SIMON WINKLEY: RISING TO THE TOP!
Simon, in his own words is 'a normal guy and a non-elite coach who really loves windsurfing', he has been coaching and running pro-clinics at the best spots across the globe for over 20 years, he talks to me about how he has maintained his place as one of the most respected coaches in the industry. He possesses an infectious enthusiasm for his craft and through sheer hard-work, gritted determination and a genuine passion; he has been rewarded with the upmost respect from those he teaches, with a loyal following of returning windsurfers eager to sprinkle their windsurfing with the magic ingredients that comes from a coaching session with Simon.
When did you first try windsurfing?
"I first tried it on Lac de Serre-Ponçon in Embrun, French Alps shortly after graduating from university. It was not very successful!"
"I always wanted to be able to drop in anywhere in any conditions and windsurf at a good enough level to make it count. Once you get to that point you’re in and you’re never getting out!"
What interested you about windsurfing, was it a family member who already windsurfed, what was that first moment that you were hooked?
"I had never heard of it before France. The kit was not very easy to use and, even though I was in a centre assisting instructors with setting up their taster sessions, the chance to try it for myself was very limited. No one had time to teach me and the sessions were too short to include any skills development. I managed to get out once or twice yet I kept ending up downwind in the swimming-only area and was yelled at a lot in all sorts of languages!
"Then someone explained how steering worked and that small gem of information made all the difference. Because I struggled so much with the concepts I became fascinated with it and was determined to work it all out."
Can you talk me through your windsurfing journey, right from the beginning, right up to today?
"Watersports started for me in France in the Ardèche where I worked for PGL as a group leader then canoe instructor and river leader in my three university summers in the mid-nineties. The next season I did a few weeks with PGL in the French Alps where I vaguely dipped my toe into windsurfing as I already mentioned. A great opportunity came up in the same season to become a beach assistant with Sunsail on mainland Greece, so I reluctantly left the Alps and headed off to embrace some other watersports. I arrived in resort at night, was given some uniform and turned up on the beach in the morning. I did not know anything!
"The beach opened and a guest came to me and asked if he could take a Laser dinghy out. I had no idea what that was so I told him I would find ‘someone who was good with Lasers’. When I found that person I discovered that the white boats were Lasers and I listened-in to pick up as much information as I could as the instructor rigged the boat for the guest. I realised that I was playing catch up big time as I was the only person on the team unqualified in sail sports and who knew pretty-much nothing. I put in maximum effort to learn and to fit in and it all started to make sense.
"Two weeks later the company offered to move me to another beach club on a Greek Island where they needed one more person in the team. The learning was intense and I managed to develop my sailing, powerboating and windsurfing skills. Windsurfing was hard for me there as all the guys were really good and, when we went out in the swells, I would fall in a lot and end up being used as a gybe mark! Once I had learned to use the harness and footstraps and experienced planing, however, I knew I was in it for the long game. Back in the UK that year I took my RYA Dinghy Instructor qualification in Portsmouth as a ticket to return to the sun as soon as possible.
"The following summer I worked for Sunsail again on the Island of Levkas in a light-wind location. On days off we would hire mopeds and head off down to the south of the island to the legendary windsurfing mecca of Vassiliki. Vass is a pro resort and we knew how to blag some free kit from one of the centres. The force 5 - 6 sessions in the afternoons there are the stuff of dreams and I could not stop thinking about windsurfing for days or weeks after a trip to Vass. I took a break from Sunsail for a few years, bought some kit and windsurfed around the UK: north east, north west, south coast, Wales.
"I went back into engineering (which I did when I left school) and earned enough to go on some windsurfing holidays to Turkey and Vassiliki. I then started working weekends as well for a small windsurfing centre in Cheshire where I become a RYA Level 1 Windsurfing Instructor. After a season of doing both jobs I went full time with the centre and spent all of my spare time windsurfing at West Kirby on the Wirral which has an amazing marine lake as well as rough open sea conditions.
"I sometimes went to North Wales and scared myself in the waves. I got my RYA Level 3 Windsurfing Instructor ticket and used this to secure a job with Sunsail in Antigua where the windsurfing conditions and lifestyle were mind-blowing! After Sunsail I got a job on a yacht in Antigua for a few months before setting out on it with 3 others on a trans-Atlantic crossing to Palma, Majorca. Whilst this was an epic adventure, I would look out over the ocean everyday wishing I could throw some kit overboard and go for a windsurf. So I knew my career needed to stay with windsurfing and not yachting.
