Simon Dawkins topped the rankings for a decade. From his victory in the Under 19 World Championships in 1989, he continued to compete at National and International course and slalom racing events until the end of the 1999 season, becoming Inland National Champion, Raceboard National Champion, IMCO National Champion, two time North Sea European Cup Champion and IMCO European Course Racing Champion along the way!
We caught up with Simon to chat about life then and now – to find out what it was like to be a Pro and live the shortboard revolution, influence cutting-edge sail design and see what advice he could give any aspiring racers who are thinking of competing alongside Simon and his contemporaries in the NWF Blast from the Past Pro Am Slalom!
When and how did you start windsurfing? What do you love most about windsurfing?
In 1972 I was born in to sailing small keelboats with my family around the Solent where I grew up, but it wasn’t until a windsurfer came in to my life aged 10 that my passion for a new type of sailing was literally set free. As a skinny young lad, the sensation of standing on the water and moving along on my own instantly grabbed me and from that point on I thought about nothing else but emulating everything I was seeing in the early windsurfing magazines.
How did you get into competition? What disciplines did you compete in and what titles did you win?
For the next 4 years, I spent pretty much all my free time, rain or shine, wind or no wind, teaching myself to sail up and down, tacking and gybing, first on a longboard and then on a short board, before signing on to an RYA youth race training week at Bewl reservoir. Armed with my F2 Strato and first camber induced sail, my passion all of a sudden encompassed a new element – the thrill of beating people! I continued to race at Bewl over the winter, sometimes having to wait for the ice to be broken up before launching, and club racing at Worthing the following year. I entered my first BFA (the fore runner of the UKWA) national course and slalom racing event at Worthing in 1987 aged 15. This was the first time I had come face to face with my magazine superstar pro’s, such as Peter Hart, Dave Hackford, Mark Woods, Dave Perks, Duncan Coombs, Dee Caldwell, Steve Keightley, and many more. I believe the entry list had over 200 sailors on it, whilst every brand had its own team area and the beach was packed with spectators. I know it’s easy to look back with rose tinted glasses, but windsurfing really was exploding around this time, and as if blessed from on high, every event seemed to be sunny and windy! I was racing in the Youth fleet with the amateurs, but it was a certain 17 year old youth called Nicholas Baker that really seemed to know what he was doing!
I spent the next two seasons honing my skills, until the newly promoted Pro Nik Baker left me to clean up in the Youth Fleet and win the Overall National Youth trophy in 1989, beating such future champions as Mike Birt, Adrian Bacon, Ant Baker and Jamie Hawkins. I followed that up the next year by winning the Under 19 World Championships along with my first overall BFA pro fleet win at West Wittering, putting all my 1987 superstar pro’s behind me!
I continued to compete at National and International course and slalom racing events until the end of the 1999 season, becoming Inland National Champion, Raceboard National Champion, IMCO National Champion, two time North Sea European Cup Champion and IMCO European Course Racing Champion along the way.
The kit in the ‘90s was very different. What challenges did this throw up? You are now a custom sail maker; how has sail design and technology changed over the years?
The big revolution in my time was the overnight switch from course racing in high winds on long boards to short boards. I distinctly remember Duncan Coombs, who was more of a wave/slalom sailor, rocking up at the BFA in Bognor in 1990 and winning a pro course race in 25 knots of wind by a whole leg on his slalom board! It had first been done on the World Tour the year before by French sailor Eric Thieme, who was also not a course racing specialist, but this really brought it home to roost and meant everybody had to learn a new way to course race in unrestricted events. The manufacturers also had to jump on it and as a Mistral sailor, boards like the Equipe quickly gave way to the Explosion, which is really what eventually lead to the wide Formula boards we see today.
In terms of sails, this instantly meant we needed bigger and bigger loose leech planing sails to power wider and wider boards in lighter and lighter winds, so as a sail maker, sail development was relentless at this time. By 1995, pretty much none of the top sailors were even bringing a longboard to a BFA event, which in hindsight was a shame, but at the time, longboards were dead.
