SURFING AND MOTORHOMES are a match made in heaven, so we were thrilled last year when Bailey Motorhomes sponsored a surf team that was about to compete in Defi Wind de Gruissan, a tough international surfing competition.
Team leader Neil Greentree of Quayside Surfers, in Dereham, Norfolk, worked with his local Bailey Motorhome dealership on some modifications to a Bailey Approach SE 745, turning it into every surfer's dream support vehicle and hotel-on-wheels.
The Bailey gained roof bars for the boards and sails and a bike rack
It seemed he'd thought of everything – all the team needed now was to head south, compete with 900 other thrill-seekers and come back with great stories, exciting photos, videos and maybe even a trophy!
What could possibly go wrong?
Motorhome to the rescue
This is the inspiring story of how a Bailey motorhome proved the perfect rescue vehicle when the surf team's leader was drastically struck down by illness. Neil's wife Sara – who hadn't driven a motorhome before in any country – suddenly had to conquer her nerves and get behind the wheel to drive Neil all the way home to Norfolk from the south of France.
Neil Greentree's story
"We all have starry dreams of driving off into the sunset to locations unknown to us. But when given the chance to take a risk in our lives, or do something that takes us outside our comfort zone, we often politely decline. As we grow older we assess the dangers and often opt out of new experiences rather than just getting on and trying it."
Windsurfers and spectators flock to Defi Wind in France every May
Trip of a lifetime
"So when my sponsors Bailey Motorhomes asked me to embark on a European adventure with their new Approach SE 745, to test its long-term stamina when used off-road and wild camping, my initial reaction was, 'Not really, I’m too busy'. But I told my wife what Bailey had suggested and Sara said, 'Come on – live a little! You’ve always wanted to enter Defi Wind in France, then maybe we could travel on down to Tarifa in Spain.'
"Suddenly everything dropped into place! Of course, we could take the trip of a windsurfer's lifetime and drive to Gruissan, France to compete in the world's longest, hardest windsurf endurance race, then take a grand tour to Tarifa, the southernmost tip of Spain and windsurf the Gibraltar Straits!
Defi Wind is an extremely tough annual windsurfing competition
"Defi Wind is held every May at Gruissan, France, playing host to more than 900 windsurfers, who race adjacent to the beach for 15 kilometres (if the wind is blowing its more like 20km). What makes this event more hardcore than most is that its held in offshore winds, so if anything goes wrong you drift out to sea and not onto the beach, like most events. That, plus hundreds of other madmen are trying to take you out – and French surfers are very competitive," said Neil.
We'd go on to Tarifa, Spain
"By contrast, Tarifa is a beautiful relaxed old Spanish town. It was a sleepy village 30 years ago, housing a few tuna fishermen and a military base keeping watch over any ships entering the Mediterranean.
"In the 1980s a windsurfer spotted that a natural phenomenon occurs here. The mountains either side of this thin mouth to the Mediterranean caused a funnelling effect which squeezes the wind through the narrow gap between Tarifa and Tangiers and thus makes this place very windy indeed.
"Nowadays the world's windsurfers and kitesurfers travel to this (not so) sleepy town, which now revolves its whole being around windsurfers and kitesurfers alike.
"So this was to be a month of total free-camping, going off-road, pitching next to beaches in a motorhome I had never seen before – this would be interesting!"
We put our travel plans in place
"So the plan was to leave on a bank holiday, Sunday, 5 May, catching the 9pm ferry to Calais before the 12-hour drive down to Guissan on the Mediterranean sea, just above the Spanish border. We'd spend a week there, before the 16-hour drive down through Benidorm and onto Malaga, past Gibraltar to Tarifa, where we'd free-camp for three weeks on a field right next to the Gibraltar Straits. We'd then cruise back via Madrid, Bilbao, Bordeaux and Le Mans to Calais for our crossing home."
Bailey gave them an Approach SE 745 motorhome to use for the trip
"The next two months were spent entering Defi Wind, checking out who else from the UK was planning to compete there, and buttering up my local motorhome dealer into fitting vital modifications to the Bailey Approach SE 745 donated by my sponsors, Bailey Motorhomes, just five days before departure. This actually all went to plan and the vehicle boasted roof-bars, and a solar-powered charging system for the twin-110amp batteries. I was surprised and pleased as I discovered just how well this Bailey motorhome is made."
