Neal Gent is one of the UK’s most well-rounded wind and surfsport athletes in the UK. Having competed in windsurfing, kitesurfing and SUP national championships for over 30 years, Neal is now fully addicted to wingsurfing. Neal and his wife, Jess, recently visited their favourite watersports location, Barbados, and put this report together.
Although it begins with a description of the great riding opportunities that Barbados offers, the big take-away is Neal’s advice about the practical advantages of wingsurfing in general and examples of the progression speed that these two are enjoying.
Neal wants to stress that compared to his other sports: “Using a wing there’s now nothing to stop me launching at high tide in the harbour, from a jetty, or from a boat rather than having to battle cross-onshore UK shorebreak with a foil. Pretty much any large bit of water is epic fun! Once the lockdown is over there’ll likely be restrictions on longer range travel for a while and winging might just let us take advantage of our local beach in a lot more conditions.”
WORDS: Neal Gent PHOTOS: Neal and Jess Gent
The most amazing thing about ‘Barb’ is how many different conditions you have access to within about 40 minutes of driving. It’s been a mecca for windsurfing (and then kitesurfing) since the 1980s, but in December we took our first trip where winging was the prime sport we spent the most time on.
We’ve both only just started winging but it’s really opening up the range of possibilities. Jess is a really good wave kiter and more than competent foiler (which helped with the winging), and after about a week’s experience she was already air gybing both sides and starting to ride swells and depower the wing. Jess is already looking for a smaller board and faster foil set-up!
There are some fantastic downwinders along the south coast of Barbados. When the swell is running you only need to ride a few hundred yards offshore to be able to ride open ocean style downwind waves, or you can run from beach to reef riding on the flatter inside waters. I did my first downwinder from Silver Rock to Oistins and there are at least six different offshore reefs to play on as you make your way down to the main bay!
The season runs from around November to the end of March and the reliable trades blow from the east (with a bit of north or south day to day) around 15-30 knots. The longer the wind blows for, the bigger the swell and after three or four days of good wind you can have six to eight foot swell on the reef and a reasonably long period.
The main Silver Point beach on the south coast has choppy side-shore wind inside the reef and you can wave ride on the reef itself. Just five minutes away is a really good high-performance surfing wave at Southpoint and just round the corner from that is one of the friendliest longboard learner waves (Freights) I’ve ever found (and full of turtles!). On the east coast there are some really world-class waves, like ‘Soupbowl’.
I’ve been to Barbados several times between September and April and have always got some kiting in, but with winging it’s actually way more accessible.
WHAT MAKES IT SO GREAT FOR WINGING IN PARTICULAR?
The flat water and lack of shorebreak make it a paradise for either learning or practising your transitions to cracking your first jumps. Don’t get me wrong, I would much rather be riding the waves on the reef (which is where the foil and the wing are in their element) but not everyone is prepared to get smashed by the whitewater and it’s certainly not the ideal place to learn. As long as you’ve got enough water for the foil and enough room to swing a wing in, you can go! This is the real eye-opener when you start winging.
As the coast turns from the south towards the west and into Oistins bay, the wind gets a little offshore and gusty, so unless its an onshore kinda day, only the foilers tend to kite here. The amazing thing with the wing though is that slightly gusty flat conditions are absolutely brilliant.
When the reef is working in Oistin’s Bay itself, some of the energy wraps around the headland and into the beach. It’s amazing how small a wave you need to use the wing to get onto and ride – and it’s all great practice for the bigger stuff out to sea. Of course it’s really good to try out transitions and foot switches on tiny waves first and they also offer some nice little ramps for jumping as it’s a whole different level of commitment to do an air transition on a six-foot face!
GEAR THAT WORKS WELL
Everyone’s gonna have an opinion about the ‘best’ wing, but I am loving the WASPs from Ozone as they are light, stable and super easy to use. I was really surprised to find that also true of the larger six metre wing. I thought it might be a bit of a cumbersome big brother to the smaller wings but, actually, as long as you allow for it being a little longer tip-to-tip (you have to start a bit more above your head so it doesn’t drag), it is amazing how small it feels once you’re up and running. I really enjoyed jumping with it!
