Day 2 of competition featured the Men’s Quarter Finals. The remaining 16 were accompanied by many of the original fleet in a 2hr warm-up/free-sail. Upon arrival to the break in our village longboats, it was clear that the swell, predicted to build through the day into Monday, was slow in coming in. An extremely low tide had also settled over the break during midday, which further frustrated any swell trying to swing out over the reef. With these conditions, it was decided to run later in the day with tide push.
During the free-sail I tried to stay busy and adaptable in the marginal (marginal for Cloudbreak) surf. And for a while. Really felt good about my session, seemingly able to find some nice rides up and down the reef. I’d be in a heat with Ricardo Campello, Antone Albert and Liam Dunkerbeck; and in sailing with them prior to the heat, we fell into an easy rhythm trading sets.
Once the actual heat commenced however, a notable shift came over the four of us, each isolating to a distinctive corner of the reef. Liam and I operated inside for a time, but were force outside once Ricardo roped into the first set wave. The first of many that he’d manage to find in that heat. Antoine ran in obscurity, chipping into deep waves that I had assumed wouldn’t offer much wall down the reef, but he likewise managed to get in sync with the sets! A set wave from that far up the reef remained open for a plethora of turns.
On to to Heat 2, featuring Baptiste Cloarec, Antony Ruenes, Morgan Noireaux and Flo Jung. Baptiste has been the consecutive standout performer in both days of competition. His approach to the wave is compact and coiled within its hollowed recess, springing up into the lip when the moment is right. In some ways, the riders chalked his sailing in Round 1 as a “make it or break it” strategy, lacking in consistency, doomed to eventually land him on Shish Kebabs with a broken mast. But up until this point, he’s stomped the majority of what he’s gone for, and it’s looking more like he’s got the spot, and his sailing, wired.
I learned recently that Baptiste has also had a hand in designing every piece of equipment he rides, even going as far to stitch his own sails. Windsurfing will benefit greatly from this young man’s ingenuity and surf knowledge.
I hope I don’t sound biased when I say that one of the biggest upsets of the day was of Antony beating out Morgan. I felt that he had really strong chances in this event, having a good knowledge of the wave from surfing and windsurfing it last year and this year. But Morgan wasn’t fated to advance, as it seemed that his best waves lined up further down the reef, and often stretched into territory out of the line of sight of the judges aboard the Thundercloud. From where the boat was moored, the the end-section could only be seen from outside, behind the wave. Flo’s situation was somewhat similar, from my angle getting really great rides on the inside. However, some of the deeper waves breaking off the point provided longer rides for more scoring opportunity and held open within the Judges’ sight. Both Antony and Baptiste were able to capitalize on these waves to great effect, showing great adaptability in these conditions.
Heat 3 seemed like the most hotly contested battle of the Quarters. Each rider occupied the same small sliver of the take-off zone and the jockeying between them was unceasing. I noticed Leon opening early with a very strong wave, vertically attacking the lip and finding some great release off the top. That is something notably challenging to do in these conditions, with fast waves and offshore winds. Busting the fins out can be forced, and that forced slide looks pretty obviously manufactured. On the other hand, the wave can be much more easily approached with carving turns, going for spray and “arc”. A balanced mix of power and fins-free is difficult to manage, but Leon managed excellently. Unfortunately, it came down once again to Takuma and Antoines’ wave selection. And when Antoine is given the opportunity, with a bigger set and fat section over a dry reef, he’s gong to wow the judges by boosting to heights unattainable by the rest of the wavesailing fleet. He lofts his airs in two stages: breaking away during the initial hit and then flying off in a separate action of catching the wind.
In the final heat Robby Swift and Marc Paré were to hold solid dominion over the highest scores for the duration. Both Robby and Marc are incredibly consistent sailors, and keen competitors. Robby has been making strides in his surfing approach to Cloudbreak, and it truly shows in his sailing. Likewise, Marc has charged some of the deepest/steepest takeoffs of the trip and found success in translating that adrenaline-filled data into his sailing. I’m a fan of both of these guys and know they’re going to absolutely crush it when the swell builds for Day 3, finals day.
It’s interesting to note the differences in tide and timing between our two days of competition at Cloudbreak. While Day 1 was run at high tide, this 2nd Round was held use a few hours past dead low. Low tide, combined with a full moon, left the reef on the inside totally exposed, adding to the level of difficulty in choosing one’s line, and staying just in front of the closeout. There was honestly a lot more about this small day that felt sketchier than the larger Cloudbreak that had previously competed in. If we had run in the size we had on the first day, with the tide of the second day, I shudder to think of how may sailors might have had their gear truly shish kebab-ed. Day 3 might well have the gnarliest carnage of the trip as the tide and swell are lining up to put the riders in this precarious position.
