Bjorn Dunkerbeck is still one of the fastest windsurfers on the planet, check out his speed tips below, plus the full story of when Adrian Jones went to meet and sail with the Terminator back in 2012…
Don’t forget you can join Bjorn’s virtual speed challenge, taking part across Defi Wind 2015 (14th-17th May).
I’ve been windsurfing for a long time now. In fact, I started windsurfing right about the time Bjorn Dunkerbeck started winning World Cup events, which was back in 1988. I am sure everyone who does this sport has their own idol, someone they look up to and try to emulate and I am sure that when it comes to popularity, the charismatic Robby Naish must take the most votes.
However, for me it’s always been Bjorn. Winning slalom races by a country mile back in the day might have been boring to watch for some, but I thought it was great. The lack of emotion and straight to the point talking style may have been less interesting to some, but to me it gave Bjorn an air of unknown and mystery that left you wondering what he had in reserve. And the fact that when the pressure was on him most, he would up his game to another level, earned him the nick name ‘Terminator’. Mess with Bjorn at your own peril. And that is pretty much what the PWA racing fleet have had to contend with for 23 years. With 41 World Titles to his name, he hasn’t just beaten them, he has on most occasions completely ‘terminated’ them.
So, it is with a slight apprehension that I find myself driving towards Manchester airport at 3:30am on a Wednesday morning destined for Gran Canaria. By lunchtime I will be sailing head to head with Bjorn Dunkerbeck on his home beach and on his own World Title winning slalom gear.
Of course I am well prepared for the encounter. It’s been an extremely busy winter with all the changes at Boards Magazine, so I have trained up for the occasion by spending seven days a week for the past three months tapping away at a keyboard. Winter winds haven’t been great in North Wales, so the only sailing I have done has been three sessions on wave gear and the last time I saw anything that resembled the sun felt like…well probably August!
So, stepping out of the terminal building at Las Palmas felt like walking out of three months in solitary confinement. The sun was shining, the wind was blowing and in 30 minutes I would be on the beach at Arinaga (Bjorns training ground just upwind of Pozo) with the Terminator. I’ve been lucky enough to meet most windsurfers through the years, but have never had the chance to meet Bjorn. From what I have seen of him on video, my impression is that he might not be the most tolerant of characters and I start to think that perhaps I would be less nervous if I was meeting Mr Naish instead.
As we drive down the winding road to Arinaga beach I can see Bjorns van already parked up. We draw along side and see Bjorn sitting in the passenger seat on the phone. At the back of the van is his caddy – yes, you got that right – his caddy, Victor rigging up equipment on his own piece of purpose brought green Astroturf!
I introduce myself to Victor making polite conversation, whilst nervously waiting for Bjorn to finish his phone call. After five minutes or so of anticipation, the door finally opens and out steps Bjorn. Now lets get something straight here. He is massive. At 6’1” I usually stand tall in a crowd but as Bjorn walks over with a welcome smile on his face to shake my hand, I find myself feeling like a little boy in comparison. Straight away, he is not what I expected in terms of character. I expected regimented efficiency, perhaps guarded professionalism and had prepared myself for quite a non-personal encounter with him. But in fact he isn’t like this at all. He is extremely friendly, almost laid back and puts me at ease straight away as we get chatting about a number of things. It doesn’t last long though. After a few minutes chatting he wastes little time in asking what size sail I want to take. Gulp! I have already eyed up the conditions and decide that if I was freestyle sailing I would probably take a 4.5m, so not wanting to sound daft, I casually ask what he is going to use. To which the reply comes, “Victor has rigged me the 7.8m, so you can take the 7.0m or the 6.2m”. My head is saying take the 6.2m, but my unchecked ego spouts out 7.0m before I have time to reel it in. “Ok, no problem, and what size board do you want? You can take the 87 or the 107”. I am thinking 107, because I haven’t sailed a slalom board smaller than that in about 10 years, but decided to seek advice. The reply came “well you are pretty light, so take the 87”. Victor scurried around to prepare my kit for me and I go to get changed.