What is the fastest speed you have ever done on a board?
I never really competed in speed events, but I was once commissioned by Graeme Fuller to produce a 7m speed sail on a 1.3m boom! The idea was he wanted a sail to match the aspect ratio of a fin. I took it to the Weymouth Speed Week in 2008 and posted an unofficial speed of 32 kts. That doesn’t sound very fast by today’s standards, but the wind angle was tight and Dunkerbeck won the event with a speed of 36 kts on a standard aspect sail, so we ditched the ultra high aspect idea after that.
How do you prepare and psyche up for a race?
I haven’t competed now for 15 years, but back at my peak, I just went out knowing I could win, so I didn’t need to do anything to psychologically boost that. I was however meticulous with my kit preparation. Everything was marked up with a sweet spot and I would always turn up to an event at least a day early to rig for every eventuality and check out the local conditions.
What is your experience of the NWF? What do you think of the Pro-Am Slalom event planned for this year? Do you have anyone in your sights or any old grudges to put to bed?!
I love the idea of a festival to showcase watersports rather than an event to see who’s best, but the concept will be totally alien to me. I can’t wait to see some of the old names again and I’m sure a few old rivalries will come out when we hit the water! Look out all you Am’s, it could get ugly!
Do you have any training or tactical tips for NWF competitors taking part in the Master Blasters?!
It’s all about the start, get away first, stay in clean air, sheet in hard and stay on in the gybes – simples!
One of the stunning Tradewinds launch photos captured by Alex Williams in Fuerteventura
Being a windsurfing pro and getting paid to do what we love seems like a dream to most of us. What positive or negative effects does having the sport you love as both your pleasure and your work have on your enjoyment of the sport?
I windsurf now purely for the love of it and it is the perfect way to de-stress and re-energize, but it wasn’t always that way. I remember coming home from an event once in a really bad mood because I had ‘lost’. In reality, it had been a fantastic weekend away in a beautiful place with blue skies and strong winds and I had come second out of a hundred or so people, but my competitive side didn’t see it that way. It was then I realized I hadn’t sailed at my local beach just for fun all year, so I did that the next day and tried to remember what I loved about windsurfing rather than competing. I can’t speak for all professional sports people, but that was a lesson quickly learnt for me – if your passion to win overtakes your passion for the sport itself, it won’t be long before you’re left without any passion.
Following your 1990 under 19 World Championship Title you started in sailmaking with Tushingham Sails and have since set up your own loft, SD Sails. Talk us through how this all came about.
Having been on the Mistral Carlsberg Team as a youth sailor (which was a bit controversial at the time due to the alcohol/age issue), I signed with Tushingham Sails just before the event, so to come back with a World Title was definitely a good start! The move to Tushingham wasn’t just about a new sponsor though, it was employment and a chance for a career beyond competing, but despite knowing what a good sail felt like, I had no idea how to make one! I was trained in sail making by an old guy called Chris Bowler, who was a keen dinghy sailor, but had never windsurfed in his life, despite having just purchased the Tushingham brand name from Roger Tushingham himself. So day one in the office after the World Championships, I was given the task of updating the World Cup Race range, which at the time consisted of just 4 sizes, 7.5, 6.5, 5.8 and 5.1. Knowing what I know now about product development, I should have taken the easy option and just tweaked and tuned the existing sails that had just won me a world title and made some cosmetic changes, but having just been shown how to design and make a sail, I started totally afresh and made a brand new 7.5 that embodied all the things I thought were cool. In hindsight, there was nothing too revolutionary about this sail except I added an idea I had to round the foot off just to make it look even cooler! At the time I had no idea how lucky I was that it rigged up nicely first time, but full of bravado, I set about creating all the other sizes as well as a 4.8 and an 8.5 so I had a full quiver. The first outing was BFA Worthing 1991, where, incredibly, I won my first ever round of pro slalom racing and got a double page spread in Boards Mag showing off this perfectly crisp, round footed pink sail to perfection! The Tushingham phone lines rang off the hook after that and these prototypes went on to become the production 1992 World Cup Race range and also spawned the recreational Eclipse, the second sail range I ever designed, which became one of Tushingham’s all-time best sellers! It’s a little known fact that the rounded foot used in both those ranges had no performance benefit, but it was what everyone commented on and pretty much all the major brands then followed suit.
