Speed windsurfing is dominated by big powerful guys, the likes of Bjorn Dunkerbeck and Antoine Albeau, so how can a non-professional women, weighing the same 75KG (ish) as your average recreational sailor, ever hope to compete let alone beat them at their own game? Boardseeker catches up with Zara Davis who has just returned from Luderitz, Namibia where she not only broke the women’s windsurfing record, but she upset quite a few of the men as well.
"I have been windsurfing since I was 13 years of age. Initially taught by my father, in Bristol docks. After a long break I took it up again in 1995 at Brogborough lake where I met my now husband Pete and I started racing in 1999 and had reasonable national success in the UK with Formula and Slalom disciplines winning the UKWA women’s Slalom championships in 2000. But In 2004 I turned my attention to the resurgence of Speedsailing, having always had good board speed I entered Weymouth speed week and won it. The following year Pete my husband persuaded me to go to Sotavento for a Speed world cup competition and came 5th in the world and I was hooked. I had found my niche.
I have since moved up the women’s ranking and I am now number one in the world. I have won the European championships 3 times and I hold 2 official women’s world speed records, the outright Nautical mile record and last year the world windsurfing 500m record at 45.83 knots. It’s not been easy being women in a man’s windsurfing world. But the combination of being over 6 foot tall and my love of adrenaline that speed gives me, is a huge natural advantage. I am not a full time sailor like most of my competitors, my full time job is Osteopath and businesswomen running Walnut Grove Clinic a multi disciplinary medical clinic near Bristol, which unfortunately keeps me off the water much more than I would like.
I make up for my lack of time on the water (why is it always windy when I have a patient booked in?) by weight training with my coach Dan and triathlon training with local club PAC tri. This keeps up a good level of general fitness but on the water is always the best so I get out locally wave sailing at Weston Super Mare and when the forecast is good speedsailing at West Kirby and Weymouth whenever I can. The biggest difference that I made this year was upping my weight training. I deliberately bulked up muscle for this event which really helped in holding a bigger sail and allowed me to carry extra lead on the run. Extra weight really helps with momentum in the lulls. Lighter sailors get on the plane quicker for sure but on a speed strip that is not an issue as you are coming in at full speed anyway the big gains come in the lulls on the course and extra weight gives you that inertia to plane through the lulls. This made a big difference to me at this event for sure and I “Chicked" a few of the guys, much to their displeasure.
Most speed equipment in the past has been developed by big, strong men. That went for boards, sails and fins. In recent years however I have found better equipment that suits me and is much more user friendly which has really helped. So much so, that my latest women’s world 500m record was done on a production Mistral speed board. The sails were production Simmer SCR’s and off the shelf Sonntag fins. All readily available to everyone.
One equipment tip I will give you for your own sails, if you are lighter like me, is to get your sails to breath better. What do I mean by that? It’s the sails ability to open at the leach, exhausting power progressively for your given weight. Most people would just load on more downhaul to make the leech looser, this can help but can also flatten the belly of the sail giving less shape and more unstable feel. The best option is to try a softer mast and see if that works. If you don’t have one, and most of us don’t! A cost effective option, is to try a shorter mast which will have a lower IMCS with a longer extension, this effectively softens the mast overall. Making the sail more yielding and able to breath and open at lower wind strengths.
In technique terms I have to make up for my lack of overall strength and power the men have by being more agile on the board. Gliding better through the lulls is a definite skill to learn. On a 500m course the wind is never 100% all the way down and you have had to learn very quickly where the gusts and most importantly the lulls are. Weight as I said earlier helps but the technique of keeping board speed through the lulls is the just as important, if you get it wrong the effect on your average speed over the half a kilometre can be dramatic. The skill here is to feel when the wind is decreasing, you subtly bring your weight forward in the harness bending you front leg slightly but keep your arms straight and body outboard. Then when the next gust next hits, you have not lost too much momentum and speed, so the gust doesn’t hit you as hard. You can then move back in the harness put more weight in to your heels, which avoids the tendency to open up the sail, making the most of the full power the new gust can give you.
Mental attitude has never been an issue to me. I think I must have it in my genes. My father was an amateur rally driver who used the old rally formula of “if in doubt go flat out" and it seems to have rubbed off on me.
If you talk to anyone who sails with me, fear has never been a factor in my sailing. Trust me you have to be confident to sail a board at over 50 mph down a canal no wider than a single track road. Sometimes I come off worse for wear with a few injuries over the years I broke all my foot in Walvis bay in 2007 and needed two operations to rebuild it, bruised my liver in Karpathos when I crashed on the boom and in Luderitz this year I cut my head and needed 7 stitches then 6 days later banged my board against my shin and needed another 30 stitches. But I am competing at the extreme end of our sport and I would not want anyone put off by what I do. I have recovered well from the injuries and the majority of speed sailors out there go through their whole life with no injuries at all. Believing you can do it is half the battle; When Anders Bringdal broke 50 knots for the 1st time on the 4th day. Ten minutes later Antoine went 0.2 of a knot faster. The two days later in the same wind strength with the same equipment these two went over 51 knots and five riders all went over 50 knots. Why? Because they believed it could now be done on a windsurfer.
The payback from speed sailing is many fold and you don’t have to have specialist speed kit or have super flat water either. With modern GPS units you can see immediately the speed s you are achieving and compare these with your mates for bragging rights ( or ribbing) and if you want you can upload them to various websites to see how you did in various categories such as your area, age group etc etc. You also learn new skills by pushing the limits of your equipment and technique finding how to get that extra speed out of you and your kit. How often when I am talking to people around the country about speed sailing and they are very keen to know how to go faster. They admit they have never moved the footstrap position on their board to see what would happens or tried more downhaul to see if the sail worked better. The potential for more speed is always there you just need to try. Ask yourself how fast can I go?
What next for me? Well I need to decide do I want to do it again this year. Or do I take a break and hang my world record on the wall? The frustrating thing is on the day I set the record the next run down the course I cut my leg badly and had to go to hospital. When I left the site my close completion was about two and a half knots slower than me and the day got better and better and they all improved by about two knots so potentially I could have been knocking on the door of 48 knots if I had been on the water. So I defiantly have some unfinished business in Luderitz. Can a women go over 50 knots on a windsurfer?
This has got to be my next target......... hasn’t it? What’s yours?
Zara is sponsored by Mistral, Simmer Sails, Sonntag, Spartan and Walnut Grove Clinic.