Invisible, changeable and unconquerable, the wind is a mighty force. It can destroy, but also offers immense power – for energy, freedom, and even food. Three conversations in three windswept Cornish locations explore the wind’s different faces…
Hayle Bar is an exposed spot across the bay from St Ives, on the far west of Cornwall’s north coast, where Lee Carter fishes for crab and lobster (some of which end up on the menus at Watergate Bay). While his catch may lack the symbolism of Ahab’s epic hunt for the whale, Lee is no stranger to adventure – often navigating swells big enough to drench the deck of his 10-metre, three-man boat, Jazzy C.
The sea off Hayle is often volatile, with big swells whipped up out in the Atlantic by fierce southwesterly, northwesterly and northerly winds. Still, he’d rather have those than easterlies, any day. “Shellfish don’t like easterlies,” he says.
Tis a noble and heroic thing, the wind! Who ever conquered it? In every fight it has the last and bitterest blow. Run tilting at it, and you but run through it.
Captain Ahab, on his third day of chasing Moby Dick.
Lee spends mornings watching weather apps and the speed of clouds moving across the sky. If there’s a suitable window, he’ll venture out, whether that’s into rough northerlies, the frigid easterlies (which tend to follow cold fronts – the reason his shellfish may stop biting) or the westerlies which, legend has it, are more likely to summon a good catch.
But while the wind plays conductor to the rhythms of Lee’s work, he’s not one to romanticise the relationship. For the Cornish fisherman, things tend to remain pragmatic. “If prices are good, we’ll go in stronger winds,” he says. “If they’re not so good, we’ll stay in.”
The dictionary defines the wind simply as “a natural current of air that moves fast enough for you to feel it”. It’s perhaps because we can’t see the wind that we ascribe to it so many contradictory faces. It’s the wind that makes up the Feng part of Feng Shui, the Chinese concept of harmony with the environment. Yet ‘divine wind’ is the literal translation of the Japanese term ‘kamikaze’, the name for the suicide flying missions that wreaked havoc upon US forces in the Battle of Okinawa.
Dreya Bennett works out of a glass-making studio in Newquay, a town that’s similarly wind-hewn. Dreya, a former professional kitesurfer and world record-holder, sees the wind purely in terms of kite sizes. “I’ll talk about it as ‘four-metre weather’ or ‘a 10-metre day’,” she says.
Dreya explains how the stronger the wind, the smaller the kite you need to get power out of it. In a professional career that saw her ranked as high as third in the world, she’s ridden that wind across the globe. In the Swiss Alps she learned how the thin air of high altitudes is disconcertingly weak, even when the wind is howling. In Cabarete, in the Dominican Republic, meanwhile, the winds seem to gift the surfer a delicious extra half-second of coveted ‘hang time’. Suspended 30 feet in the air, hang time is when the kiter feels most free. She’s actually flying, the wind making literal the stuff of dreams.
But even in a sport that promises escape, those bitter blows are still never far away. “It can all go wrong very fast with kiting,” says Dreya. “Mother Nature lets you play for a while, lulling you into a false sense of security. And then she often teaches you who’s boss.”
This typically means the wind choosing to disappear when you’re in the middle of a trick. Suddenly your line goes slack and you drop from the sky. “A horrible feeling,” says Dreya. But it can be more serious. In 2002, Dreya’s friend and competitor, Silke Gorldt, then the world number two, was killed in a freak accident in the Baltic Sea. She was just 24 years old.
Dreya’s voice still cracks when she recounts the story. The kitesurfing world was shellshocked by her death but soon united in loving tribute: six of the world’s best kiters, including then number one Cindy Mosey of New Zealand, came together as friends to surf a route Dreya had spotted from the sky.
The 70 miles from the Scilly Isles to Watergate Bay.
But the wind would get up to its tricks there too. First, it disappeared. “Cindy and I were the only two who just managed to keep our kites flying,” says Dreya. “But we couldn’t kite – we were just in the water trying to keep them moving.”
