How many of us dream to experience new adventures, which takes us past our own personal limitations to feel truly alive and grow as a person who has seen past the standard day and really lived in the moment? We all do, but Ron is one of those persons who doesn’t dream his dreams but lives them. One of these dreams had for a long time been to break the windsurf record for crossing the North Sea, departing from the UK, finishing on the North West Coast in The Netherlands. A journey which in a straight line is 105 nautical miles and which to break the record would need to be done in less than 7 hours and 56 minutes. A journey of heavy swells, changing conditions and cold as the right period which offers the best possible wind conditions would be in the autumn months.
The adventure was planned and coordinated together with Point-7 Benelux distributor Harco-Jan Folkerts during the last months to finally having the right forecast coming up for Tuesday the 22nd of October and the decision was made!
The forecast was looking great with stable winds from a southerly directions so Ron and Harco-Jan together with the rest of their team drove Hook of Holland to take the ferry to Harwich and the drive to Lowestoft in the UK, where a fast RIB was waiting for them to follow Ron across over the North Sea as to provide some safety, but also to carry more gear if it the conditions would change during the passage. Out to sea big waves were waiting for the small team, powered by strong gusty wind which would later prove to become very unstable.
Here below is an exclusive interview with Ron where you can read all about the planning and his journey across the North Sea.
How did you get this idea?
The idea for crossing the North Sea started 23(!) years ago when I was 23 years old and windsurfing was already my great passion in these days. I had been running some windsurfschools and watersport centers in Greece and Holland as seasonal jobs which allowed me to spent much time on the water. Windsurfing on the North Sea is challenging and when you spent lot’s of hours in the waves you start wondering how it would be to cross that sea, knowing that England is ‘only’ 195km away….after some thoughts it became clear for me that it had to be done! With the help of some friends from the windsurfscene we managed to arrange the boards (BIC) and sails (Gun Sails) and an old pilotboat as supportvessel and in October 1990 we set off to Lowestoft. The weather forecasting in these days was a lot less sophisticated than today. (although the results do not differ too much we know now!) On the 15th of October 1990 we started from the beach in Lowestoft witnessed by the major, who had to get up early as we started at 05.00 in the morning…. The conditions looked initially good with southerly winds, I started on a course race board, and a 8.5m2 racesail. I believe we had 15 knots increasing to 20 or so, but after a few hours the wind decided to turn east which meant I had to sail straight into the wind to arrrive in Holland. The guys in the support boat had to pull me off my board because I was determined to finish but it was deemed to fail as I was heading for Greenland, not exactly where we wanted to finish. After this attempt we did not had a chance to do another one that year and in the following years I was occupied trying to find out if I had other talents that I would be able to use to make a decent living. I married my lovely wife Saskia, who is, amazingly, still with me and still supporting my crazy adventures. We started a family and we have now 3 great kids in the age between 8 and 15 years old. I became a marine surveyor and yacht manager and together with my wife we run our small business which provide a decent living and which allows me to spent time on the water again, windsurfing.
The main reason I wanted to complete the crossing after 23 years, I think, is because I still had that feeling of something unfinished in the back of my mind. Something uncompleted, something that I failed to do successfully. When we moved back to Holland in 2011 after living in France for 14 years and found our perfect place to live in Bergen aan Zee,only a few hundred meters from the beach, I realized that I wanted to finish the project which started 23 years ago. I wanted to proof myself that I was physically and mentally able to do it, I wanted above all to show my kids that if you really want to achieve something you dream of, you need to just do it and hold on to it until it has been completed (even if it takes a while..), I hope they have learned a bit from this event. Of course I also wanted to set a new record because I was (and still am) convinced that the crossing can be done in between 5 and 6 hours if conditions are favorable. The North Sea however is famous for its ever changing conditions, which we now know very well so it will not be easy to set a good time.
How did you prepare for the crossing?
