Meet the Team: Aaron Smith
Introducing OTC Team Rider Aaron Smith, freestyle wizard. You won't meet many windsurfers that have sailed their way around the world like Aaron. When he says windsurfing is his life, he really means it! The ultimate free spirit, going where the wind blows him. In this insightful interview Aaron opens up about his nomadic life, spontaneous adventures and having a blast! In windsurfing Aaron found his calling, proudly championing the freestyle discipline, moving up the ranks from instructor to trainer, always striving to land the next trick, determined to push himself out of his comfort zone, consistently trying to be the best version of himself and living his best life! Welcome to the team!
By Emma Nicholson
I started off by asking Aaron when did he first try windsurfing and what interested him about windsurfing? Aaron said: "My first time ever on a board was during a Mark Warner holiday aged seven-ish. I don't remember it much, but there is some photo evidence somewhere! However, it wasn't until I was 15/16 watching the windsurfers blasting up and down the harbour that it really got my attention."
Can you talk me through your windsurfing journey, right from the beginning, up to today? Aaron said: "I would say my windsurfing journey actually started in a sailing boat, racing Optimists and then Lasers through the RYA squad systems and competing all around the world for ten years this gave me some excellent wind awareness and led me to Hayling Island Sailing Club.
"After watching the windsurfers I also befriended a few and would beg borrow and steal anything I could to get out on the water. Certainly not something I would recommend as I would go from a big 200l board in eight knots of wind thinking I was the best ever, to a 110l in 20 knots the following day and needing to be rescued, but I loved every minute and would never turn down an opportunity to have a go.
"It was on a family holiday to Egypt with Mark Warner at around 17 my mother looked at the instructors and asked if thats something I might like to do when I left school (don't think I was showing much promise in anything else). 'Ugh' was probably my responce, but actually, it seemed like she could be onto something.
"I was still sailing my Laser every spare moment, but over the next few years I started losing my love of competitive sailing and I got myself qualified to teach both sailing and windsurfing to see if that love could be brought back in the form of coaching/instructing. I signed up to three months in Sardinia with Mark Warner in the summer of 2012 with the aim of having free use of all the windsurf kit and using that to progress as far as possible.
"Off I went and it was here I finally got blasting in both straps, the harness, my first water start and the first attempts of some gybes. It was a summer of immense fun both on and off the water, my aim was certainly well achieved, but most importantly I was absolutely hooked on the sport! and I found a job I quite enjoyed in the process. Returning to the UK I spent all my savings on a nice 106 litre freeride board along with a 4.7 and 5.4 to see me through the winter.
"Coaching sailing at weekends and when it was windy staying with one of the windsurfers I had befriended which by now was now a very good friend who was 'at uni' (not sure he went once) we would be out on every good forecast, and what a winter it was, felt like we were on the water three or four days a week.
"Somehow I survived the winter with only a 3:2mm back zip wetsuit, another thing I would definitely not recommend! Head down to The OTC and get yourself a proper warm suit, it really is day and night and will make those cold winter sessions bearable and maybe even enjoyable.
"During this time we both applied for Wildwind in Vassiliki Greece in search of even stronger winds. Off we went, what was to become the start of a five year chapter. Making the most of Vassiliki's consistantly inconsistant winds every possible moment was spent on the water windsurfing and watching the Club Vass boys next door throwing down the latest freestyle moves meant the only clear path from here on was freestyle.
"So I got myself a freestyle board, a 4.2 which is need for Vass and began a long summer of crashes which eventually resulted to my first few vulcans. At this point every decision i was making of what to do with my winters/future was to get maximum water time and improving my windsurfing. The winter months were spent earning money for and going on windsurf trips to Dahab/Cape Town along with one winter working in New Zealand, but only after checking it was a windy part of the country!
"All with the focus mainly on freestyle and endless crashes later started getting a few moves under my belt, flakas, funnels, esiders and forward loops and getting close to the power moves but trying to learn the next move kept the motivation to go out and crash as high as ever.
"Cape Town also introduced me to some waves. Whilst a huge amount of fun its fair to say I was in the deep end, at one point ending up between two rocks at Cape Point and breaking every batten in my sail, my boom, my board and mast in five places. But this only really affected my bank balance and as soon as I could I would get back out there for some more punishment.
"The waves were a big eye opener and something I would certainly like to pursue a little more in the future, but my focus was still heavily on the freestlye at the point, and with six months spent in Vass the opportunities were slim. And yes Wildwind is a sailing place, however when it is too windy for sailing it becomes perfect windsurf weather, so the two compliment themseles quite nicely. I also found out Tris himself had worked at Wildwind many years ago, when I met him there for the first time over a game of flip flop golf, but that's a story for another day.