They needed a lot of kit!
Neil continues, "I loaded my kit – five windsurf boards, nine sails, four booms and a load of smaller bits onto the Approach’s roof. I gained access by climbing out onto the roof via the front Heki rooflight (thankfully it was strong enough – one of the benefits of a motorhome with an Alu-Tech body). I'd learned this rooflight exit trick after having a Bailey Alu-Tech caravan last season and the roof gave me a very good viewing point from which to watch my team riders race."
The motorhome swallowed up the kit
Setting off at last
"Sunday, 5 May came and my wife Sara and I set off for Dover to catch our 9pm ferry to Calais. If you have been put off by the cost of European touring don’t be, our one-way ticket for a 7.5m motorhome which is 3m high was only £25! After a stress-free drive from Norfolk to Dover we arrived three hours early and paid £10 to catch an earlier ferry crossing. This gave us a three-hour head start for our drive through France that evening.
For a small fee you can catch an earlier ferry than you've booked
"We negotiated the daunting ‘Paris Péripherique' in daylight without problems, thanks to our TomTom sat-nav (a 'must' for any newbie Euro-driver) then camped at one of the many Aires (motorway service areas, which in my opinion are the best anywhere, having access to all facilities such as water tank fill-ups and toilet disposal points free of charge) just this side of Orleans.
Truck stops make handy motorhome stopovers in France
The awesome Millau Viaduct
"Next morning we set off at 8am to drive straight down the A77 to Clermont Ferrand then onto the A75 Autoroute to Montpellier via the truly awesome sight of the Millau Viaduct, then a hop and a skip past Agde on the coast and arriving at Gruissan at 4.30pm and £104 poorer thanks to the French toll road fees.
Neil found the Millau Viaduct an inspiring sight
The motorhome proved agile and powerful
"Modern Peugeot Boxers/Fiat Ducatos drive remarkably well, feeling much smaller and more agile than I'd expected. Our Peugeot Boxer 3.0HSi, on which all Bailey Approach models are built, is powerful enough to haul the 7.5m Alu-Tech body at 75mph with ease and boasts many executive car features such as cruise-control and air-con. The Alu-Tech body's extra strength also makes for a squeak-free and rattle-free ride.
Neil and Sara enjoyed the comforts of the Bailey Autograph SE 745
Don't miss Agde
"The next few days revolved around preparing my windsurf kit for the start of racing on the Thursday and getting to know Gruissan. This little town just south of Agde is a little gem that you could very easily miss as you blast down the motorway. Turn off, drive for a few minutes, and you'll be transported into French rural life in a quaint, picturesque little port with narrow streets and village elders chatting on the streets.
Don't miss the quaint streets of Agde near Gruissan
Keep heading for the Plage Des Chalets, down a mile-long spit that takes you out to a low- lying area of beaches and 1400 Florida-style chalets. The car park at the end is big enough for free-camping in any size motorhome and the local council has provided full service facilities completely free. This is a beautiful spot 20 yards from a three-mile sandy beach. In May we had sunshine and 20-25°.
Quayside team leader Neil Greentree is an experienced windsurfer
"If you prefer more security, there's also a municipal campsite near the town and a motorhome aire near the harbour (€8.50 per night). This little seaside town boasts locally sourced cuisine and some wonderful wines at very sensible prices.
Defi Wind Competitors were briefed fully about the race here
"So Friday came with a forecast of wind. Competitors briefing was at 9am and details were given about the forthcoming racing. Basically 25 mile racing 50 yards off the beach with a offshore wind, which makes the water super flat and therefore very fast!
"To give you some idea of the difficulty of this event, the average slalom race I compete in the UK is about one mile, so this was a pretty daunting prospect, made worse knowing that one end of the course would be 20 knots. As I sailed the five-mile reach to the other end the wind increased to 45 knots, due to the local Tremontana wind being generated in the Pyrénées and intensified on its way down to the sea by a funnel action.
"My bowels were unusually active that morning but I simply put it down to pre-race nerves – little did I know what was to happen!"
Windsurfing competitors gathered for the briefing at Gruissan
Competitors and fans gather on the beach for Defi Wind
The race began!