You’ll know by now that I like putting my own personal experiences into these write-ups. This time around I’ll try to toe the line of discretion since, of course, the way I truly feel about losing in this competition won’t make for all that pleasant a read.
So what is it like exactly to lose a heat? Well, first you’ve got to find out what your result was. In this case, I wasn’t exactly thrilled with my heat but I was pretty confident that I’d squeaked into 2nd and had therefore advanced. I was actually so confident that I didn’t really check right away. I felt this nebulous sort of safety that, “yes the heat had been tough but it had been tough for everyone.” Sometimes it’s very difficult to keep track of the waves that your competitors are riding, and so you have to make assumptions. My assumption was that Ricardo was out in front from early on, roping into the few good sets that could really stretch out over the length of the reef, providing more opportunity to score, and more critical set of sections to wow the judges with. With him in first I had picked up the remaining scraps and put together a solid-enough heat to advance.
At some point you come down from the feeling of the heat, the light mental exhaustion of managing your stress, your timing, your competitive life that is born when the flag is hoisted, and slowly dies as the final minutes come to close. As breathing returns to normal, the mind centers again on the immediate and mundane, like whether you should back up and go home or prepare for more sailing. In my case it was a ‘pack up and go home’ situation, after finally I checked my Live Heats app and found out comically that, “oh, I lost!”
From that point you just gotta vent out the negativity for a minute. Luckily for me, Liam Dunkerbeck and I were in the same boat, both literally and figuratively as he had both been eliminated in the same heat. So we commiserated together for a while about how lackluster the conditions were, or how difficult it was to put together a good score. Of course the counter-argument to such talk is that the potential for scores clearly existed, as the heat winners made it happen. This was the perspective that Bjorn Dunkerbeck held -also sitting in our sad, wet, boat- and took to reminding us of it immediately. He wouldn’t let us wallow.
In the end the spirits of lost sailors don’t dampen very far. And how can they in Fiji of all places? Each goes into their private space for a moment or two, upon returning by boat to the villas. For me it was a long shower and a look at messages from home, encouraging ones help, but distracting ones are more effective for mitigating the blues. Being wrapped into the melodramas of friends and family members help to put into perspective the relatively low-stakes losses suffered in a windsurf contest. Thinking of equally arbitrary hardships being ridiculously overreacted to by people in their own little worlds, well it might as well be therapy.
In no time there’s the smell of food coming from the kitchen, people are coming out from their villas as night falls, the sunset hours enticing even the melancholy to turn their heads up. I join a table of friends: Kai Katchadorian and Jace Panebianco chatting about their respective art forms, heavy metal music and cinematography go together like Kai and Jace, and if you don’t know what that looks like then just hop onto YouTube to check out today’s Replay. There’s Paul van Bellen looking fried after a day of media work aboard the Thundercloud. I sit down and order my usual from the restaurant, chicken curry with garlic spinach. And behind me comes Federico who has also joined the loser’s club today, he looks for a seat at the table and I make one for him.
I’ve always liked Fede because his spirit is pure, he’s got a familiar softness that reminds me of others in my life who are genuine and kind. Fede and I engage in a little commiserating about each other’s losses, that’s what good sportsman do. But after a while it gets to sound, even to the both of us, a touch bitter, so we drop the subject and look around the room for something else to talk a bout, Fede orders a beer. It was a pleasant sort of surprise to see him pulling on an alcoholic beverage and I tell him so. After all, the last time I saw him drink was the end of the Punta San Carlos event in 2019 and, I remember then that he had said these exact words: “Last time I drank a beer I almost died and I think I’m allergic to it but here goes!” It’s worth noting we were then in the desert hours from a hospital, and there’s a similar risk at present here in Fiji! But Fede says he found out he wasn’t allergic a long time ago, and enjoys a beer once and while. It must be once in a long while because it’s only after about a half a beer that Federico becomes “Fun Fede”. Laughing and giggling about the silliest things, if you’d like to know then just have a look at Paul van Bellen’s YouTube channel in a few days when he’s posted Fede’s takes from that night.
It struck me as kind of funny then, as Federico and I both headed back to our villa for the night, remembering that just days ago Federico had one of his best standout performances in a heat, on probably the most high-profile event of the year. What did he do after beating out the likes of Brawzinho and Marc Paré? Did he party until dawn, get a tattoo? Did he even reach for his “once in a while” beer? No. He slept the entirety of the next day. He rested off what he said was a cold, insinuating that I had set his AC on too low through the night; but it was clear, to me at least, that he’d just been through a very emotional ordeal. I’ve been there before! Victory just takes the wind out of your sails. When everything you’ve been anticipating finally comes to fruition, there’s a massive release. A high that’s usually accompanied by a deep low. Odd then, how the reverse can also be true, that a loss, which should make one feel very much depressed, should induce a kind of silly and gooey feeling, erasing cares and lowering guards. Life is truly beautiful no matter how you play it, win or lose there are always upsides.