"After five years I was ready for a change and had an opportunity in Lake Garda, Italy. Although I had never been there I had heard endless stories about the place from the sailing world. I still took the time to confirm these stories by watching every Garda windsurfing video I could find on youtube to ensure its a place I would be happy to go. It's fair to say I wasn't disappointed, the place is a wind machine.
"So I headed out to Lake Garda to work for the Andrew Simpson Centres Lake Garda (which I would end up running) was the next five year chapter opening up for me. The step up in job meant a little less water time for myself, but I found that less water time actually motivated me more to push myself when I got the chance to go and helped me get through what I felt had been a little plateau in my windsurfing in the previous 12 months.
"Trying a few moves I had been a bit scared of in the past, I quickly started landing my first ponches which kept the flame burning to just get out there and try as that's the only way you'll ever get there, and anyway whats the worst that can happen!
"Another month in Cape Town over the winter ended with wht had felt like some of the biggest progression I had made to date from a trip. Three new moves landed and many current ones improved it was my best trip to date and left more more motivated than ever. Sadly to answer my own question of 'whats the worst that can happen?', shortly after returning from Cape down a bad ponch landing left me with a broken ankle.
"Luckily no operation needed but three months on crutches and plenty of physio to follow I'd have to keep that motivation on hold. Whilst I was back free styling after eight months, if I'm being honest it was 20 months before I felt 100% confident again. During those twelve months one slightly akward landing would put on end to my session and although it always felt fine the next day, the risk was never worth it.
"That break was March 2019 and 20 months later was coming upto November 2020. Something happened in 2020, can't remember excactly what... but the UK was going into some sort of lockdown and with my mum asking me 'what I was going to do for three months?'. I'll just go to Egypt. I joked, but she said it was a great idea and I should definitely go. So I booked a flight 48 hours I flew to Dahab on a one way ticket.
"No restrictions and four days a week of wind with temperatures in the low-mid 20's it turned out to be one of the best life decisions I'd ever made and what was about to become my best winter ever. There was a small English crowd of seven of us who were there for the winter who pushed each other on the water followed by a few beers after. This push, the consistent regular conditions, which are the same everyday and the very cheap cost of living provided the perfect playground to work on some new moves and really up your personal level.
"Starting to land burners consistently and add some extra 360s onto the power moves I could already do it was more progress than I expected. When I finally booked my flight home the forecast showed the following ten days as nothing but four metre weather. This first world problem required a first world solution, so I cancelled and re-booked my flight ten days later.
"This didn't disappoint and landing my first air skopus followed by my first shakas (a move that I struggled for years and years to get my head around) was really the icing on the cake for this trip. I had always been told that trips like this were the best way to make the biggest progress in your windsurfing and this trip confirmed that 100%! Another summer spent in Garda, a much shorter season than we would have liked I headed to the Caribbean island of Turks and Caicos helping a small centre out here grow for the 2021-2022 winter.
"Constant trade winds of around 12-18 knots mean it is a little on the light side but the good days are enough for 5.2, a size I've always struggled with and in the past changed down to 4.8 as soon as possible, but out here in waist - shoulder deep water and board shorts, its fair to say that it grew on me a little bit.
"My intention was to leave Turks, with a quick month, six weeks in the UK before heading back to Garda. But at the last minute the forecast for Dahab to have four metre weather all day everyday for the foreseeable forecast meant a quick last minute trip to Dahab. What was meant to be a week turned into 20 days as the wind just refused to stop... but as per the pervious winter, the consistency of having the same conditions everyday led to some big progress. Two new moves landed in the first week, it was everything I could have hoped for and more.
"With things happening again in the world I headed back to Garda where there was an EFPT event just down the road, eight hours drive to Vieste. I decided to make the journey as competing internationally had always been a dream, but something I never thought possible. The winds were light and I struggled to get planning, but was happy with the moves I landed when I had some speed, it also confirmed what the commentators always say about how easy the best make the conditions look... it was not easy by any means and yet the best landed the moves they always do. A great experience, well worth the journey and i'll by keeping a close eye on the 2023 calender! "Finishing off in Garda a quick drive back home and four days later I was on a flight to Brazil, the infamous Jericoacoara, a place I had wanted to go since 2014 and eight years later I had finally made it. First two weeks were not great unfortunatly illness limited me quite heavily and after nearly a week barely leaving my room I was ready to go again. Jeri offers everything from the waves in the town itself, to river mouths with mirror flat water and rain filled lagoons all accessible by dune buggy, or some surfing on the lighter wind days.
