By Bevan Eakins of the Western Australian
Ask Roao Rodrigues if he is famous and with a quite smile he’ll say: “Not in Portugal, but in Madeira, yes.”
Ask somebody in the world of windsurfing about the self-effacing athlete and you’ll get a completely different answer.
“He’s a rock star of the sport. When he talks others listen,” says Rory Ramsden, a veteran windsurfing official and international judge since 1992.
A world champion in 1995 with the best Olympic result of sixth at Athens in 2004, Rodrigues has won 22 regattas around the world and is primarily using the ISAF world sailing championships off Fremantle to qualify for his sixth Games in London next year.
But for all his prowess on the Olympic class RS:X, Rodrigues has become even more famous for a windsurfing feat that nobody else has accomplished and is recognised in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest non-stop ocean crossing.
In the middle of the northern hemisphere summer this year, he sailed from his home island of Madeira across the open north Atlantic Ocean to the island of Selvagem Grande.
He made the 160nm crossing, that’s a few clicks over 300km, not only to celebrate his 40th birthday last month but to also recognise the same anniversary of Parque Natural da Madeira, Portugal’s oldest national park.
The park admininisters the uninhabited, except for wardens, Selvagem Grande, the smaller Selvagem Pequena and the tiny Ilhéu de Fora. Selvagem translates as “wild” and the islands are gem of biodiversity, mentioned more times in Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species then the Galapagos Islands, according to Rodrigues.
“I wanted to call world-wide attention to these small islands,” Rodrigues says of a trip that was three months in the planning after he was approached by the Portuguese authorities to celebrate the park’s birthday.
It wasn’t easy. After more than 10 hours on just the one tack, his arms and legs ached and his back was completely destroyed for some months.
“After 2½ hours I wanted to quit but we took it mile by mile, step by step,” he says of the marathon sail.
Born on Madeira, which has a population of around 250,000 people, he was a natural sailor from the age of nine.
“When you’re surrounded by water, it is obvious to sail,” he says. His father imported the first sailboards and he was hooked from the beginning as the family raced around the islands.
“It’s been a passion since the first day. When I first started gliding I thought ‘oh my God, this is it’,” says the man who also has a mechanical engineering degree from the 80-year-old Technical University of Lisbon.
“It’s the only sport where I could find the obstacles and get over them. In all the other sports I tried, I couldn’t go any further.”
So how much further can Rodrigues go in a body which is starting to age?
“At my first Olympics in 1992 I just wanted to get it over. I’ve been to four more since,” he laughs. “I’d love to win a medal in Fremantle but the first aim is to qualify for the Olympics. This is my life and as long as I can keep the pace I will keep going.”
Rory Ramsden, for one, has no doubts he will be in London next year and says: “When the chips are counted, Joao is usually there.”