger Stone, Matteo Iachino & Gonzalo Costa Hoevel // Photos John Carter
(Originally published within the Nov/Dec edition of Windsurf)
John Carter – “The playing field has vastly changed for a professional windsurfer over the past decade. With the advent of social media, stiffer competition and less money in the pot, even the world champions have to work harder to justify their salaries. Competitors halfway down the fleet have now closed the gap through hard grind in the gym, winter training camps and boosting their profile and sponsorship opportunities by promoting their lifestyles and passions on the internet. All in all though, life as a pro sailor has become a tough survival of the fittest battleground as sailors vie for the limited sponsorship deals up for grabs. So with this increased competition and workload in mind, I posed the question – are pro windsurfers still living the dream? Of course there are benefits and perks, but with the amount of hours they put in, is the training and testing all worth it at the end of the day? Let’s face it, back in the heyday of windsurfing, most of the guys at the top did a lot less and were paid shed loads more!
I decided to investigate and what better place to do some research on the subject than on a ten day trip to Australia with the Starboard ‘dream team’ on their annual photo shoot, as surely trips like this are the icing on the cake for any pro rider? The sailors invited were Philip Koester, Matteo Iachino, Jaeger Stone, Sarah-Quita Offringa, Boujmaa Guilloul, Gonzalo Costa Hoevel, and young German freestyler Lennart Neubauer, with the team all piling into seven heavily laden vehicles for the mobile shoot. It was a good mix of world champions, experienced campaigners, up and coming talent and even a young grommet. Taking part in something like this, an all expenses paid shoot in Australia, is surely what these sailors dreamed about when they were aspiring pros? Complaints about being a pro windsurfer would probably seem churlish to most but perhaps there is a side to their profession that we don’t get to see; read on and decide for yourself if they really are ‘living the dream’!
Are we living the dream? To me that depends on how you look at it. From the outside I feel like it looks very glamorous, which technically it is, but I can assure you that everyone is hustling hard to make this life happen. Travelling and windsurfing for a living is a lot of fun, but it can be a bit lonely some times, and carrying all this baggage with you all the time is the least fun part. But for now I would still choose this life over a ‘stable’ 9-5 job simply because of the freedom I have right now.
Generally it’s a very free life and you get to fill in your calendar the way you want to. Nobody tells you what to do. As a professional windsurfer you are your own manager. So this is definitely what makes all this fun but that’s also exactly what makes it hard. To sum up a couple of aspects. There is no coach that tells you what to do, you need to motivate yourself to go to the gym, to put the hours in on the water (which is usually a lot of fun), but I also have days where I completely lose motivation because I’ve been out there too much, or I just can’t land a certain move, so I need to remind myself every now and then to enjoy my sessions. There’s no manager, so you book your own tickets, organize accommodation, and promote yourself on social media since that has become so important to sponsors. When the contests come around, it shows if you were able to put it all together to finally perform the way you want to. I think the hardest part at the moment is that from windsurfing itself no one is earning as much as before, so everyone is working to a small budget, or they have extra jobs on the sides. Everyone hustles a lot to be able to live this windsurfing life. So for that reason I think that literally everyone is in it for the love of the sport. There are only a handful of riders that are earning enough to live off of it, but not enough to say they’re in it for the money. Talk to any windsurfer on tour, and they will all explain it in their own way, but the underlying feeling is that they’re all in it for the love of windsurfing.
I love competing, but the moment the contest is over, I’m probably happier to go out for “free sessions” again without time limits or move restrictions, just to enjoy the pure joy of windsurfing itself. In my opinion something that sets windsurfing apart from other sports, is for example, when people retire from the tour and travelling from contest to contest, you can be sure you will meet them in Cape Town, Australia, Mauritius, Brazil or the Canaries, any of the hot spots of windsurfing really, still chasing the best conditions and looking to improve. I mean, I’m sure that’s what I’ll be doing after my pro career.
