As hurricane-force winds batter parts of the UK, the Met Office has just issued the first ‘Red’ warning of the winter – and there is more to come.
“Is it safe?” – if you are not Laurence Olivier wielding a dentist’s drill to incentivise an answer from Dustin Hoffmann in the film Marathon Man, you could be an intermediate wondering whether you can get your wintery, windy, watery fix by taking advantage of the awesome wind and waves brought to Britain by these Atlantic storms. After all, it’s not actually that cold, is it?!

“It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good” – amid 10m waves and 70mph winds, the final round of the Red Bull Storm Chase has just taken place in Cornwall. Clearly conditions like this are not for the faint hearted – nor the amateur! PWA World Champion Marcilio ‘Brawzhino’ Browne claimed second place, with Thomas Traversa winning the competition with spectacular aerials and masterful ripping on 35 foot waves. Klaas Voget did admit that the conditions were “pretty hard to handle for the guys, even though they are some of the best windsurfers in the world.”

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So what do you do if you are not No1 in the world? An epithet that has served me well through all my dabblings with extreme sports is “If you look at it and think you’re going to die, you probably will!” It is clearly good advice – well I am here to tell the tales aren’t I?! But if you want a little more objective detail on how to stay safe while getting your winter wind fix in weather conditions that Klaas described as “rare – even on a global scale” – NWF is here to help.
In extreme conditions, particularly in winter, a bad situation can get out of hand very quickly, so here are 10 tips to help you stay safe on the water if you decide to brave the winter gales.

1. Before you go, check the weather and the tides. A seemingly small 1 Beaufort increase actually means that the power of the wind has DOUBLED! Be realistic about the conditions that you can cope with. If in doubt, don’t go out!

2. If conditions worsen, be prepared to change your plans or bail. “I’ve driven all the way here, rigged and wriggled into my wetsuit, so I am b****y well going out…” could prove to be a life-threatening strategy!

3. Use kit that is suitable for the conditions – you will need small kit to cope with extreme conditions, but can you get it home if there is a problem? Always go back to shore before you even begin to feel tired.

4. Check that your kit is up to the job. Inspect for damage, wear or cracks, particularly on UJs, pulleys and boom clamps. Replace frayed or damaged lines immediately. Ensure the rig, fin and board are all securely connected together…!

5. Wear appropriate protective clothing. You may want to consider wearing a helmet, particularly in stronger winds, when hard things and heads are much more likely to collide. Cold water is a killer – a wetsuit suitable for the season is a must. (For tips on winter sailing check out my blog http://nationalwatersportsfestival.com/hot-tips-for-a-cool-spring/)

6. Never go out alone. If you do get into difficulty, a buddy can help you out or raise the alarm.

7. Have a plan – things can and do go wrong unexpectedly. How will you get back to shore if you are injured or your kit fails? Make sure you know (and practise!) self-rescue and how to effect temporary kit repairs. Whatever happens, NEVER leave your board – it will keep you afloat.

8. Don’t be a hero. NEVER put yourself at risk trying to rescue someone, but do act fast. Even if you only think you might be getting into a sticky situation, raise the alarm and get help immediately. The recognised distress signal is to raise and lower outstretched arms. An orange, dayglo flag (available from the RYA) tucked in the pocket at the back of your harness can be quickly whipped out and waved to attract attention. To call the Coastguard – dial 999.

9. Choose your launch spot wisely. Waves won’t be so wild in a harbour or lake and there is less risk of being washed out to sea. (Keep well clear of harbour entrances, where the tidal pull is strong, however.) On the sea, the tidal pull is least about an hour either side of high tide, although the shore-break could be interesting. 3-4 hours after high- or low-tide, the tide could be running faster than you can sail and drag you out to sea. You will have heard this before, but I am going to say it again – never launch in an offshore wind!

10. Even if you are familiar with the launch spot, be mindful that in challenging conditions, there could be unfamiliar hazards. For example shifting sand banks, stronger-than-usual rip currents, shore break or collision hazards from floating or submerged flood debris. I won’t say the S word, but with overflowing drains, water quality could be an issue…!

I am going to finish with a cautionary tale from a friend’s sailing diary. He is an AWESOME sailor and was at his local beach, where he has sailed literally HUNDREDS of times over many years, but skill, familiarity and experience did not stop him getting into a LOT of trouble one 4.5m day…

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Red Bull Storm Chase Mission 3 Cornwall

“First time out in weeks due to other commitments. There was a good swell and with all the flooding locally the high tide was right up the beach. I was a bit unfit after about 6 weeks absence but had a great time for a while, some nice waves and good jumps. Then I came in for a rest and if I’d packed up it would probably have been a great day. Instead I went to go back out and totally mistimed it and got caught out. At this point I could probably still have made it out of harm’s way but stupidly decided I could get my board up the right way and get on before the next break. I did, but far too slowly and then found myself heading into a wall of white with no speed whatsoever. After a good rinsing I got spat up the beach but pulled out by the undertow again before I could even get up and was back out of my depth. As I started to swim back for the shore at least I could see my kit had washed quite high, out of harm’s way, well almost. Then I got picked up by an even bigger break and somehow ended up on top of my kit and sucked back out again. A couple more rinsings and I found myself under the sail being pushed along the sand. The exfoliation is good for the face, or so I’m told, unfortunately the friction was too much, my jaw wouldn’t stay closed and I ended up eating quite a bit of sand. I finally made it out of the sea, coughing up half the beach while a couple of friends helped me rescue my kit. I felt such a muppet, it’s so long since I’ve been caught out this badly by a bit of shorebreak that I’d forgotten it ever happened. Then I found out the shorebreak had also claimed a friends board and sadly, for someone else a broken leg.”

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Red Bull Storm Chase Mission 3 Cornwall Pic By Si Crowther
It is certainly a shock when what is friendly and familiar turns deadly – and it highlights that, however experienced you are, you can never lower your guard. Have all the fun that there is to be had out there, but remember to take care. Respect Mother Nature – and you will live to sail another day!
Jackie Lambert

Check out the Official Red Bull Storm Chase Mission 3 Video

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