BLACK PEPPER ON YOUR STRAWBERRIES IN DONEGAL

 

ALAN WATTS DECRIBES A NEWTOWNARDS SAILING CLUB IMPROVERS WEEKEND ‘DOWN’ IN DONEGAL WHICH TRIES TO PROVE THAT HIGH CLASS CRUISINE AND WINDSURFING DO MIX – SORT OF…

 

Have you ever noticed that it takes a particular type of person to windsurf? You don’t have to be mad, but it seems to help. And this common bond also explains why when a disparate bunch of people go off on a windsurfing weekend, they always get on so well.

 

Newtownards Sailing Club, in Strangford in Northern Ireland, has around 70 windsurfers and has recently been encouraging new windsurfers to continue to improve their skills. But of course this activity hits a low along with the temperatures in Winter. So the idea was formed of organising a low cost weekend away in February where some experienced windsurfers would help a bunch of improvers to, well, improve. It seemed like such a good idea in the warm clubhouse over several pints of the black stuff, until cold February arrived.

This story is really about the people, at least those that survived, so a few introductions are in order. There are three main windsurfing movers and shakers (aka trouble makers) in the club. Big Andy Tease, known as many things but we’ll just call him Shrek, is one of the best windsurfers at the club. When I say he lives there, he actually lives across the road. He’s an RYA instructor and one of the driving forces behind this trip. The next culprit is the Wookie. Acquiring his nickname from both his copious amounts of body hair and his ferocious nature on the water, his real name is William Revels, but if you knew what an animal is he is you’d appreciate how apt his nickname is. He and Andy together run wookiewindsurfing.com providing tuition and equipment sales. I’m Alan Watts, the last of the triumvirate but they call me Lord from my habit of bossing everyone around – hey, they need it! Clearly you can’t be anything as a windsurfer in these parts without a strong and preferably slightly insulting nickname.

 

Now add to this mix a bunch of people who mostly first stepped on a board in the warmer parts of last year. These are the real stars, knowing no fear of uphauling in big waves and seemingly impervious to the cold. David Ross, Alan Anderson, Roger Grahame, Mark Keenan and father and son Ricky and Alex Cole.

 

So much for the team, but what about the location? From Belfast it’s a mere 3 hour drive ‘down’ to Donegal. I should explain that ‘down’ actually means going north. So if you look at a map of Ireland you’ll see that we drive north-west to Derry, through Letterkenny and then head for Tory Island. We end up in one of the best windsurfing areas in Britain and Ireland with a multitude of excellent beaches to suit every wind. It’s actually almost the most northerly part of Ireland – naturally of course it’s actually in Southern Ireland.

 

The original plan was for Saturday/Sunday, but a tempting forecast persuaded the ‘good guys’ to go down early on the Friday morning to get a bit of quality sailing time before the improvers arrived and demanded our attention. But I did say these guys are keen and lo and behold most of them appeared on Friday morning too, determined to get their fair share of the time on the water.

 

The first meeting point, maintaining a long-standing windsurfing tradition, was at McDonald's in Derry – around half way there. So with a good healthy dose of grease inside us, we went straight to Magheroarty, one of the best wave beaches in Ireland. Magheroarty (if you think the Anglicised name is bad, you should see the full Gaelic one) faces the Atlantic and gets the full force of its wind and waves funnelled in by the nearby island. It’s a beautiful sandy beach with a small working harbour and if we’d bothered to lift out heads from the waves, we’d have seen dark mountains rising all around us. It’s such an out of the way spot that there’s only 1 bar and it isn’t even open in the Winter!

 

With a nice 5-6m wind blowing cross onshore north-westerly and medium sized logo high waves, we rushed to get out. But then the improvers appeared and insisted that they too wanted some early fun. So Andy, Wookie and I had a great sail with Wookie scoring some really high jumps and me blasting like an Exocet banana on a (too fast) old style F2 Ride - you'd think I'd have the brains to lift my wave board out of the trailer. Andy meantime showed us how to duck gybe in waves.

 

But how did the improvers get on in these conditions? Most of these guys are in the early stages of beach starting, but doing it in waves is quite another matter. Not that they were put off. No chance, they spent most of the afternoon getting pounded and splattered, but also (occasionally) getting up and going. We soon realised the improvers weren't just there for the scenery, Wookie's good looks or even the Guinness.

