Of little blokarts and wide Ostend beaches
Endless rows of colourful windbreakers and sun shades, people basking in the bright sun, children building sandcastles or jumping at the waves – the beaches at Ostend, only 15 minutes from Bruges, are very popular among tourists and Belgians alike.
But with the temperature of the North Sea slowly dropping below 10° C and the wind picking up again, “The Queen of the Belgian sea-side resorts” sees less and less visitors. Strolling down the famous King Baudouin promenade, turning up the collar of your coat and wrapping the scarf a little tighter around your neck, you can still sight some kids on bikes chasing each other, some old and young couples walking closely together, and some others warming up with a hot chocolate or a coffee in one of the many boothes, sheltering them from the wind. But the wide sand beaches are unusually empty.
There is one group, however, that has been waiting for these harsh winds all summer, that has been looking forward to see the beaches finally emptying out. “You have to use the wind. It’s quite intuitive. You pull in the sail, you go fast. You pull in more, maybe you go faster, maybe you slow down,” says Nicolas Boel. “You just play with the sail all the time and you feel when you are going fast, you are doing good. When you fall over, you pulled in too much. You don’t have to know how to sail to be able to go out in a blokart.”
Slowly climbing out of his small kart, Boel greets you with his hair quite dishevelled and a face still red from the airflow. From around the 1st of October till the 31st of March the blokart season is dominating the beaches of Belgium, and it is then that Boel and a group of like-minded friends eagerly take out their blokarts to race.
Boel not only races, he has also made a business out of his sport, renting out blokarts and organizing events and seminars for groups to learn how to steer one of the vehicles. The idea was born out of a necessity, says Boel. “I used to sail a lot. And about ten or twelve years ago, I started a new business on the promenade here in Ostend – bicycle and pedal gokart rental. So it means when season starts – that is Eastern holiday till the end of September or October – I am very busy, but that is also the sailing season. Since I couldn’t sail anymore, I looked for another sport to be able to do in winter. That is when I discovered blokart and since then we have been busy with blokarts every winter.”
Invented in New Zealand, the home of many fun sports, blokart racing is still a relatively young activity – though already quite popular and fast growing, especially in Europe. Every two years the World Championships are held at beaches and dry lakes around the world. Boel won his first Championship in 2010, right here in Ostend.
During the Championships, the starters compete in races of eight minutes, trying to do as many laps as possible. “Sometimes it can be easy, when the wind goes from the sea. It is just turning around – anybody could do it,” says Jan Marques, another World Champion, who has been doing sports like catamaran and windsurfing for years, and has been an active blokart racer since 2006. “When the wind is like now, it is more difficult because you have to go against the wind and then with the wind. So that is a little bit more technical which, if you race a lot, you prefer of course.”
Marques’ profession is not being a racer but a software engineer, and together with Etienne Kodeck, also a successful blokart racer, he is currently working on an advanced system to time races. For Marques and Kodeck it is the speed that attracts them both to this kind of sport – “to go fast without anything, just the winds and the wings.” And though the kart might resemble a three-wheeled soapbox with an oversized windsurfing sail, beginners can already reach 20-30 km/h; good racers easily more than 60 km/h in a blokart. “Really, in half an hour, you have the go of it, but then it is like they say, it takes a lifetime to master. So I learn a little bit more with every time I go sail. Every time the wind is different, the beach is different – so you always have to concentrate,” says Marques.
But above all it is not the blokarts, with their velocity and agility, but being part of a tight group, says Boel. “We have been all over the world just to race little blokarts. We meet people from all over the world and that is the most fun,” agrees Marques, before all three World Champions sit back down in their blokarts, driving off again, already preparing for the upcoming races.
And so with the promenade and the Hotel Thermae Palace as a backdrop, still letting some of the old flair of the 19th century Belle Époque shine through, and the small blokarts speeding across the flat sand beaches, one cannot help but keep on watching a little longer, forgetting all too soon to mind the cold wind, that slowly numbs your fingers and keeps on blowing the salty sea air in your face. After all, it is a beautiful day, the sun is out and those blokart racers, they have been waiting for this wind all year.