I ask Bjorn to set it up initially, exactly as he would use it, boom height, footstraps, fin size and all. I want to get a real idea of how different his set-up would feel. I opt for my waist harness as I haven’t sailed in a seat harness for about 10 years either, so want something familiar. Bjorn is a little worried his 30 inch lines will be too big for me. I don’t want to say to him, but I am worried they would be too small as I am used to using 34’s and I have my harness tabs a lot closer together than his.
As I walk to the waters edge, petrified of slipping on one of the rocks and dropping his kit, Bjorn watches on from the beach. The water is flat and the wind cross offshore, by the time I reach the waters edge, the nerves are settling and I am really looking forward to trying this gear.
The wind is a bit lighter next to the beach, but enough to get straight onto the plane. I am expecting the boom to feel much too high, but a, surprised to find it is the perfect height for me. I am also expecting the foot straps to be massive, but again they are absolutely perfect. In fact, the only thing that feels slightly out of sorts, as I gather speed and accelerate out to sea are the harness lines. They are a little shorter than I am used to and the tabs that far apart makes the rig feel less sensitive than I am used to. Later Bjorn explained that with the tabs further apart he finds that it stabilises the rig more and with longer arms you can afford to have them further apart.
I am really surprised at just how easy this kit is to sail, and I don’t mean that in a complacent way at all. The sail is incredible. It has so much power to it, but the impressive bit is when the gust hits. You really don’t find yourself having to adjust to the power much at all, as the sail just holds its shape and accelerates you faster and faster with a very forward pull point and a surprisingly light feeling on your back hand. The board takes slightly more getting used to mainly because of its size. 87 is quite a small board to use with a 7.0m. Bjorn later told me that he would only use that combo for downwind slalom otherwise he would normally opt for the 107 board with the 7.0m. There is nothing hard about it, but it did feel a little frisky at times in the gusts and when heading tight to the wind I occasionally get a bit of spin out. Although, that is probably as much a reflection of my poor technique than on the combination itself.
As I head out to sea the wind gets stronger and stronger and the water state choppier and choppier. I am pretty stacked with the 7.0m to say the least, but rather than being out of control, it was more a feeling of not having enough strength and weight to lock it down and to get the top speed out of it. I looked for a flatter patch between the chop and went for the gybe. Not my finest, but around safe and dry, which is good enough for me! I am surprised at how easily the cambers rotated. My experience with race sails is of kicking them and banging them to get them around, but with Bjorns sail, they just flick into place on the new tack as soon as you sheet in with your back hand. As I blast back in towards the shore, I can see Bjorn carrying his kit down. I meet him in waist deep water and he asks me “how is it”? With a big smile on my face, I can muster nothing more sensible than “really good!” After noticing the big luff tube and lack of uphaul, I ask him how easy it is to waterstart and his reply comes “they aren’t really designed to go in the water, best not to drop it!”
We both beach start together and head out to sea. I am set-up underneath Bjorn and slightly in front of him. I can’t believe I am drag racing the Terminator! Because he is above me, I can’t really see what he is doing. I give it everything I have and wait for him to sail over me, but he doesn’t. After a while, I take a glance around and see him cruising along above me with a smile on his face. He is clearly taking it easy on me! As we get closer and closer to the time we need to gybe I am starting to worry about dropping it. What will I look like if I drop my first gybe right in front of the Terminator?! He is right behind me so is going to see everything. I don’t normally worry too much about gybing, but the pressure is on big time here! I take my back foot out of the strap, move my hand back on the boom and try to think about the exit. And just as I am about to step forward I hear a splash from behind me. I step forward, look around and amazingly Bjorn has gone in. He laughes it off, but it is a great icebreaker, that really took the pressure off me for the rest of the session. If you did that intentionally Bjorn – thank you very much!