"Race time was 11am and I and 901 other windsurfers jostled for position to get the best start position. The start boat passed in front of me: 'Go!’ I sheeted in my 6.2 sail and turned my fanatic Freewave 95 Textreme board ‘off the wind’ to power up and fly!"
Neil soon got up to 30 knots
"I got a good start and headed up wind to get close to the beach where the water was flattest. I soon got up to 30knots and all felt good – I was around 500th (halfway down the course). The wind was building and I was starting to struggle to hold onto my 6.2 sail."
Winds gusted to 45 knots: too much for my sail
"Other competitors were dropping like flies, cutting up onto the beach to escape the 'nuclear-powered' wind that was pounding us. The winds were gusting to 45 knots now, much too windy for the sail I was using, but if I stopped it would be impossible to restart (if you keep moving forward its easier to hold onto the sail because the wind flows into and out of the sail easily)."
It was a demon of a race!
"I noticed the gybe boat 50 yards ahead of me. My sole aim was to get around the gybe boat and start heading back to Gruissan and less powerful winds to conserve energy. The five-mile run back up the beach was hairy but manageable. This was the first of nine races and I'd only expected to cover half the distance. As I struggled with this demon of a race, other UK competitors, such as James Dinsmore, were slamming the French contingent, coming 16th!"
Defi Wind is so fast it's like driving a Formula One car with no brakes
Neil went back to the motorhome to rest
Neil made it back to shore, "I came into my launch point and crossed the canal back to our motorhome to take a very well earned rest. How guys like James Dinsmore can race on 7.8m sails for 25 miles in winds like that is unbelievable to me. He deserves massive respect. It’s a comparable feeling to racing a Formula One car on nitros for eight hours... with no brakes!"
Suddenly Neil collapsed
"I went outside but soon started to feel totally exhausted. Little did I know, my body had stopped running on adrenaline and started to shut down. One hour after coming in from the race I collapsed and passed out."
Doctor's verdict was a shock
"Sara, my wife, got me back into the motorhome, where I came round, but I was feeling awful and my body was rejecting all food and liquids. That night I entered a full-blown virus-induced body shut-down, losing fluids faster than I could replace them. By the next morning things were not looking good and Sara got me to a local doctor. He told me to return to the UK: my recovery would be weeks not days."
Neil was barely conscious and Sara had never driven abroad
"In terror we realised that somehow we had to get me, Sara and a motorhome loaded with windsurf kit back to the UK quickly. I was barely conscious, so could not drive. The daunting reality hit Sara that she would have to drive a right-hand drive 7.5m motorhome through France to Calais, with no help whatsoever. This is a massive task for any regular driver, let alone one who had never driven on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, navigated a foreign country and negotiated a ferry crossing.
"After a hour-long reality check Sara reluctantly agreed, saying: 'I’ll give it a go,' while clearly hiding the nerves which she now admits paralysed her."
Sara takes over the story
"On Saturday lunchtime I got behind the wheel and set off on Neil's route, which was to include Toulouse, Lyon, Paris, and Lille. I had a map with these cities marked with a pen," says Sara.
It began as a white-knuckle drive for new motorhome-driver Sara
"I think I’m not alone when I say that few wives are comfortable driving a big motorhome, as our daily cars are mostly small and much lower to the ground. To have to drive a vehicle this large without warning is not something you prepare for, so to say I was 'a little nervous' is an understatement.
Novice driver in at the deep end
"As the miles passed my visibly shaking hands diminished as I got used to the size of the Approach 745, only feeling the occasional goose bumps when an HGV overtook me, causing a vacuum and swerving the motorhome slightly.
"My confidence rapidly grew as I got comfortable with the excellent driving position. The view of the traffic around you is excellent and you see things much clearer when at this height. The Bailey Approach really does drive well, feeling much smaller than it is and possessing a very stable stance on the road. I noticed this much more as a driver than as a passenger – the Alu-Tech body feels tight and very solid. There were no rattles like other motorhomes, so the quiet environment helped my concentration, while the suspension absorbed any uneven road surface. The 745 gave a remarkably ‘car like’ ride, even at speed."
Sara set up the motorhome for the night
"By 9pm I had made it to Lyon covering 400 miles so pulled over for some sleep. Neil was not good, still sweating profusely and vomiting bile. My sleep that night was patchy as I had parked in an HGV park at a service stations near Lyon. Neil normally does this so I had no idea what to do. I fumbled through the levelling, electrical systems (which were actually very simple to operate), and securing the motorhome for an overnight stop."
