Discussing windsurfing with Graeme Fuller

 A Windsurfer Pioneer

“Are you the windsurfing pioneer in the UK?” This was my opening and (not-so) o-so creative question.

The ‘Windsurf Pioneer’ is a big title and not one to be bestowed lightly. However, I had an inkling (that was corroborated by what so many other people were saying), that if there was anyone who deserved this particular handle, it would probably be Graeme. I was not disappointed by our discussion.

I’d arranged to meet him at the club to watch the Tuesday night racing. With the lifting of lockdown restrictions, we’d only recently been allowed out again, but Graeme had not sailed in over a year. In fact, I had over-heard the Septuagenarian saying tongue firmly in cheek, that due to being so medically “vulnerable”, he had complied with total lockdown and was now worried that he had, “forgotten how to windsurf”.

I was running a tad late and by the time I got to the beach I could see his green Triumph Street Scrambler parked against the sea defences and most of the Tuesday night windsurfing royalty were already rigged and well under way. I found him down-hauling his bespoke 9.5 M race kit and Pan Am board. “I am going to join them for just one race”. He didn’t want to enter all the races he explained, “as I am worried that I have lost all my strength”. He had previously agreed to let me try out his kit and so I was happy to wait. I went and got changed and when I got back, I was impressed to see that he was not only competing but, on the beat up to the windward buoy, way out front having found a ‘tactical assistant’ in wind and tide conditions. However The final section was a run back to the home mark, I could see he was moving faster than most of the others, but being chased by one of the not altogether happy regulars who went on to just pip him at the mark.

True to his word, he came in, handed the kit over with suggestions for keeping closer to the shore where the wind was stronger and the tide was weaker, and then he shoved off for the bar. I headed out across the Bay towards the mile buoy just happy to be riding the fastest and most advanced windsurfing rig I’d ever experienced. It was a joy. You feel as though you are back riding in the top bar of the jumbo jet, and the super-light 9.5 rig actually feels more the weight of a standard 3.3. They say you don’t know a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes. Well, I had his kit, was now a mile away and pointed broadly at the Normandy landings. The burning temptation was to keep going and complete the cross-channel flight First Class.

Anyway, a little later we resumed our conversation in the club house.

In answer to my opening question, Graeme was quick to point out to me that Barry James was the first ‘pioneer’ here in Kent, and it was through him and his desire for a new ‘windsurfing’ school, that provided the initial impetus.

Regardless of Graeme’s reaction I pushed forward. To be the acknowledged pioneer you obviously have to have done pioneering things. So, (as they say in Life of Brian), what did Graeme ever do for our sport?

Well, let’s take a look at some of the pioneering things he’s done. How about these:

  • The first person to cross the English Channel on a tandem sailboard
  • The first person to race with cambered sails in the UK
  • The first person to use a retractable centreboard
  • The first professional windsurfing sailor
  • The first Open Class and Windsurfer National class champion, and winner of the Heineken Series in 1979
  • 1980-81 Winner of both the National ‘open class’ and ‘Windsurfer’ series
  • The first Brit to sail and waterstart a ‘sinker’ surfboard in UK waters
  • Set up the first National Windsurfing Exhibition in 1980

In 1982 – he “retired” to write one of the first windsurfing textbooks for beginners, ‘LET’S GO WINDSURFING’ and to launch Windsurf magazine. He designed and built the Turbo div 2 Board and helped Robby & Rick Naish and Karl Messmer at Mistral, to build prototype div 2 Boards and the later Mistral Equipe2 and Pan Am.

He represented the UK in the National team in Cancun Mexico in ‘78, Greece in ‘79, the Bahamas in ‘80 and Japan ‘81 . After the success in the Heineken series, the Danish Brewer Carlsberg offered a lucrative sponsorship deal which he used to further promote windsurfing and build the Mistral One design Class as well as setting up the first National Windsurfing Team (which included fellow club members Anthony Elford, Phil Coull and later Steve Avery and Marc Carney).

The Carlsberg and the Carlsberg-Mistral-Tushingham squad went on to include many notable sailors of the period, including Lester Noble, Guy Farrant, Ben Oakley, Roger Tushingham, Clare Seegar, Dee Caldwell, & Steve Keigthley. Later in 1985 Graeme came out of retirement to win Gold in the Toronto Masters Games and the Mistral National Championship of that year. Then again in 1987 as a birthday treat to himself using those new ‘cambered sails’, he won the Round West Mersey Race. He competed in many marathons including the 100 mile Weymouth to Brighton Grundig Marathon and Annual Round Hayling Races. In the latter winning eluded him with a particularly irritating 2nd place having been pipped quite literally at the post after a four hour pump fest, by Dave Perks (in the early eighties).

His last blast was to accompany his daughter Serena to the Youth and Masters Nationals in 1999 where they both won their classes which brought to a close 20 years of on and off top level competition.

So just to recap, apart from winning all the gongs, being the first water-starter, first cambered sail racer, first to use a retractable centreboard, building state-of-the art boards, getting the sponsorship, launching the magazine, writing the textbook, helping so many youngsters, wearing the T-shirt and putting together the National teams – what did Graeme ever do for windsurfing?

I was interested to know why out of all the international windsurfing and sailing club venues he could have settled in, he chose Hythe & Saltwood? He replied, other than the fact I live here and have business interests, “The conditions here in Hythe are quite challenging, the water is dumpy, we have a shore-break and the patterns are sketchy. It’s quite a difficult place to sail, but the wind is at least clean, and this factor trumps most others”. He went onto say, “Anyway, geographically speaking we are very fortunate on our peninsula to have access to so many beaches that can provide ideal conditions regardless of the wind direction”.

Teach without teaching

“It is a bit of a cliché to say – if you can sail here, you can sail anywhere – but this is so true for Hythe. Ironically, it is precisely for this set of marine challenges, along with the skills and raw enthusiasm of so many of our older members that our youngsters are doing so incredibly well on the National and International circuits”. Graeme went on to mention all the youngsters who he has seen come through the club and says, “it is just fantastic to see so many of these kids go on to do such great things”.

“We are one of the top competitive clubs in the country for windsurfing”. He says, “When helping youngsters with their windsurfing it is really important to ‘not teach’. It’s about creating an environment where they enjoy the sport for it’s own sake rather than doing it for someone elses”.

Windsurfing and other wind driven sports are simply the best thing a person can have the privilege of being capable of, all that needs to be done is to help them discover our world.

He says, “The first Ad I ever saw said ‘Buy a Windsurfer and See the World’ so I did”.

And so should you.

Interview by Bob Davidson