The following season, I set about updating the race range again, and I created what was eventually named the Airforce. As before, I rather naively started completely afresh with this sail, but as luck would have it, on it’s first prototype outing at Marazion 1993, all four members of the Tushingham race team, Dave Hackford, Peter Hart, Adrian Bacon and myself, were one, two, three and four respectively round the first windward mark on it, so that was another great PR moment.
During the development process of this sail though, Chris Bowler decided he wanted to sell the business to retire and offered me a deal to buy the business aged just 20. I thought long and hard about this, but despite my initial enthusiasm, everyone advised me against buying a British manufacturing business in the teeth of an oncoming recession. However, during that decision-making process, the original owner Roger Tushingham popped up as an interested party, and to cut a long story short, he decided to buy the company back but close the UK loft and outsource the manufacturing to China. This made my decision to go in to business for myself much easier as he offered me the chance to set up a new sail loft to take on all the Tushingham repair business as well as finish the development of the Airforce range.
Whilst this move went well, Tushingham understandably didn’t want to rest all their potential future success on a 20 year old rookie who went sailing every chance he had, so during this restructuring phase, Ken Black came in to work on the rest of the product range and eventually took over as their full time designer.
I was obviously disappointed at the time to move on, but it left me with my own business that had a healthy turnover from repair work and a load of new ideas for my next set of race sails, so I quickly made the decision to make them under a new name. In 1994 I launched my new brand Tradewinds and hired legendary surfing photographer Alex Williams for a week’s photo shoot in Fuerteventura. The results of that photo shoot still hang in pride of place in my office today. Like the race sails I had made before, the development of these new sails gave me some fantastic results on the racecourse, which peaked in 1997 when I was the overall top pro slalom sailor in the UK.
Being a sail maker on an independent sail brand also lead me to becoming Test Editor at Windsurf Magazine for 5 years. This worked well from both sides as not only did they get a deeper insight in to the kit, but I was paid to try out all my rivals’ sails, pick my favourite boards to race on and get 6 weeks winter training on the water!
I had 10 good years of making my own sails, which peaked at about 100 a year, which isn’t bad going for a one-man-band, but I couldn’t see a long-term future in it unless I gambled with going to China like Tushingham had done.
However, another door was already opening up for me making ‘shade’ sails rather than windsurfing sails. These are colourful flat sails originally from Australia that you mainly see in school playgrounds over sandpits and picnic benches. They seemed rather basic at first, but as one of the only people making them in the UK, demand grew from commercial customers rather than private individuals and they soon became the lifeblood of the business. 12 years on, I now employ 9 people in premises 10 times the size and we have built over 20,000 shade sails and architectural canopies to date.
You made custom sails, what is a custom windsurfing sail and what is the application?
Going back to the windsurfing days, the custom sail was really just a hand made sail, cut and stitched by one person, much like a custom board is shaped and laminated by one person rather than in a mould. Some customers would have various things tweaked from the standard patterns, but on the whole, people just played with colour schemes to stand out from the crowd.
One of the last Tradewinds designs in mid-winter action at Littlehampton
What qualities from windsurfing competition help in business?
Being a happily married father of two now, I can’t tell you how beneficial I think it is for any teenager to discover a sporting passion early and grow up competing in that field, no matter what it is or at what level. But competing doesn’t just make you good at your sport, it also teaches you good sportsmanship, meaning to take defeat graciously and learning from it, which is a good life skill in any situation. For me, business is exactly the same as competitive sport – if you strive to be your best and respect colleagues and customers the same, success will follow. On a personal level, besides the obvious health benefits that a love for sport gives you, devoting yourself to one sport also gives you a sense of belonging that lasts a life time – I don’t just go sailing, I am a sailor.