Heavy rain and the dreaded Paris péripherique
Neil was still ill the next morning and Sara remembers, "Rain was falling which brought back the nerves of the previous day. I set off at an easy pace but soon found that even heavy rain didn’t daunt this capable motorhome's ability to set the driver at ease while lapping up mile after mile. I even starting paying attention to the MPG, surprising myself as the trip computer proudly displayed 24.9mpg!
"My confidence as a motorhome driver was building and by the time the Paris péripherique was looming – this Nemesis of French motoring – I actually felt quite happy attempting to navigate it with no help from Neil."
Bullying works on a road like this
Sara continues, "I must admit I didn’t expect the traffic to be so intense, but after one hour and succeeding with a few ‘I’m bigger than you’ manoeuvres, I'd steered the Approach up the A6 and the impressive underpass of Charles De Gaule Airport. It's one of the only places I know where you pass right under aeroplanes taxiing right above you."
Sara was now brimming with confidence and relief
"The trip up past Lilles and on to Calais was uneventful, as much due to my confidence brimming after my first successful negotiation of the Paris Péripherique, as to the splintering sunshine coaxing me back to the Channel for my next obstacle – the ferry crossing."
Sara had height barrier trouble
"We hadn't booked a crossing back as we didn’t know when we'd be returning or even if we'd want the Bilbao-Portsmouth Ferry. I rocked up and my first problem was parking! A height restriction stopped me entering the car park, forcing me to reverse more than 50 yards – yikes!" said Sara.
"After wobbling through that little drama I found a safe spot to park the Approach, stacked with its extra metre of windsurf kit strapped to the roof. £129 later (ouch!) we were queuing up on the quay ready for embarkation. I chatted with several other motorhome owners in the queue who, after taking a nose at the Approach were surprised at my adventure with driving her home and quite impressed with the apparent ease with which I achieved it. Neil was at last on the road to recovery, now able to sit up and advise me on which tickets to get and where, but was still pretty immobile."
Driving the Bailey on board
"I found driving the Bailey onto the ferry very simple, as everyone is guided by ferry operatives. Neil and I found a quiet spot to relax in during the crossing.
"Disembarkation and driving on our busy UK motorways back to Norfolk were, by now, a doddle for me. I was driving with total confidence and enjoying the whole experience."
Neil will compete again in 2014!
"Over the next four weeks Neil recovered from what we now know was a viral flu which shut his body down twice. He has resumed his windsurf racing and plans to compete at Defi Wind in May 2014.
"We have since found out that out of 901 racers that day 231 retired to the beach, 61 required rescue, and 19 lost their kit completely. It's an extremely challenging race."
Sara urges all passengers to drive
"I now look back at this trip as a blessing in disguise – why? In the past I'd never have attempted to drive a motorhome. I used its size and weight as a good reason not to, but after this experience I realise that all passengers should take the wheel from time to time, just in case of medical emergencies.
"Once you have a go, you too will find that driving a motorhome is enjoyable, rewarding and easy for any driver to learn. Without sounding like a 1980s feminist, I now do half the driving when we go to all Neil's windsurfing events around the UK. I have even taken to nipping off in the motorhome for the odd girls' weekend away with my friends!
Last word from Neil: so proud of Sara
It was an unforgettable trip for Neil and Sara. Neil puts it into perspective, "This started off as my adventure, competing in new and more extreme windsurf events, but turned out to be an adventure for my wife Sara. She had no choice but to rise to the challenge and found the whole experience almost life-changing."
Bailey made it possible
"I am so glad we had the Bailey Approach 745 – it is so simple to use and operate, making what could have been a nerve-shattering experience, a trip of enlightenment and self-discovery. I’m extremely proud of what Sara did and how she rose to the challenge.
"So, the next time you face a new opportunity or challenge, just go with it," says Neil, "You might discover part of yourself you didn’t know existed!"
Team QSW Race Principal
Sponsors: Bailey Motorhomes, Fanatic, Severne, ION, Carrefour Gyms, Pwr Touch
Please share this story with your friends – who knows, it might encourage motorhome passengers to take a turn at the wheel!