Desert drag race: speed-sailing in Namibia

On Africa's Skeleton Coast, the world's fastest windsurfers and kiteboarders race for a record.

Windsurfing in Luderitz, Namibia.
Ski goggles while surfing? At this speed, yes. © Luderitz Speed Challenge/Luderitz-speed.com

There's a bit of a debate about where the Skeleton Coast got its name. Some say it's from the bones of the dead whales that would wash up upon the beach. Others say it's from the bones of the shipwrecks, of which there are many. Once home to a bustling diamond mining scene, neglected ghost towns are left to gather dust in the constantly blowing sand and wind.

Windsurfing in Luderitz, Namibia.
Lena's windsurf kit is highly tuned for speed. © Luderitz Speed Challenge/Luderitz-speed.com

“It's about 16 hours from Capetown,” says Red Bull windsurfer Lena Erdil. “It's very harsh. Outside of the small town of Luderitz, there's a lot of places you're not even allowed to explore – but supposedly the hills hide tons of diamonds!”

But diamonds aren't what these windsurfers and kite boarders are here for. They're after a different glistening jewel – and maybe one that's harder to achieve. They all hope to set the world records of  wind-powered speed sailing – and this is the place to do it.

Windsurfing in Luderitz, Namibia.
Luderitz offers consistently strong winds. © Luderitz Speed Challenge/Luderitz-speed.com

Strong winds blow uninterrupted across the desert where speed sailors have dug a ditch close enough to the coast that it fills with water. The incredibly flat, smooth water of the ditch lets the windsurfers and kiteboarders maintain the control necessary to achieve the highest possible speeds on a board, in winds ranging from 25-50 knots (46-90kph). The current world record? Frenchman Antoine Albeau at over 52 knots (96kph).

The speed-sailing ditch in Luderitz, Namibia.
The finish line leaves little time to slow down.© Luderitz Speed Challenge/Luderitz-speed.com

“There are lots of variables in windsurfing that play into making you go faster,” says Erdil. “You have the sail, which can be rigged differently according to the wind and rider. The rig can be made stiffer or softer according to what you want. The board which can vary in size and shape. Lastly – but also super importantly – you have the fins, of which there are many different types and sizes. You need to get the perfect kit set up, and then even more importantly, you need to get the magic gust that blows you all the way down the canal!”

The speed-sailing ditch in Luderitz, Namibia.
Walking back upwind? Near impossible. © Luderitz Speed Challenge/Luderitz-speed.com

Erdil, who has been windsurfing since the age of ten, and competes on the professional windsurfing tour, already owns the national record for Turkey, at 45.74 knots (85kph). She needs to go just .09 faster – less than a tenth of a knot-per-hour. That's the speed difference currently sitting between Turkish windsurfer Lena Erdil and the world-record holder Zara Davis, from Britain.


 

The speed-sailing ditch in Luderitz, Namibia.
Catch me if you can – Lena Erdil at speed.© Luderitz Speed Challenge/Luderitz-speed.com

Despite a week of light wind in late October, the Turkish speed sailor is hopeful. “Once you get your kit tuned up, it's all about getting the right gust. So far, I haven't got that kind of gust!”

She is one of several athletes currently gunning for a record during the Luderitz Speed Week. For more info, check out the event website here.