That Summer: Grappling with windsurfing in La Rochelle in 1984

This piece was originally published as part of The Independent’s That Summer series. Find out more about it here.

In 1984 I was young, single and Tiggerishly in the try-anything-once brigade.

Western France was financially beyond the reach of the recently graduated, but I hitched a ride with a friend’s father who had a sailing boat.

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As we edged into La Rochelle’s ancient harbour, he suggested we be the first people there to try the new sport of windsurfing – having picked up a sailboard before we crossed the Channel.

Though the discipline would figure later that summer as a demonstration sport in the Los Angeles Olympics, it was barely known in Europe.

I bounded at the opportunity. “It’ll be a doddle,” I thought, recalling how, a few years earlier, I and a hitchhiking partner had earned enough to pay for a night in a youth hostel by demonstrating another American import – the Frisbee – to the enthusiastic vacanciers on the Côte d’Azur.

I was ready to be admired once more with every budding hunk’s new summertime accessory.

With a gentle Biscay breeze, a warm midsummer sun on my back and a highly visible launchpad, I gently unsheathed the slim board from its pouch and stood back to allow a small throng admire its graceful but primitive lines.

I scoffed at the faint murmur of cynicism aimed at the crazy Anglais now looking as if he was about to take an outsized surfboard onto the waveless harbour water.

Just you wait, I thought: this rosbif will show you a thing or two.

Then it was time to fix the bright yellow sail to complete the construction of this curiousité.

The checklist was almost complete: adjust the Raybans, straighten the denim cut-offs to look the hippest dude this side of Malibu.

HMS Windsurf was now ready for her maiden voyage past the 14th-century Deux Tours flanking the harbour entrance. Confidence on deck was high. My shore team looked on admiringly.

As I approached the water. It was time for the crucial final check.

A surreptitious glance, disguised as a review of meteorological conditions, returned the information I had been hankering. Yes, there was indeed a significant number of attractive girls gazing towards me. This would be the day for a board to be my babe magnet.

As young men are prone to do, I had watched an early adopter windsurfing and was confident I could do the same. I walked the board knee-deep into the water with the sail floating next to it. So far, so good.

Now came the trickier bit: pull the sail up and, just as it caught the wind, jump on the board and hang on to the “wishbone” attached to the mast.

I tried it. I was on. It was moving. I was the coolest man in the Charentes, for a good five seconds.

The damn wishbone, grabbed by a sudden gust, had mutinously slipped out of my hand and, whilst trying to retrieve it, I plummeted headlong into the oily water.

The audience was still there, including a Catherine Deneuve-like demoiselle gazing straight at me. My heart missed a beat but it was time to remount.

Same drill – only this time hanging on to the rig for all I was worth. The wind, helpfully I thought, dropped just as a yacht motored off, frustratingly diverting the attention of my spectators.

But the lack of forward motion and the boat’s wake instantly upset the board. I was soon performing seaborne slapstick as I lurched and slid on its wobbly wooden surface. Wide boards, foot straps and advanced carbon technologies had yet to benefit the windsurfer, and maintaining stability on the prehistoric plank was nigh-impossible.

The clowning inevitably delivered me into deeper water. Backs were beginning to be turned as the port’s attractions suddenly seemed more interesting than an idiot Englishman dunking himself. But Deneuve was still with me. I gave it one more go – for her.

With two harsh lessons learned, nothing could stop me now. The next launch was perfect.

Poise and propulsion were achieved until two kids in a rowing boat came into view on collision course. I hadn’t a clue how to steer and the only way to prevent a calamity was to ditch.

Admiration had turned to humiliation in minutes. My attempt to ignite a French windsurfing revolution and spark a summer romance had failed miserably.

My crew consoled me with a dozen oysters and Muscadet in a restaurant overlooking the scene of my shame. Now that, I realised, was what Tiggers liked best.

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