With a dense population of 10.5 million and a relatively small coastline, Belgium is famous for brussel sprouts, over 1100 types of beer, praline chocolate, waffles, inventing french fries and three PWA freestyle world champions – Steven Van Broeckhoven, Dieter Van Der Eyken and more recently Yentel Caers, who just won the title at the Sylt world cup event in October 2019. Ever keen to get the scoop, JC tracked a tired but ecstatic Yentel down the morning after his maiden title win to find out a few secrets behind this amazing Belgium freestyle success story.
Words & Photos John Carter
JC: The freestyle finals in Sylt must have been an emotional rollercoaster of a day where you had to win four heats straight to win the world title?
YC: Yeah I didn’t start so well in the single elimination as we all know, I messed up and was a bit too stressed. I think there was too much pressure to win this world title, blah, blah, blah! Every rider was pushing really hard. So I messed up. For the double I felt really like a bit of the hope was gone for the world title, I mean, there was still a chance, but it was a slim one. So I really tried to focus and do it heat by heat and put thoughts of the world title to the back of my mind. I just wanted to do well again in the event and sail solid. The first heat went better, which made me more motivated and helped get me more in a flow. I just had to keep doing the same three more times. I started to be dialled into the conditions. It was a really long day also with waiting in the morning, then we did some heats, then the wind dropped and we were all day in the wetsuits. But I had fun the whole day and when I won against Antoine Albert this was just amazing. Since childhood these were my dreams! I cannot describe it really! As a kid I dreamed of this you know, even to be competing with the best of the world and then this year I already won the European freestyle title in Lanzarote. I thought this is like the highest thing I will get ever and now in the same year I managed to win the world title as well. It’s amazing! In the top 10 of the PWA right now in freestyle, anyone could be world champion. They all have the same level and some guys shine in some conditions and others in different conditions. I had not the best results, but I was really consistent over the year, with a 2nd, 4th and 6th, so this helped secure me the world title and I’m super stoked about it.
JC: How was that last heat for the title?
YC: The heat against Antoine Albert, was for me, kind of like sailing a final for the world title, as that’s basically what it was. I felt really motivated; I’d won already against Taty Frans, Sam Esteve and Giovanni Passani and they are all really talented sailors at a similar level as Albert and myself. So I knew it was possible! I just had to keep going the way I was sailing. I knew my starboard tack is much better than my port tack, but Antoine is sick at jumping on port! I really focussed on scoring very high points on my starboard tack to make up for what I would lose on port tack. I gave it everything on the water. When I won, I couldn’t really believe it. Even now the day after, people are coming and giving me congratulations as world champion, but it hasn’t really settled in yet. It’s like something really crazy to me. Something you’ve trained for the whole year and your whole life and suddenly in one moment you achieve it but you can hardly believe it. I had so much adrenaline in my body. It was just an amazing moment.When I knew I had the world title I had to sail against Gollito just for the event ranking and this heat I kind of messed up because I was not thinking about the heat anymore because I had been so focussed on all the other heats. I had received the title news and I was not thinking about the heat and competing so much. I was doing some moves but kind of forgetting that I was in a heat. But anyway Gollito was sailing amazing as he does in Sylt and I also want to say congratulations to Amado who has been amazing this season. Steven also, it’s really good to see him back on the podium. He is one of my best friends. I always travel with him. He helped me to get where I am now a lot, so it was cool to share the podium with him as well.
JC: So what is your background before becoming world champion?
YC: I am 24 and come from Belgium! My family windsurf. My dad sails and my brother and my sister windsurf too. We were not brought up on the coast ironically, we grew up in the middle of the country but we always went to the coast at the weekends. We had a camper van and we went mainly to Holland and then our holidays were always in the south of France when I was younger. So I just windsurfed in holidays and at weekends mostly when I was a kid. And then from there you know it was like a passion that grew further. I finished school and then I told my parents, okay, now I am just going to windsurf and compete on the world tour. And they were like, okay, you can try! I finished school where I studied metalwork, so I had a good diploma. It’s not like I just skipped school. I have a backup, I can be a metalworker. Windsurfing is really fun, but like we all know, it is not forever. I am going with the flow now and enjoying the moment.
JC: What does windsurfing mean to you?
YC: I don’t know. It’s always been there for me like, since I grew up. It is a part of my life and a strong part of the bond in our family. Seeing my dad, my brother and sister windsurfing as a small kid made me want to do it. I was playing on the board and in the water when I was tiny. I have some amazing pictures of me standing on the boom when my dad was windsurfing. It’s just a huge part of my life. You learn a lot from the guys here on tour. It is a life school, travel wise and in competition. From the young to really experienced guys, everyone is really, really friendly. The windsurfing on tour in freestyle is just a group of friends. When you compete against each other it is hard, but then once you’re off the water, it’s just like all friends and about having fun together. You learn a lot from each other.
JC: So is that the best day of your career yesterday?
