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The final part in the North Men series: The Waterman – Hanno Windisch

Hawaii, the birthplace of surfing. Home to Pipeline, Waimea, Oahu’s North Shore, Jaws – some of the most iconic surf and big wave spots on the planet. A tropical island paradise, mystical, volatile and ancient.

Northern Ireland with its dramatic cliffs, cold seas, raw and wild. No less ancient, mystical or beautiful but a world of difference away.

It sounds an unlikely trade-off for someone to make, ditching a tropical island paradise for a coldwater one, much less would you expect them to draw any kind of comparison between the two but for Hanno Windisch there are many similarities between the place that started his surfing career and the one where he now calls home.

“The coastline is absolutely incredible here,” he enthuses, “actually a lot of times I find the scenery very similar to Hawaii, like those cliffs around Ballycastle for example. It’s just a coldwater Hawaii really, there are certain connections for sure.”

Hanno Windisch

Hawaii is where Hanno’s surfing journey effectively began. Originally from the Black Forest in Germany, as a teenager the closest that he could get to the sea would be to travel up north but he often opted instead for an eight hour drive to France to get to the Atlantic Ocean because there were better waves. Once he turned 20, he went to Hawaii to follow his dream of surfing.

“I knew I had to,” he says. “It was just so strong inside me and from then onwards I think I spent about four months every year on the ocean.

In 2010 I just wanted to make that permanent cut, and just live by the sea. I came here as an exchange student and I figured out a way of staying here, transferring my grades and finishing my degree. I have been here ever since.”

Kauai, Hawaii’s fourth largest island, is also the oldest and northernmost island in the chain, a place filled with legends and the least populated.

What is considered big here, they would say, well that’s a normal day

The people of Hawaii as a whole are highly regarded for their knowledge of the ocean, their prowess in it and their spiritual connection to it. Their watermen are particularly revered. The islands have long been a mecca for many surfers so it must have been a special experience to learn there.

“I didn’t really have anything to compare it with, apart from France,” Hanno explains. “The people, their thinking there is different to here because they are more used to bigger waves.

Everybody is so much more engaged in the water than anywhere else I have ever been so the whole standard is just that much higher. What is considered big here, they would say, well that’s a normal day.

Kauai is such a small island, in one hour you can go from north to south and you are completely surrounded by water. Whenever you go somewhere by the ocean and you look around you, you have a 270° view of it.

That’s incredible! There are not many places where you have this and so the daily life is very much impacted by the ocean. On the daily news they have wave forecasts the way that we have weather forecasts.

The first couple of years I was there, I didn’t even know what a surf forecast was,” he laughs. “I just went straight to the beach because for such a small island there was always surf from any direction.”

Hanno Windisch

As so much of surfing is about mental confidence, being around that level of engagement must have been invaluable in training his own mindset for being both on, and in the water.

“Exactly. They are more aware because they are used to it. They are just experienced in the water with the currents, with how to act and how to move in it in all sorts of scenarios.

“I mean, we do get the same size of waves here, it’s just that here someone doesn’t understand why you would even go in the water on big days whereas there it’s a normal thing. I didn’t think much about it as that was where I learned.”

In Hawaii, a ‘waterman’ is an aquatic all-rounder who combines reverence for the ocean with deep knowledge, skill and courage. That Hanno found himself absorbed into their culture from the outset was perhaps good preparation for his expansion today in pitting himself against the elements in his various roles.

“That’s what I really, really loved about Hawaii, every individual person that I have met there, they have really strong spiritual connections be it to the water or to the sharks. They would swim in water where you just wouldn’t be. They swim with sharks, they know how to move with sharks, it’s the same thing, they can relate to them.”

International Surf Instructor

After leaving Hawaii, Hanno was a surf instructor in Europe and in South America and interestingly enough, it was back in the North Atlantic where he first taught surfing. Morocco has a world famous wave called Anchor Point, a perfect right hand point break also popular with many Hawaiians and Australians.

“It’s possibly the best wave I have ever surfed,” he says. “Really, really good. It’s very long and hollow, it has different sections, it’s a point break so it’s mechanical as well. Unfortunately it gets crowded quite a lot but it’s a good climate.