"As well as the excitement of a new spot I also had a new board under my feet, the Tabou Twister 103 I had just picked up from The OTC. Whilst I have to be honest the spot in Jeri itself wasn't quite what I was hoping for in terms of jumping, along with being heavily crowded, the lagoon trips more than made up for this. Fully powered up on small sails and a mix of small chop/flat water, trying to unlock an extra bounce on landing turned out to be the biggest achievment, which the board was certainly aiding.
"From here a sleep on Miami airport floor before arrving again in Turks for the winter. I can now also try out the 4.8/5.2 sails I picked up from The OTC (smaller sizes coming Easter), as Brazil was all 4.0/4.4 weather. Trade winds have been a little light since i arrived but one session already on the 5.2 (a size I mentioned earlier I wasn't a fan of) and already I can feel the difference, I'm now just refreshing Windguru twice a day waiting for my next session..
"Reading this back I see it's more my life story than windsurf journey, but since I got blasting for the first time its fair to say windsurfing has been my life... and a fun one at that!"
What does it mean to become an OTC Team Rider? Aaron said: "It's a great moment honestly. Having put my life into the sport for so long it feels great to get a little bit of recognition back for that. Especially from The OTC who even after a challenging few years are going from strength to strength and are super ambitious, I've also known Tris for a fair few year now and he's always been the absolute professional. It's a great combination for a company and the GA/Tabou gear is working great so I'm really grateful for the opportunity and excited to see what happens next."
"I'd have to say windsurfing is my life, and my life is the most important thing to me."
What is one of your best windsurfing memories? Aaron said: "For this I would have to say an evening session on the Lake in Cape Town. The wind filled in late and as the sun started to set I looked around to see that it was only me, Gollito and Amado on the water. Two of the best to ever do it... and me. I was sailing well, but it was irrelevant, i just tried to stay out of the way and enjoy the show.
"Although another close one was a session in Weymouth. I had been Optimists coaching all day in 20-25 knots and had spent far to much of that time watching the windsurfers. When we finished around 6pm rigged up and went straight out. However this was mid-March during the winter I only had a 3:2mm wetsuit... it's fair to say it wasn't warm and the sun had long gone. With the street lights along the road providing my only light it was only after I nearly hit a mooring buoy during a gybe and decided that would be a good time to call it a night, around 8.30pm. Not the smartest thing I've ever done but what a memory, to be young and invisible again."
What is your biggest motivator? Aaron said: "This is an interesting one, I think there's two things. One is the lifestyle windsurfing has allowed me to live and continuing that for as long as I enjoy it, I wouldn't have been to nearly half these places without the sport.
"The second is the constant need I feel to be better. I remember when I was starting out and thinking how happy I would be if I could land all these moves I was watching. Now I can land most of the ones I was aspiring to back then and I'm happy, but equally I want to get out there and do more.... land the next move (a lot more have been created since I was starting!), learn a new combination or just do what I can do but bigger and better.. whatever it is I never seem to be satisfied with the level I'm at. A combination of these two have kept me going for the last ten years and hopefully the next ten also!"
"What a memory, to be young and invisible again."
What is your favourite type of gear? Aaron said: "For sure Freestyle gear. I am using the 103 Tabou twister and GA Pures which I will have in size 4.0/4.4/4.8/5.2. My favourite set up would be 103 with 4.4 and 20cm fin, however my first session I had on the 4.8 Pure was one of my best ever, so we'll see if the 4.8 becomes my favourite set up after a few more sessions with these new sails!"
What do you think the benefits are to people’s mental health by windsurfing? Aaron said: "In a word, Huge. There are so many intentional distrations in life which are made with the intention of making you subconsciously think something or to make you feel a certain way, usually when scrolling through 'social' media but also adverts etc. Yet when you're out on the water theres nothing.. just you, your gear and (hopefully) some wind. To go out and engage with elements you have to be in the moment, thinking about nothing but the here and now, something I personally think people don't do enough these days."
"I never seem to be satisfied with the level I'm at."
What is your biggest achievement with your windsurfing? Aaron said: "That would have to be my third place at the UKWA freestyle nationals which was held at The OTC back in 2015. There's not been a huge amount of suppport for freestyle in the UK since I started so it was great to see something put on to support it. There was a great turn out of riders and to top it all off we had enough wind to compete and get a result! I ended up third in the amateurs which was a huge achievement that I was really happy with as I'd only been windsurfing around four years at this point and it was in what was a very strong fleet."
"I wouldn't have been to nearly half these places without the sport."
What is your favourite spot to windsurfing? Aaron said: "This is a tough one. If I had to chose one it would be Pra de la Fam in Lake Garda. It's been my most sailed spot for the last five years and it is a magical place. Sit with your 4.4 rigged before the sun rises with a moderate breeze and as the sun comes above the mountain the wind fills in and off you go.. just have to get there early for parking."