What other sports do you enjoy and what do you get out of them?
I learnt to ski around the same age I started windsurfing, and that has been another life long passion of mine. I have never competed in it and I only get to do it for one week every year, but I am totally awestruck by the mountains every time I go. As well as sailing windsurfers, I also sail dinghies, which has taken on a whole new meaning now I can share the sailing bug with my kids. Again I don’t compete in it, but I just love the scenery and atmosphere connected with it. I also dabble with a bit of golf, but sometimes I do feel a bit like a fish out of water!
What are your best and worst windsurfing experiences?
My best windsurfing experiences have definitely been winning major competitions. It’s not just the winning though, it’s the fact that for me, the win is the culmination of everything coming together perfectly to make the sailing almost effortless. The pinnacle of this would have to be my win at the Under 19 World Championships.
I don’t really have a worst experience, but I certainly have a regret. In 1991, I was the National Champion on the Olympic IMCO board going in to the Europeans at Guernsey. That was a perfect event for me, sunny and windy all week and I won 8 out of the 10 course races. Right on my heels in every race that week was a guy called Tony Philp who had travelled all the way from Fiji to compete. However, despite the confidence I had on that board at the time, I only saw the IMCO fleet as a training ground for the Raceboard Class and I had no interest in the Olympics. It wasn’t until the following summer that I heard the name Tony Philp again, as he was tussling right at the front of the Olympic fleet in Barcelona, eventually finishing 10th. I don’t think it was until I sat watching the sailing at the London Olympics in 2012 that I started to kick myself for not trying out for the GBR place at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, just for the experience of it if nothing else.
Who do you most admire among your contemporaries in the sport, then and now? Who inspired you most?
Without a doubt, as with most people who were windsurfing in the 80’s and early 90’s, Robby Naish was and in my opinion always will be the king. Not only did he dominate international events for 13 years in all three disciplines, he pioneered technique and equipment and has continued that success in business, whilst still finding the time to raise a family and get on the water everyday – incredible!
With my interest in sailing as well as windsurfing, I am also a huge admirer of what Ben Ainslie has and is achieving on and off the water.
Describe which windsurfing move you found the most difficult to master and why?
There is a ridiculous array of freestyle moves today that I wouldn’t even dream of trying, but in my day, the forward loop was the ultimate in cool! I remember my good friend Jamie Hawkins going off to Hawaii as a teenager and word came back that he was looping off everything. We first met on the beach at Angmering sailing together when I was 11 and he was 10. We have been close friends ever since, but it’s fair to say neither of us wanted to be outdone by the other, so I had to do something about this before he came back! I remember hammering across the water on my slalom kit in Portland Harbour trying to pluck up the courage to throw myself round the front. To my great relief, I swam my first effort round in to a waterstart and kept trying all day until I felt confident enough to brag on the beach ‘yeah, I can do them’!
Where is your favourite / local spot to sail? What would your fantasy windsurfing day be?
I spent most of my competition days training around Worthing, Shoreham and Littlehampton, so they certainly hold a special place in my heart. I recently bought a long board again having not sailed one for 20 years, and it felt so good to experience railing again! I also used to train as part of the RYA Youth Squad out of Hayling Island Sailing Club, but to sail around the harbour now admiring the beauty of it rather than concentrating on my performance and competitors is just fantastic.
Despite travelling far and wide on the competition circuit though, I’ve never been to Hawaii, so it is my dream of mine to sail at Hookipa one day!
What is your goal now?
I have to say, I am very content with where I am right now and enjoy a really good work/life balance. I would love to get back in to some kind of competitive sailing at some point in the future, but on/in what remains to be seen! I have recently reacquainted with an old friend of mine, Phil Oligario, who moved from windsurfing, through kiting and on to foiling Moths. I have been doing a bit of work with him recently on his sails and I am getting seriously tempted to join him – those things are mad!
SD Sails can be contacted at httphttp://www.sdsails.co.uk