The preparation for such an event is difficult because you are not able to just do a practice run on the same distance. You need to spend many hours on your board and get used to long runs over one side. I am lucky that the North Sea is only 1 minute walk from my home and I can have my gear rigged and ready to go, lying in my garden and jump on it whenever I have time and conditions are right. Once you start preparing for the event you realize that the preparation is quite a project on itself, especially if you also try to get some sponsors to support you.
During this summer I bumped into Harco Jan Folkerts, the Point 7 distributor for the Benelux.When I told him about my plans for the crossing he was switched on immediately. First we thought about doing the crossing together but we realized that this would double the risk for material and physical failures and besides that I needed someone who was able to coach me and support me with my gear. When I met Harco Jan I was still looking for the right board and sails to use and undecided what would be best. I am not an experienced slalom windsurfer but spent most of the time on my waveboard on the coast. Harco-Jan gave me his Angulo slalom board and a Point 7 AC-1 6.3m2 sail to try out while he spent his holidays in Tenerife. I have tested both his board as well as some JP slalom boards that I bought. The AC-1 immediately felt very comfortable and it was a pleasure to sail. The slalom boards I tested however where all a bit nervous and I had difficulties to find a comfortable position on long runs. Harco- Jan invited me to become a member of the Point 7 Black Team Benelux windsurfteam, the teamriders sail with Point 7 AC-1 racesails and are supported by F2 boards. When I tested the F2 Silberpfeil 69, a slalomboard ( 238cm x 69cm and 111ltr volume) it felt good from the first run I did. The board sticks to the water and is fast even when it becomes a bit choppy. The nose is reasonable easy to keep down on the water and the light double concave gives the board an early plane and very good overall speed. I was not looking for very high topspeeds but more for a comfortable board with good overall performance. The F2 Silberpfeil 69 in combination with the Point-7 AC-1 was just what I was looking for.
Now I had the right gear to do the crossing I had to make lot’s of miles at sea to get used to long runs. I have spent many hours at sea, often miles from the coast, alone and together with Harco-Jan, who was always prepared to join me on the water for the training sessions. I have created my long-distance package which consist of a back-pack with drinking system and a two liter reservoir, a belt in which I could carry energy gels and bars which I could eat while continue to windsurf, a personal locator beacon (PLB) which I always carry with me and wich would allow to warn search and rescue in case I would end up in a critical situation, and the tracking device that allowed me to check distance and speeds for each run, something I also used my GPS for which was fixed to my boom. I have trained a lot to try different courses and wind directions and worked with my GPS. It was quite difficult to see the course/heading and speed on such a small device. In my search to find a better way to understand my course and speed I found a device called Speedpuck from a company in Hawaii called Velocitek. The device is great and shows large numbers which you can easily see when you stick the Speedpuck to your deck. The reason I concentrated a lot on the hardware and electronics is because I had, in the back of my mind, the idea I could probably do the crossing without a support boat.
By the end of September after months of training in the water and also on the bike I started to be a little nervous. I was ready to go and was waiting for the right wind to appear.
My physical condition was good, I have been doing endurance sports like road cycling and mountain-biking on a reasonable high level for many years and part of my training this summer was cycling. I was really happy to find out that Harco-Jan is also very good on the bike and I have been doing some nice trips riding in his slipstream….
To find the right boat to support me during the crossing was another challenge..We had a 10mtr RIB with cabin on stand-by but this was from a company that also uses their RIB’s on a daily basis for their business. When the right weather conditions announced themselves I called the skipper of the support boat and he told me that it was not possible for them due to other obligations with their RIB’s. That was a real disappointment and I started to doubt whether we would be able to ever actually do the crossing. I realized that many things could go wrong and we were depending on the weather, the gear and other people’s availability. Two days before the crossing I went out to sea with the idea to test my GPS again and see if I could do the crossing without a support boat. During that session both my GPS’s failed and I realized that if that would happen during the crossing I would have been lost. I decided it could not be done without a support boat.