Right before the competitive season, I feel like it’s a nine to five job when I’m behind the computer a lot looking for the cheapest tickets, finding accommodation and organizing car rental. Once I have that stuff done and am actually on a trip it’s a lot of fun. Once I’m at my training destination then I fill my days with going to the gym and hours on the water. And this is the fun part. So being on tour is both my favourite thing as well as a grind. I love all the people I’m surrounded with and have an absolute blast sailing with the best in the world and all the adventures we go through together make for ridiculous stories. At the same time we’re competing which adds some pressure and stress to your days. And when it’s a couple of contests in a row, for example for me when I do all three Canarian events, even though I love it, when I arrive in Tenerife after 6 weeks in nuclear Pozo and 10 days being sandblasted in Fuerteventura, I’m absolutely knackered. Then the European leg is up, which I do enjoy, but the wind isn’t as consistent so we don’t get enough sailing, unlike in the Canaries, and after 2 months that usually starts getting to me. So I’m quite happy around October when I get to fill in my days with my own trips for the off season.
As for the photo shoot, I would say that the Starboard trip to Australia is ‘living the dream’! We discover beautiful places and get to sail spots in breathtaking surroundings. But it is hard work. We often put in 12 hour days. And it can get stressful for everybody if the conditions aren’t the best and we all know we still have a bunch of boards to shoot. In the end it’s not about one sailor and one board, it’s a joint effort to shoot the whole range and end the photo shoot successfully. Even though this year for example I was struggling a bit to keep up with the demands of shooting, by the end of it I’m always satisfied, because I think we’re working together under special circumstances and there’s always highlights and experiences that I’ll remember for a long time. Whether it’s a big BBQ with the crew and the local kids, or that one time we were chatting so much while driving to Esperance and we didn’t notice we were running out of gas. We ended up on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Thank goodness the next gas station was 8 km away. And it only took an hour to hitchhike there and back.
The main highlight is just sharing amazing sessions on the water with my teammates, like great conditions at Margaret River or sunset sessions at Esperance. Overall I feel a photo shoot promotes the carefree and fun spirit of windsurfing amongst the riders and feels a bit magical. Usually when I’m training somewhere I try to make it to the gym 3 times a week depending on the conditions. If the conditions are great I will go to the gym less and just try to get a lot of time on the water. I have on and off computer days depending if I need to organize trips or not. When I’m in transit in Holland or in Aruba for a break I try to meet up with friends and family as much as possible. And if I’m on a trip I just enjoy the time I get to spend with the people there. Lots of BBQ’s, and drinking coffee are normally involved. As for social media, when I’m on a roll I’ll post once every day on Instagram and a couple of ‘Instagram’ stories. Which is usually only during contests where there is some news every day to update my followers. On Facebook I share more articles and interviews rather than just picture updates. But everything I post is usually windsurfing related. I rarely share more personal things, except for my coffee and banana pancake habits. The other stuff I’d rather keep to myself.
I do feel a bit of pressure to perform well and stay at the top to be able to sustain the lifestyle I have now. As far as I’ve noticed, if you’re at the top in one discipline as a guy you can be okay. But maybe that’s only the case for slalom and some of the wave sailors. I know the freestylers are struggling. I’m good, because I’ve been in the top in all three disciplines. As a woman you don’t earn enough from one discipline even if you’re at the top. Not from the sponsors, and not from prize money because there aren’t enough events, keeping in mind that technically you’d have to travel all year to train for these contests. Ultimately that’s just where the windsurfing industry is at the moment. Windsurfing is a much smaller sport than what it used to be and I think maybe even the companies’ business models aren’t adapted to a smaller market. Gear is really expensive, which makes it less accessible to the broader public. I mean, I also don’t know exactly what the solution is. All I know is that this is an amazing sport and people should experience it! Once we figure out how to make it more accessible and the sport grows, everyone will benefit again.
Oh yeah, you hear it? Photo shoot in Australia! Who doesn’t dream of doing such job!? We might look annoyed sometimes by the way the shoot is organized to make the most out of time and forecasts, but it has to be done that way and in the end I am very happy to be part of such an experience. Being a pro sailor is not like it was at the beginning of my career, nowadays every cent counts when you are travelling and trying to keep a spot within the team. The brands are having a hard time to survive themselves with production getting more expensive and all the other factors that affect gear price. At the end of the day it is not a tough life, we still get to do what we are most passionate about. I still have the chance to travel places and windsurf with the most talented people around the world.
