NauticExpo e-magazine interviewed the Swedish windsurfing champion Anders Bringdal. World champion at the age of 17, the windsurfing legend talks to us about the evolution of the sport, the arrival of kitesurfing and standup paddleboards as well as his new projects like Sea Bubbles.
Interview translated from French by Monica Hutchings.
NE e-magazine: Tell us a bit about your phenomenal career.
Anders: I was born in Stockholm. I started with skiing then my trainer taught me to windsurf when I was 12 years old. I really devoted myself to this, I won different cups and in 1984 I became world champion at the age of 17. This led me to a career in windsurfing. I was world champion in different categories four times. I was the first person to exceed 50 knots in a 500 m windsurfing speed race. Around 2001, I stopped the world championships, I just did a few races for fun. In 2007 I left Hawaii where I had lived almost my whole life. I now live in the south of France and work with Alain Thébault on the Sea Bubbles project.
NE e-mag: Have foils become a major trend for boardsports?
“New boards are too expensive because the material and the whole setup are ultra performing, so it’s becoming a luxury product.”
Anders: Yes. The foil is very interesting because it gives you an incredible sensation when you start to fly and it multiplies the possibilities of what you can do with the same board—even when the wind and wave conditions aren’t perfect. This is true for windsurfing, kitesurfing, surfing or standup paddleboards.
Supercavitating foils are thin like a small piece of cake. They have a lot of drag at lower speeds, but as soon as you exceed 40 knots they no longer have any drag and are thus no longer a speed limit. In windsurfing at the moment we have trouble using this kind of foil as we lack power from the start. As a result, today, the top 20 windsurfers in the world have all reached top speeds between 52.5 and 55 knots. Beyond this, the material can’t keep up, even with lots of wind. You would need supercavitating foils to go faster.
My friend Erik Beale, twice world record holder for windsurfing and the first to exceed 40 knots in 1988, is working on this project. He’s started making supercavitating fins and if he succeeds this will be the next speed gain for windsurfing. We could go up to 60 knots!
NE emag: What are some other material developments?
Anders: Today what’s really innovated windsurf boards are multi-fins. When there were just single-fin boards, if you pushed really hard and rode a wave you had trouble going where you wanted to go. It was a bit technical. Today, the material has become so powerful that it’s like a remote control. If you know how to read the waves you can hit where you want with the power that you want. Thanks to this, we see young surfers doing jumps, a mix of freestyle, 360s everywhere, it’s very impressive.
When it comes to the slalom, which is the most technical sport, for the world cup now everyone has his or her own custom-made fin designed for the way they surf. We’ve come a long way from back in the day. This inevitably opens up more possibilities. In terms of speed before we were all around 46 or 48 knots. Today the 100 best riders in the world have already reached 48 knots. The fastest has reached up to 53 knots. That’s nearly 100 km/h…
NE e-mag: On the other hand, doesn’t the development of this type of ultra-performing material contribute to making sports like windsurfing elitist? Does this partially explain the windsurfing market downturn?
Anders: Yes that’s exactly right. The windsurfing market is stagnating today. People are buying a lot fewer new boards than before. They are too expensive because the material and the whole setup are ultra performing, so it’s becoming a luxury product. But at the same time the market for used boards is still huge.
The market downturn is also due to the fact that today there’s a lot more choice than there used to be. When windsurfing took off in the 80s it was the first extreme sport, there wasn’t anything else, not even roller skating. Today there are so many choices, like kitesurfing, standup paddleboards, or other extreme sports not linked to water like BMX, that there is inevitably less room for windsurfing.
NE e-mag: Are kitesurfing and standup paddleboarding easier and more accessible than windsurfing?
Anders: Actually today it’s easy to learn to windsurf. The period when windsurfing was very difficult because the board was very small and the rigging big is over. In training centers today boards are so big that if you fall you fall on the board. So it’s not hard to learn to windsurf by the end of the first day. However, to learn jumping or planing takes total commitment, it’s as difficult as the first time you learn to swim. This is not at all the case for kitesurfing. Everyone can hold a kite, we have the basics in us, in our body. You can even learn within 4 or 5 days.
