Zara Davis: The Bionic Woman!
Some people are born with a spirit to succeed, no matter what. The determination of the little girl that learnt to windsurf in only a swimsuit in the depths of winter, was born with a drive that was to predetermine her destiny. After overcoming illness as a child and a hiatus from sport for a while it was aged 26 that life changed for Zara and in 2005 Zara found her passion and skill - speed and windsurfing! Never giving up; always picking herself back up after life knocks her down, the list of records that Zara has broken and achieved reads like an awe-inspiring list of talent, grit and reflects the strong woman that has the need for speed!
Interviewing Zara at a time when she has announced her intention to travel to France next year and attempt to regain the 'mile world record' seemed like the perfect opportunity to highlight the important role she has played as a female within the industry, inspiring girls to get into the sport and realise their dreams.
By Emma Nicholson
How did it all start for Zara? She said: "I first windsurfed in a little French village called L’Aber-Wrach at the age of 12 - it had no shop, but it did have a windsurf hire centre in 1979! My family were moored next to another yacht with a daughter of a similar age and my dad spent all afternoon dragging us back upwind in his dinghy.
"I was hooked from minute one! We already sailed as a family and we spent our summer holidays and most weekends on a 34 foot sloop, which we shared with another family. My dad was keen too, so we bought a Dufour wing and we learnt together. My brother liked engines and speed, so he never windsurfed.
"At 15 I had a bad dose of glandular fever and was off school for nearly a year, had a heart murmur and gave up all sport."
"It was that autumn when I got the Dufour Wing. Dad was not convinced I was dedicated, so he said if I learnt to windsurf in Bristol Docks over the winter, he would then buy me a wetsuit. We were tough in those days and I learnt in my swimsuit all winter. In the spring he bought me a Typhoon long-john and bolero for £120! That was a lot of money then!
"As I got better I was desperate for a faster board and footstraps and a Hi-Fly 700 was the board I wanted, but sadly it was just too expensive. At 15 I had a bad dose of glandular fever and was off school for nearly a year, had a heart murmur and gave up all sport - I didn’t windsurf again until qualifying as an osteopath at the age of 26. My first job was in Milton Keynes and my boss windsurfed at Brogborough Lake, so I went too. I met my husband Pete Davis there and he encouraged me into speed and slalom as he was a racer.
"We went to Sotovento with some borrowed kit in 2005, because Pete had always wanted to go and I entered the World Champs and came fifth, which was pretty amazing for my first competition at that level. I had found my passion and my skill!
"As I got better I was desperate for a faster board and footstraps."
"From there we did Speed European and World Tours and the World Record Mile Attempt in 2006, during which I broke the outright women's world sailing speed record. In 2007, I suffered a Lisfranc injury, badly breaking my foot in four places in the World Championships in Walvis Bay, Namibia. So I sadly missed out on the end of the World Tour (still finished third!), and the Driven by Wind event (the 500m world speed attempt) run by Dave White in Southend. I was also invited to St Marie de la Mer, to The Trench, for the world record attempt for the first time, and I couldn’t do that either! Two operations and six months off work and I was fixed! I entered the World Champs back in Sotovento in 2008, but had to pull out as my foot was too sore.
"When I met my husband Pete Davis, he encouraged me into speed and slalom, as he was a racer."
"2010 was when things started picking up on the record attempt front. We went to Luderitz for the first time before the canal was built, and I broke the Women’s Production World Record, in what was a very difficult location. It was intermittently shallow and the sand that they dug out on the beachside was dumped upwind, so halfway down the course we had no wind!
"In 2012, the trench or canal in Luderitz was dug, so I went back and I broke the world record properly. I went with three aims: to do 40knots as only two women had ever done that; to break Karin Jaggi's record at 41.25knots and then to do 43knots, as that was 50mph and it seemed a good number! I achieved all my goals in the first couple of weeks, and ended up with 45.74knots!
"I haven’t reached my biggest achievement yet - there is more to come! But I think inspiring youngsters - especially girls to take up windsurfing is my biggest achievement, so far!"
"I went back in 2013, as I felt there was more potential, but there wasn't enough wind that year. So I gave it a break for a few years as I held the record. Then Karin broke my world record in 2016 and proved there was more potential, so in 2017 I returned to Luderitz and managed to get the record back at 46.46knots, which still stands.
"As I said I had held the Women's Nautical Mile since 2006, but felt a new location in the South of France had great potential for the distance. So in 2018 I went to try and improve the mile world record. Heidi Ulrich and I battled on the Monday and she beat my speed by a narrow margin and ended up with her holding the world mile record ... for now! I had to go back to work in the UK on the Tuesday - I saw patients for three days and then flew back on the Friday for the last windy day of the meet on the Saturday - we had wind and I went quicker, taking the world record back.
