El Yaque once drew fans of the sport from all over the world but relaxed vibe has been replaced by heavy drinking until dawn
When Yoli de Brendt swapped banking for windsurfing, 10 years ago, her friends thought she was mad. After all, she barely knew how to swim.
But De Brendt went to the right place at the right time. Ten years ago, El Yaque was a mecca for windsurfers from all over the world, thanks to the trade winds that blow into the Caribbean basin, shallow waters and year-round sunshine. The constant influx of foreigners teaching each other the latest tricks, coupled with the natural conditions, meant De Brendt quickly went from novice to master.
Today, De Brendt holds three sub-champion titles, ranking among the top three in the world. But she says the Yaque she knew is long gone: the relaxed, cosmopolitan aura has given way to a debauched party culture where the reggae and heavy drinking can last until dawn, and where few wake up for an early morning sail.
“Bodysuits were replaced by G-strings, and one no longer sees the flutter of sails in the sea,” says De Brendt. “It’s more like drunkards passed out on reclining chairs.”
El Yaque is a tiny fishermen’s village 15 minutes from the international airport at Margarita island, off the coast of Venezuela. Its main road splits the town of more than 6,000 into two distinct areas – one where local people live in precarious mud-and-zinc houses and make a meagre living from fishing, the other where an influx of Germans, French, Brazilians and Italians built a string of two-storey, beachfront hotels in the 1980s and set up windsurfing schools where aficionados would come all year round to practise in the warm Caribbean waters.
According to De Brendt, crimes such as the murder of a Briton and a Frenchman two years ago have deterred foreigners from coming back.
Additionally, the direct flights from Germany, the Netherlands and Canada have dwindled as a result of insecurity and the country’s economic troubles. Of the 15 windsurfing schools, only three remain.
“Windsurfing offered a lot of the local kids here an option. Now I see kids trade in their sails for drugs,” De Brendt says of a situation that leaves her increasingly discouraged.
For her colleague, the five-times world champion Gollito Estredo, life is a breeze, however. At 24, the nimble athlete is enjoying his time in the limelight. Estredo acknowledges that windsurfing was his ticket out of a life in which fishing seemed the only option.
“If I hadn’t gone into windsurfing I’d probably be fishing for a living. Both are good things. We need fish,” says Estredo of the way the other half of El Yaque lives.
With the prizes Estredo has earned, he has built a home for his mother, and is now constructing his own hotel. But despite his success, the author of the renowned pasko move – spinning 360 degrees on one’s axis not once but twice – is worried about what lies in store for his community as it struggles to adapt to a shift in tourism.
“It’s become a party destination, and we really need to recover the sports-oriented vibe the beach had,” Estredo says.
As El Yaque prepares to host its first world championship in March, Estredo hopes the town will regain its lost lustre. Others remain sceptical.
De Brendt says: “Rarely does life give you a second chance. We’ve been lucky, but let’s see if we get it right this time.”
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