 

Was it cold, well frankly not really - until you were getting out of your wetsuit at the end of the day. But in the water, doing battle in the waves or firing along on top of them you were kept warm.

 

Wipeout of the day, and there were plenty to chose from, came from me - large wave, lots of speed and something like a cross between a headstand and headbut. The prize for best swim went to Andy who managed to rip his mastfoot out the mast track on the outside. The board made land a mile down the beach while Andy swam ashore with the rig. It's a long walk along the Magheroarty beach, with the intermediates thinking ‘hang on, isn’t he supposed to be one of the good guys showing us how to do it’?

 

We were joined on the beach by two blokes who turned out to be Damian and Tim from the Share Centre in Enniskillen. I realise this may sound like a hostel for homeless Lesbians (and indeed Andy was ready to take up the challenge if this was indeed what it turned out to be), but it's actually a watersports centre. They're keen windsurfers (I mean Damian and Tim, not the homeless lesbians) and in a constant battle to persuade their manager to lay on more windsurfing. We hadn’t met Tim and Damian before, but such is the way of windsurfing that they soon had joined the group and were like old friends. On the water they had the honour of being the first people to trash a sail. Later we swapped contact information for the future (and so Andy could really make sure about those poor homeless people).

 

Delighted exhaustion drove us from the water and the awful shock of changing out of a wetsuit on a sand dune in February left us with one thought – drink. So our convoy headed for a small village (3 pubs) called Gortahork (with my apologies for anyone who can actually spell any of these Irish names) where Andy had booked us a great deal at the Ostan Loch Altan Hotel. We were in the Gaeltacht, the Gaelic speaking part of the area and I have to say that the hotel were great, coping with a bunch of wild looking windsurfers with great hospitality. They even gave us the use of their boiler room. We said it was OK, Wookie could sleep in a hotel bedroom - but they explained it was for our wetsuits. I think they were scared some nasty people might wash their wetsuits in the bath. As if....

 

Naturally before we could shower there were two important things to be done. So we lined up a dozen pints of Guinness in the bar and examined the day's pictures on my laptop. I should explain that my role was as expedition photographer and the photographs were for training purposes – any resultant abuse people got about their stance, cock-ups or looks were purely incidental. This was followed by what passes for a bar snack in these parts (ie huge meal) and a 'few more drinks'. 

 

Andy and Wookie had prepared very well for this trip and so produced 'the Wookie Song Sheet'. It looked like a church service sheet but actually contained a series of great tips, probably stolen from the professionals and/or Boards Magazine. Aimed at the intermediates, most were to do with windsurfing, but some also warned against the dangers of wearing tights while windsurfing (lack of street cred) and also using wellie boots (we think this is a windsurfing tip, but we're not so sure).The locals thought we were a bunch of religious fanatics as we sat in the bar seriously studying our song sheets between the occasional sip of the black stuff. Fortunately no-one actually burst into song.

 

And so to bed, none of your sleeping cheap in the van for us, Andy had organised quality en-suite bedrooms with all facilities and no sharing. Windsurfing should always be like this.

 

Saturday was THE day. It started well ie with a huge fried breakfast in the hotel, and then got better and better. Sergeant Major Andy had decided that Lunniagh (no, you're right, I clearly have no idea how to spell this one) was to be the venue and boy did he get it right. I’d like to tell you where Lunniagh is, but it’s so small that it’s hardly on any map. This area is filled with obscure beaches with unpronounceable names often along some very dodgy roads. So it’s always possible to find a location that works no matter what the wind direction.

 

Lunniagh turned out to be lovely beach, grassy rigging area with a jetty and relatively flat water between it and the 2 islands about half a mile out. With a steady north west wind, it made for a blast and gybe paradise. But of course we were there for the intermediates, not to enjoy ourselves.

 

Two more reinforcements appeared firstly in the form of Ron, one of our older windsurfers who bears a strong resemblance to Captain Birds Eye – fortunately without all the annoying singing children. Also up from Newtownards was Alan Yeates, a good windsurfer but famed to two things: apparently having 3 wives (an unfortunate misunderstanding over names ruthlessly perpetuated by all of us) and being described by Peter Hart in print as a ‘sea anchor’ – but his gybes have improved since then – honest.

