Ellul may not be the ‘new kid on the board’ but, at 58, he still aims to break his record
Veteran windsurfer Paul Ellul will be boardsailing to Sicily on Friday – four decades after he participated in the first-ever event of its kind at the age of 19.
The first Malta Sicily Windsurf Crossing was held in 1982 and grew into an international race two years later, attracting international names, and the teenage Ellul was one of its protagonists.
The 53.4 nautical mile marathon – to date the longest single-stage windsurf race in the world – was held between 1984 and 1994, with a special edition in 2004 to mark 20 years since the first race.
Now, on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, a commemorative edition has been organised, and Ellul, who participated in most, is again gearing up to go.
Back in 1982, it took him nine hours and 31minutes to reach Sicily on his windsurfer.
Today, Ellul acknowledges he may not be the new kid on the board and knows his limitations.
“But being 58 does not mean you cannot carry on, set goals and achieve them,” he said ahead of the challenge.
Joking about being a “geriatric”, he admitted that “as you get older, you recognise your reality and downscale your expectations”.
That said, he still aims to improve the record he set in 2015, 31 years later, on a sole crossing from Sliema to Pozzallo, when he covered the distance in four hours and 47 minutes, cutting his timing down by half. The crossing has not been attempted since.
Failing that, his mission is to get to Pozzallo, Ellul said, admitting that at his age, nothing is certain.
“I feel quite fit, and I am as prepared as I can be,” he said about “tagging along” with the younger of the five windsurfers undertaking the crossing.
“When you get to 50, you realise you have to up your game and spend more resources and time on staying healthy. It becomes a necessity.
“You spend much of your youth making money and babies and then you realise you have neglected yourself. But it is never too late.
“My plan is that when I become an adult, maybe I will try something else,” said the evergreen joker. “I will tell you what that is when I grow up.”
A dwindling sport
Ellul’s aim at Friday’s event is to inspire others to take up a sport that has dwindled with time.
Now, it is just down to a handful of windsurfers, who have been practically pushed out of their corner by the caravans at Għallis.
But in the late 1980s and 1990s, about 200 boards would pack the waters of Mellieha Bay every weekend.
“Malta’s climate meant no security of supply as a far as prevailing winds are concerned, so the sport died a natural death,” Ellul explained.
Events could not be held properly because the winds did not cooperate and windsurfers got put off spending time and money on races that never happened, moving on to a sport they could depend on.
The craze died also due to “crazy expensive, ever-changing, mind-blowing” technology, with equipment now costing up to €10,000, which not everyone would spend on a board and a sail, said another veteran windsurfer Jean-Paul Fleri Soler.
The former Olympian had trained for a year to participate in Friday’s event, having competed in all nine editions of the race version, establishing a recordtime of five hours and 56 minutes from the first in 1984 that was never broken throughout its history.
The 57-year-old had not been fit enough to join the 20th anniversary crossing but had prepared himself well two decades later and was ready to go for it until a hip replacement six weeks ago meant he had to pull out, leaving him deeply disappointed.
Foiling and flying
Two years ago, he introduced new equipment known as foiling to the island, whereby the windsurfers’ boards do not touch the sea, reaching speeds that are now four times faster.
“The board hovers like a hydrofoil, and in light winds, it moves as fast as a speedboat, averaging 20 knots, and getting you from St Paul’s Bay to Comino in 15 minutes,” Fleri Soler said about the impressive sight of windsurfers flying on flat water in a slight breeze.
Foiling has made the sport “exciting”, and he was looking forward to doing this today, but the new talent he has coached will be there instead, using the spectacular technique.
“I am happy we have the younger windsurfers on this crossing,” said Ellul about wanting to “pass the baton onto the young guns”.
While he did attempt to train for the foiling, Ellul did not dedicate as much time as he wanted to and so “I am going with what I know”.
He may not be out to beat anyone, but deep down, he still harbours a competitive spirit and feels he has a fighting chance.
“A big determining factor in sailing is the opportunity to choose your equipment for the day. If you opt for the wrong board, or sail, you will not win, or even finish.
“The wind is borderline and there is a chance it will be so light that the other windsurfers will not foil, and in that case, it will be a level playing field, taking away their advantage.”
The anniversary crossing has the same organiser as the original event, 73-year-old Wilfred Sultana, whose dream it was to see it happen again.
The first Sicily-Malta windsurf expedition had one escort and one support vessel, but the Enemed Malta-Sicily Windsurf Crossing – 40th Anniversary Commemorative Edition (1982-2022), as it is known, is supported by a fleet of boats and every competitor is assigned an escort.