NE e-mag: What do you see for the future of board sports?
“It’s more of a plane than a boat. It flies exactly like a fighter plane.”
Anders: Foils have really added a new dimension to kitesurfing, windsurfing etc. And this will continue to increase. In the same way, work on fins and how to decrease drag on windsurf boards is something that will continue to develop. Personally I am in favor of developing events like “Defi Wind” that brings 1,000 amateurs and professionals together on the same start line. This is good for young people as it allows them to get close to their idols and it’s good for the market.
NE e-mag: Tell us about how you met Alain Thébault, creator of the Hydroptère and Sea Bubbles.
Anders: When I left Hawaii I came to the south of France. At home I have a garage with a lot of boards and a lot of sailors stop by to see them. One of these people was Jacques Vincent, a Frenchman who sails the Hydroptère. Then one day I see the boat Hydroptère sailing across from Marseille. So I call up Jacques Vincent and ask him if I can sail with them. I spent the day on board with Alain Thébault and his crew. Then at the end of the day I said thanks and good luck and Alain responded: “But Anders where are you going?” I said: “I’m going home!” He answered: “No you’re not!” And since then he hasn’t left me alone. (Laughs) We broke a record with this boat, we capsized, then we rebuilt it. We continued to work together on other projects together including the Sea Bubbles. (For more information on the Hydroptère read our interview with Alain Thébault here).
When the Sea Bubbles project started, he called me from Hawaii and said: “A small electric boat that flies, what do you think?” I answered: “Cool, but what for?” That’s when we worked on the idea of a water taxi for the Seine that wouldn’t pollute. Instead of just doing a sport for ourselves, we decided to use all of our knowledge for something useful.
NE e-mag: Have the Sea Bubbles started being used on the Seine?
Anders: Since April, the boat is finished. It’s more of a plane than a boat. It flies exactly like a fighter plane, without a computer it wouldn’t fly at all. We regulate the flight height automatically to 10 or 50 cm above the water using sensors. There are about 50,000 lines of code in the boat, it’s very digital and much more technical than a windsurf board.
The problem remains that according to a city bylaw, within the city, we can’t go faster than 12 km/h, sometimes 18 km/h. In order to fly at this very slow speed, we had to use large foils which is very complicated. We were still able to succeed, but are continuing to work with the administration in order to explain to them that it is in fact less dangerous to go faster, and is more useful for everyone. Today the boat runs at 12 km/h, but it is more stable at about 18 km/h and runs really well at 25 km/h. The law in question is 140 years old and not adapted to today’s technology.
We should be operational in Paris by early Spring 2019—we will then be able to deliver a production boat in place of the prototypes we are now using. The city is pushing for this but we need to find an operator who can manage the system and take on the profits as well as the risks. We think we’ve found one as well as a big hotel that wants to be the first customer. We will publicly announce all of this early September.
NE e-mag: Are you already working on a new boat?
Anders: Yes Alain and I are working on another boat, not for cities but for suburbs where speed isn’t limited. And this boat will be able to go at 50 to 60 km/h. It’s the same concept as the Sea Bubbles but the motor is bigger and the foils are smaller. Instead of lifting at about 10 km/h, it lifts at about 18 to 20 km/h and then moves much faster. The energy is the same as it’s all a question of drag. The drag of small foils at high speeds is the same as the drag of big foils at a slower speed. The autonomy is better.
NE e-mag: What was your specific contribution as a windsurfer to the Hydroptère and Sea Bubbles?
Anders: What’s interesting is that the Hydroptère was designed by engineers. But Alain is very open-minded and invited windsurfers, kitesurfers, etc. onto his boat. We’re not engineers but we are experts in gliding. For example, my first day on the Hydroptère I said: “Sorry there’s drag somewhere.” Alain and his engineers all said: “No there isn’t!” I insisted. We started looking for it and at the end of the day they opened up the foils a few centimeters and made a few changes and the boat started to glide better. We windsurfers feel this kind of thing in our bodies because we are on the water so much. The computer can’t really do it because it depends how it’s been configured. Everyone has something to contribute, I think.