Where the experts holiday: windsurfer Benjamin Helps

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions
Ben by the sea. Where else would expect to find him?

Ben by the sea. Where else would expect to find him?

What prompted an interest in windsurfing?

I’d always been keen on the water and had been mucking around in the surf with friends for years, usually using the cheapest, easiest ways to get in. Cold water swimming and body-boarding in the sloppy surf at Boscombe and Highcliffe  is what I used to do. We would use any old wetsuit despite the freezing water, I often used my dad’s, which we nicknamed the ‘hungry bear’ (the extra rubber gave you the look of a grizzly before salmon season).

My first try at sailing was when I went for a lesson with a family friend. I was 12 and picked it up pretty quickly but didn’t stick with it (a decision I regret these days, ha!). Years later a friend suggested we go hire some gear for the day as ‘something different’ to do, surprisingly, everything I learnt came straight back to me!

Fortunately my uncle Andy (a keen dinghy sailor and e-Bayer) had some beginners equipment which he lent me and so began my first season learning to sail. I was working a 9-5 temp job and nearly every evening I’d turn up at Whitley Lake in Poole Harbour, around half five, rig up and start playing. Every session was different (and still are) and I picked up a new technique, or improved an old one, every time.

I think it’s the curve that gets you, everything comes gradually. Before you know it, you can do it, but you’ll never master it!

Does your family have associations with the sea?

at Kimmeridge in Dorset

at Kimmeridge in Dorset

My Dad used to windsurf a lot before us kids came along, I remember him rinsing his kit down in the garden after every session (a task that advances in equipment has, fortunately, rendered obsolete) he kept the gear which took its place in the shed for a few years. He comes out with me occasionally now but the chances to sail together are pretty slim now as I tend to sail in conditions he’s not comfortable in.

Andy (my uncle) helped get me into the sport and works as a diving engineer, he’s passionate about the sea in many ways and I often sail with him when he’s not offshore. He’s teaching me to sail trapeze on one of his many dinghies right now (eBay is great, but you will end up with too many boats).

Why Poole Harbour as a base?

Poole Harbour is a very special location where water sports are concerned. At Whitley Lake, or Evening Hill as many know it, there is a large expanse of water that is reserved exclusively for water sports. The harbour itself has an average depth of just 48cm and the majority of it has a mix of sand and mud on the bottom, Whitley Lake is almost all sand and, depending on the tide, is usually around waist deep. It’s perfect for many activities and some people spend their whole sailing lives enjoying its safety, convenience and shallow waters.

It’s when you look outside the harbour that you realise how great its location is. A few steps across the road is Sandbanks Beach, a relatively sheltered and easy place to take your first steps into coastal sailing, the waves do get to a decent size in the winter but it’s usually pretty calm. From here there are a plethora of venues around Poole Bay, each with their own character, and for the more advanced sailor, the legendary Kimmeridge Bay offers full-on jumping and wave riding.

Gwithian in Cornwall

Gwithian in Cornwall

For someone getting into windsurfing, it’ll cater for your first wobble across the water and will push you as far as your nerve will take you!

Why did you set up the school?

The school had been a part of a local surf shop, H2O Sports. I had been teaching freelance for couple of years when the guys offered me the chance to run things for myself; they were becoming very busy with the shop and couldn’t manage both effectively. I stepped in last year and loved it! I’m pretty keen on keeping things neat and tidy and love having my own space to teach from.

There’s plenty of business to be done but my biggest reason for taking over and improving the school is that I just love the work! I get the chance to work outside in some spectacular weather (even when its chucking it down, you’re already wet!) with people that are keen and happy to be out there with you. The sport is so addictive that it’s pretty much all I think about!

What sets the school apart from others?

I think it’s all down to the instructor, we have some great equipment and are in a good location but it’s easy to get stuck with an instructor that doesn’t fit your expectations. I feel I’ve got a unique set-up, I alone control the school so everyone from the kids to the improvers gets tuition from the guy calling the shots. This allows me the freedom to teach how I like and how I like it is to get people out there. Other schools have strict lesson plans and don’t give the full value of having an experienced instructor with you, I think you’ve got to keep people going. Some clients have almost natural ability and should be shown as many skills as possible and not limited to those lesson plans.