For the next hour we blast around right next to each other, upwind, downwind, in and out. Whilst there is no doubting he is unbelievably fast and considerably faster than me, I found it quite hard to get a real measure of how we compare, because a lot of the time he is taking it easy and staying next to me. I kind of feel that in a lull, when I am well powered (instead of overpowered) and I am giving it everything I have, I can just about hold with him. But then as soon as a gust hits, I struggle to keep the power locked down. In comparison, Bjorn looks like he barely moves and just accelerates away from me every time. To be honest, I felt a little off balance in the gusts. As the gusts hit it feels like I need to rake the sail even further back to keep everything locked in, but the foot of the sail is stopping me from doing this. So instead, I am having to sheet out a little and come more upright to stop the nose of the board bearing off involuntarily in the gusts. It certainly makes the situation a bit unnerving when I am just upwind of him and a big gust hits. Several times I feel like I am going to suddenly bear down on top of him, out of control at top speed. I don’t think this would make me very popular!
It’s incredibly hard work sailing slalom gear, particularly when you are trying to save face next to the 41 times World Champion. After an hour, I simply can’t lock the board down any more as my legs are like jelly and my mouth is as dry as a dessert. I go in for a drink and Bjorn stays out. It amazes me just how keen this guy is still is after all these years. Whilst we are sailing, he is whooping, cheering and smiling, clearly just loving being on a board. When I stop I expect him to use the excuse to come in too, but no way, he stays out and burns around the bay until I am ready to join him again.
As I walk back into the water, he meets me in the shallows and I decide to ask him about the control issue I am having in the gusts. He replies that normally he would only use my combination (7.0m and 87) for downwind slalom and suggests that at my weight I need the boom a little lower to get more lift from the fin and balance things out properly. I am about to make an adjustment when he asks if I would like to try the bigger gear.
The fact I was stacked on the 7.0m doesn’t fill me with confidence at the idea of now using the 7.8m. I ask him how powered up he is on the 7.8m and what he would be using if he was racing. Bjorn replies “For me, the 7.8m is perfect. If I was racing I would be on this combination right now”. This at least fills me with some confidence. After battling with the 7.0m for the past hour, I certainly didn’t want to hear that he was underpowered on the 7.8m! So I decide to give the 7.8m a go, which he has paired up with the 107 board.
The rig feels a tiny bit heavier and the boom is set at 145cm high instead of 140cm, but as I get going I am immediately surprised at how much more balanced this set-up feels for me. The board is the key difference. It feels bigger, but a lot more settled in the water. The nose stays locked down more easily and when the gusts hit, despite being ridiculously overpowered with the rig, the board stays more balanced and controlled than I found with the smaller combination, letting me really lock against it and go for speed. After a few runs I am starting to feel pretty confident on this set-up. I am way overpowered on the 7.8m but similar to what I found on with the 7.0m, it’s not a fight, more my lack of strength and weight to keep it sheeted in and locked down in the gusts. It amazes me how much range these sails have. With such a light feel on the back hand, the top end is unbelievable, but even in the big lulls next to the beach, I never once felt the urge to let some outhaul off. I have never used a sail with so much range under one setting.
Gybing is really good fun and surprisingly easy on both sets of gear. The 87 definitely felt more agile, but in the glassy flat water next to the beach, even the 107 feels great to gybe. Really predictable, yet quite responsive allowing you to adjust the radius of the turn mid gybe. Bjorn tells me that he doesn’t follow the trend of using wide back-ends on his race boom as he finds them amongst other things, poor for gybing.
Bjorn is sailing around on the 7.0m and 87 combination so I decide to line-up with him and see if I fare any better on the bigger gear. We head out to sea, with Bjorn slightly in front and downwind of me. This time I can see everything. We are sailing quite close to the wind and for a moment I feel like I might just be holding with him, but it’s short lived. As the gust hits, he bears right off the wind and goes for a very broad reach through the chop. I give it everything as I try to pick my way through the chop. It feels ridiculously fast as the board bounces from one piece of chop to the next, the rig powered up to the point that there is still too much power even going this broad off the wind. I glance up to see where Bjorn is and just can’t believe how much he has pulled out on me. The speed difference is ridiculous. I have no chance of staying anywhere near him and the crazy thing is that I feel like I am going pretty damn fast! How someone gets that much extra speed out of the gear is beyond me. He looks completely in control and sails with quite a low and dropped stance, with a surprising amount of leg bend. He just never looks to get unsettled. Despite the gusts and chop, from my view point (which is a long way behind by now), he looks like he is sailing on smooth water. His body is hardly moving. The only giveaway is the top of the rig, which is springing open and clearly taking the punishment of all his strength and power.
