Jenna Gibson

2019 Windsurfer of the Year

IFCA Women’s Slalom World Champion 2018, European Champion 2019

The tide rips by fast in Hythe. Kelp clings, but not to the elite windsurfers who practice days on end and resist urges to bask. It’s Spring chill in the waters off the Garden of England, and Jenna Gibson is somewhere in a hospital taking treatment for a burst appendix. None of the usually prescribed pain meds will do, because this is the eve of the 2019 World Windsurfing Championships, and this year Gibson must rise to her status as World Champion and reimagine principles of torque-induction, biomechanics, meteorology, hydrology, physics and physiology. And, soft goo of nutrients escaping a burst intestine or not, she must do it with a smile, and on a wave.

No matter how swank her rig, or sleek her Duotone board, she’s a killer as stone cold as a Syren or Amphitrite. She evolves each time she competes. Plus, Gibson will race time down with a freestyle manoeuvre or a back loop pulled higher than any quarterpipe snowboarder.

She is forced to miss the first races of a gruelling international circuit and it is impossible to achieve top world rankings, but she is immediately back to winning form. Her first taste of race combat immediately following surgery is an epic in the Aegean for the European IFCA Championships. She wins 14 out of 15 races and the Championship to add to her World Title from the year before. Later voyaging northeast from Hythe, Kent to the Norse fortress of Hvide, Sande, Gibson chases down the Vikings on their home surf and returns victorious.

Only an elite few are granted gifts of super-power proportion, whether Tiger Woods or Maria Sharapova. Gifts come at a price. While Georgie Best delighted at Man Utd, those who knew him wondered how he even survived the infamous toxicity, let alone help his club win matches. They asked how good he would have been without dragging that alcoholic anchor. You don’t get one without the other. At eighteen Gibson was struck down with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). For mere mortals the utterly debilitating combination of total exhaustion, palpitations and crippling headaches would bring any activity to a halt, however, Gibson treated this two-year interphase as something more akin to the ‘quickening’ in the Highlander. On her return to health she had a need to race.

She could now walk on water.

Gibson is unassuming. She is so unassuming that unless you had seen her on the water or watched her on the BBC, on YouTube, or on a sports channel you would have no idea. What is it that motivates her? What makes her so good? Did she have pushy parents?

Both Jenna’s parents are keen sailors and windsurfers. Andy races every Tuesday night with the windsurfing royalty who school at Hythe & Saltwood Sailing Club. He is a frequent winner of national competitions including the Round Sheppey Race. Mum, Carol is also a former windsurfing instructor. However, Dad’s job was in Belgium and so up until the age of twelve sailing opportunities were severely restricted and riding predominated instead. “We didn’t live by the sea until we moved to Kent”. Both Mum and daughter insist that the children including sister Ellie and brother Owen were encouraged to do whatever sport they wanted. However, when Jenna was aged six the family took extended holiday from work, borrowed a friend’s boat to sail around the Balearics and then returned the vessel via the Bay of Biscay. Gibson says, “Sailing is a drug and I am happy to admit my addiction.” She goes on, “I was never forced to windsurf. We went on a holiday to Turkey when I was eleven and I tried my first windsurfer. That’s when the bug bit”. At seventeen, Gibson was entered into the North Sea Cup and, with the only serviceable kit available being her Dad’s old ragged sail, she won.

The talent was developed at Hythe. Hythe became one of those places in time and space where things started to collide. The wind is predominantly so’ westerly. Hythe Bay forms the final stretch of southern coast at the thin end of the French-facing funnel before squirting under pressure  into the North Sea. Wind, wave, tide and swell focus on a shingle shore break. Perceived wisdom has it that, if you can launch and sail here, you can sail anywhere. It is this that makes Hythe perfect for the pro’s. Gibson understates, “last week it was blowing over 30 knots on-shore at high tide. I didn’t mind the waves breaking over the top, but the irregular angles and patterns made finding the best wave to gybe on a bit difficult.” She explains, “For top speeds part of the skill to compete is to try and maintain constant contact with the water without taking-off, and the sharp waves off Hythe can present a particular challenge. Holding the rig down here, the practice provides excellent shape for low-flying skills anywhere”.