Take for example, the most winningest athlete in the history of professional sports, Bjorn Dunkerbeck. A man whom the windsurfing world both fears and reveres, a stoic destroyer. Well, he hasn’t won much in a while, not saying he doesn’t find little ways to be #1 in any given situation, but he’s at least learned to live with the fact that he is a mortal. A day like today, with marginal wind conditions and tiny waves, is enough to get him rigging and hoping, but the reality of his 15 minutes on the water isn’t glorious. But the waning terror in his facade reveals such a complexity of passion and a deep care for windsurfing, as well as windsurfers! I think it’s hard for people to remember, and for the younger generation to find out, that for Bjorn windsurfing was a family affair. His mother and father actually organized the events in the Canary Islands, centering them around the close-knit windsurfing community. Bjorn, I think, really values strong bonds, strong connections with people. He’ll approach you with such a rawness of intention and authenticity, coupled with a sharp intellect, and you’ll be thrown off guard, defensive even. But I think his meaning is to build, rapidly, a foundation of relation with you in the most immediate way possible: pure honesty.
Take me. The other day I scraped up my back pretty good on the reef at Cloudbreak and needed some wound care, I had packed a first aid kid but my Hydrogen Peroxide bottle had burst inside it, soaking my bandages and ointments, rendering most of it useless. I was out without anything, and for a whole day I walked around with a dry wound, picking up dirt; all manner of flies hovering around it just waiting to reap the rewards of my mismanagement. Bjorn practically assaulted me with a bottle of unknown liquid he claimed was good for “cell regeneration”, and I just chose to go with it, no other options being available. Actually, it’s been really effective, and I’m constantly hitting up Dr. Dunkerbeck for more of this healing spray. And it’s given everyone around here a pretty good chuckle to see 40x World Champion Bjorn Dunkerbeck gingerly operating a spritzer bottle, applying healing oils to my back with the pragmatic yet diligent softness of a trained nurse. But that urge to care is the nature of human beings, so why should it be so incredulous, given that Bjorn is a member of our race? Albeit a rare outlier in terms of athletic success. I’ve come to know Bjorn as a gentle Bear, a strong figure in the lives of many, a teacher, an encouraging presence. To see him teaching Fijian kids to sail in 3 knots of wind, inside the pacified waters of a lagoon; it’s quite a sight! It is as impressive as seeing him charging out to 10ft Cloudbreak. He tackles both tasks with equal Bjorn-ness, laser focus, no wasted motions. He operates kids onto windsurf boards like he’s majoring in robotics. He doesn’t compete to win but to support and promote our competition, what a cool way to use one’s success! In my opinion, losing -or rather a retirement from constantly winning- has brought some of the best qualities in Bjorn out to people like me, who might’ve never gotten the chance to see it.
Another word on Liam, son of Bjorn who is in every way a boy wonder, capable of becoming as much a champion as his father. Only in a wider range of sports. His surfing at Cloudbreak has been so cool to see, consistently riding with the timing and edge of a seasoned tour surfer. He’s comfortable in big waves, he knows his way around a barrel. And on the windsurfing side of things he’s a well-rounded mix between the jumping and waveriding sides of our sport. In this heat, Liam was out in front of me, for a while vying for 2nd with Antoine. But the nature of the day led to a big flip in the dying moments, where we all managed to rope into a set and shake up the scores. Liam was discouraged, coming aboard the boat in an exasperated huff. As I said before, Bjorn wouldn’t stand for us wallowing for long. But really, he did very encouragingly remind Liam of his strengths, how better to apply them next time, and what might be learned. This all reminded me the coach/athlete relationship I had with my dad, at times stressed, but always supportive. He speaks to Liam in Spanish too, which I think is funny, being this big Danish dude; maybe nothing that meaningful or symbolic but, to me, a sign of how a father learns to speak with his son in “his language”.
At the time this write-up is proofed and published, breakfast will be underway, all the remaining competitors will have their gear prepped and ready for the village longboats. We’ll all be gearing up for a long day of supporting our friends still in the contest. Here’s to seeing some great action in the Final!
Text by Bernd Roediger
Photos by Fish Bowl Diaries
For full event details, see InternationalWindsurfingTour.com/Fiji