Then, with the pair finally approaching Watergate, it turned: a full 180-degree shift, from the perfect direction to totally offshore, which pushed them further out to sea. “We went from looking at the land to having our backs to it,” she says. “I could see the beach for nearly two hours before we actually got to the shore, just trying to edge up wind, edge up wind, and get to the land.”
The trip was, however, a triumph. And for Dreya, it led to an even more spectacular effort: a world record 135-mile kitesurf from Watergate to Dungarvan, Ireland. This time she started with no wind, flogging away on a 15-metre kite. By the time she arrived, eight-and-a-half hours later, she’d trailed dolphins in the bow of her support boat, and watched the ocean turn a completely unfamiliar shade of blue. And now the wind was howling. The shore party kited out to meet her on nine-metre kites. Her desperately tired arms were still wrestling her 15-metre.
Dreya has since retired from competition, but still kitesurfs for leasure. These days the wind dictates every holiday she takes with her husband, a windsurfer. Her choice spots are the Gulf of Roses and Tarifa in Spain. But it could be anywhere that’s blowing. “It’s always the wind for us,” she says.
With an elevation of 800 feet, Delabole is Cornwall’s third-highest village. Look at the old hedges in the surrounding area and you’ll see them stripped and twisted by centuries of the prevailing wind. So it’s always the wind for the residents of Delabole too, whether they like it or not.
Back in 1989, Delabole locals Peter and Pip Edwards found themselves protesting against a nuclear power plant being proposed for Cornwall. Coming to believe they should offer an alternative, they took advantage of Delabole’s geography and, with a self-starting environmentalism that now seems remarkably ahead of its time, built the UK’s first commercial wind farm, which opened in 1991.
The first time Juliet Davenport visited Delabole, she was ten years out of a physics degree at Oxford, and working on European energy policy in Brussels. She’d already had one life-changing encounter with the wind, when the Great Storm of 1987 gave her visceral evidence of a changing climate. Atmospheric physics would soon become the subject matter she was most drawn to.
Arriving at Delabole she was struck, not just by the force of the wind and the extraordinary power of the ten 50-metre windmills, but by the Edwards’ spirit and vision. “A lot of the original wind turbines were owned by individuals or small communities, who came together and just decided they wanted to build them,” she says. “People are often far more capable of taking risks, being bold and brave and asking, ‘Why not?’ than businesses are. I loved Mrs Edwards’ tenacity.”
Juliet founded Good Energy in 1999, with the idea of supplying renewable energy direct to customers; three years later, the company bought Delabole wind farm from the Edwards. Fast-forward to today, and the UK now produces 33% of its electricity from renewables,
and 17% from the wind.
Juliet concedes that not everyone in Delabole loves the wind farm, but for many it’s become part of the landscape. When Good Energy took the old turbines down in 2009 in order to replace them (the four new turbines would double the output of the original ten), she received a letter from a local asking when their replacements would be up – because they used the blades as a weather vane. If their rotation showed a prevailing wind was blowing through, they knew they needed to light the fire.
At the Delabole wind farm at dusk, as the gnarled hedges slip into silhouette, the army of turbines turn effortlessly on the hill. With the light fading across the farmland below, the lights of the neighbouring villages flicker to life, as if they were charmed by the rotation of the blades. While not exactly conquering the wind, it’s a picture of what happens when you live in harmony with it.“
The wind can get people down, especially if it’s blowing all the time,” says Juliet. “So the concept that you’re actually doing something good with it, creating something from it, is quite entrancing.” She begins daydreaming a means of harnessing the planet’s increasingly intense hurricanes as an energy source, mulling whether it would ever be feasible to throw a three-bladed generator into its centre, to drain the energy from the storm and turn it into something positive.
And why not? “I think wind has delivered much more than we ever expected,” she says.