"Next it was a year at Moon Beach on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt with the most reliably strong wind I have ever experienced. I was in rehab for my foot when I arrived as I had shattered my left heel bone 9 months earlier. My foot used to swell up horribly in the first few weeks after only 30 minutes on the water. We were a wonderful, small team of 6 and I ran the tiny beach bar. My foot got stronger and stronger over time so I could take breaks from the bar and teach the clients.
"Boards Magazine used to come out to do equipment testing and the way they tuned and played with the kit was a big influence. Living for a year in an Arabic country surrounded by desert, mountains and ocean (and getting 70 days of 4.0m sailing out of 365) was one of the most memorable things I have ever done.
"I believe that windsurfing has really helped a lot of people to feel a little better about the world."
"After a year there I needed more of a regular base and wanted to up my game as a coach so I got a job at Queen Mary Sailing Club in SW London, first as a Chief Instructor then as the Sailing Manager which I did for 10 years. In this time I qualified as a Dinghy Coach/Assessor and Windsurf Trainer (which means I could run instructor courses), a RYA Level 5 Windsurfing (now called Advanced-plus) Windsurfing Instructor, a RYA Powerboat Instructor and a RYA Inspector for Training Centres. In my time off work I would run courses and do inspections in the UK and overseas.
"At the end of 2011 I went freelance and never looked back. My work now is divided between general windsurf coaching, OTC clinics, overseas clinics through Sportif Travel, RYA work arranging training in the London and South East Region, RYA Inspections, instructor training including at UKSA in Cowes in the winter and first aid training. I also have a small boat repair business and look after a fleet of keelboats for Royal Thames Yacht Club. All of this varied and enjoyable work really keeps me busy! In the last 25 years I have been lucky enough to live, work and travel all across the UK and Europe as well as in the Caribbean, Bermuda, Canary Islands, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Australia. Having a permanent UK base with my family, a local windsurfing spot as well as travel options gives me the best of everything, even if there are only 24 hours in a day!"
What is one of your best windsurfing memories?
"At the end of the 1990s everyone was talking about where they would be for the Millennium and I wanted a windsurfing adventure. I still needed to work, however, so I secured a job with Sunsail in Antigua which started in October ’99. The freeride conditions there were incredible.
"As the New Year’s Eve celebrations got into full swing I went around the team asking them if they were up for a dawn-raid session as I just knew it was going to be firing in the morning (which we all had to work) and that’s how I wanted to start the new year. A couple of the guys agreed to come yet drank far too much. I stayed up until very late partying but kept off the alcohol and got up just before sunrise to rig up.
"As much as I tried I could not get a single person out of bed to come with me so I set off by myself. The wind was solid and the swells were rolling perfectly along the north coast of Antigua so those first few hours of the new Millennium were spent in a sort of solitary thrilling bliss – blasting along with only flying fish for company. That set me up for the years to come and thinking about that morning still puts a smile on my face…
"The other more memorable times have been simply those ones blasting around with mates in any location – having that personal yet shared experience is the best feeling."
What is your biggest motivator?
"The water! Getting out on it. The more I windsurf, the more I improve and refine my skills so I can pass on what I learn to others. And my great family. Supporting them whilst doing the job I love."
"I aim to make the clinics fun, engaging and rewarding for all."
What is your favourite type of gear?
"I am very fortunate to be able to ride the best kit from Starboard and Severne and get all the new kit every year as soon as it is released. I have never been happier with my kit than I am now and it is really important as a pro-coach to have the latest equipment. I receive superb support from the team at Tushingham for which I am massively grateful. Not having access to ‘real’ waves I favour freeride and freewave kit which allows me to ride almost anywhere. I really love my Starboard Kodes (105 and 85) with Severne Blade sails and K4 fins. For windfoiling I use a Starboard Freeride 150 with the carbon 95 mast, 95 fuselage and 800 front wing with a 330 tail wing. Couple this with my Severne TurboGT 7.0 and 8.1 and it’s a fast and seriously fun foiling setup! For freeride it’s the Starboard Futura 77."
What do you think the benefits are to people’s mental health by windsurfing?
"This is a really important subject and I see (and feel) the benefits every time I windsurf somewhere. Whether or not people have specific, diagnosed mental health issues, we all experience stress of one kind or another. When people turn up at the OTC or at the start of an overseas clinic I can often feel some tension – from work, travelling, time restraints, life pressures etc. Then, at the end of the first day when a few beers are on the table and their muscles have that pleasurable ache of achievement, the stress has disappeared.
