2021 Mistral Round Hayling Island Challenge

By Steve West

The Iconic Round Hayling Island Race established 1980, now becomes the ‘Mistral Round Hayling Island Challenge’ back to its Windsurfing roots.

‘Hayling Island is like Hawaii’ was the old bi-line and while it’s not even close, the idea plays on the minds of those who need to escape the rat race and enjoy the islands varied waters. Hayling is more of a social experiment in soporific psychedelia; God’s waiting room for retirees to flock to and a place for the young to conceive creative ways of leaving. 

Nevertheless, the island has a certain backward charm, which brings back many of those who leave and if you’re a water sports enthusiast, it offers much, even if you must pay an arm and a leg to park your vehicle, staring wide-eyed toward a watery horizon through swishing wiper blades wishing you were somewhere else; usually sometime in February, March.

The Island’s saving grace, is that for all it lacks in facilities and land based excitement, it’s fringes are a mix of bird sanctuaries, sand banks, tidal estuaries, creeks, oyster beds and marshlands, where rural England meets a salty perimeter and include areas of outstanding beauty, making it idyllic and highly appealing for beach and water lovers. 

Triangular shaped, its apex to the North, it is some 7 miles long and 5 along its Southern shoreline. Circumnavigation at high water, approximates 14.5 miles or 23.4 kms depending on what craft sits under you. The island’s topography ensures an ever changing mix of water conditions, affected by strong tidal flows and undercurrents travelling over every shifting extensive sandbanks and winter storms. To the East, Chichester Harbour an area of outstanding beauty and one of Britain’s busiest recreational seafaring playgrounds and to the West, a narrow straight permits waters to flood in and out to make up Langstone Harbour. 

Strong tidal flows
Ever present strong tidal flows work hard to fill both harbour areas; 7 hours to fill and a mere 5 to empty, which if you know your tides, makes for a relatively relaxed flood and sometimes a terrifying ebb especially if wind is over water which catches many a rookie out. Conditions can be described at times as dangerous, its waters to be respected for the non initiated and wise. Prevailing South Westerlies bend around the island presenting an ever shifting challenge of variance of wind direction. Indeed from any direction, the wind will bend and play havoc with your mind. In short, its topography and mild conditions make it an ideal water playground for all manner of water sports and not just board sports. Some days offer decent surf at either island extremities.

In summer with fine weather, you struggle to get on the island in the morning or depart at sunset via the bridge. The speed limit on the island is a mere 30mph; just as well, given the size of some of the potholes. There are a few pubs of note and several anachronistic holiday camps and where fine dining is concerned, you can have anything you like, so long as it comes with chips, or select from an unfeasible number of Indian Restaurants. Having had its hay day in Victorian times, when a rail line ran from London to Hayling, it was promoted as having some of the finest quality air and beaches in England.

Clutching to its perception as a holiday destination of merit, the locals once had a casual symbiotic relationship with the ‘holiday maker’ when it suited the island’s economy and the resident ratio to tourist numbers were in relative harmony. Today, the island has moved on from these hedonistic notions of a holiday nirvana. Young families have populated the island and professionals and others commute off-island for work or have found their niche on the island. 

Sadly, the local Council treats the island with benign distain, a fringe outpost of its Borough all the while ignoring Hayling Island is in fact Britain’s Wembley Stadium of water sports. For all of its shortcomings, it is by default, not just one of Britain’s foremost breeding ground for water sports champions in many varied disciplines, but indeed a venue of global significance to the water sports world. 

Peter Chilvers
One of the island’s notable claims to fame, of which it makes no claim at all, is that the inventor of the windsurfing concept is legally credited to that of the late Peter Chilvers, a regular visitor to the island where he experimented the concept, a fact proven in the Law Courts and a pivotal moment of the sports history which served to extinguish patents and open the sport up with his first of type attempts. This is no small thing, yet is may just as well have been. 

