Gwénolé Gahinet - On board Zaï Zaï - Somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic...
Wingfoil made its appearance two years before we set off from Brittany for our world tour on our sailingboat Zaï Zaï. Being already seriously hooked on kiteboarding, like a lot of people, we looked at wingfoiling a bit curiously at first, even sceptically, then we got more interested and eventually totally into the idea, once we started hearing more from the people actually doing it.
We realised straight away that this could be the perfect ride to take with us on our epic family voyage. First, it’s so quick and simple to set up. Secondly, the risk factor is seriously reduced compared to kiteboarding because there are no flying lines, the wing is less powerful, and you’re not actually attached to it by a harness.
Plus, you can go pretty much anywhere you want once there are about 10 knots of wind. No more searching for the ideal spot with enough wind and enough room to launch your kite. With a wingfoil, you’ve got the ultimate pocket rocket! Even when you’re moored up you just need to paddle a few metres until you find some decent wind.
Discovering the ocean in wingfoil
We quickly decided to invest in some wingfoil gear, something forgiving and easy to learn on. We found exactly that with the TAHE range, the 120L Aria board, a 70cm foil mast and a big, stable 1500mm2 foil, a 5m2 Alizé wing for me and a 4m2 Alizé for Anne-Laure.
As someone used to the open seas, I’d already accumulated months and months of time sailing free on the wide expanses of oceans, whilst paradoxically being restricted to the confines of the boat.
This contradiction of the tiny boat and the immense emptyness surrounding ocean sailors was something that a wingfoil rig seemed to me to be the perfect way of resolving.
It must be something to do with my natural curiosity for everything to do with the sea, and wanting to explore things from a different viewpoint.
Be well prepared to enjoy the session to the fullest
The oceans are still to this day a source of mystery for us humans. We’re already lucky to be able to observe parts of them from our ships and boats, but that just makes us hungrier for more! I firmly believe that getting out of our tiny shells gives us a more meaningful relationship with the elements.
During our first trips on the boat, I was obsessed by the idea of open-ocean riding and was always on the lookout for the ideal conditions to test myself in. The first opportunity came on a trip in the Atlantic, from Portugal to Madeira. Temperatures were reasonably warm, the sea was relatively calm (1.5m swell) and there was just enough wind, 12 – 13knots on the wind meter.
I carefully prepared the equipment, paying particular attention to the vital safety back up to carry in my lifejacket pockets: an AIS rescue beacon and a small VHF radio. The former so that I could signal my exact position in the event of a problem, and the latter to stay in continuous contact with the crew back on Zaï Zaï.
I knew the whole routine by heart, and practice-makes-perfect is just what was needed to give me the confidence I need for this new adventure: correct inflation, double-checking the screws, positioning the foil… Proper preparation meant I could stop questioning the equipment and put those thoughts to the back of my mind.
All the same, we’d got a little tender ready to go if needed, and someone on board keeping permanent visual contact with me.
The paddleboard we were towing was very useful for attaching the wing or board temporarily and for landing again afterwards.
Wingfoiling alone in the middle of the Ocean
It’s the moment of truth! I start off kneeling, taking a few seconds to understand this new environment and get my balance in the ocean swell.
Eventually I manage to stand up and the dream becomes reality and I know that in just a few seconds more I’ll be making my first ever foil runs in the middle of nowhere!
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Actually, the wind’s a bit light, and the swell isn’t helping with lift-off. It needs good timing and patience between the swell and the waves. After a few warm-up failures, I manage to get up and then I’m away. Once you’re up it’s all so simple! It’s an amazing feeling, and I’m already learning to play with the slopes and curves of the swell.
A few hundred meters then time for a U-turn, Zaï Zaï already seems minuscule and far away in the immensity of the Atlantic. It makes me think of an astronaut doing a space walk, there’s a lot of connection there: venturing into a place that is not adapted to human life, with just a single safe refuge.
The boat. Lose the boat and you’re lost forever in a few hours. You’re on the edge!
An unforgettable experience
That first session was short, the wind died down very quickly, but it was enough to convince me that it’s the most amazing sensation ever to find yourself alone in the middle of an ocean with nothing more than your board and your wing to keep you afloat and alive. You’re aware of your vulnerability and all your senses are heightened being in the middle of this hostile environment. I was constantly watching for signs of a fin cutting through the water surface, or some big dark shadow starting to follow me.
As for the equipment, the Aria 120L board, the 5m2 Alizé wing and the foil were perfect, reassuringly stable before lift-off and some great sensations once I was in flight! I particularly appreciated the wing’s control handles that made it very easy to manipulate during my board moves and transitions. The overall solidity and the attention to finishing details gave the feeling of exactly the kind of durability needed for a long voyage like ours.
I can still count my open sea sessions on the fingers of one hand, exceptional events and an incredible feeling. To make open sea sailing possible you need water without too much swell, reasonably strong wind, plus a full and competent back-up team.
My dream would be to invent a proper launching ramp that makes it possible to sail away from and back to the boat without it having to stop, that would be true freedom and autonomy!