I personally have a simple contract where I get travel costs covered to go places I want to go and sometimes places where windsurfing is important. I don’t like writing reports as part of my work, but in general I have nothing to complain about compared with regular people’s jobs, like working in an office 9-5! I have never felt like the life of a pro sailor was a job! When I am home in Morocco my days are mostly spent teaching windsurfers who want to improve their skills. I love to be able to inspire other windsurfers, but after teaching is done in the afternoon, I still spend a lot of time sailing myself.When I try to work on my windsurf centre and do all of the paperwork and keep it professional, that takes energy out of me, but windsurfing for Starboard, Severne and Mystic is a dream life I could never have imagined of when I was a kid, and I am very grateful to have been given such an amazing journey.
“We still get to do what we are most passionate about.”
I think we are living the dream honestly. You get to travel a lot and if you are doing well on the tour you can make a pretty decent living. It is not like a football player’s salary, but for windsurfing we can still do pretty well. Right now it is harder to make money because there are less events than there used to be and there are a lot more social media duties. A lot of brands just check to see how many followers you have and judge you from that. That is basically the new kind of work we have to do. Years ago it was just magazines. They are still important but now people are also looking at your daily posts. It is just a bit more of a mixture of how you promote yourself. Years ago an interview on the TV was the biggest thing and now if you have 50/60,000 views on a video it is also very valuable. I find it a little bit weird, but now it is a bit easier for everyone to connect with the general public. It is part of the job for me. I probably should do more to get more followers, but I am doing ok right now! I try to focus more on contests, media in Germany and magazines but I think I am a bit old school. I have 35,000 followers on Instagram and Facebook, that’s not too bad. I never really worry about it.
Photo shoots are still the dream and Western Australia shoots I enjoy the most. You get to sail so many spots and it is quite relaxed. I never see it as a job, it is just a few hours a day. You are just doing things you enjoy anyway, we are sailing and taking pictures, what is not to like?
“I never see it as a job, it is just a few hours a day.”
I think it all comes down to how passionate you are. It’s not an easy life but I would say that there are much worse jobs out there! For sure it’s not like how it was back in the 90s, you have to work more and for less money. Either way we are still windsurfing for a living and that’s it. If you don’t like it, it might become a nightmare, but if you love windsurfing it’s another story.
Whilst in Western Australia this year I competed for the first time in the Lancelin Ocean Classic, which was a really fun competition. I managed to win it and then we moved north to Geraldton and then Gnaraloo with the Severne guys to wave sail. It was all really cool. Back in Perth I started working with Ben Severne on the 2020 racing sails until the Starboard photo shoot began. We mostly travelled in the south of the state, chasing the wind, waves and light to get the best shots possible. I loved W.A., it was my first time and I really hope I’ll be able to get back there soon. I had the chance to visit all the coast from Gnaraloo all the way down to Esperance and I really like the conditions for windsurfing and surfing and the vibes form the Australian people. So when this period of time comes under the role of my job duties you could say I am ‘living the dream’!
Aside from the shoot my main duty is competing in the racing disciplines in the PWA World Tour. Basically every PWA slalom and foil event. Then I have to be ready to go testing with the R&D team two or three times per season and I have to be available for one photo shoot per year. These are the major duties nowadays of pro sailors. I try to be as professional as I can and to put in all the working hours every day. But I like this too. I like competing and I love travelling.
And if I compete I love to be as ready as possible knowing I did all I could to be the best in the next event. Like this I live my days better, more relaxed and I actually enjoy it quite a lot, even if that means a lot of training in and out of the water, testing and so on. Usually at home I try to get on the water as much as possible windsurfing. If there are waves I love to be on the water surfing too. I try to go to the gym two or three times a week and one or two times on the mountain bike if it’s a week without much wind. Then I also have some duties for my non windsurfing sponsors. As I travel a lot, when I’m back home I’m loaded with stuff I couldn’t do because I was away and I spend a lot of time solving these problems. As for social media, I don’t love it, but I just see it as something you have to do if you are a professional athlete these days. I try to post minimum four times a week. It gets easier after a while. You have a lot of cool pictures and videos and you just try to use them the best way possible.