More’s the point, the windsurfing world more or less reject this fact and would rather cite Californian Jim Drake and Hoyle Schweitzer, creators of the Windsurfer® in blatant disregard for the facts, or turn their attention to a chap called Newman Darby, another American who pre-dates Mr Schweitzer’s claims.

In 1981 I sailed a replica of the Newman Darby Board built from original plans, while Simon Bornhoft, a regular Hayling Island sailor, sailed the Chilver’s board. Films were made of us using these first of type creations and these were reviewed in court and assisted in building a case against the claims made by Hoyle Schweitzer and his team of lawyers. 

One of the key witnesses provided by Schweitzer’s team, was an elderly resident Hayling Island lady, who, when asked if she knew what a Windsurfer was and had she every seen one, replied she had not. When prompted by the defence, she recalled a young boy called Peter, who would be on the water, sailing standing up. Peter won his case, but there was disbelief and claims he had fabricated his story. Lawyers travelled to the UK to see his so called invention and within minutes of his setting it up and setting off on the water, they began leaving, convinced they had no case.

Perhaps the seminal moment for Hayling’s windsurfing came when the late Peter Williams, founded Northney Boardsailing School, located at Northney on the Northern tip of the island. In September of 1979 I visited the School and took a brief International Windsurfer School (IWS) lesson and hastily departed for Mauritius to put the skills to practice. Returning some months later, I purchased a board from Peter and was on the water daily and within a few short months qualified as an IWS instructor and took on the role as Senior Instructor and Promotions Manager.

During the early part of 1980, Peter and I had windsurfed around the island and we concluded a race around the island should be offered. We did not have long to arrange it and the date was set for October 1980. That summer was hectic. Windsurfing was ‘going off’ and we were teaching up to 130 people per week. Boards were flying out the door and we were all improving our skills. 

As plans grew for the event, we knew we would possibly get things wrong and the events success would be dependent on the wind; too much, too little. To make it more of a spectacle and to entice sailors to travel long distances to the event, it was concluded the event should run over two days. The Saturday was a three-stage, three race set up with an overall winner; the Post House Race and included two stops travelling anti-clockwise; starting Northney to The Ferry Boat Pub, onwards to Hayling Island Sailing Club then to Northney. The Sunday was the Mercedes (Spartruks) Round Hayling Marathon, a non-stop 16 mile challenge. 

The events success convinced us, this needed to become an annual event. In October 1981, the Saturday was a non-stop challenge, named, the Long Distance Round The Island Post House Prize Race. Sunday we ran the newly named Peter Stuyvesant Round Hayling Race, with the three-race format. Peter Stuyvesant, for which I was now acting as Team Captain of their Windsurfing Display Team were active sponsors of water skiing, offshore power boating, snow skiing and boat shows. In this year, it was predicted 250 competitors would attend, however extreme high winds limited the number to 200. Saturday had a Force 8 gale and Sunday large waves along the seafront making it necessary to shorten the course. Sunday’s event had 100 starters.

£1000 first prize
In 1982, £1000 first prize was offered, to attract ever greater numbers and talent to coincide with the emergence of professional windsurfing events. Light winds ensured everyone took part. Up to 17 rescue boats were employed and it was left to the legendary Freddie Gale from HISC as Race Director to make the final call regarding the event structure. 

By 1986 numbers were up to 497 competitors and in 1987 the event saw another huge turn out and was now named the Budweiser Round Hayling Marathon. Saturday was still a three-stage event and the Sunday, the Budweiser Non-Stop Marathon. 1991 a record 555 competitors entered, but on day 1, only 10 completed the full course due to high winds while on day 2, no wind replaced gales and only 27 completed the race course.

In 1992 the event start, moved to the Hayling Island seafront in the belief it had outgrown the facilities of Northney Marina and it was hoped to stage a much larger show, with trade stands and demonstrations. Only one day would be selected for a circumnavigation of the island, the best day based on the forecast. The spare day was to be ‘The Hayling Festival’ featuring a series of fun races and windsurfing events from the seafront.  Ironically, windsurfing was already in decline and by 1999 the event moved back to Northney, which now consisted of only 111 competitors, only 45 completed the full course on account less than ideal conditions.