 

With all of these people in Donegal, Newtownards must have been deserted! Come to think of it Enniskillen was probably deserted too as Damian and Tim joined us and had a great sail too. Don't be a homeless lesbian in Enniskillen if it's windy....

 

Now have you heard about Andy and Wookie's new boat? It used to be a sailing dingy but somewhere along the way has lost its keel and mast. So add an outboard and a large lump of ballast (Andy) and it handles like, well, a dingy with no keel. It rocks, it rolls and Wookie turns a funny colour every time he's out in it. Today was its official launch, no bottle of champagne across its bows, just a terrified Wookie while Andy drove it hard into the pier. The idea was to have a rescue boat, but we think it actually functioned well - by making the windsurfers so terrified of being rescued by it that they refused to fall in. It also doubled up as the video/camera boat - you can only imagine how difficult it is to take shots from a heaving, bouncing boat, but I know because I was the cameraman. Rolling about with Andy in a mad boat is helluva way to spend your Saturday.

 

Andy and Wookie did a rigging check for everyone and an on land coaching session while I ‘checked out the wind’ for everyone. Then the stars of the day, the improvers, hit the water and soon the air was filled with the sound of crashing kit and underwater expletives. These guys really stuck at it and shortly harnesses were in use as Andy coached from the boat and they took advantage of the flat water to rapidly improve.

 

Warm enough in the water, it was easy to get cold when everyone came out for a well earned lunch. So it was quick sandwiches and hot tea (at least that’s what we think was in the flasks) before they were out and at it again. By now rising wind was just too tempting for the 'instructors' who were having a ball in perfect blasting weather on around 6m sails. The only hassle was dodging the heaving mass of improvers practising beachstarts at the landing/gybing area. Amazingly there was little damage (apart from bruised egos), but Roger managed to hole his only sail and David cracked the nose of his board. Nothing a dose of duct tape couldn't fix.

 

The evening followed a similar pattern to before. Pints in the bar to get rid of the salty taste (and to 'notice' how many local lasses were in to watch the United match), showers for everyone (even Wookie), huge meal this time in the restaurant complete with a load of bollox (technical term for windsurfing talk) and then the payback time with the photos in the bar (and a lot more 'noticing' going on). It’s amazing just how much you can learn from photographs like this such as the fact that Alan Yeates gybes with his mouth hanging open. We’ve no doubt that Simon Bornhoft will shortly be adding a new Windwise skill to his teaching – keep your trap shut for better planing out gybes.

 

You would think the hotel staff would be used to us by this stage, but even they went a funny colour when towards the end of dinner Ronnie asked for black pepper - for his strawberries. We're still not sure if he was having us on, but using nothing more than his manly charms he persuaded the waitress to provide 3 pepper grinders and then (after we'd eaten all of our puddings) a further plate of huge strawberries (some charms!) and then somehow (and not using his manly charms I assure you) persuaded us all to have strawberries with black pepper. I know what you're thinking, but we really hadn't had that much to drink at that stage - all I can say is try it yourself and see.

 

Sunday and after another final huge fry, Magheroarty proved to have little wind. So we moved 15 miles to Marble Strand where it was pretty cold in a weak northerly, but sailable. This is a lovely bay with yet another deserted perfect sandy beach. The real men immediately went out and braved  the surf despite using very large boards, while the instructors sat in a warm van and drank loads of coffee. In fact once again the improvers got on really well, including the odd walk of shame but clearly mastering living with waves. Watching a Starboard Start being used in a large swell makes interesting viewing! We lined up for our final group photographs - but Ronnie had gone home early (probably to pepper his strawberries) so his place was taken by a large hairy dog which had taken a shine to Wookie for some reason, possibly a relative.

 

After that it was a 3 hour drive home with the heater up full and everyone wondering what I might say about them when I wrote the trip up for the club e-mail newsletter.

 

So what did we learn from this weekend?

 

1    It's never too cold to sail in Donegal

2    Never to wear tights while sailing

3    Don't convert a dingy into a rescue boat

4    Andy and Wookie organise great weekends

  • I can't spell Irish place names
  • Windsurfing is great ‘craic’

7    Improving windsurfers are just as keen and just as crazy as the old hands

 

So if you get a chance to visit Donegal, bring your board and don’t forget your black pepper....