Witchcraft Windsurfing’s founder, owner and shaper Bouke Becker gets put in the hot seat for this Q&A. Want to find out more about the Fuerteventura based windsurfing brand? Then read on…
Where did windsurfing start for you?
I started windsurfing when I was 13, my younger brother had been on a windsurf camp and then our mother bought us a Wayler and we started practicing on the Waddenzee, a shallow sea where you can only sail at high tide on the south side of Terschelling, a Dutch island in the North Sea.
How did you end up on Fuerte?
I had been working on dredgers for a few years, all over the world, and the company wanted to send me to Iraq in 1989 but I got injured windsurfing at home and they sent someone else instead. Then the first Gulf War broke out and these colleagues in Iraq were held hostage until 6 months after the war was finished. In that time I had been sent to Argentina where I had a good time albeit working 98 hours a week: 10 weeks on, 5 weeks off. I learned Spanish there. Then when that job was finished they wanted to send me to Iraq again and I refused so I quit. Having saved quite a bit of cash during those years I thought I’d go and see if I can get into the windsurfing business, ideally ending up running my own company. I could never handle rules being put on me by others very well. I did a course to become a certified windsurf teacher in Germany and applied for various teaching jobs in locations that seemed interesting. In the meantime I went for 3 months to Barbados but half way through Ben Thomas, the owner Flag Beach Watersports Centre on Fuerte, contacted me to come and work for him.
What prompted you to set up a windsurfing business?
I had been making my own boards on Terschelling since 1985. So when on Fuerte, I got my Suzuki Jeep and loaded it up with my board making equipment from Terschelling and with a big block of EPS on the roof I drove it down to the ferry in Cadiz to make boards for myself again in the evening hours. When working at Flag Beach you regularly get asked where people can get boards repaired so I started doing that as well in the evenings.
I found it frustrating that when you are a windsurf teacher you have to work when it is windy. So when Luca, a sail maker from Lake Garda I had met in Barbados, showed up on Fuerte we decided to join forces and start a board and sail repair shop.
How long has Witchcraft been going and how have things changed over the years?
I made the first Witchcraft boards on Terschelling around 19985 out of PU foam laminated with polyester and glass fibre like all customs were made in those days. In the early 90s sandwich technologies came in vogue and I started experimenting with that as well. When I moved to Fuerte I had to step up my game quite a lot. The first 5 years or so were pretty hard. I was always broke and a few times had to borrow money from friends. But in those days, with not having a ‘name’, allowed me to experiment a lot with different materials and constructions. My engineering studies came in handy for the basics of sandwich constructions and dynamical loads. I definitely learned some expensive lessons which caused sleepless nights over a failed experiment. But slowly things started to improve and I managed to pay off my debts as well.
WC were always known for boards but recently you’ve incorporated sails into your range – the Karma and Slayer. Why did you decide to do this?
As Luca had taught me the basics of sail making I had been making my own sails in the 90´s, just out of interest. Then I got too busy with boards and the opportunity arose to distribute Ezzy Sails, which were closest to my own ideas. But over the years their ideas diverted from mine and I did not see anything else either that I liked enough. So with the help of John Blackwell of sailrepair.co.uk we started developing our own range of sails. I already had a pretty clear vision of how I wanted the sails to be, taking stuff I liked and combining with ideas of our own. John also has vast experience in repairing sails so we tried to improve the things he sees that go wrong as much as possible.
What does Witchcraft equipment offer that other kit doesn’t?
I hate it when stuff breaks that could have been avoided without reducing performance. So the construction of all our stuff is thought through as much as possible. I think at the moment, both our boards and sails could not be improved for their durability/weight ratio, not even if you´d want to pay double. I also like to figure things out thoroughly, using science or technology to research things wherever possible to speed up the trial and error method. You can see this back in our pre-twisted fins, the parabolic rockerlines, the progressive rail shape which is completely round in the front and sharper in the back, the panel lay out of our sails and so on. Actually pretty much the opposite of magic or witchcraft.
How do you go about creating something new (sails or boards)?
That varies a lot. Sometimes it is my own sailing; sometimes from team riders or customers. With a new board shape I tend to spend days, weeks or months playing with things. With a few days in a row I look at a shape with a fresh eye and it suddenly appears right. I will then press the button.
With sails it is different since it is a moving shape so the only way is to trial and error. However when you are sailing it is hard to be looking at the sail when you are in full action mode so I tend to use video and GoPro and watch the footage in slow motion. At times I also use a Shadowbox to measure G-forces, spin rates and speed. This runs simultaneously with my GoPro.
How long does the prototype phase take?
That depends. Sometimes a year or more, sometimes just a few weeks.
Are you always tweaking and updating designs?