“A friend of mine is a Berber (indigenous tribe of North Africa) so I stayed with him and his family for three months. I did a study about surfing there actually so it was fantastic that I could stay there with him and live among the locals.”

Hanno Windisch

He has taught in a surf camp in Brazil and experienced what the west side of the Atlantic Ocean had to offer with its frequent wind swells close to the storm centres there.

“Really good waves there as well and a beautiful country. Very similar to Hawaii actually. The guy who ran the camp was an ex-professional surfer, he really improved my surfing. He would say ‘do this or this’, he would look at pictures, he was kinda like a coach really.”

“It was a great experience and just being in the water in 27C. That’s 20 degrees more than here in the winter time!” he laughs. “You have more time in a surf camp than in a surf school so you can engage with people more and spend time together, that’s what I really liked about that.”

The surf camp obviously catered for privileged tourists but how was it to work in a country where the poverty divide is so highly visible?

“Yea, it is strange in those kind of countries,” he reflects with great humility. “The gap between the rich and poor there and then you show up with your surf board which for so many would be half a year’s wage. The camp would be way too expensive for the locals but my colleagues there would have been Brazilians.”

It’s the number one thing in my life, being in the water, having that connection… It’s incredible to be able to help people. – Hanno Windisch

It’s a stark contrast to deal with the waves on the North Coast for someone who was used to
surfing in a variety of warm and exotic places, not least the clear, powerful waves of Hawaii. A rude awakening some might even say.

“It looks intimidating. Even the smaller waves, especially when you surf somewhere in front of a river mouth where you have a lot of peaty water coming out and it’s brown, it’s cold and dark.”

“I travelled a lot to Northern California and I find it quite similar to here. The water’s also much colder compared to Hawaii and is what I just described, darker, browner. The first time I went there and I looked at those big, mean waves knowing there were also white sharks, I just couldn’t understand why would you even want to surf in that? We don’t have the sharks here obviously, so that’s nice,” he laughs.

For a waterman who is so in tune with the ocean, he is undoubtedly aware of a different feel to each body of water but I wonder does he sense different personalities to the waves in each place and if so, how might he describe them?

“Oh yea, completely! Absolutely. Waves in Hawaii are like those exotic dancers and in California or here, they would be more like a rough boxer,” he grins.

“That was the kind of personality that came to my mind and you need a different attitude to be facing those conditions. Ireland is in the middle of all the low pressures coming through because of the way it is situated so whenever you have big waves, you have all those storms as well.”

Hanno Windisch

“Again, this gives it a different personality, it steps it up a bit and makes it even more rough. I think one place that’s maybe rougher is Iceland as it is right in the middle of the storms. Those are the conditions you would usually find here, bigger waves, cold water, a lot of wind and storms.”

Hanno has been a surf instructor in Portrush and was instrumental in setting up an autism surf program with Ricky Martin at Alive Surf School.

They were both interested in working with people from different backgrounds and at that stage no one else was really doing this. Hanno says he found this type of instructing very rewarding.

“I like those lessons the best,” he smiles. “I like working with children because they have such an easy attitude and open approach to surfing, they don’t even have to be able to stand up, they just enjoy themselves, they are happy even if they lie on a board but then, people with autism, you see that it touches them.

“For example, there was one guy who wouldn’t even speak. There are different levels of autism and he was really introverted. It took him a while even to just come down to the beach, then he got suited up, I put him in front of a board.”

“We didn’t even catch waves, just paddled out towards the cave and did like a little coast tour with him and he just followed, looking at some birds flying, then started getting closer to the coast, looking into the water.”

“You would see that he would open up more and more. I can completely relate to that because I have the same feelings about just getting into the zone and getting grounded.”

“To be honest, you just need to be in the water, you don’t really need surfboards but the important thing is it gives them something that they can focus on. Some parents were so amazed that we could even help to stabilise the children when a wave would come, and they didn’t mind at all.”

“Autism Initiatives organise people at the same kind of level of abilities on the spectrum so this makes it much much easier for them to relate to each other. Usually it’s one instructor to about eight people but for these groups we have four, so two people per instructor for specialist attention.”