GONZALO COSTA HOEVEL
In the past, for sure the photo shoots were a living the dream situation, but after more than fifteen years doing it, it feels more like a part of the job duty. I obviously still enjoy it, but these days I want to spend as much time as possible at home with my family as I am away for events a lot during the year. I would say it is still great to be a pro windsurfer nowadays, for sure the job is slightly tougher than some years ago, but we still travel to beautiful places and we live the beach life all year long, so you can’t complain. On the racing side we now have foil as well. So there is more time on the water required than years ago as we can now sail in lighter winds. In the past it was hard to be fast in all wind conditions in one discipline, imagine what it is like with two now.
When travelling to events we end up taking a lot more gear – all the slalom kit plus all the additional foiling stuff, so for sure the hassle at airports has not become any easier. We have many events, around 7 PWA on the racing side, so plenty of trips during the year. I am also pretty involved in developing sails, boards and foils, so besides my normal quantity of hours sailing for myself, I have to sail a lot for the testing side of things. It is a lot of fun as I get to try a lot of different designs and have learned a lot, but the days are tougher for sure! I would say most guys are doing this for the love, not the money. Sure the top guys make some decent money, but if any of us would have been aiming to become “rich” we would have certainly took other jobs. Some periods of the year you need to train or sail more and you have to make an extra effort until it feels good and you are happy with the results. I live in Tarifa, in the south of Spain, if you ever have been here you would know everything starts pretty late! I spend the morning with my wife and daughter, followed by a mid-morning gym session for around 2 hours. Then it’s a good lunch, some more family time and then an afternoon session testing or training for around 3 to 5 hours and finally back home at 8 p.m.!
“I try to be as professional as I can.”
Ha ha! Life as a pro windsurfer is definitely not as tough as so many other jobs. I think no matter what, we’re all pretty lucky! Being a professional windsurfer is a great opportunity and it’s also a choice. The hardest thing for me is probably missing home, friends and family, but there are so many positives to being a professional windsurfer. You get to travel, learn and experience unique opportunities and basically get paid to look after yourself and go windsurf! Now who can complain about that? As everybody is aware, the windsurfing market isn’t booming, so budgets are always going to be tight. I think even the best paid guys are still doing it mostly because they love windsurfing and realise how good a life we live.
Taking part in the photo shoots is still a very cool experience! Western Australia is so amazing for windsurfing, so to be able to prioritise 10 days to chase the best windsurfing conditions, with some of the best windsurfers and photographers in the world is heaps of fun. There are requirements that need to be met though and that nearly always creates an element of stress, particularly if the weather doesn’t play ball, but that all makes it more rewarding when it does come together. Photo shoots in Western Australia are always fun though and I love sailing sick breaks like Esperance with a bunch of friends. We are showcasing the new gear and representing our sponsors and windsurfing in some of the best conditions in the world! We are all filmed and photographed doing what we love, you can’t complain! Most days in Geraldton during the summer are windy all afternoon so I’ll usually surf or go to the gym in the morning and then windsurf. It’s always best late, so I often stay at the beach until around sunset, then eat and sleep. In Maui and the Canary Islands it’s a similar routine, but I often windsurf earlier in the day and have a couple of sessions. I also enjoy trying to do some regular work as well though, so if the opportunity is there I’ll often try and do some physiotherapy work when I’m at home. It’s nice to have a balance. I think the most important aspect of being a pro sailor is to represent your sponsor in a positive light. That means promoting their products and representing their values.
Every brand and company is different but I think they’re the main points. Then there are the other duties such as social media or general media requirements, representation, attending certain events, competing, research and development and photo shoots. I would say most of my life is based around windsurfing though. That’s my priority so everything else has to fit in around that. Sometimes I don’t feel like windsurfing, but I think that’s like anything, you go through phases and sometimes just need to take a step back or mix things up to keep it fresh.
It was one of my biggest dreams to go to Australia generally, but to go there for the annual photo shoot from Starboard was even better. Since I started windsurfing my one goal was to reach the top, become world champion and a professional windsurfer, that’s still the one BIG goal for now. Being a pro sailor is definitely my dream job! But I know to achieve that takes a lot of very hard training and many hours on the water. I had a lot of highlights during the trip, such as sailing in over mast high waves at Margaret River while being followed by a helicopter. Also testing the newest 2020 gear at some off the most beautiful spots in the world like Esperance was amazing. That was just a taster of being a pro and now I am hungry for more!