Red Bull Storm Chase:
Red Bull Storm Chase title-holder Thomas Traversa believes humour is the best weapon against nervousness
On the afternoon of February 10, 2014, Thomas Traversa stood in a bay in Cornwall, looking out at the hailstorm erupting over the Atlantic. The French windsurfer wore a 5mm-thick neoprene suit with a hood, yet still had to raise his arm to protect his face from the ice pellets flying at him horizontally. Gusts of wind measuring more than 100kph whipped across the ocean. Huge, dark-grey waves lashed the beach break, The Bluff, which Traversa was due to surf just minutes later. The thunderous noise sounded like houses collapsing.
Cornwall was the last of three stops on the Red Bull Storm Chase calendar for extreme windsurfers. The aim of the competition is to conquer storms the like of which have never been surfed. Winds must measure at least gale-force 10 on the Beaufort scale, which translates as 89-101kph; at such speeds, the force can officially “uproot trees” and cause “serious damage to houses”.
For the duration of the competition time window (from the beginning of January to mid March in 2017), the sportsmen commit themselves to travelling to the location of a storm, from wherever they are on the globe, as soon as the Red Bull Storm Chase organisers announce it. The participants are only told the exact destination of the competition on site.
Storm-surfing is a sport that only a handful of fearless professionals practise. When winds reach such extreme speeds, masts break and sails tear. A gust of wind can hit a windsurfer during a jump and blow him off his board. When that happens, he might end up falling, powerless, into the sea from a height of 10m.
In Cornwall, the hail gave way to heavy rain. Traversa grabbed his board and waded over the long, flat sandbank and into the Atlantic with a GPS transmitter in his lifejacket. Two rescue-team jet-skis circled him. Traversa was the lightest participant at 73kg – a disadvantage if you’re exposed to squalls when jumping high on your board.
The ocean greeted him with howling winds and crashing waves. The sea was white with foam. The water temperature was 4°C. Traversa wore no gloves as he didn’t want to lose his feel for the wishbone boom. His fingers began cramping within minutes.
The Frenchman headed into the first crests of the waves, but went in at the wrong angle and was knocked off his board. He had to swim back and haul himself onto his surfboard, spitting out saltwater as he did so. He had done battle with the rough seas for 15 minutes when a particularly steep wave came heading for him. It was the perfect ramp. Traversa aimed straight for it.
The wind catapulted him into the air. Traversa kept going higher and higher – seven, 10, 12m into the air. Time stood still for two seconds. He later said that windsurfers experience a short moment of calm while at the highest point of a jump. You’re hovering high enough to escape the wind, which howls loudest just above the surface of the water. But, Traversa explained, everything was almost calm 12m above the water – a surreal moment.
Two seconds later, he came crashing back down into the ocean. On the way down, he rotated his surfboard 360° forward and landed a front loop in the waves. From his perch on the beach, judge Duncan Coombs first looked through his binoculars and then in disbelief at his colleagues. Coombs, a man with broad shoulders and a West Country accent, had been awarding points on the World Windsurfing Tour for 16 years. He would later say that it was a mystery to him how someone who weighed so little could hold onto a sail out there. His expert verdict: “Thomas has got balls of steel.”
Traversa made his way back to shore after 20 minutes in the water. He didn’t feel cold or the pain from his cramping fingers. The adrenalin only worked its way out of his body an hour later, after a hot shower in the Cornish sailing club, as he stood on the top of the podium at the award ceremony. Thomas Traversa, just 73kg, was king of the storm-chasers.
THE RED BULLETIN: You’re the current Red Bull Storm Chase title-holder and you’re considered to be the world’s best extreme windsurfer. Do you still get excited when you surf into a storm?
THOMAS TRAVERSA: Of course. You can’t train for a gale-force 10 storm. You’d need your own rescue team and jet-skis escorting you. There’s always an element of risk. That’s what makes it exciting.
When you surf in a squall, you have to be in total control of your decision-making. What’s your trick for keeping calm?
I observe the others before the start; it makes me feel better if they’re nervous, too. I don’t feel so alone with my nerves.
Your fellow competitors are seasoned professionals. What do you do if they’re completely calm before the storm?
That is never going to happen, believe me!
Do you have a tip for regular people on how to conquer nerves? Say we’ve got to give a speech at a wedding…
I do: try to have fun at the precise moment you feel nervous.
How is that meant to work?
Humour is your best weapon against nerves. Being funny is better than getting stressed. Your brain will do that anyway.
How can we suddenly be funny when we’re panicking?
You don’t suddenly have to be funny. Learn a joke by heart. In an emergency, just tell yourself the joke.
How would that be beneficial?
It’s interaction, because the other guests will react to your joke, or they’ll crack one themselves. There’s nothing worse than sitting in silence in a corner before you’re about to take on a challenge. That just makes things worse.
Is there a good side to nerves?
Of course. Nerves are exciting in the right dosage. After all, they remind you that something exciting is happening to you.