Hanno Windisch

“It’s just being gentle and patient with them, giving them space and understanding how they think and that they need a lot of structure and to do that again and again. So when you create a structure, you stick with it as they don’t like change. It’s amazing to be part of this, helping them to open up and have a good time.”

Does he see this as next level surf instructing because it’s a more therapeutic, holistic approach that is making a difference?

There’s something very special about being that close to the energy of a breaking wave

“Yes, again, it’s just enabling people, no matter where they come from, to have an amazing experience. For me, it’s the number one thing in my life, being in the water, having that connection to it. You can see the transformation when somebody catches a wave, it doesn’t matter if they stand, sit or lie.”

“There’s something very special about being that close to the energy of a breaking wave, a certain feeling that is impossible to describe. It’s incredible to be able to help people and I think it’s really good, whether they are disabled or not, to help them to be in a situation where they usually wouldn’t be, or it would be difficult for them. It’s both the healing aspect of it and that you are part of it that’s really rewarding.”

It seems to me that in a sense, this is more about giving them the tools and the feeling of empowerment that comes from when they are helping themselves and the sea does the real healing.

“Exactly! That’s what I love,” he say passionately. “There have actually been studies within the NHS e.g in the armed forces, people with PTSD. So many times, the designated approach is to give them medication which still doesn’t work, they still can’t sleep and they get depressed. I mean you get recharged at the sea, you know this as well. And it’s free!”

Big Wave Jet-ski Tower

At the opposite end of the scale, Hanno is part of the safety team for the North‘s big wave rider, Al Mennie. It’s a challenging role with huge responsibility particularly when big waves far out on the North Atlantic are the designated target. It’s a relatively new role for Hanno so what made him decide to take it on?

“To be honest, when I moved here I didn’t know about Al, but I slowly heard about what he’s done and what he stands for so there was a big respect there and we ended up going surfing together.”

“I remember I was just sitting at the office, he sent me a text that his safety driver for the boat had hurt his elbow and asked me if I could stand in – ‘We go in two days.’ I was crapping myself! That was my first trip and afterwards he said it was probably the wildest trip he has ever done.”

“It was a risky trip too, it was absolutely mental – and that was my initiation,” he laughs, “one day after the initial training! I can’t believe it when I look back now.”

This was the first time that he had been exposed to these type of bigger waves in the North Atlantic and the scene he describes is apocalyptic, he compares it to being thrown into a cauldron.

Hanno Windisch

“We couldn’t even see land because it was so foggy,” he recalls. “I remember the first time that I saw one of the big waves breaking, it was actually from the back of the wave and it just looked so very intimidating.”

“It reminded me of one time when I was in Hawaii when there was a big fog and a massive swell coming through. Again, you didn’t see the land but you also couldn’t see the waves.”

“There was a big wave spot close by where I was and it must have been 40ft high and people were paddling in it but I just remember those big faces of the wave suddenly coming out of the fog with people on it.

“It was like something from another planet, it was just unreal. It was similar at Area 70 that day. All of a sudden, I just saw the wave checking up and it wasn’t inanimate water, it was more like an animal.”

The imagery from big wave surfing is amazing but we have to remember that this is just a
snapshot of a moment and it doesn’t really represent the experience for those who are in it, it’s just such a small second of what’s really going on.

“I was so surprised by how fast everything happens,” he says. “Honestly, I had thought you know, you would kinda be in awe as the waves rise up so slow, but no. It was – boom! boom! boom!” hitting his fist off his hand.”

It’s like war, just like a grenade hits, especially there, because it’s a sea mount.

“It’s like war, just like a grenade hits, especially there, because it’s a sea mount. It’s really deep and all of a sudden there is this 3m deep reef so you don’t really see the waves coming. All of a sudden they just rise up and break and you don’t get much warning. It’s really incredible just being close to it you know, being able to experience it, it is amazing. You come back and are completely charged, it takes a few days to come down.”

His eyes are shining as he relates the experience which is a whole different ball game from the big wave surfing in Hawaii.

“A lot of times those storms would be far, far away and the waves would be big but they would be clean and organised,” he explains. “But here, you don’t really get that at all.

