From our September issue Peter Hart, Simon Basset and Timo Mullen delve into the history books and celebrate the windsurfing and waves of the iconic south coast spot of West Wittering.
WORDS: PETER HART // SIMON BASSETT // TIMO MULLEN.
PHOTOS: JOHN CARTER // CLIFF WEBB //SIMON BASSET // PETER HART.
In 1977 I loaded up the Morris Minor and headed south. The destination was West Wittering, the chosen spot for the sea trials of my first board – a brand new ’Sea Panther’. My parents had taken me to the ‘Wittering’s’ on day trips as a kid and I remembered it as an oasis of unspoiled beauty within an otherwise urban south coast. ‘It’s probably all built up now’ warned my mum, well it wasn’t … and it still isn’t.
For that we can thank a group of forward-thinking locals who in 1952 bought the foreshore and the land behind for £20,546 14s and 9d to prevent Billy Butlins from turning the place into a holiday camp. They formed an estate, their agreed aim being: “The preservation of the beach and waters adjoining the company’s land for the safe and peaceful enjoyment of the public.”
That first trip could have turned out better! 10.5 seconds after launching, I hit a sandbank which sent the fixed dagger board slicing through the hull. But six years later as the sport turned pro, I moved to the area, and ‘WW’ became my local spot. I’ve since learned to appreciate that same sandbank, which on its day kicks up decent peeling waves and forms a low tide lagoon. From Mauritius to Maui, I have yet to encounter a better ‘gybe-atorium’ training patch.
WHAT MAKES WITTERING SPECIAL?
A perfect storm of natural elements combine to create West Wittering. The Isle of Wight stretches in front, the rolling Sussex Downs behind. To the west the beach bends around into Chichester Harbour, one of the most beautiful inland waterways in the world, with its myriad of coastal villages and waterside pubs, so enticing that even the Romans chose it as a landing spot 2000 years ago. And there’s the weather. ‘God’s Pocket’ sounds like an invention of ‘PR’ hungry locals, but it is a real meteorological phenomenon. Weather coming from the west ‘lifts-up’ over the Isle of Wight, parts and then collects again on the Downs behind, leaving a diamond shaped hole over the Wittering’s. The place cops an unfair amount of sun hours.
Back in the day there was a deep East or West divide. Weekend warriors would head for the grassy lush banks and white sand of West Wittering, while hardcore locals would only launch across the pebbles into the meaty shore dump of East Wittering. But these days people are less tribal and more savvy with regard to conditions. Everyone moves around according to the wind direction, state of tide and what they want to do. West at low tide is freestyle heaven and thanks to flat planes behind the beach, it’s sailable in pretty much every direction, even dreaded offshore nor’easters.
There have been so many. One of the earliest was an inaugural wave session in 1980 with the UK’s first Hawaiian export Angus Chater. We both had ‘Windsurfer Rockets’ (basically the original Windsurfer with footstraps and a small daggerboard) and headed into the waves on the ‘Winner Bank’ between Hayling and Wittering. Back then before the harbour got more silted up, the waves would roll for nearly a mile all the way into the harbour. To ride a wave that far, having never ridden one on a windsurfer before, was life changing, especially with a mate alongside. Inevitably I pushed it a bit far, wiped out and broke a mast. The tide was sweeping me away from West Wittering, so Angus towed me and my bits to the Hayling side, and then gave me a lift in his car all the way back, which by road is about 40 minutes.
In the modern era, one particular day sticks in the memory for many reasons. West Wittering actually faces SSW, which means that the prevailing W and SW winds are quite onshore, but northwest winds, which so often follow a SW gale, are side with a touch of off. That’s when West Wittering is ‘THE’ place to be. This August day was classic, cloudless, 30 knots with clean logo high faces. Amongst the pros that invaded the space was Dave White. We’re always competing with each other and on this day the challenge was to do the biggest backie.
The session was epic and only 15 minutes old when Whitey shot past me on his way out to the outer banks. A classic ramp was forming. He hit the peak at about 30 knots, went stratospheric, did the backie rotation and then for reasons known only to himself, let go of the rig, but left his feet in the straps and so plummeted from the skies and landed right over the board still strapped in. He didn’t look happy, and as I sailed up to him, he moaned: “my foot hurts … I think it is broken…”
Well there’s a surprise. I got him into the waterstart position and we floated back in together. Long story short, it was the best session of the decade and I spent 99% of it holding his hand at Chichester A&E.