That same evening I started calling some friends with open RIB’s to see if anyone was interested in joining the crossing and support us. No one had the right boat available. I looked at the weather forecast again and looked at a perfect South South Westerly wind direction and a stable 18-25 knots windforecast table. I was getting mad! I was in between states of extreme determination that it had to happen and abandoning the whole project all together. I decided to do another Google search to see if I could find a local company in Lowestoft where we could rent a support boat. Something I had done already twenty times before and never found something. When typing ‘cabin rib charter’ the search returned a result! Solent Rib Charter, great website and it seemed their business is to charter open ribs and support all kind of events such as the extreme sailing series and the London Olympics, just to name a few. I found a brochure of a cabin rib and a mobile phone number from the owner of the company, Stuart Hedges. I send him a text message Sunday evening at 10.00 PM : Hi, I am looking for a company who can support me crossing the north sea on my windsurfboard this Tuesday, I need a fast RIB with some protection for my support team. Can you help me?
As if he gets these kind of message’s every day the reply read: YES OF COURSE, NO PROBLEM, we can discuss the details in the morning…
YES, YES, YES, YES, YES!!!!! We have a boat, we have the right conditions, we have great gear, I am ready for it, let’s do it!!
I called Harco-Jan at home and told him we had a support boat and I wanted to cross on Tuesday. A little bit overwhelmed Harco needed 10 minutes to think about it and re-organize his stuff for the next days. Then he called back: let’s go!
Who else is coming? How do we organize it at the finish? Who is going to inform the press? Update the website, facebook! Inform the sponsors. Make travel arrangements to the UK. Shit, so much to do and so little time. We went to bed very excited and after maybe 4 hours sleep I was back behind the PC Monday morning and organizing stuff. Harco did the same and he informed the press….
TV stations, radio, newspapers, everyone wanted to know what we were going to do, they wanted interviews, photos, videos…
But we had to hurry, we had to pack out gear and drive off to the ferry in Hook of Holland at 11.30 latest in order not to miss it. Just enough time for a few interviews and photos and off we went. Joost de Ruigh, a Point 7 Black Team Benelux Member joined us to be part of the support team.
We arrived in Harwich at 2100 Dutch time and finally arrived in the hotel in Lowestoft at 00.30. In the mean time we received confirmation from Stuart that the RIB had arrived in Lowestoft and was ready to go the next morning. We agreed to do a briefing at 06.15 on Tuesday at breakfast.
The hotel was 50mtrs from the beach and from my room I overlooked the North Sea, I realized I had arrived the point of no return and I was going to fulfill my dream the next day, after 23 years, I was going to start again from that same beach in Lowestoft. Adrenaline was at a very high level and with the noise of the breaking waves in the background there was no way I was going to fall asleep. At 3.00 AM I stepped out of bed and walked outside, wearing my pink underwear and nothing else, I was nervous as I heard the waves but no wind, I walked up the beach and felt that the breeze was out there, I could feel it. When I walked back to the hotel a gentleman passed by walking with his dog, he looked at me and shook his head, he must have thought I was either drunk or just mad walking in the middle of the night in my pink underwear…
Back in the hotel room I checked the weather forecast and currents again. I was worried when I looked at increasing windspeed 25-30 knots with gusts up to 35 knots. These are not the conditions I was hoping for on my slalom board…. I knew I had to go for a small sail, I then decided it would most likely be the AC-1 5.6m2. It would be a tough crossing but I knew I have the physical strenght to do it. I then completed another check on my gear, drinks, energy gels, GPS’s, tracking device, radios, helmet, GoPro Camera’s and made sure all batteries where fully charged.
At 06.00 am UK time the phone rang and it was 3FM, one of the Dutch main public radio stations, they wanted a live interview and they were not the only one, between 7.00 and 09.00 I did 4 or 5 live radio interviews and we understood we were hot news in The Netherlands.