As the years rolled by, the event firstly became a victim of its own success and some of the decisions simply did not pay off. The event eventually ceased for an extended period of years until when in 2009 one of the original crew from those early days, John Message, whose father had been instrumental in sponsoring the first event in 1980, reinstated the event from Hayling Island Sailing Club (HISC), with some 50 competitors taking part, staged in April over Easter during a quiet period of HISC’s activities. 

In 2010, I was visiting the UK from Australia and as member of HISC I was contacted by the Clubs Marine Manager Colin Ralph for a discussion about introducing SUP to the event. As a life long paddler, it was a no-brainer for me to make sure this happened. I drafted up a risk assessment and took on the role as Race Director. The SUP race would from the Club to the Bridge and back paddling along the Eastern coastline.

SUP competitors
In this year, we had 35 SUP competitors and near on 100 windsurfers. Given the general standard of paddle boarder abilities and the issues of risk, we opted to keep the racing within the creeks around the harbour and limit the race distance to around 8km and a shorter course for entry level paddlers. The event enjoyed regular support from SUP paddlers from as far away as Cornwall.

In 2013, I was able to introduce OC1s (Outrigger Canoes) to the event and HISC were open to embrace the concept, thanks to the likes of John Barber and John Rees which served to broaden the appeal to other paddle sports enthusiasts. My living close to HISC and years of paddling and racing this form of craft, had captured the imagination of some SUP paddlers, who were now paddling between the two sports; notably Ryan James and Pete Holliday.

It was not until 2015 when SUP standards had improved significantly, that the option to SUP race around the island was introduced, with the Bridge and Back race remaining for the less adventurous and boards under 12’6. The SUP Company became sponsors and in this same year, we introduced the larger OC6 team canoes which has proven to be a real game changer in elevating the event. This raised the total number of participants so as the Round Hayling Race morphed into an event representative of a wide range of water paddle sports including its original sport of windsurfing.

With the pandemic, the 2020 event was cancelled and while 2021 was looking vulnerable from the point of view of timing and of a sponsor, it was decided with little lead time to press on with the running of the event in late September. Mistral stepped up to the plate as primary sponsors, creating the ‘Mistral Round Hayling Island Challenge’ providing an injection of cash to HISC together with prize draw in which I was happy to make happen given my fondness of the event. 

In addition and in following trends, I made the suggestion of a Wing Foiling race and to HISC’s credit, they embraced the idea for which Chris Cunningham, part of Mistral’s R&D Team helped to develop the race format, the first in the UK, while Chris Ellis of Mistral Hayling, pushed for the introduction of 4 and 6 person oared craft. Notable too, is the introduction of a Windsurfer LT Race Division, harking back to the days when the original Windsurfer® boards were used, the first to round the island.

If todays Round Island Race celebrates anything it should be Peter Chilvers original conception of the windsurfer and indeed to the memory of Peter Williams, whose drive and vision along with my own got the event off the ground. For all others who are now paddling the course, the event celebrates ocean paddling sports and the synergy they share between them. Run with the world class expertise of HISC staff and volunteers, from a world class venue, the event remains an important historic fixture which we trust will grow year on year. 

On a footnote, when you think the record time for windsurfing round the island in 1982 was 1hr 40 minutes set by Mike Todd and today that time stands at 49mins 29 seconds set by Guy Cribb using an Olympic IQFoil board averaging 15.6 knots, down from 56 minutes he set in 1992 on a short board, technological advances speak for themselves. 

SUB 2hrs 30 for SUP is quick, SUB 2hrs for an OC6 but as to how far these time will fall, will have less to do with technology and more to do with improved abilities and perfect conditions. The irony of mixing SUP with Windsurfing in particular, is that they are diametrically opposed in respect of the winds the participants crave, yet cross platforming is possible and many of us today embrace more than one water sport. That an iconic original windsurfing brand such as Mistral is now on board in the same as it supports the 11 Cities SUP race, the synergy is fitting.

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