"Windsurfing has done that. It has ironed them out a little and reminded them of the importance of finding time to do what you love. Over the past 15 months a lot of people have returned to windsurfing after time away and that is great to see. Covid pressures have been devastating and have made people re-evaluate their lives. Most people will have experienced some level of mental health issues since March 2020 and I believe that windsurfing has really helped a lot of people to feel a little better about the world."
"I call it real-world coaching and that equates to small, regular gains in performance."
What is your biggest achievement with your windsurfing?
"I have never competed, so I can’t talk about gold medals or world championships! I think it has to be that, from challenging beginnings in the sport, I have been able to make a career out of it and that I still feel the same level of excitement about it now as I did when I started.
"Following the evolution of the sport and embracing windfoiling and wingfoiling whilst making a living from it has been my dream and I feel so lucky. Over the years I have trained thousands of people (from beginner to advanced instructor) and when I see that many of those people have been inspired to take it further then I get a real sense of achievement from that."
"The more I windsurf, the more I improve and refine my skills so I can pass on what I learn to others."
Where are your favourite spots to windsurf?
"So many good places! I really love Costa Teguise in Lanzarote. The swell and waves there are so much fun yet really accessible for all levels. I have recently discovered Prasonisi – it’s a great spot, very remote, really chilled and friendly with flat water on one side of the spit and waves on the other – it’s perfect!
"In the UK my favourite spots are Shoreham, West Wittering, Hayling Island, Portland Harbour, West Kirby and my home spot Queen Mary. QM is such a good place if, like me, you live near London and don’t always have enough time to go to the coast every time it is windy. It’s an amazing foiling venue and, as I run my boat repair business and the RTYC fleet of keelboats from there, it’s easy to grab regular sessions on the water without losing too much work time."
When you teach people that come on your clinics what do they get out of being taught by you?
"Well, they get me – a normal guy and a non-elite coach who really loves windsurfing, has all the info ready to fire out and really understands where people are coming from. I relate to all the positives that a client is feeling: excitement, happiness, relief when something works, the feeling of escapism, the enjoyment of spending time with other like-minded people, their sense of achievement.
"I also relate to their challenges: nervousness, fear, disappointment when something fails to work, frustration, even anger sometimes. I can work with all of that and guide people towards improvement. I call it real-world coaching and that equates to small, regular gains in performance. I aim to make the clinics fun, engaging and rewarding for all. They get targeted, non-formulaic coaching based on years of experience with plenty of good ideas to take away and use in their future windsurfing.
"Another element of the clinics is the taking of photos and video clips. I work hard to get great photos when the conditions are right. I always use GoPros with Flymounts and K4 Harness Mounts. One thing that is very popular for those with a more advanced ability is long runs at full speed where I will follow very closely behind with the GoPro on the harness mount. The stills and video you can get are incredible and clients can have them for free as coaching resources and reminders of their achievements. Those memories of a great session promote future participation."
How long have you been running your clinics?
"Even though I have been teaching in RYA centres for about 25 years, I have only been running clinics for 5 - 6 years."
What do you personally get out of teaching people how to improve their windsurfing?
"Aside from the sheer enjoyment of having windsurfing as a job, the biggest reward is to be there to support people through their progression in the sport and to be able to guide them towards great kit, people and locations that enhance their personal leisure time. People who come on the clinics or for 1:1 sessions do not have to be there.
"They make a specific choice to spend time away from work, friends, family, household jobs etc. As time away doing the things you love doing is so important for a balanced life I am delighted when people choose to spend their time with me out on the water and trust me to help them.
When someone comes up to me and says they have had the best day and have achieved a crucial gain in their windsurfing (something, perhaps, that they have not been able to attempt, understand or master in years) it is very rewarding. You can see it in their faces – that sense of fulfilment. And it’s even better when you’re in the bar later talking about it over good food and a few cold beers. I am very humbled that this is a part of my work, spending quality time with people at their very best.
Since 2017 I have written eighteen articles for Windsurfing UK designed to help people to understand windsurfing elements including how it all works, planing, steering, choosing the best tidal window, rigging, fins, footstraps, masts and photography. They are available as free downloads on my website - https://www.simonwinkley.com/windsurfing-uk/ - and the feedback from them has been very positive."
Why do you windsurf?
"Erm, I quite like it actually! I enjoy doing something radically different from regular life stuff and really engage with the kind of people that I meet through windsurfing. It keeps my mind in great shape, keeps me flexible and fit and I feel pumped after a good session. From the start I always wanted to be able to drop in anywhere in any conditions and windsurf at a good enough level to make it count. Once you get to that point you’re in and you’re never getting out!"