At 06.15 we had a short briefing with Stuart and John, the crew of the Solent Rib Charter support boat. I was happy to find out that they are extremely professional and know what they are doing. I am used, as a marine surveyor, to work with professionals and we did not needed much time to understand each other. The main question was whether I wanted to start early as was scheduled knowing that we would have the tide against us for the first 3 to 4 hours, which was, with the strong winds not a very attractive idea. The alternative would have been to wait until the tidal current changed direction at 13.00hrs UK time and start then. I decided that although we would encounter bigger and unpredictable waves, this would still be better than wait and shorten the daylight window to only 6 hours.
In the mean time the wind was picking up and started to blow at open sea, right on the beach the wind was light, it made it a bit difficult to understand what the conditions would be out there.
After breakfast and interviews Harco-Jan rigged my AC-1 5.6m2 on the beach in front of the hotel. I checked communications, GPS and drinking systems, made sure foot straps where properly fixed and the 37cm Select Carbon Fin was mounted.
Then Harco-Jan and Joost went off to the support boat which was lying in the marina in Lowestoft in front of the Yacht Club.
At 09.15 AM (10.15 Am Dutch time) I went out for a short test run. I realized that my sail was trimmed to flat, it was very nervous and I had too much power in the forward part of the sail. I needed to go back to the beach. I gave some more outhaul and moved my baseplate 1cm forward, I moved my harness lines a little forward. The second test run was better and I did a few runs while waiting for the support boat to arrive.
At 10.07 AM (11.07 AM Dutch time) we started just outside the breakwaters of the Lowestoft Marina, at first I had to work a little to get some speed but after a few minutes the wind was getting strong and off we went! (With only 4 hours sleep in the 36 hours prior to the start..)
Which was your goal?
I had 3 goals when I left Lowestoft. The first one was to cross the North Sea and complete my failed attempt from 1990. The second was to break the record windsurfing currently standing at 07hrs and 56 minutes set by Tim Klijn and Jaap Krielle in 1998. The third and ultimate goal and also the goal which motivated everyone around me the most was to break the fastest time which was set in 2009 by Bouwe Bekking in his Volvo Open 70ft race yacht at 5hrs and 36 minutes.
Which feeling did you have when you were between the waves?
The first 3 hours have been a real fight against the elements, the waves were unpredictable, the swell was 2-2.5mtrs and the tops were breaking all over the place. I wanted to go fast so I took all possible risks, especially in the first hour. I felt nervous because of the difficult circumstances and made many mistakes. I was catapulted 14 times in the first 60 minutes.(counted by Harco-Jan) This was due to the waves, the tidal current against the wind, the windgusts up to 35knots and my will to go as fast as possible taking too much risk. Still we did 20 nautical miles in the first hour and this was a good pace. When I stopped for a few minutes after another crash and was close to the support boat Harco told me I was doing well on speed. I remember I felt already exhausted and could not imagine I would be able to continue like this much longer.
The next two hours I became somehow used to the difficult conditions and had better control, I decided I had to go upwind every time strong gusts came up and better loose a little speed then take too much risk. Sometimes however I could not prevent a crash when breaking waves appeared or when the outer wake of the support boat created wild waters! A few times I felt like I was doing a wave session when large waves over their full length started to break. I used the wake of the support boat sometimes and was able to make good speed as the wake flattens the chop a bit. When I was in front of the boat I understood later that they had difficulties passing me again. They also had to deal with the swell and breaking chop. Harco-Jan and Joost had a really rough ride as well!
I have lived some great moments while at sea, the times when I was at full speed and things where reasonably comfortable in the wake of the support boat it was just plain fun! The times that I was in front of the support boat and found a good path in between the waves, I felt strong and had really a lot of fun. Sometimes after a crash I had to swim around my sail and a seagull would hang just centimeters above my head with his nose in the wind, looking at me. I felt like they encouraged me to go on and don’t give up. They really helped me doing just that, start again and continue, just do not give up!
Physically the biggest pain was in my legs, it hurt like hell but it is something I know how to deal with because of my cycling background. Normally my arms do not hurt that much but this time I had my right arm (foreward) blocking in the first half hour because my harness lines where still a bit too much aft. I have made long sections where I held the forward part of the boom with my two hands, just to ease the pain a bit.