"In 2007 I suffered a Lisfranc injury badly, breaking my foot in four places in the World Championships in Walvis Bay, Namibia."
"Heidi has since taken the world record again, but I hope to change that next year when I am going to have a go at getting it back - Covid has rather got in the way!
"In between all of this, I became World Champion three times, European Champion five times and British champion 11 times. I also broke the harbour record at Weymouth Speed Week, taking the record from Jenna de Rosnay!
"There are so many amazing memories. Luderitz 2012 - over 45 knots, the first woman to do so. Pete was there; my friend, mentor and sponsor Farrel O’Shea and Anders Bringdal, who built the Mistral 41 - the real board of choice at that time. Great friends to share the moment with.
"I have always been driven. I have built a fantastic business, Walnut Grove, supporting the health of the people of Portishead and further afield, and have loved my windsurfing. My parents both sadly died young and I know they are looking down and supporting my journey, especially my dad, who was there when the journey started.
"I am sponsored by Simmer - so my favourite kit is a 5.5m SCR race sail with a Simmer 40 production speed board; an asymmetric Sonntag 19.5cm fin and AL360 carbon boom. All the kit has to be in harmony doing those speeds."
I asked Zara why is windsurfing so important for mental health, she said: "Mental health has been proven to be supported by exercise in the outdoors. In addition to that windsurfing is of nature, of the elements and you have to concentrate. Nothing else matters when you windsurf and you are transported to a magical place in the heart of nature.
"My parents both sadly died young and I know they are looking down and supporting my journey especially my dad, where the journey started."
"I haven’t reached my biggest achievement yet - there is more to come! But I think inspiring youngsters, especially girls, to take up windsurfing is my biggest achievement, so far.
"Whitey (Dave White) was always my greatest inspiration and still is - as he battles to recover from a stroke and get back to windsurfing - he is a force of nature."
"I am happy anywhere I am on the water - but at the moment just sailing with mates at Cabezo, El Médano in Tenerife - there's not much better than that.
"I hope I give youngsters a true passion for the sport - my enthusiasm shines through and I hope that I instil in them a desire to improve at a sport that is not easy but will continue to reward for a lifetime.
"I always feel pressure to do well - but it’s pressure on myself not driven by sponsors or family. Pressure is a privilege and at the moment the opportunity to be a women in a minority sport, encouraging other women to go for it, is amazing - I love it.
"Nothing else matters when you windsurf and you are transported to a magical place in the heart of nature."
"That moment when they suddenly get it and they go fast or plane for the first time - that joy is infectious and really is what drives you on. I feel very lucky to be part of those journeys that people take to learn to windsurf.
"There is nothing like the feeling of freedom, being at one with the extremes of nature and harnessing the power of the wind and the ocean - it’s addictive!
"Whitey (Dave White) was always my greatest inspiration, and still is - as he battles to recover from a stroke and get back to windsurfing - he is a force of nature.
"Be patient and sail your best - the results will come. You cannot control the weather or the conditions, so you have to work with what you have and sail your best. If you do that then you have won, whatever the result.
"I wave sail (or should I say I sail in waves!) and I have recently started wing-foiling, which I love.
"I would have to say Luderitz is my favourite spot to sail, as nothing replaces that need for speed!"
"The OTC is a great place to windsurf and wing-foil, with fantastic instructors. The OTC has all the kit (from a range of manufacturers); the water is flat and there is a fair bit of space that is shallow enough to sail, but you can still touch the bottom - great for the confidence. It's safe, which if you are learning is so important. There are few places like it and I send so many down to the OTC to learn, as I know that they will have the best experience and really come on so well.
"Chesil Beach makes a natural breakwater with the SW to W winds accelerating over the top, creating a fabulous flat water blasting spot. It was once the fastest spot in the world for us speed sailors; the heart of speed is here. There is a history and when you speed sail here, particularly at Weymouth Speed Week, you really are following in the tracks of the giants of our sport.
"I have to say that all speed spots have their own idiosyncrasies and I love them all. I guess I would have to say Luderitz is my favourite, as nothing replaces that need for speed!
"I am 55 and have two new hips, so I suspect that my time is limited for competition. I have a plan to get to the South of France next year for the Mile World Record Attempt again. I have been inspired by Helen Glover (the rower) at the Olympics this year and Andy Murray (who has had a similar hip op to me). Neither of them have won since coming back to sport and I realise that I do it for the love of it not for the result. So I am going to get fit and give it a go; as I said before, if I sail my best then I am happy, and the result will take care of itself."