WIND, WOOKIES AND WONDERFUL GUINNESS

Back in 2004, I wrote a number of articles for Boards Magazine. Then it was the premiere read for desperate windsurfers, today of course it's consigned to history.

They decided to do a series on local windsurfing scenes and I obliged....

This text is what I wrote before the editor mucked around with it.

 

Developing windsurfing at Newtownards Sailing Club

Alan Watts - who is this kid?

 This photo of Ronnie, our then oldest windsurfer, was published with the article. It's sad to think he's no longer with us. But this is how we like to remember him.

 

“Why do the windsurfers never use the bar?” Not perhaps the usual complaint from a sailing club, but one which was often heard a few years ago at Newtownards, on Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland. The club had been run by GP14 sailors for many years and a few windsurfers had joined to take advantage of the excellent location. But as a small and nomadic minority they tended to keep themselves to themselves, hence the comments. Today the situation is dramatically changed, with over 70 windsurfers in a club of 170 and a host of windsurfing events taking place – the problem now is keeping the windsurfers out of the bar! This is the story of how it all changed.

Firstly, it’s probably a good idea to explain where Newtownards is.

Only 11 miles from the centre of Belfast, with a prevailing westerly (on shore) wind and fabulously clean water in a European Special Area of Conservation, it’s a natural for windsurfing and sailing. Although salt water and tidal, it’s fjord-like geography makes it really safe, effectively surrounded by land. And when the tide is out, there about half a mile of waist deep water which is ideal for learning.

 

The windsurfing potential was obvious and so, with the active support of the sailors, three windsurfers decided to do something about it. Andy Tease was already a RYA Level 3 instructor, while Alan Watts and William Revels brought their day time management experience to bear. The first thing was to establish communication with the windsurfers and it was quickly decided to adopt e-mail. Addresses were gathered and Alan started issuing 2-3 e-bulletins each month. The tone was humorous, sometimes libellous, but always providing information on what was happening in a fun manner.

 

Next came a major event, a windsurfing open day featuring ‘try it’ lessons, windsurfing car boot sale, new kit demonstrations and rib rides and barbeque for the kids. Running this was a major strain, but the weather was good, hard work on publicity paid off and large crowds ensured a £1,500 take for the club. Many local windsurfers sail from the half dozen or so sites around the peninsula, so special signs were put up at these to target them. Once attracted to the club, the lure of hot showers (and the bar!) were pointed out and then the killer blow – a special deal to join the club for the winter at only £30. Windsurfing membership doubled overnight.

To keep the club on people’s minds, some of the money raised was used to buy a Windtalker, a phone-able weather station. After all, the one thing windsurfers want to know is what the wind is doing – before they make their excuses and jump into their cars. The instruction manual revealed that the ‘voice’ used on the Windtalker belonged to ‘Debbie’ which caused a rather unfortunate misunderstanding with the authorities when attempting to connect her to a premium rate number. The result being the now infamous news items in Boards “Dirty Debbie Offers Instant Relief” (June 2002). In fact Dirty Debbie did provide just what the local windsurfers wanted, bringing in a good income for the club while also raising its profile.

 

If pigs could fly? Andy shows early signs of leaving the plant.

 

With numbers building, the next step was a windsurfing holiday. And soon a group of 10 was heading off to Grand Canaria for the first of what has now become an annual winter warmth windsurfing tour. Tarifa is one of the favoured venues and last year it nearly proved a fatal attraction for two of the club’s windsurfers. William is one of the original gang of three, but is known for two things – his almost fanatical concentration (he doesn’t stop to take prisoners once he gets on a board) and for being somewhat hairy – hence his nickname of Wookie (the overgrown teddy bear ‘Chewie’ in Starwars). Tony Egerton on the other hand is nice, polite, wouldn’t hurt a fly doctor who’s greatest sin to date is to throw away his tickets while on holiday – hence the name Doctor No-Ticket. They met at speed in a force 6 in Tarifa and got a bit mixed up over the starboard rule. It was a loud bang, although fortunately Tony saw the maniacal look in Wookie’s eye and jumped at the last moment. It was only when they sailed with some difficulty back in was it clear just how violent their meeting had been. Tony’s board was cut in two (see picture). Trust me, you don’t mess with a Wookie….

 

 

 

Dr No Ticket, Tony Egerton with the remains of his board after the Wookie had cut him up at Tarifa. Photograph by William Revels.

 

So after a year numbers were rising, the ‘buzz’ was out and people knew about the club. The next task had to be to develop new starters to the sport. Many people had made their first faltering steps with Jane McCready (most recently a Boards tester), indeed this writer owes his initiation to Jane. But it had been a few years since Jane ran courses and there was no clear way for new people to enter the sport. And of course since those days, there had been a revolution in equipment – so we needed brand new beginners kit and trained instructors. The answer came in the form of an Awards For All grant, requiring a lot of form-filling and the creation of a special training arm of the club. But it was worth it when 6 Starboard Starts were delivered to the club – and the grant also paid for an RYA training course for 4 more instructors. Publicity was increased, a special hot line booking number set up and new beginners started to roll in. Naturally some of them found a natural home at the club and joined as members. To complement this, the original open day format has been modified and re-branded as the TRY – Event, where people can come along on 3 weekends a year and try windsurfing and sailing for a nominal cost.

 

Knowing the value of a good website, Ann Hanna took on the task of developing the club site. Today www.newtownardssailingclub.co.uk is a developing site which helps ‘sell’ what the club does, publicises events and increasingly provides some of the fun ‘people stories’ about members. After all the club is there for enjoyment and the people who make this happen.

 

Today, the cunning plans has worked, resulting in over 70 windsurfers and a thriving club. This year we flew a team over to sample the London Boat Show and ran a holiday to Tarifa. We have Jem Hall visiting for a 3 day training event, followed by a demonstration day from Tushingham/Starboard. And for the first time we are experimenting with an ‘improvers day’ when the old hands will give individual coaching to the improvers.

 

One real benefit is that the club has now reached critical mass for windsurfing. People know if it’s windsurfing, then this is where it will be happening. Far fewer sail alone from the various car park locations, far more prefer the craic and the buzz where the gang are hitting the water. This isn’t to say that we only sail from the club, far from it. We are lucky to have a number of great venues all within 20 minutes of the club. If the wind is another direction, a few text messages usually result in the Newtownards gang descending en mass to the favoured beach.

 

On a sunny day if there’s some easterly in the wind, Cloghy facing east towards the Irish Sea with a lovely soft sand beach usually has some windsurfing trailers in the convenient car park. To the north of the club, Ballyholme gets some big swells and wave sailing, working in north or north-westerlies. Again it has a convenient car park, toilets and a grass rigging area.

 

At the bottom of the peninsula is Kearney, our local wave beach. Many a mast and ego has been crunched here in a good southerly. Along with Ballywalter and Millisle, also on the Irish Sea coast, it’s our best wave location.

 

But for most people Newtownards is main place to sail. Many of us sail the whole year round and this is a lot less painful with an easy launch down a slip way and with warm showers and the bar to look forward to when you’re finished. Although a good safe spot to learn, it can get reasonably wavey here when the gales blow, as some of the pictures illustrate.

 

So today we have a successful club, with numbers steadily increasing including a healthy number of  newcomers to our wonderful sport. There’s a good atmosphere with a lot of Ulster humour involved, the e-bulletins continue and woe betide anyone who does anything out of the ordinary because everyone else is sure to hear about it!

 

Of course it’s the people who really make it. So if you find yourself near the shores of Strangford Lough, call in and you’re certainly guaranteed some good company and good Guinness. But look out for the Wookie….