I had an extra set of harness lines mounted on my boom for when one would break. These lines have hurt my back hand quite a bit just by chafing all the time against it.
After 3,5 to 4 hours the tide changed and the waves became a little more predictable, it then became easier to go faster until…..
The wind dropped totally unexpected to below 10knots! I am sure you know what that means on a short slalomboard with a small sail; swimming indeed! I have tried and waited until the wind would pick up again but after 20mins or so we realized we had to change to a bigger sale. The biggest we had on board was the Point 7 AC-1 6.3m2. Why did we not bring larger sails? We had a lack of space on board the support boat and besides that, the all the forecasts where for stronger winds, not lighter winds…
Rigging a camber sail on the beach with a lot of space around you can already be a challenge. Harco-Jan, with some help of Joost did the incredible job to rig the 6.3 on the mini-aft deck (1.5m x 2.0m) while the support boat was moving around in the swell. I was lying in the water and trying to take off my boom. I also took the opportunity to take some energy-food and sport-drink. From the time the wind dropped until the wind picked up again and including the sail change we lost more than an hour.
With 35 nautical miles to go I realized that the fastest time would not be that fast so I focused on the next goal, just finish!
With the AC-1 6.3 and 20-25knots wind I was going fast and the tide was easing the waves, no more crashes and a comfortable ride in the wake of the support boat, I felt happy, good, full of energy and ready to make it until…. the wind dropped again. The weather had become unstable and every time a rain shower appeared and I heard the raindrops on my helmet I knew that would be another windgap! It happened at least another 3 times and these moments have been extremely frustrating. You then realize that nature cannot be accurately predicted, not 23 years ago, not today and probably not in a hundred years! I was scared I had to give up but I simply refused to do so. I was lying in the water with the sail above my head, not even enough wind to keep it up at times, let alone enough wind to make a waterstart. The many attempts to waterstart and then fall back in the water have been very difficult. I was running out of energy and every time I managed to get on my board with very little wind I felt like I stood as if it was my first time on a surfboard, my orientation and balance was gone completely.
With only 15 miles to go I was doing fine behind the boat and although it started to get dark I new I was going to make it, even knew we could still break the windsurfing record.
How was it as it was getting dark?
Then again….. the wind dropped with only 2,5 miles to go!!!! I could see the lights on the beach, I recognized ‘my homewaters’ and the restaurants on the beach, I realized there must be a lot of people waiting for me, my wife, my kids, my parents, my friends…It was dark, not only around me but also inside me, I have never felt more frustrating than that moment lying in the dark waters with my bloody black! sail, knowing the guys on the boat could not see me anymore, I could not see the waves in front of me even. Everything was f……black!
I still refused to think it was over. With or without wind, even if I had to swim the last miles, I was not going to give up, NEVER!
I was drifting up north because of the tidal current, away from the official finish and the lights…
The boat came close to me and Harco suggested they could tow me a little bit south so I could still land where all the people where. No way, I said, I rather swim….
Then suddenly I felt a gust of wind and I had just enough energy to fight myself out of the water and make a waterstart, the wind continued just long enough to start planing down a wave….
What did you think when you saw the land?
I kept on pumping and tried to feel the next wave as I could not see a thing anymore, it was completely dark. I knew I was going to land on the beach about 1km north from the lights and all the people waiting but at that moment my only thought and focus was to keep the board going and to land somewhere on the beach. It was a strange feeling when I saw the dark stripe of the dunes coming closer and I arrived finally on my own beach after 195.6km windsurfing. I was alone…
How was the first minute on the beach, the hour after you got to the beach, the next day and now?
The first minute on the beach: I had tears in my eyes, I was emotional, and actually I was happy I was alone. I took that moment to realize what I had been doing that day, I had fulfilled my dream after 23 years! I made it , I did it! I was not thinking about a record at all, I was just very happy and proud that I had not given up. I lied down on the sand and kissed the beach! I then stood up , I looked at the support boat who was coming very close to the beach, in the breaking waves almost and they had all their lights on flashing. I held up my two arms, as to thank them to bring me home safely.
