Brian Talma: King of the Waves

The Caribbean's champion windsurfer Brian Talma is profiled by Roxan Kinas

Barbados’s Brian Talma ranks among the world’s top 20 windsurfers. Photograph by D.W. HollenbeckBrian Talma (left), aged six. Photograph courtesy Talma familyBrian Talma competing in Hawaii. Photograph by Peter SterlingBrian Talma in Maui, Hawaii, where he is based for three months of the year. Photograph by Erik AederBrian Talma on home territory in Barbados. Photograph by Roxan KinasBrian Talma. Photograph by Roxan KinasRiding the waves: Brian Talma in action. Photograph by Peter SterlingSilver Rock beach, centre for Barbados windsurfers. Photograph by Roxan Kinas

Barbadian windsurfer Brian Talma is one of the best in the world, and has been attracting plenty of international attention both for his sport and his country. Roxan Kinas tracked him down in Barbados

It’s standing room only at the beach on a hot, breezeless day. But this isn’t the usual umbrella-and-cooler crowd. Instead, 200 twelve-foot sails turn the white sand into a mosaic of fiery reds, lime greens, fuchsias and luminous yellows.

Pulsating music is everywhere. Scantily-clad onlookers and sun-scorched sailors squeeze between the sleeping sails. Nordic and Italian windsurfers in Speedos chat with dread-locked locals on the grass above the beach. Everyone is waiting for wind.

At this first PBA (Professional Boardsailors’ Association) windsurfing competition of the year, co-organiser Brian Talma is somewhere in the crowd. At last a friend points him out; he is standing with his back to me, talking to a competitor. Gingerly I zigzag through the sail maze towards this sun-baked stranger.

No need for shyness. He treats me to one of his magazine-cover smiles, and moments later we are in the bustling Silver Rock Beach Restaurant. Cut-offs dangling precariously from his hips, Brian fits right in with the swimsuited lunch crowd, stopping cheerfully at each table as fellow windsurfers from around the world wave or greet him. We sit down with our Cokes, and he glides into conversation as if we were old friends. And I think, “I’m not this nice to strangers.”

It’s this sincere and sunny nature that makes Brian so popular on the competition circuit where he has already won international fame. In Europe he is virtually a household name, greeted by crowds of fans at airports. Ria Fuggenthaler, veteran windsurfer and manager of a windsurf club in Barbados, knows Brian’s charisma well. “Visitors come here to the shop and whisper almost in awe, ‘Do you know Brian Talma?’ He’s like a hero to them, especially in Europe.” At a tourism show in Munich last summer, she watched as “girls from all over flocked around him for autographs.”

PBA Representative Philippe Charron, who sees Brian at the competitions, tries to pin down his one-of-a-kind allure. “Brian is unique. He’s one of the most relaxed competitors on the tour and he is respected by everyone because of his attitude, professionalism and quality of sailing. There’s only one Brian Talma; no one else is like him.”

But it‘s not just graciousness and good looks. Sea and sand may replace office and desk, but Talma has the instincts of a seasoned businessman.

As the Caribbean’s highest-ranking professional windsurfer (17th in the world), he has turned a carefree beach-based lifestyle into a lucrative career.

Brian competes on the hectic year-round PBA world tour, tirelessly promoting his sport, his homeland and the sponsors who make his travels possible. He’s been featured in virtually every windsurf magazine the world over, and his compelling smile has often adorned their covers. He’s a seasoned TV performer – MTV-Sports, ESPN, Euro Sports, Canada’s TSN. Last year, for his high-powered promotion of windsurfing and Barbados, he became the youngest person to receive the Barbados Service Star, a national honour bestowed on those who have made a significant contribution to the country. He was 29.

Between fast-paced competitions and media projects, Brian manages himself, runs his own windsurf shop – and is now a published poet. And he does all this in the face of a severe learning disability, which has made the road that much rougher for him than it would have been for anyone else.

“Being dyslexic, especially in Barbados where nobody understood what it was, made it very difficult. Because if you can’t spell or read well, the perception is that you’re dumb. I had to work extremely hard to achieve academically because anything to do with letters, words or reading took much longer. But my mother put a lot of energy into finding the problem, and once she did, she helped solve it.”

Brian likes to see everything as a stepping stone to something better, and dyslexia is no exception. “Dyslexic people tend to excel in other areas. They look at things from a different point of view and have a different vision. And because of their own problems, they are more understanding of other people’s faults.”

There were other childhood hurdles too. “I wasn’t accepted much when I was young because of my poor academics, and I looked different because of my eyes and my colour. That could have steered me the wrong way, but I realised the world was much bigger and in the long run the people that were judging me would not determine my destiny. My parents gave me the foundation to succeed. They gave me the education and support that was fundamental to my development, and that’s why I am confident today.”