AND THE DRAWBACKS
If you turn up at a spring low tide, you have to walk to Cherbourg to launch. If you turn up on a sunny August Sunday, the queue to get in can start 7 miles away in Chichester. But time your visit and you will genuinely think you’ve been dropped into another altogether more exotic hemisphere.
Back in the 1950s the famer who owned the beach land had an offer from Billy Butlin to buy the site, luckily some locals from West Wittering Sailing Club shrewdly clubbed together and bought the land before Butlins could get their hands on it. It is now owned by locals who run it and have a vested interest in retaining its natural beauty and won’t develop the land.
West Wittering is a pretty decent place to live; I know lots of people like me who moved everything to be here by the water. There is a good community of people who are into the ocean, it is a fun vibe and if you haven’t been here before, it is well worth a visit to see it for yourself.
West Wittering has been a popular destination for windsurfing since the late 1970s! I think the fact it is located relatively close to South London and loads of people travel here because of the shallow shelving beach, decent weather and regular windy sessions. Back then when windsurfing was new and its was cool to windsurf, you could see the massive boards and one piece masts on top of cars, everyone would wave and beep horns as a sort of windsurfer salute on the way down to the beach. Windsurfers back then didn’t really use vans, so the car park was full with all sorts of vehicles – Ferraris with boards stuffed in the passenger seat and American imported cars loaded up with gear.
Pete Hart, Dee Caldwell, Robin Brockway, Peter Clark, Mark Woods, Jez Simmonds and Paula Wickens were all there at the start! There were actually stacks of people who windsurfed at West Wittering. The beach was slightly different in the 1980s, there were more pebbles, a bigger shorebreak and a lot less sand. In the mid-80s Alex Aguera came over and managed to score a classic day! He was one of the best guys in the world at the time and was out with Peter Clark ripping it up. I remember watching Mark Woods doing one of the first back loops in a PBA contest held at West Wittering I think in 1984.
We started the 2XS Club back in 1991! We had to overcome some inherited problems. The landowners wanted to ban windsurfing because of accidents, a court case and some dumb behaviour that put swimmers at risk. We came up with a workable safety management plan, rescue service and zoning. Since then the safety problems have been solved, the club has been well supported by the landowners and they have allowed the club to expand with improved facilities and changing rooms right on the beach.
We have around 300 members who mix between kitesurfing, windsurf, sup and foiling. We now have wing foilers out there too. We have plenty of young kids who start down here as young as five years old and plenty in all age ranges up to 75 who regularly windsurf, sup or kite. I think our members like the mixed conditions that arrive in any given day, flat water in the lagoons and ‘The Trench’, and waves from mid tide to high tide. We have great facilities, changing showers and a jet ski rescue setup. We also have a hire centre and school with all the latest toys, sort of like a centre you would find abroad, and we have very good gear to rent. From March to October, windsurfing from the beach is restricted to members of the club only. You can do a day ticket between 1 March to 31 October for £15 (maximum visits 4 times per season before joining club required), during off season anyone can sail. For details of club rates check our website – www.2xs.co.uk .
You get a sense of space, you can see the South Downs, Chichester Harbour and across the water the Isle of Wight. Every way you look, it’s a great view! The beach is like you find in Cornwall with beautiful sand dunes and the estate guys keep the beach very clean. We get stacks of wind and generally it gets about the same amount of sun as the Scilly Isles. People enjoy the space for all different things, from walking to relaxing, and to be honest the windsurfing is amazing when the conditions deliver.
We get a lot of quality days; anything with a southwest in it starts to work well at the beach! West is side-shore, northwest is cross-off, so if you are into waves, high tide with any of these directions works well. If you like flat water blasting or freestyle, ‘The Trench’ fires up at low tide in a southwesterly, or WSW works really well too, but avoid big spring low tides. But you can take the guess work out of this by calling us at the beach or checking out the live beach webcam, wind speed and tides at www.2xs.co.uk/weather/ .
