The press release announcing the 25th edition of the Downwind Dash from Langebaan to Saldanha, scheduled for 23-24 January, hails it as “the world’s biggest kitesurfing and windsurfing race”. The organisers are expecting 400 entrants! It may even be the world’s longest-running windsurfing race too. How did it start?
Way back in 1983, three keen windsurfers from Saldanha, Malcolm McGregor, Kevin Wilyman and I, sat down and planned a 17-20 km windsurfing giant slalom from Langebaan to Saldanha. We dubbed it the “Downwind Dash”. It would feature a “LeMans” start on Langebaan’s beach and zigzag down the bay powered by the bay’s prevailing summer southerly. The sailors would finally round Dial Rock and sprint up the beach at Saldanha to cross the finish line. I came up with the original concept (after reading about the Molokai Crossing windsurfing race in Hawaii) and the course is probably very similar to the one I originally designed, which is shown on the Google Map below. But it was Malcolm, who is still Race Director (that must be another world record), who mobilised the yacht club members to man the marks, organised the rescue, arranged the communications and logistics, etc., etc. He has been the tireless driving force behind the race’s success and its longevity over all these years.
Original Downwind Dash course
We ran the first race in January 1984. There were 70 entries I think, almost unheard of in those early days. I think it was during the first race in 1984 (we ran a second one later in the year) that the wind swung into the west and the fog rolled in, forcing us to use the NSRI to track down lost sailors using radar! Originally the Dash was followed by a race from Saldanha to Langebaan and back on the Sunday (known as the Longhaul) to satisfy the course-board lobby – but I always knew that the main attraction was, and would remain, the Dash. Originally, the event – consisting of both the Dash and the Longhaul – was marketed as the Saldanha-Langebaan Longhaul and only later was it renamed the Downwind Dash. That probably explains why the press release refers to the “24th year” of the event. In fact the Dash has been around for 26 years.
I left Saldanha in 1987 by which time it was notching up almost 150 entrants annually. I have attempted the race three times but completed it only once – in a 30+ knot gale on a wave board holding down a 4.1 m2 sail only because the board was controllable on the broad reaches. There were many rescues and bruised egos that day. The race is challenging because of the variability of windspeed across the course (inside the harbour it can drop alarmingly) and the fact that one sails on a very broad reach. I suspect that the point of sail is much more suited to kites than windsurfers.
Long may Malcolm and the Dash grace the magnificent sailing waters of Langebaan-Saldanha.