YC: For now yes, but I have to keep looking forward. This is the best year that I have ever had and I will remember it forever, but now I have had a taste of success I obviously want some more!
JC: What’s it like to be part of the Point-7 team?
YC: I joined Point-7 three years ago. They are not just a sponsor, it’s more like being part of a real team. And also being a bit smaller brand you have really personal contact with the people behind the brand which is really nice. We work well together. They helped me a lot to develop the gear and have the best sails to compete on. And it’s just nice you know, it’s like friends working together which works out great for me.
JC: Where do you train mostly?
YC: My girlfriend is from Lake Como in Italy. So often I am there, it is nice, you know, because I can be with my girlfriend and I can windsurf. Aside from that I have been mainly just travelling around Europe with my van going between the South of France, Tarifa and Italy, as well as just following the wind. I grew up with van life and now I have my own. My brother and sister both have vans too, so it is a family thing.
JC: What is so special about freestyle?
YC: I don’t know, freestyle is just free, you can do whatever you like on the water. I really enjoy extreme sports. And for me, freestyle is an extreme sport. It is nice, you know, just doing tricks and having fun. I like to do wave sailing as well, but I didn’t grow up by the sea or anything, so I mainly windsurf on flat water. Now I have started wave sailing quite a bit. Before I was always sailing on lakes, and I didn’t really have the chance for wave sailing. In the future I would like to compete in waves like Amado and Gollito!
JC: How long does it take to learn tricks like the shifty?
YC: It can takes years and years! The shifty is hard to learn, it’s a mind game. In the end though I learned pretty quick after Balz started trying them. It was when we were younger and I was there when Balz was trying them for the first time, so I had the first crashes as well. Two years after that, the first proper one was landed by Steven. It is all in the mind this move and you have to really get over it.
For me personally, learning tricks has been quite a journey. When I started freestyling we were a group of friends and we were all the same age. We sailed together at Brouwersdam in Holland and they were learning much faster than me. I got stuck on the spock; that move did not work out for me. So I was really, really slow with learning; it took me over two years to learn the spock! Finally I learnt how in the beginning of a summer when I was 14, then by the end of that summer I could do all the sliding moves. The spock for me was a barrier that I couldn’t get over, but then once I understood how I was off and learning like crazy. I think it’s really important for younger people to learn the basics before trying to learn the harder moves. I see a lot of young riders trying konos and kulos, they maybe land them but they will never get further to doing kulo spocks because they don’t know the basics for a good spock. Everything comes back to the basic moves and even the biggest power moves in the end need the basics as the feeling and the rotations are all connected to the basics.
JC: Are you quite competitive?
YC: I like competitions, it pushes yourself and pushes others. I find events fun and I seem to find my best level in competitions. I think I don’t stress too much, so I keep a level head under pressure. Competitions give me more motivation and this year without doubt has been my best in terms of performance with a European and world title which has been amazing.
JC: I have seen you doing backflips on the beach in Fuerteventura, did you do gymnastics at school?
YC: I never did gymnastics but I did a lot of different sports and when I was younger when we were on the beach and we had nothing to do we would play in the dunes, doing flips and all this kind of stuff. I like to do different sports – I skate, do BMX, surf and just stay busy with everything that is connected with freestyle. Anything making rotations helps with body feeling and muscle memory for freestyle, so I think different sports help.
JC: Do you treat your free sailing as a training session every time you go out?
YC: I am just doing the moves you know and having fun, but it’s a kind of training as well. I don’t really often do heat sailing. Sometimes I do it in my mind when I am on the water. I just want to land all my moves quickly after each other. For sure when you sail together with all the top guys you really push each other. One does like a really sick move and the next guy feels that they have to do better and this is the best way of training, just pushing each other and having fun.
JC: So how do you guys stay injury free?
YC: Injuries are something that happens. You need a bit of luck, to stay flexible and to sail with big footstraps, so in case you twist your feet can turn around in the strap and not break your ankle or anything. I think that’s a good tip for everyone to make your footstraps as loose as you can. People think you will fly out of them, but it’s not true, you just fly out when you need to get out.
JC: Have you got any special ways you set up your equipment?
YC: A good trim is always important for sails. But every brand is different. I personally trim my sail and I never change it. If the conditions get more wind or light wind, I always keep the trim exactly the same. If I am sailing the sail underpowered or overpowered it’s always the same trim because I would rather change to another sail than mess with my trim. That system works well for me.
JC: What about your boards?
YC: I have been one year on i-99 boards, so it has been a pretty good start, I’m really happy with them. We didn’t have so much time to do a lot of testing because I came late to the brand and we had to register the board. The board was already really good, Youp has been sailing and testing so he knows what works well; i-99 are also a bit smaller brand so you have a really personal contact with the team. If there is something I need, I can just call them up and you don’t have to worry about sending big emails.
JC: Any tips for up and coming freestylers out there?