The sandbars at mid and low tide you need to be aware of, otherwise there are not many dangers in the water, as the groynes have mostly been covered by sand. In easterlies, which are port tack side-shore, you get stronger currents on the incoming tide and an east swell and wind direction gets a bit exciting at high tide with the current.
West Wittering estate have introduced a car parking app (www.justpark.com/uk/parking/west-wittering-west-sussex/s/west-wittering-beach-car-park-pound-road-west-wittering-west-sussex-po20-8aj/) to reduce numbers on the beach and traffic, so you need to plan your trip to West Wittering in advance. If you are coming to the club you can book ahead of time and we can sell you a car park pass along with any day tickets to windsurf. It has been super windy since lockdown with plenty of decent days on the beach. We currently have kept the changing rooms closed while Covid-19 is still a issue, but all our rescue, hire and tuition is still ongoing. Due to the amount of people on furlough and working from home we have restricted some weekends to 2XS members only and no day tickets, so please call the club to check what is happening at weekends when it is super busy at West Wittering – phone 01243 513077.
I first started windsurfing at West Wittering in 1991, just before the formation of the club. My flatmate at university was Toby Watts, who’s parents live at the Witterings, he has windsurfed there since he was a kid and I still see Toby out there ripping it up with his radical, slashy riding style. I always remember my first session at West Wittering because I had just returned from my first trip to Maui and I was amazed at how many perfect ramps there were for jumping, it was like Spreckelsville on steroids!
I also remember being sat in my van that first day and seeing every single one of the UK’s top windsurfers – Woodsy, Simon Bassett, Jamie Hawkins, Simon Bornhoft, Stu Holland, Brian McDowell, Pete and Dee Caldwell and of course the legendary Peter Hart!
My first days windsurfing at Witterings obviously had a lasting memory on me because after leaving university I took up a job with Simmer running UK Sales for them and their office was based only five miles away, making West Wittering my new local spot. I think one of the best things about West Wittering, then and now, is that there is a great social scene, unsurprisingly everyone is always keen for an after windsurfing beer! Back then it was the Lamb Inn, but now it is the ‘Old House at Home’ in West Wittering village. In the 90s Simon and Jane Bassett had their shop 2XS based in the village and it really was one of the best windsurfing shops in the world, Simon travelled to Maui a lot and always brought back the very latest trends in windsurfing to the UK; his shop was a virtual windsurfing sweet shop!
I have wave sailed so many classic days at West Wittering and so many stick out in my mind. I remember the 2XS wave classic that had all the best UK pros in one spot for a starboard tack wave event, which was, and still is unheard of! Nik Baker, Jamie Hawkins, Danny Seales, John Skye, Julian Anderson, we were all there and it was pumping swell and WNW wind, like literally perfection West Wittering. It was so rad to see all the boys ripping, we had all just learnt how to do goiters and the inside bowl that day was perfect for them. I remember lots of other classic sessions, but the biggest thing I remember was the level was always really high so it pushed you to learn new moves. I can thank West Wittering for teaching me to push loop and table top forward, and also why five pints of 49’er in the Lamb Inn will make you very ill!
To this day, even though I only live 15 minutes from Kimmeridge, I still will make the 90-minute drive to West Wittering to score some epic sailing. What I look for mostly is no swell at Kimmeridge! West Wittering and Kimmeridge both work in identical wind directions – WSW, W, WNW and NW winds, which makes people wonder why I then drive from K-Bay, when on paper K-Bay is a much better spot, and the simple response is waves. Witterings seems to always have waves! Due to the shallow sandbanks, the waves kick up pretty quickly at the Witterings. It can be completely flat all along the south coast, but Witterings always seems to have a 2-3 foot wave to score some epic jumping.
It is best to go to West Wittering on a high tide, then as the tide drops move further east towards Cakeham, where there is a lovely wave, and then as the tide drops further, East Wittering and Bracklesham also work really well. I have never experienced it epic, but I know Simon Bassett raves about West Wittering on a low tide on the outside sandbar; one day hopefully I’ll score that! I’d like to personally thank Simon and Jane Bassett for always making me feel so welcome at West Wittering over the years; my time windsurfing there really had a massive effect on my pro windsurfing career.