It's hard to judge what a sailing club is really like from a website. OK, Newtownards Sailing Club has good facilities, safe waters and very large number of windsurfers - but that doesn't really allow a visitor to judge the most important part - the people element!

 

To help with this, the following is a mythical description of a typical week at the club. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent - because they are too guilty. Everything described does and has happened, but not necessarily all in one week...

  

There is a rule in windsurfing, 'what do you call a windy day after 2 days of dead calm? - answer, a Monday'. Try it and see. During the week, except in holidays, not that many people can spend time at the club, jobs get in the way. Having said that, there is a growing Wednesday afternoon club, mostly it appears driven by the medical profession which makes us think that Wednesday afternoons are not a good time to be ill or have sore teeth. Either way, a number of people whose jobs have some element of a rota seem to be arranging things to be free on a Wednesday. Ming the Merciless for example doesn't even look at the forecast or even speak to Debbie (the club Windtalker). Since he has sails right up to 12 metres, he reckons that unless it's dead calm he'll get out and he's usually right. Shipman also arranges his job to have some personal time on a Wednesday, although since he started doing this, he seems to have killed the wind for everyone else. Some people are like that, natural wind scuds...

 

  

 

Since wind is so all important to windsurfers, we have Debbie to help us out.' Confused? Let Boards Magazine explain :

 

"DIRTY DEBBIE SPEAKS OUT

 

Newtownards Sailing Club in County Down led the (pre-web) way by instituting a new service giving instant relief for windsurfers and sailors around Strangford Lough. For 60 pence per minute, "Dirty Debbie" would speak to you in soothing tones and tell you just what you want to hear.

 

Debbie was in fact the first Windtalker to be installed in Britain and she provides the current wind strength and direction right at the club's excellent windsurfing location. She will go on to give the average statistics over the last hour so that you can gauge if the wind is rising or falling. The documentation with the system says that the voice used is digitised from a real person whose name is Debbie. However when Alan Watts, the club windsurfing rep, tried to set up the premium telephone line, he was put through the mill as the authorities checked up in case the number was to be used as an '0898' chat line. When word got out about this, the nick name 'Dirty Debbie' was born and stuck!

These days of course poor old Debbie has been cut off. She still speaks in soothing tones to e windsurfers at the club, but you can no longer dial her up from afar. Today web technology has taken over and if you want to see what the wind is doing around Newtownards, then go the weblinks section to find your way to the Flying Club site.

Today she sits on the wall at the club and only talks to people who pass by and press her button. She's relegated to the role of speaking wind meter, but she still retains a place in our hearts....

 

  

 

Anyway, back to our week -

 

Friday afternoon is another good time, many companies stop early on a Friday and if it's vaguely windy there's usually a bunch of people on the water. Even Yeatesy can even sometimes be parted from his favourite bag (Nambaree teabag that is) to go out.

 

And there are those who manage to take the concept of flexitime to extremes. We do wonder what would happen to the networks of a well known large telecommunications company if they broke down during a windy day. The Wookie (real name William) always seems to manage to get out on the water if there's a breath of wind. To be fair, he does put in long hours at other times (provided it's below 15 mph).

 

From Easter to October, evenings are a great time to sail. Most windsurfers are on a minimum of 5 weather forecasts per day, it's an addiction and there's no cure apart from serious injury or (very) old age. So if at least one of these five is showing some wind, the usual suspects will often appear. To avoid weather forecasts, there is another way and that is to ring Andy. If he answers it's not windy. However this method may fail if someone invents a fully waterproof mobile phone.... It's also become less reliable since he fell in love, now there's something else he might be doing, even if it's windy - cooking for Suzie.

 

Saturdays and Sundays are the most popular days of course and that's when we get to see the fair weather sailors, or should I say it's Saturdays and Sundays in April - September. There are people who are just 'too busy' to sail when it's cold. But these days with modern wetsuits and even battery operated vests, the cold isn't the big enemy it once was.

The weekends are when more of our beginners appear. During the warmer season, the club runs windsurfing lessons. We have RYA Fast Forward instructors and a pile of pretty new beginners kit for hire. The club is in fact a RYA Training Centre for both windsurfing and sailing.

In recent years, windsurfing has been very much on the rise at the club, it's now the biggest single category of membership. There are a number of windsurfers on the club committee and windsurfing is a very big part of what goes on. One guy, Paddy Lyner, has been responsible for making a lot of this happen. He helped bring in a large number of new people, train them up and even led them every Tuesday evening onto the water. It really was like mother duck leading her ducklings - and so this new breed of (now much improved) windsurfers are of course called the ducklings!

If you fancy trying your hand at this king of sports, just get in touch and Paddy will sort you out. And to be clear, we have both male and female members (although there's still quite a few we're not quite sure about which category they fall into...).

 

  

 

It's generally considered not safe to windsurf on your own, even in such a safe location as NSC. We do of course have full rescue facilities, but they are not manned all the time. If you're sailing with a friend and get into trouble, your friend can either take the boat out or call someone who can. We don't have many emergencies, but especially in learning all windsurfers do get blown about from time to time. There have been a few incidents, some resulting in large donations to the RNLI. And in one rather bizarre incident the Fire Brigade tried to rescue me. OK, I'd been blown a mile down wind, but I was standing near the shore in 3 feet of water at the time. They were rather miffed when I picked up my kit and walked up to them to ask who they were rescuing - me they thought.