Also, as other instructors are employed, there is not so much care taken in building a rapport with their clients in some schools. I’m a confident and friendly guy and feel the best way secure a customer, is to secure a friendship, the former follows the later. Some clients even stay in touch on a personal level all through the down season.


Bigbury Bay in Devon

Bigbury Bay in Devon

Where else have you windsurfed?

As yet, I haven’t taken my windsurfing abroad! I’m keen to do so at some point but for now the UK is just too good, and I’ve only scraped the surface. No two days are the same at any location so even my local venues have unlimited potential, but, if the wind isn’t blowing at home you need to load up and head out!

I’m really keen on Cornwall, especially Gwithian, I’ve sailed there a few times now and the venue has a great setup! I’ve also sailed Perranporth, and have even given the south end of the beach a go, it was tricky to say the least! There are two beaches on the hit list for this year and those are Marizion and Daymer Bay. I’ve seen Daymer in action but didn’t have any equipment with me, I’ve got to have the Doom Bar under my belt!

Bigbury Bay in south Devon is the nearest wave venue to the west and you can get some spectacular days when the conditions are right, I’ve had good days there but not scored anything too great yet (its ok, you have to be patient when dealing with the weather). I had a good day a few weeks ago, flat at one side of the bay and mast high waves (4m) at the other, choose your difficulty! I’ve surfed at Saunton Sands on the north coast but not sailed there yes, it’s on the list!

The only venue I’ve visited to the east is West Wittering. There was a massive swell running up the channel and our home break would have been suicidal. (It’s hemmed between a cliff and a military firing range.) It wouldn’t offer much without the swell but did make for a fantastic session that day.

Where would you recommend people travel to for the best wind surfing?

West Wittering on the Sussex coastline

West Wittering on the Sussex coastline

That totally depends on your ability and what you are comfortable with. If you are just starting out there are many locations to get your toes wet, Poole of course, but also Plymouth, Weymouth, Hayling Island, Calshot and many lakes offer facilities. If you like the water to be a little more three dimensional, the spots I’ve mentioned are gorgeous locations (save Perranporth, get to the middle of the beach, the south is hard work!).

With an infinitely varied coastline there are still countless places to get stuck in and, if you’re skilled enough, few are totally unsailable!

Where do you like to holiday?

I think the way I look at my sport has given me a great gift. I’m totally content with going anywhere that I can surf or sail! With so many venues in England, not to mention Wales, Scotland and Ireland, I’m going to be very happy travelling within the UK for a good while yet. It’s so easy too, no admin, just get on the road with your kit and a tent!

If I had to pick a favourite it would be to grab a few friends, head to Crantock in Cornwall, set up the bell tent at a small private campsite (don’t forget the bunting!) and hit the water. Make sure a BBQ, some good ale and eggs for breakfast are included and I’m happy!

Where would you like to holiday where you have been to before?

A few months back I visited the Mumbles in Wales, the beaches there were very beautiful and, having done a little research, can be very good for surfing. At the time I didn’t get the chance to explore the area much, it would be nice to get to know it (it just so happens that my cousin is at university in Swansea so accommodation wouldn’t be hard to find). We were there to go mountain biking at the Afan Forest the first time around, that was great fun and the hire facilities are pretty excellent. If the surf isn’t showing the forest provides a great backup.

What are the future plans for the school?

A man who can't wave goodbye to the sea - and windsurfing

A man who can’t wave goodbye to the sea – and windsurfing

Currently, I’m working on building its reputation and refreshing some of the kit. I’d like to grow the client base a little more and expand into paddleboard hire/instruction but for the time being I’m quite happy with how things are going. The school has a good following of rapidly improving sailors and more are joining in the fun each week. I’m safe in the knowledge that I run a fantastic school with a great ethos, so long as I’m making windsurfers, I’m happy! More of the same please!

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

It is of course, apparent to me, that teaching forever is not an ideal. A windsurfing instructor in his/her late thirties/forties doesn’t look quite as cool as one in his/her twenties. When promoting an activity such as this, I think it’s important to give people an image similar to that of surfing; trendy, cool and adventurous etc. For this reason and the fact that teaching in the sun all day can take its toll, I’d look to take more of a management role and do less instructing. Who knows, maybe I can pull off the ‘trendy, middle aged instructor’, I’ve heard it’s possible.

For up-to-date news on Ben’s windsurfing school, click here or go to https://www.facebook.com/h2owindsurfingschool



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