When did you decide to run pro-clinics and why?
"In 2015/16, I started working with Ocean Elements in Vassiliki in Greece to train up their instructor team at the beginning and end of the season. People were seeing this and started to ask me if I ran my own training for non-instructor groups. Apart from delivering courses through centres I did not offer this so I approached freestyle maestro Jamie Drummond, who was running the overseas operation for Ocean Elements. He was very supportive of my idea to run clinics in Vass so we put the first week clinic together. We had no idea if even one person would book yet all 10 places sold which was a nice surprise! The following year, the week sold out so we added a second week and that sold out and so on. Those few years running clinics in Vass were amazing and I am so grateful to Jamie for trusting in me.
Eventually I needed to branch out and, with the help of coaching guru Jem Hall, got in touch with Sportif Travel and set up an overseas clinic programme. I also approached Tris about clinics at the OTC as I needed follow-on opportunities for my overseas clients when they were back in the UK. I had run some instructor courses in Vass with Tris and had great fun working with him. He too was very supportive of my ideas so we set it all up. In my first year at the OTC I only ran a few clinics and sometimes they only had two or three people on them but now I run 10 per year and they all sell out with a good blend of newcomers and regulars."
"Aside from the sheer enjoyment of having windsurfing as a job, the biggest reward is to be there to support people through their progression in the sport."
Who inspires you?
"Aside from my amazing family? That’s a big question! I am inspired by people who are superb at what they do, have a killer focus to succeed yet remain warm and approachable. In windsurfing, for me, that’s Tom Squires (our Team GB Olympic windsurfer) and Sam Ross (all-round watersports coach who has been so helpful to me over the years). Away from windsurfing I’m a fan of Ross Edgley. He is a fitness guru and endurance athlete who has very interesting things to say about human resilience. He swam around Great Britain in 157 days, 6 hours on and 6 hours off. Just thinking about what it takes to achieve that makes my head do a backflip."
What is the biggest lesson you have learnt throughout your windsurfing career?
"That you have to be patient and that there’s always the next session. The wind does not always turn up when you want it to but give it time and stay positive – it will always come back when it’s ready - no question - and the benefits of practicing ‘skills and drills’ (tacks, gybes and freestyle) in light winds are significant in terms of improving your high wind technique."
"Portland Harbour is a watersports arena perfectly designed by nature. It has superb wind statistics and can be sailed at all states of tide. Sailing there without the OTC would be a much thinner experience."
What type of windsurfing/foiling or winging do you like to do in your spare time?
"Freewave sessions with ocean swells to play on would be my go-to conditions. In terms of windfoiling, I really enjoy it on flat water and the OTC is so perfect for it. I have just taken up wingfoiling this year and love this new thing. I’m into the smooth, easy, upright feel of winging which contrasts with my preferred style of sailing hard and fast when windfoiling."
"I am loving the clinics at the OTC. Portland Harbour is such a great place and everyone is so friendly."
Why is the OTC such a great place to teach windsurfing?
"Where do I start? Portland Harbour is a watersports arena perfectly designed by nature. It has superb wind statistics and can be sailed at all states of tide. Sailing there without the OTC would be a much thinner experience. Every time I turn up with a group the vibe is good, people are always buzzing with either the anticipation of just going out or the stoke from having just got back in. For my groups it feels like we’re having a mini holiday every time we arrive. It is the ideal location!"
What can the OTC offer your groups that other places can’t?
"We get the warmest welcome from the staff who are all experts and are able to offer solid local advice and inspiration. The centre has a wide range of top-quality kit to hire as well as a well-stocked shop for some essential retail therapy. Out on the water there’s always a buzz created by people of all ages doing what they love and you will often find a bunch of windsurfers from the Olympic Development Squad training hard on the iQFOiL kit. It all combines to provide an environment which inspires and promotes learning."
The future what does that hold for you and your clinics?
"I am loving the clinics at the OTC. Portland Harbour is such a great place and everyone is so friendly. I have a wonderful set of clients who have become good friends and more people are getting involved thanks to word of mouth and my website. When travel restrictions are lifted I will be back into my regular overseas clinics in Costa Teguise (Lanzarote), Alaçati (Turkey) and Prasonisi (Rhodes, Greece) as well as looking at the possibility of adding new ones. I have so much fun on the clinics and getting to spend quality time on the water with others means that I am always looking forward to the next one."