At 18, Brian attended a special school for dyslexia in New York. He later went on to college, graduating with a BA in business administration. “My business background is one of my greatest strengths now. When I go into offices many people drop their guard, thinking ‘this fellow’s an idiot’. But I have a clear concept of what I want and I know what can be done.”

This is a man who goes his own way. One of the few influences he will admit to is his older brother, Kevin. “He is the one person I really do admire. I used to follow him all around and he looked out for me when I was little. He’s always been a very confident person who dealt with any situation and was never intimidated by anything.”

 

“Dyslexic people tend to excel in other areas. They look at things from a different point of view”

 

As a youngster, Brian’s big sport was surfing. “I loved golf and still do, but I was mostly involved in things around the sea – all the sports Kevin did.” Until he discovered windsurfing. Brian was 17; windsurfing was still a little-known sport. Kevin was overseas, and Wolfgang Lange, a German who introduced wave windsurfing to Barbados, pushed Brian in a new direction.

“I knew Brian from a little guy with his white dot of hair coming down Enterprise Road on his skateboard,” Wolfgang recalls. “He was tiny – I remember that well. I liked that cute little guy and he was pretty good on his skateboard, too.”

“As soon as he got into windsurfing, he just exploded. Everything favoured him when he came up. The boards got really small that year and he learned quick. He was a surfer and skateboarder, and being radical on those two helped him become a good windsurfer.”

By 1988 Brian was representing Barbados at the Olympics in Seoul, and started applying his business skills. He opened his Silver Rock Windsurf Rentals shop, which, he says, “kept me sailing and rocketed me in the right direction.” He turned pro, joined the PBA and found a local sponsor.

He performed well at regional level, but it wasn’t until 1991 that he really started to impress further afield. After a string of top ten results, Brian came third in the Hawaiian Break Out, the biggest wave performance event of the year. That, he says, “pushed me into the limelight. I finished 17th in wave performance that year.” In 1992 he finished 12th, and since then has held his ranking of 17th.

 

“While everybody got grumpy, there was this young man from Barbados showing us all how to keep our good mood and smile”

 

Success in Hawaii brought him both global coverage and international sponsorship. The same “ugly duckling” features that dogged him as a young boy – the prominent steel-grey eyes and natural bronze skin – made him a swan on the cover of major watersports magazines and a natural with the electronic media.

Wolfgang was at the Hawaiian Break Out. “That was Brian’s biggest achievement in Hawaii. He came third; Bjorn Dunkaveck, the world champion, came first. They had a lot of problems with the wind, and when windsurfers find the conditions are not good, sooner or later they start complaining and losing the good mood. But the last two days turned out nice.

“At the prize awards, former world class windsurfer Craig Yester took the microphone and said something remarkable: ‘We had a week with a lot of difficulties, but in the end we had a nice competition and we all had a new experience. While everybody got grumpy, there was this young man from Barbados showing us all how to keep our good mood and smile.’ Yester didn’t ask the world champion to come up and talk, he asked Brian.”

Brian’s attitude gave him an unexpected edge. His sincerity and Caribbean roots were almost as appealing to the media as his looks. “I opened up a new lifestyle concept in promotion,” he reflects, “and now other competitors are digging into their history, trying to create an image.” Says one seeded competitor, “Brian always gets the media wherever he goes – no matter who else is there.”

WINDSURFING: BARBADOS LEADS THE WAY

Exhilarating, people say. Addictive. Challenging. “Once you know how to ride a wave, you shake when you see one because you want to be on it.”

According to Brian Talma, “Windsurfing is freer and more spontaneous than traditional sports partly because it is just you and the elements. There’s always that desire to break into the unknown and do different things that are more difficult and even more dangerous. It’s always a balance between being in control and being crazy.”

Windsurfing, developed just under a quarter-century ago in California and Hawaii, fuses elements of sailing and surfing for a one-on-one challenge between man and the wind. It quickly became the fastest-growing new sport worldwide, and is now found wherever water and wind co-exist, including lakes, rivers, and even the waters off Alaska.

Barbados is renowned internationally as a prime destination for all windsurfing levels and disciplines – something found in few other places in the world. Brian Talma, who has won the Barbados event twice, says: “Barbados has gained a reputation in international windsurfing circles as an excellent overall windsurf destination . . . it has good infrastructure and transportation, hotels right on the beach, and good night life. We have a lot of other sports action besides windsurfing and there is a more congenial, community-like atmosphere here. So it is a good, all-round destination.”

Barbados is now part of the PBA (Professional Boardsailors Association) tour. A sanctioned amateur and pro competition, the Barbados World Cup in January is the first leg of the PBA Windsurfing World Tour Championship Series, a wave performance and jumping competition with a US$20,000 pro purse and prizes of equipment for winning amateurs. Vital points gained in the event go toward world pro rankings.

