Windsurfing on Snow: a Brief History!
By Will Tuthill, Photos by Enda Pärisma and WISSA archives
What? Windsurfing on snow? Perhaps one out of a hundred windsurfers have ever even heard of this, yet there it is: people use their windsurfing rigs to sail on snow! It takes place mainly in northern latitudes, and it’s pretty much a forced reality for those who live there: if they want to sail all year, they need to adapt!
This might sound like a bad thing, but it’s really not – I’d take a good day of snow sailing over a good day of water sailing any day! Why?
Perhaps it’s the feel. The bite. The carve. It’s hard to say. There’s something unique about the way that a ski carves in the snow, simply unmatched by anything that water can offer. It calls for a different type of engineering too: a long, thoughtfully engineered, knife’s edge ski on snow versus a short stiff fin cutting through the water. Brilliant minds have developed, analyzed and refined ski technology for centuries. The development of windsurfing boards and fins is new by comparison. Think of the synergy that comes from the marriage or windsurfing and skiing. It is, in many ways, a perfect fusion!
For years, the ability to sail anything on snow was elusive. The downward pressure of a traditional sailboat mast would stuff skis down into the snow and stop forward motion. The advent of the windsurfing rig changed all of that. The upward lift component created when a windsurf rig sheets in and leans into the wind was enough to make the difference. All at once, windsurfing enthusiasts from around the world began tinkering – there was almost no lag time! As soon as windsurfing on water got underway, sleds for snow were born!
This was during the mid 1970s. The iron curtain that divided Western Europe from the Soviet Union was firmly in place, and ideas about how to go about sailing on snow were equally divided. The Eastern Bloc countries adopted the one-design class notion of a mono-ski with a deck mounted on top. A lot of that was likely tied to the paucity of resources. Why use two skis when you could get away with one?
On the other hand, in western countries (including Finland, Sweden and North America), sleds were mostly homemade contraptions on two skis featuring a platform upon which to stand. The early 1980s saw the introduction of a number of production sleds for snow. Winterboard from Finland featured three skis and a mesh deck that allowed snow to fall through. The Winski from Québec had a contoured plywood deck that allowed the rider to pop up onto one ski when going to windward – an idea ahead of its time.
As the 1980s rolled on, folks tried many new ideas, with varying results. There were a number of inventions that attached the windsurfing rig to a pair of skis. Instead of the rider standing on a sled, the rider used ski boots and regular skis to sail!
That’s when the World Ice and Snow Sailing Association (WISSA) got its start, providing a platform for snow sailors to come together, compete and exchange ideas. Launched in 1980 and continuing to this day, the WISSA World Championship stands as the longest-running continuously-held international competition in the history of windsurfing. Check out the coverage from this year’s event in the US (in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin), and the dates and venue for the 2020 edition are already set (Feb 10-15, 2020 in Estonia)!
Over the years, WISSA events have showcased all manner of thinking with regards to windsurfing on snow. Handheld wings and kites pretty much took away anyone wearing ski boots and skis, so the development centered around minor improvements to sleds. That was until Vadim Volotskoi from Arhangelsk, Russia, dropped his bomb at WISSA 2011 in Finland.
In hindsight, why had no one thought of this sooner? The fastest thing on snow had always been the monoski, but the drawback of spinouts and loss of edge control was driving all but the most dedicated away. A good number of talented Russian sled sailors went over to kites because of the treachery associated with the monoski. Volotskoi created the Formula style sled, and it took the snow sailing world by storm. The benefit of being able to sail on one ski was largely preserved, but if things went wrong the leeward ski could be dropped to prevent a wipeout. One year later, the design had been copied by teams all over Europe and it became the object of constant refinements afterwards.
In 2014, Volotskoi arrived at WISSA in St. Petersburg, Russia with a Formula sled with a “manual transmission” that allowed the rider to adjust the trim of the skis on the fly. Not to be outdone, Feodor Gurvits, a composites expert from Finland, came up with an “automatic transmission” version. It’s a carbon sled that self-adjusts ski angles to the optimum angle for the given point of sail!
No discussion of snow sailing would be complete without giving credit to Charles Chepregi of Toronto, Canada. Chepregi invented the Snowfer which looks more like a surfboard than anything to do with skis. It was designed to handle any and all conditions, and it rose to the task. To this day, the Snowfer remains one of the best all-around designs ever created.
To anyone reading this: if you live in a place where snow flies in winter, don’t give up windsurfing! Just switch to a different board!