YC: Never give up and just enjoy your sailing. Learn the basic moves first, that is really important. Just have fun with your friends on the water and don’t give up, just keep trying. If something doesn’t work, try a different move and come back later on to it so you don’t get frustrated. Some people learn moves really fast, but it took me two years to master the spock! So everything is possible, you just have to believe in it and keep having fun.
JC: What was your worst experience with windsurfing?
YC: I think it was two years ago when I got injured in Fuerteventura during the heat. That’s like the worst thing that can happen to a sportsman. An injury means suddenly not going windsurfing and just being stuck at home doing nothing. It’s like torture. I made it to the podium that time, but I couldn’t fight back for second or first, I was done!
JC: Have you got any sailors that have inspired you?
Steven Van Broeckhoven is one of my best friends, I’ve known him since I was a kid. Also guys like Tonky Frans who is not on the tour sadly, he is one of the guys who inspired me a lot. Gollito too is amazing, I was looking up to him when I was learning freestyle. Now, 10 years later, he’s still one of the top guys and has nine world titles, so he has had an incredible career.
JC: How is the atmosphere between the riders on tour?
YC: It’s a great atmosphere, everyone is friends, it’s just like on the water during the heat is a bit of a fight and then you come on the beach and shake hands. Afterwards, even if you lose you go party together and have fun. Everyone is happy for the other sailor if he wins as well. All the sailors were stoked for me that I won the title even though they wanted it as well. Gollito, Amado and Youp were all happy for me.
JC: What about your ambitions now you have won the title?
YC: The title was for sure my ambition, but you know, when you have one you want more. So I just want to keep doing what I do, have fun on the water, compete and try to get the title multiple times. Because the level is so high, to even be on the podium in the years ahead will be amazing. At least I have one title under my belt. That’s the thing you know, this title, they can never take that away from me. I have it for my lifetime and the memories I have will stay with me forever.
JC: Do you think this title will change your life, will the money and the big sponsors start rolling in?
YC: No, I don’t think so. It’s really cool to have the world title. It’s what I dreamt of and hopefully something will come from it, but the title will not change me or much of my lifestyle. I just want to keep doing the same things, have fun and keep living in the moment.
JC: Do you have a favourite place to compete at?
YC: Fuerteventura, I love Fuerteventura. Some riders find it too tricky, but then Sylt for most people is even worse. Germany is the toughest event on tour with all the variables, but I like the conditions because it’s always a challenge and it is not that easy. Bonaire is really nice as well. I like flat water but I like flat water when it’s strong wind like in the south of France where Sam Esteve is living. Bonaire is a really cool place. I love to train there but if I could choose a spot to compete in, it would be Fuerteventura as it is a bit harder conditions with some jump moves, combinations and all the double power moves.
JC: In Sylt they were competing waves and then switched into freestyle and it seemed a better show.
YC: Yeah because with onshore winds for the wave guys, it was really hard to jump. In freestyle, we also do all the jump moves, but then we add bobs and crazy little freestyle rotations. I mean, I think the wave guys were also doing a really good show. But in freestyle things were happening faster, so it’s easier to watch. For each rider we had at least six moves in eight minutes. In waves it was taking a bit longer in the bolt onshore winds. So for them it was really tricky and for the public it was hard to understand as riders were just waiting outside for a wave.
JC: How is the Belgian windsurf scene?
YC: Yeah we have three world titles now. Steve Van Broeckhoven was first in 2011, then Dieter Van Der Eyken in 2015 and now me in 2019, so it’s really cool and really good. But windsurfing in Belgium is not so big, we have windsurfers but as we have a really small coastline and not many lakes, there is not so many windsurfers and it is a pretty small scene. We all come from like the middle of the country. Steven and Dieter’s family homes are not by the sea and me neither, so every time we go to the sea we have to drive like one and a half hours. Whatever the wind we always go out after all the effort to go there. We just want to windsurf so we go. If you live at the sea I think sometimes you get complacent. So motivation wise I think that has helped us.
JC: What’s your programme until next season?
YC: Now I will start planning my winter trips. I would like to go back to Brazil, to a spot close to ‘Jeri’. It’s a similar spot but not so busy. Then after that I will try to do South Africa so I can train freestyle and waves as I want to get more into wave sailing as well. I do both PWA and EFPT tours so it gets kind of busy in the summer. After Bonaire it was pretty busy, like every month with one or two events. The PWA only has three events this year which is not enough for me so I did the EFPT as well. I did seven or eight events in 2019, which was a nice amount, I would like to have like eight PWA events ideally.
JC: Do you do any other work or are you just a professional windsurfer?
YC: I am just a professional windsurfer right now, there is just enough to live on! After I finished school I was still living at home. I am never there, but still kind of based at home, so I don’t have much costs. So the lifestyle I have now doesn’t cost me so much. I just have my van which I travel around with and I pay the insurance and the gas and that is it! It’s a simple life but I do what I love!
“The level is so high, to even be on the podium in the years ahead will be amazing.”