I then looked at the direction of the lights and the offical finish. Quite far away it seemed. I took my board and sail and started walking towards the lights. After 5 minutes I saw a car approaching and people running towards me. My friends from my village, kitesurfers and windsurfers came to welcome me. My wive, my kids, my parents, my sister, more family, more friends, television camera’s, microphones, champagne! What a moment! So many people and so much attention from everybody. It was an absolute fantastic feeling! I was pleasantly surprised that Tim Klijn and Jaap Kriele welcomed me on the beach as well, they have been following the crossing the whole day. That was great and I do congratulate them that they still have the record!
Harco-Jan and Joost had to continue to IJmuiden, 25km south, with the support boat to disembark there and by the time they arrived (with applause) in the restaurant where a welcome dinner was organized, I had showered and was still full of adrenaline from the excitement that day. With all our friends and family close by we ended a day we will never forget.
The next day Wednesday I felt what the crossing had done to my body, almost impossible to walk due to muscle aches and my both feet where open from blisters as was my left hand. Maybe surfing such a distance barefoot was after all not such a good idea, something I will probably do different next time.
Thursday after the crossing I left IJmuiden in the 9mtr RIB together with Stuart and John from Solent Rib Charter at 0530 in the morning. We had some rough seas to deal with in the beginning and it took us 7 hours to arrive back in Lowestoft. I realized again how Harco-Jan and Joost must have suffered when the boat was rocking against the waves. I picked up my car and returned back to Holland with the ferry from Harwich the same evening. From the 4 crossings I have done in 4 days, the last one was the most comfortable one, lying in my bed and sleeping like a baby on board the big ferry.
Your next challenge?
Next time? Yes next time! I am already looking for a new challenge because it is my believe that we need to challenge ourselves continuously in live, whether that is in your relation, in your job, your study or in sport, without a challenge you forget how it is to overcome difficulties, how it is to realize that your physical and mental limits are actually much further away than you might think. A challenge helps you to get motivated for a goal you want to reach. Without motivation live is worthless. Without goals live is boring.
The following windsurfing long distance challenges are on my list:
- Hook of Holland- Den Helder (120 km possible with W or E winds)
- Monaco-Corsica (Calvi) ( 170 km possible with SW or NE winds)
- Monaco-St Tropez (82 km, possible with SE winds)
- Barcelona- Mallorca (Port de Soller) (182 km possible with W winds)
- Golfe de Lyon (Leucate-Hyeres) (250 km possible with SSE or NNW winds)
Hopefully these challenges will be fulfilled within the next 23 years!!
A HUGE THANK YOU for all the people and sponsors who supported the crossing and especially to my lovely wife Saskia and my 3 kids who continue to support my adventures and who have to deal with a ‘not so easy guy’ at times… I am also very thankful for the support of Harco-Jan Folkerts as a coach, training buddy and friend, without his enthusiasm and positive spirit I would probably not have succeeded. And of course the guys at the beach who prepared the finish and who waited for me on the beach in the dark, one word: Fantastic!
Hang on and don’t give up! Chase your dreams and make them happen!
North Sea Crossing Windsurfing Record:
We have calculated that the current record of 7 hours and 56 minutes was set over a distance of 189.3 KM between Lowestoft and Zandvoort in 1998 bij Tim Klijn and Jaap Kriele.
I passed the 189.3km mark after 7 hours and 53 minutes… (calculated from the tracking GPS device) just before another windgap slowed me down for the last 6,5km.
The total distance I covered between Lowestoft and Bergen aan Zee was 195,6 km and it took me 8 hrs and 23 minutes. We are preparing another North Sea Crossing with the P7 Black Team Benelux sometime in the near future to set a better time. Hopefully the wind will stay on…
Mediacoverage North Sea CrossingChiel op 3FM
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