“When we go out to the North Atlantic, it’s a fight already just getting out there in those big wind swells and then after a while when you make it around the headland, you see those deep ocean swells being intermixed with the wind swells. It’s crazy.” he laughs. “Even just getting there and back is really intense. And you’re always thinking.”

I ask him how does he mentally prepare for the intensity of that experience, knowing what awaits him out on that ocean, to go head on with that type of danger.

Hanno Windisch

“That’s why it’s really good training here,” he says quite calmly. “We train in the worst conditions possible and those training days are almost more intense than when you are out for real because we train in big windswept conditions a lot of time.”

“Everything is trained on a beach break so it’s very unpredictable and you have to react much faster, you have to be on it. There’s not a split second that is not 120% focused, you are absolutely engaged.”

“Once you are out on the reef and the big waves, it’s much more organised and you have the channels where you know it’s safe to go. It’s actually less intimidating but when you are out there, you are still fully on edge.”

“I mean there will always be risks but I think we kind of decrease it by training so much, so that we can work together and know instantly what the other person will do, it comes automatically. It’s a good team.”

And what about fear? How unbelievably challenging it must be to hold your nerve in those types of extreme conditions, surely it must come into play at some point?

“Obviously fear is a good thing,” he replies,”but I think we are just so focused on what we do, it pushes away the fear and because it happens so fast you cannot really think.

The fear doesn’t really come up unless you fall down

Sometimes you only realise afterwards just how close something could’ve gone wrong. But the fear doesn’t really come up unless you fall down and you are stuck inside and the waves pummel you again and again. That’s a very different scenario but unless you’re in that situation, everything just happens very fast.”

It’s obvious as he speaks, that aside from the adventure he loves the new learning that this role has brought to him particularly as it gives him a chance to extend his ocean knowledge even further.

“Yea, it’s very cool,” he agrees. “Learning the different way the waves roll in and break, expanding my knowledge and getting used to the different appearances and faces of the ocean, it’s exactly what I want and I am glad to be part of this.”

“It seems to be the next part of a natural process I suppose. I really want to take it step by step though, to prepare myself for proper massive days especially now with the jet ski scenario because that’s another skill that you need to acquire and to be confident with.”

We talk about those who do have a connection to the sea and who are very much in tune and I ask him does he feel that she sometimes makes allowances for those who respect her?

“I’ve thought about this a lot,” he says seriously. “I mean, I do have a personal experience and every time I go in and I leave the ocean, I do connect and I do my thing. But in general, if you read stories from other seamen or fishermen, I think you can do your part, but to be honest, I think that the ocean can also be very unforgiving and not care.”

“A lot of times as well you can create your protection zone to a certain point. I think still, you cannot push it.”

Hanno Windisch

When he’s not out surfing, Hanno likes to go freediving. He goes on to tell me about the magical underwater worlds that he has discovered along the base of the cliffs here and the picture he paints is intriguing.

It’s fascinating to learn that the coast known for its stunning beauty has, in fact, a whole other underwater version that is no less captivating.

“Freediving is an entry into another world, another universe,” he tells me. “And it’s so funny because it’s so close to other water activities yet it couldn’t be more different. It is mesmerising, meditative and therapeutic, so many levels come together to create this immense feeling of inner peace and connection.”

“When you go underwater the world above ceases to exist. You stop thinking about your day to day problems and become completely immersed in that beautiful other dimension. Just the act of watching seaweed moving back and forth like long silky hair has a very calming effect, also your weightlessness in the middle of all this sparkling life.”

“You come out younger than when you entered the water. There are so many special moments branded in my mind to which I can always connect and which immediately take me back there.”

Warmth, open-hearted generosity and passion tempered by gentle humour are the primary elements of Aloha, something which Hanno exudes and carries with him I feel.

Hawaii has undoubtedly left its mark and has given him the foundations to go forward but it seems that it is the Atlantic Ocean who has long had its claim on him.

I wonder what is the best part for this Northern waterman with his myriad roles in and around the ocean and he smiles contentedly before he calmly answers.

“Working with the people when they really enjoy themselves, I really like that, but then, just being in the water – that is a gift.”

Words and images Jude Gordon

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