Basically yes, but I am not tweaking just for the sake of it, there has to be a thought behind it, I need to have inspiration. Sometimes I wake up in the morning with an idea or I get inspiration from other brands. If I have something better it is easy and quick to put into production but we´ve also had shapes that have remained unchanged for years when they were pretty much perfect for its purpose. It is easy to change something to improve one thing but mostly you will lose something somewhere else. Conveniently this is not mentioned in marketing. To change something with more benefits than downsides is much harder to achieve but that is the Holy Grail every shaper is after. It can also happen that I change something to avoid too big a gap or too big an overlap between multiple ranges. Like now I have a new shape for the Chakra which is more flat water orientated and faster as there was quite an overlap with the Shaman.
Where does your R&D take place, mostly?
Mostly on Fuerteventura. I think Fuerte is probably the best place for development since you get a lot of sailing days and a lot of variety in conditions. I can´t think of anywhere else that offers that. Then we also get feedback from pretty much any spot all over Europe and the world and from any type of sailor. Sometimes you hear people say: “I am not good enough to notice the difference anyway”. I think that is rubbish. Not everyone will be able to tell why but anyone would definitely notice if something works easier for them. And that is what counts.
Is it team riders that provide feedback or are you open to opinions from any type of sailor?
Team rider opinions are important but actually paying customer’s opinions are even more important. Being a small company, we do get a lot of direct feedback from customers.
WC is perceived is a hardcore wave sailing brand. How do you attract everyday windsurfers?
Difficult, as we spend only a fraction on marketing of what other brands do. But it is a small world so word of mouth works as well. Besides the environment, also every day windsurfers benefit from more durable equipment as also freeride boards tend to have their problems. Equipment does not break when there is no wind and it is not difficult to calculate how much a day windsurfing costs if you add all the money, including transport and holidays etc. Divide that by the average amount of windsurfing you get over a year. It also makes a difference how much you can get back for your old equipment, if anything at all.
Give us your opinions on the windsurfing industry as a whole. Do you see it as elitist as some say or is it accessible and open to all as others would suggest?
Pretty elitist. The established brands are losing sales and are fighting dirty to keep alive. They have a lot of control over the mainstream promotional channels such magazines and PWA. Some magazines refuse to publish anything that is not about the established brands, no matter how newsworthy an article may be for the end user. Small brands tend to be a lot more innovative than “big” brands. Some mags may even refuse to take on paid advertising if the “established” brands have something against it. Basically that is against the law but it is not worth going to court over it.
Then you also have Cobra who are pretty much holding the monopoly in “mass” windsurf board production and having a level of control over the pricing of the brands who are their clients. These companies have nowhere else to go so have to swallow it. I am happy not to have gone down that route. We are certainly doing fine as it is. You don´t always need to go bigger and bigger. It means you need to pay more people and have less control over things so in the end you may not even gain financially from it. We have had requests from various brands to produce boards for them but that would mean I´d have to spend a lot more time abroad and I don´t want that. Our board production capacity is limited and this does put a break on things but it is a luxury problem. It is also comforting knowing you have 4 months of orders ahead and not having enough work but having to pay people or banks. We try to increase production bit by bit but without taking too much risk.
How do you encourage new riders to get involved with windsurfing?
I don´t really, they usually won´t get to know about Witchcraft until they are well into windsurfing. But I think we need to get newbies planing. They need to be offered a continuation to get there after their beginner course. Once you know the feeling of planing in the straps and harness, you are hooked.
What do you see as the future of windsurfing?
Hmmm my magic ball says it will grow again. I notice quite a few daddies getting their offspring into windsurfing. Windsurfing is still the best sport ever. Here the local motocross champion wanted to get into windsurfing. Kiting does not offer the same amount of connectivity with equipment. And it gets restricted more and more and still is far more dangerous, not only to participants but to others as well. Surfing and SUPing can be good fun but neither offer the action compared to windsurfing really. And again, space in the waves is limited.
Tell us about your plans for the rest of 2017 as far as WC goes.
I´ll be working on a range of freeride boards and also start on slalom boards. Ramses Landman, one of my Dutch dealers, is multiple champion in slalom and racing and has a lot of experience in testing for main brands. Requests for these have been increasing so we´ve decided to step into this market, probably followed by freeride sails. But one thing at a time. I also have a new shape for the Haka – the Haka ST. We have been making these shapes in custom quite a bit for customers so we´ll put it in production. I am just not sure yet whether it should replace the Haka or an addition as the Haka is beloved as well as it is.
Any final thoughts on windsurfing?
I pretty much owe everything to windsurfing. If someone would have told me where I would be now 25 years ago I would not have believed it. I made my work out of my hobby and it still is my hobby really. I am my own boss, I work 50m from my house and family, I have the perfect excuse that I need to go testing, business is going fine and last but sure not least, I also met my wife because of windsurfing! Our daughters are getting into windsurfing as well, the oldest is hooked already.
Shouts and thanks?
First of all a huge thanks to my wife and right hand Peggy, who is doing a tremendous job in the back ground, keeping my head free to concentrate on the development side of things. Then also thanks to everyone who believed in me over the years.