Freestyle competitions? Do you have any competitions coming up this year? Aaron said: "As I mentioned above I did my first European Freestyle Pro- Tour (EFPT) last year and it was a great experience, so I'll be looking at the calendar when it comes out. I've heard a few rumours for 2023 and I know Adam [Sims] has been doing a great job to push the tour since he took over so I am very excited to see what this looks like. I also remember there was an EFPT Weymouth in 2012 which was a great success, so a question?.. will we see this again in the future?"
"A good windsurf session will keep me buzzing for days."
What is your favourite part of being an Instructor? Aaron said: "For me it would have to be the enjoyment factor for the students at the end of the session/week/holiday. When they leave with a big smile having had an amazing time, that for me is the best part. More recently I became a windsurf trainer so I can now get new instructors qualified and teach them the teaching ways of the RYA. This is one of my favourite things at the moment as I get so excited for them knowing the journey they are about to start with this ticket, a journey I started over ten years ago, have had the most unreal fun doing it, met the most amazing people and a journey I am most definitely still on."
"There's no shortcuts. You've got to get out there and start trying, start crashing."
How important is windsurfing to you? Aaron said: "I'd have to say windsurfing is my life, and my life is the most important thing to me. Hope that answers the question." Why do you windsurf? Aaron said: "At this point I've probably got some sort of addiction to it. A good windsurf session will keep me buzzing for days, and I'm yet to find anything else in life that can do that!" Where are you based? Aaron said: "I generally move around quite a lot, but wherever it is I'll try to make sure its warm and windy. Currently Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean until the end of March. Both my parents live on Hayling Island so that will always be the base I return to when I am in the UK until I settle there again, if that ever happens."
Who inspires you? Aaron said: "Gollito and Andre Paskowski were my biggest inspirations when I was starting out in freestyle. Their '2forten' movie (still on youtube) got me hooked on freestyle before I'd even tried it and I must have watched it twice a day for about six months before heading out to Vass.
"Max Rowe was another huge one, especially as he was working next door at Club Vass, so knowing I was heading out there I watched all his videos and his Brazil 2012 one had just dropped which was an amazing edit. I also ended up buying most my gear off him when I was starting out, I was definitely his best customer at one point or another.. Nowadays it's anyone who goes out gives 100% and comes in with a smile on their face. Or someone who has carved the life they want to live through the sport/with the sport in mind."
"To go out and engage with elements you have to be in the moment."
What is the biggest lesson you have learnt throughout your windsurfing career? Aaron said: "There's no shortcuts. You've got to get out there and start trying, start crashing. Its the only way you'll improve and land that new move/gybe/water start whatever it is. Trying is the first step to success." What type of windsurfing do you like to do in your spare time for fun? Aaron said: "Freestyle!"
"I think windsurfing has made me somewhat scared of commitment."
What advice would you give someone who wants to get into windsurfing? Aaron said: "Get down The OTC and get some lessons! As someone who very much jumped in the deep end and just figured it out on any gear I could find, not only will and instructor give you the tips and advice you need for the quickest possible progression, but they will also ensure you are on the best possible gear to learn. And it will be alot safer. I had one moment when I was learning the tide sucked me under a yacht. I was fine, but the gear wasn't. The money I (my parents) spent replacing the damage would have easily gotten me a lesson.. or five."
Why is Portland Harbour such a great spot for windsurfing? Aaron said: "The prevailing South-Westerly winds along with the low lying Chesil beach mean that on most days you will have this perfect cross shore wind with very minimal chop. A perfect combination for starting out with your first time on a board right up to getting blasting or trying to perfect your gybes or get a new top speed it can all be done there. There's not many places in the world you'll see freestylers, speed sailors, free riders, intermediates and absolute beginners all having a great time with great conditions, but The OTC spot in Portland Harbour is most certainly one of them! And of course the safety. Being in the harbour you'd be very unlucky to end up out to sea, and with the amount of people out day to day, you would be spotted long before you got there. All watersports users look out for each other afloat." The future what does that hold for you? Aaron said: "I don't even know that one myself really. After five years in Garda it's time for a change, I'm in the Caribbean until end of March then aiming to do four-six weeks in Vass, but passed that I'm planning to just see what happens and kind of hope for the best. Warm and windy is always the aim. Just turned 30 the other day, so I'm sure you're meant to know at this point, but there's a-lot of things you're meant to have done according to social media, so I won't worry too much. Honestly I think windsurfing has made me somewhat scared of commitment. If I commit to something too early I may miss out on a windsurf session..."