 

So what is a typical 'session' like? Well, it usually starts with a weather forecast, then the calls and texts start. You quickly get to know who's who and it's easy to get into the circle and be let know. Windsurfers tend to be like the birds in the The Birds (the film). First one appears, then another and then 10 appear - they can also be just as scary - you should see some of our lot in their winter gear with black balaclavas on - they look like they're going to rob a post office. You can tell a windsurfers by his car, it'll have a full roof rack, a huge trailer or a driver crammed in surrounded by (smelly, wet) boards and sails in the car. The really serious ones of course buy a van, either because they've too much gear for a car or because their wife gives off about the smell of wet seaweed in the car.

 

At the club there is a grass areas for rigging. The gathering vultures appear and then immediately go into a phase known to the cognoscenti as 'talking windsurfing bollocks'. This consists of variations on :

 

            I think the wind is about to come up

            What size are you rigging?

            I think the wind is about to come up

            How many litres is your board?

            I saw a forecast that said the wind was going to come up

 

The rule seems to be that you can't go out windsurfing until you've done about 30 minutes of bollocks. Often by this time of course the wind has dropped.

 

  

 

There is a lot of very useful advice available, especially to beginners. Despite looking like a gang of criminals and psychopaths (have you seen Tony when he's angry?), they're actually a very friendly lot. If you're having trouble rigging, they'll often do it for you. Andy is especially helpful here - especially if you happen to be female of course. Having rigged, you can get changed in the changing room, take a last glance at Debbie (to see how windy it is) and then you're away. It's tidal here so you can have a bit of a walk down the slipway if the tide is out - but then again if it is you've got half a mile of waist deep water which is ideal for learning in.

 

The water is lovely, OK it can be cold, but it's clean. Sometimes on a sunny day, I just relax on a nice 'blast' and look around me, it's a truly beautiful view (Strangford Lough, not me). Most people tend to 'blast' that is do a long run followed by something approximating to a gybe. Since the best line is dictated by the wind, windsurfers tend to follow the same route and also to congregate in the water at either end of the blast. This is where you get the best advice, it's much easier for other people to see what you're doing wrong and when they tell you it's worth listening to. You'll see a lot of good turns, people like Andy and Wookie are good sailors and you'll see a lot of gybes which go horribly wrong and are somehow wobbled through - I'd like to name names here but I'd have to name just about everyone in the club. You'll also see a fair number of beginners and intermediates, they get a lot of encouragement from the more experienced. And from time to time you'll see some of the more adventurous moves from people like Andy and Raptor (Alex).  Alex incidentally has been sponsored by the club and does all sorts of jump up in the air and spin around moves which make the rest of us sick (with envy). He also does quite well in competitions too.

 

I'd like to tell you that every gybe is made and no-one ever falls in. I'd like to say this (especially in my own case) but of course it isn't true. Splashes range from the inevitable falling in to spectacular crashes when a high speed gybe goes wrong. On some of our fun days we've even given our prizes for the most spectacular crashes - Wookie even won a kiss from a well known weather girl for one (mind you, his was a big one). And of course when Andy crashes it makes a big splash (he's a big lad).

 

The area at the club is very safe, but it's not just club members who sail here. There's a public carpark near the club which means that we get a lot of passing trade as well. This is fine in the Summer, but you can understand club members feeling a bit smug in January when it's freezing cold and we go in for warm showers and a pint while the 'car-parkers' have to get changed outside. Club membership isn't that dear and in the Winter it's definitely worth it!

 

  

 

Occasionally we organise fun races (more fun than race), but often a group of people will start together and some 'friendly rivalry' will develop as they blast along. It rarely gets bloody, although look out for Wookie as he once cut someone else's board in two - but what do you expect from a dumb Wookie (to slightly misquote Princess Leya).

 

When it gets windy it gets interesting. The good guys start jumping and Andy starts smashing kit. We've lost count of the number of masts and booms he's broken and he even minced one of this favorite 'Fish' boards. But when the wind is over 35 mph and the waves are up, the standards of windsurfing are often very high.

 

Once everyone is knackered it's off the water, de-rig and into the showers. The more highly educated then retire to the bar to talk some retrospective bollocks. And of course there is intense speculation as to when it might be windy again.

 

 

From time to time, we get a bit more adventurous and organize trips. Groups of us regularly go to Donegal but we’ve also run holidays to Spain, Rhodes, Grand Canaria and Teneriffe to name just a few. We’ve even had one person (Andy – of course) go on a Boards Magazine test trip to Egypt.

 

I hope this gives you a more people-based idea of what the club is all about. If you like what you see, then come and try it for yourself. If you know anyone at the club, you can be invited in as a guest for up to 6 times so you can see first hand what it’s like. And it’s damn fine craic!

FOOTNOTE -

This article was written around 10 years ago, but it's still surprisingly accurate. These days NSC is still a great place to windsurf and in fact windsurfing has now overtaken sailing as the largest grouping within the club. There are still warm showers which help a lot for windsurfing all the year round. And many of the people featured above still sail there - although perhaps with less hair and now needing to sail a slightly bigger boards...

 

Alan Watts