The PBA World Cup circuit also includes such venues as France, Germany, Aruba, Hawaii, Portugal, the Canary Islands and Malaysia, and involves course racing and slalom events. Competitors vie for a minimum purse of $150,000 at grand slams, $100,000 at Grand Prix events and $20,000 at sanctioned events.

Klaus Michel, PBA representative and race director for the 1995 Barbados competition, has been coming to the island for eight years, first to train, then as a judge. He calls Barbados “the best Caribbean windsurf destination for wave work, social life and weather. I spend more time here than any of the other venues.”

And he’s not alone. A large number of windsurfers come to Barbados each year for extended periods to compete and train. Since the early 1980s, the area around Silver Sands has become a “windsurfing village” attracting long-stay windsurfers.

Barbados has played an important role in the development of the careers of top windsurfers as well as the sport itself. “Certain PBA rule changes were first tried in Barbados,” Talma says, “and a lot of today’s top-seed men and women have a special fondness for Barbados because it can be linked to some of their major successes.”

Ria Fuggenthaler, Barbados manager of the international windsurfing vacation chain and equipment manufacturer Club Mistral, calls Barbados a top-flight destination. It has wave and flat-water windsurfing, another feature that makes it unusual. “It’s ideal for vacationers who come windsurfing even if the wind is not as good as they expect. Barbados is the only place where people can still really enjoy themselves, wind or no wind.”

Club Mistral opened a Barbados branch in 1984 after holding its world championships there in 1983; after that, Barbados gained international attention and local interest intensified as well. But the real credit for Barbados becoming a world-class destination has to go to German-born Wolfgang Lange, acknowledged founding father of local wave windsurfing. He and his wife Rosemarie came to the island 20 years ago in search of a winter home.

“I basically discovered windsurfing in Silver Sands by accident. Rosie and I were the first people to put a windsurf board on the water there. People called us crazy, but we discovered one of the very best wave windsurfing spots in the world.” The couple worked as a team, producing articles on Barbados as a destination, organised the first local competitions and started a windsurf school. They collaborated with board and sail manufacturers, helping develop better equipment.

While a number of other Caribbean islands also offer windsurfing, particularly flat water action, Ria and Wolfgang both agree that Barbados reigns supreme in the wave arena. And while course racing and slalom once dominated, “Today, the king’s discipline is the waves, and that is where the fun is.”

In a world of ruthless sporting competition, Brian represents different values which people obviously find refreshing and attractive. “His personality goes with his determination to succeed,” says Ria. “But to be determined does not necessarily mean to be ruthless. Caribbean people are much better sportsmen generally, and Brian is one example.” Wolfgang adds, “Brian can live with losing. He went to the 1988 Olympics even though he never trained on that type of board before. He placed 33rd out of 55, but he didn’t mind. To him, it’s not just winning, it’s taking part and representing your country, sport and sponsors, and he does it really well.”

Philip Mayers, Barbados Brand Manager for Malibu Coconut Rum, is Brian’s newest sponsor. “Like the image of our product, Brian evokes that fun-loving, carefree lifestyle the Caribbean is so well-known for. More importantly, Brian is well respected by everyone, from people in the rum-shops to high-powered businessmen. He is a good ambassador for his country and always gives 100 per cent of himself.”

The PBA is pretty pleased with him too. Brian is now into his fourth consecutive year as an elected PBA committee member; the PBA’s Philippe Charron says, “Brian represents the interests of the wave sailors. He’s a good rep; he takes his job seriously and makes his presence felt.”

Bronzed, happy, relaxed and successful, Brian Talma doesn’t look much like a typical businessman. But a business degree has clearly not been wasted on him. Success, he says earnestly, is “about learning to be motivated and accomplishing your goals, and gaining recognition and respect in your profession.”

But his business education has led him to see his own achievements in a wider context. Recognition is nice, but there are lessons to be learned as well. “In Barbados they have a negative view that the sea is nowhere to make money. But I went down an avenue everyone said was impossible – I paved the way in a non-traditional sport and made a profession of it. That shows that Barbados and other islands can use their sports people and the sea to promote their product.

“Barbados is changing and sugar cane is no longer the main industry – tourism is. Many of the other islands are slowly changing also, but the one that changes the quickest will be the most successful.”

Adapt, diversify, the business manuals say. Brian himself is taking his own advice. He is now a published poet; his first pieces recently appeared in an Italian windsurfing magazine and were translated into three languages. His work reflects his life view and the feel of windsurfing.

In one of his Irie Man essays and poems he says, “Windsurfing is the ticket to the world, giving me total freedom of expansion, expression, movement, spirit and mind.” Later, “I love to smile. It comes from deep inside my heart. My smile reaches out to all people because there is nothing better than a smile returned.”