After a few more runs, I am completely done in, so we go ashore to chat things through. I drag my weary body over the stones trying not to drop his kit and see that Victor already has the chairs out ready for us. We sit down on our Astroturf garden and Victor brings us a chilled Red Bull each. I don’t normally drink the stuff, but after a 3:00am start and three hours of being ‘terminated’, it is gratefully received!
We chat for sometime about the finer details of his equipment and I am surprised just how open he is about it all. He takes the time to explain everything properly and it is apparent that this is a guy who leaves nothing to chance. Every intricate detail of his equipment, fitness and performance has been thoroughly thought through, tested, refined and implemented.
I ask him how he thinks the Bjorn of today would stack up in a competition against the Bjorn of ten years ago. He replies, “That’s a tough one hey! The equipment definitely has a much bigger range. Myself 10 years ago had no chance against me on the equipment from today because the range is much bigger. We used to need a perfect day on a 5.5m to do 40 knots, now we are doing it consistently with 7.8m’s and 60cm wide boards. The equipment is a lot more efficient nowadays. My experience is a little more now and I am certainly more relaxed in competition, but generally it’s the equipment that has made the big difference.”
I tell him that I am surprised how easy his World Title equipment is to sail and that I was expecting it to be much more challenging and definitely more of a handful considering my size and weight compared with his. He replies “I prefer easy equipment. I just want to go fast on it and have a good time. The equipment is very forgiving and does a lot of the work for you. Starboards have always been easy to sail and if the equipment helps you to stay on the water then you are going to be faster in the end. If you have to work too hard, you will get tired quickly and there are too many possibilities for falling in.”
I ask him about the technique required to go fast, but am left with the impression that for Bjorn, this is more of a subconscious talent developed through years and years of practice than a clearly defined technique principle. “You always need to be watching for the gusts and ready to put some weight through your front foot when the gusts hit, but being used to your gear is the key. For sure there is still a lot of technique involved, but I don’t really think about it anymore.”
As we finish our chat, I expect Victor to pack Bjorns kit away. So it surprises me to see Bjorn go back out onto the water. For him this must be a fairly average day at his local beach, but it’s clear that after more than 30 years of windsurfing, he is still completely bitten by it. You always hope that when you finally get to meet your idol, that you won’t be disappointed and regret all those years of admiration. I started off the day feeling nervous about the encounter, but ended the day with more admiration than ever for the Terminator.
As a farewell and a thank you for his time, I thought it would be rude not to send the Clone out on his gear to tune it up for him. Bjorn was extremely grateful and now feels more confident than ever that World Title number 42 is on its way!
ADRIAN’S SET-UP TIPS
Boom Height: 140-150cm depending upon conditions and board width
Harness Line Length: 30cm (28cm if light and flat)
Harness Choice: Seat (Waist for 6.2m and windier)
Fins: In the 87, I use 30-34cm fins depending upon the conditions and course. In the 107, I usually use a 40cm, if its really smooth I will use 38cm and if its gusty a 42cm.
Ideal set up: 87, 6.2m & 32cm fin
Mast track setting: Roughly the recommended Starboard set, sometimes 1cm further forward. Lighter riders might use it 1cm further back.
Footstraps: Slightly bigger in rough conditions to give more contact and control
Downhaul: Recommended Severne setting. 1cm less if it’s gusty and a little more if it’s smooth or the sail has had a few months stretching in.
Outhaul: Use adjustable outhaul to get more range. More outhaul makes the sail flatter and gives the sail a better top speed, less outhaul gives more power and better for gustier conditions.