I was lucky to get hold of an Armstrong foil set-up a couple of years ago and, although they are definitely at the pricier end of the market, they are so nice to use. The system allows very easy interchanging of wings and stabilisers as well as fuselages. I have tried a variety of sets, but the new HS wings are fantastic. Currently, if it’s lighter wind I prefer the 1550 and then switch to the 1050 if it’s windy enough to get going easily. I’ve been leaning towards a longer mast as I am currently using an 85cm, but I know the Armstrong boys go one further and use a 100cm when out in bigger waves.
When starting out it’s easier to use a big front wing as they are slow and steady, which make transitions and balance so much easier, so your learning curve will be quicker and less painful. You can switch to something smaller and faster later. I could ride my 1550 in 99% of the conditions that I wing, surf or kite foil in and always have a wicked time. I do have a 2400 that I plug on if it’s really light wind, which is ridiculously easy to stand on.
The boards are changing every minute and my advice is you’ll be surprised how stable a little board is when the foil’s attached, but be careful not to go too small. The small board start is tricky but not impossible, though I wouldn’t want to be miles out at sea when the wind dies!
I think length can be counterproductive on really big boards. However, if you’re buying something to also SUP foil on, then what you can paddle will be easily big enough to wing on. If it’s just for winging, then a shorter length is way better once you’re up and foiling.
There is lots of debate about how much tail bevel / side bevel etc. is optimum, but basically you want a foil-specific board that you can easily kneel on.
I am on the new Armstrong 5’5” 80L board which would be a challenge for me to stand-up paddle with if the conditions weren’t perfect. If it’s windy and I’m winging I could easily ride smaller, so if you want one board you have to compromise something. I have a JP surfboards custom 4’8” 50L board for surf foiling and (hopefully) winging on the windy days (but I haven’t had a chance to try that yet).
It might sound obvious but lighter boards are definitely better and if you can stretch to carbon it does have benefits. Some love footstraps and you’re definitely gonna need them for jumping but, to be honest, I’m not convinced they’re generally very beneficial in winging until you start riding a tiny board.
FAVOURITE ASPECTS OF WINGING AND HOW IT RELATES TO YOUR OTHER SPORTS
For me the wing brings more excitement to the average days. I love kite foiling, but it can be frustrating to try and ride (especially) small waves as the kite is never quite where you want it and it restricts you from riding the wave itself. With the wing I basically have my own jet-ski service out to sea and then it’s so depowerable, so you can really focus on how you ride the wave. It’s fantastic practice for foiling in surf, but also just brilliant fun in its own right.
It is also really apparent that you can pick winging up a bit quicker than learning to kite on a foil. Paolo, a good friend of mine in Barbados, is an expert windsurfer and surfer, but only recently started kiting. He tried winging two days before our last trip and by the end he was riding a 60L board on the 2000 front wing and successfully making more gybes than he was failing. I persuaded him to then come surf foiling with me and he got his first ‘proper’ wave for over 200 metres! There is no doubt that winging gives you loads of foil time that is great practice for any other foiling ambitions you might have.
The real winging appeal for me is that it covers me for the average summer day in the UK with knee-to-waist-high waves and 15-20 knot winds; conditions that are quite limited from a wave kiting point of view. With a wing I can head out whatever the tide, sail upwind almost as fast as the kite foilers and then pick a swell to ride back downwind on. That simplicity of access to an exciting foiling experience is not really achievable any other way. I love to surf foil as well, but the tides can mean this is only an option at certain times, which often seem to be when I’m at work!
It’s hard to describe to those who haven’t had a chance to try it yet, but just racing around without a harness, pretty much effortlessly going wherever you want and then grabbing whatever swell or chop is available to ride on, doesn’t seem likely to ever get old!
And that’s not even beginning to talk about the rare days when you actually get to ride some big waves…
Find more on the equipment that Neal talked about here: Ozone