One thing is clear!
By Janice Anne Wheeler
Last June I was the new girl, and wrote my first-ever US Windsurfing commentary on this same Macintosh watching the Nationals in Worthington, Minnesota. This weekend at the 2020 Midwinters in Florida, one of the veteran racers tested my knowledge of the sport by asking me the difference between a Raceboard sail and a Windsurfer sail. “Most folks just call it windsurfing,” I tell him with aplomb, “Only the sport knows the particulars of Kona vs Windsurfer vs Raceboard vs Foil.” Nice non-answer, don’t you think? I felt pretty chuffed about it but I don’t think he was listening to me. He’s been racing nearly as long as I’ve been alive and builds fins that are sharp enough to cut and special enough that he can charge a premium for them. Like everyone else, he has a story and vast experience that culminated in our acquaintance here in sunny, calm Clearwater. His mind was assessing other equipment, other competitors, the wind, the odds. He came back from his practice sail unhappy with the adjustments, but smiling nonetheless, clearly happy to be on the water.
My companion is racing Kona because there is a lack of Raceboard entries this week; the same thing occurred last year and he is just a bit disappointed not to be competing for points in his own realm. There are less and less competitors in the class built for speed; the specialized Raceboard equipment is bigger, more expensive, a little less manageable. The class that he races is not the most important thing, that much is clear. The most important thing is the water, and regardless of what he is sailing, he, too, is happy to be on the water.
The second most important thing is the culture. After my first regatta I described the vibe as unifying, genuine, old-school; a sport where people still help each other with everything from borrowing spare equipment to giving lessons, a support network for beginners and veterans alike. That special camaraderie leads to big smiles for people you have not seen in months, and the competitive, feisty spirit remains. “There is some guy screaming across Panama Bay faster than me and I can’t have that,” one Kona rider tells me, shaking his head. I have a feeling he’ll figure out how to beat that guy, as he has beat most of the sailors here at one time or another. There are good races and not-as-good races, but everyone is happy to be on the water, that much is clear. A Texan in her third season is ecstatic that she consistently finishes within the fleet, and she should be. It’s an accomplishment, and her smile is huge.
“I’ve been resisting it for a couple of years,” another competitor confides in me. We are talking about the latest innovation in sailing, and it is a game-changer. The general consensus is that Hydrofoil (aka Foil or Windfoil) is the direction the sport is headed. A new direction, a captivating revival, hopefully, of America’s love of windsurfing. It looks like a blast, cruising silently above the water, as close to flying as sailing will allow.
“I’ve been windsurfing on and off since maybe 1986, borrowing stuff from people… then I bought my own board,” he pauses, glancing at me sideways so he knows I’m paying attention. “I sailed that board a long time and taught myself everything. Everything! I sailed 7.5 limited at the time and was winning in light wind. Things went way down in the 90s, when they pulled advertising so there was less money. Lots of changes.” Thirty-five years later this soft spoken silver-haired gentleman teaches the youth of Annapolis, a program that seems to have considerable momentum, and a very positive conversation ensues in regard to the continuation of the sport. Severn Sailing Association is the force behind the Chesapeake area youth recruitment. The Nationals happen there over Memorial Day weekend this year, should the coronavirus allow. We are certainly hoping this shall pass and the event will be held as scheduled!
Some events do not exist anymore, many with amusing names: the Mid-Atlantic Tudor Series, the Islamorada Pro-Am, Newport Fun Cup, HIHO in the British Virgin Islands, the Craig Stroetzel Memorial, Ya Gotta Regatta in Sandy Point near Daytona, the Halloween Howler, Sunfest Speed Slalom, Racing in Gunpowder Park. A respectful silence falls on the group, each reminiscing about a slightly different time. They are slinging locations at me like I know what they’re referring to, and I listen, intrigued; the places sound a little wild, challenging, fun. The memories bring back big smiles, and laughter, which is contagious. That was back when things were simpler, just a giant 50-state atlas (the deluxe version had Canada and Mexico, too) tucked under the passenger seat to get you to some beach somewhere. Hell, lots of times you didn’t know where you were and you didn’t care. There wasn’t GPS in those days before cell phones; less obligation to constantly be in touch, you could just go challenge Mother Nature. But there are many new events on the calendar too, with enthusiastic young organizers stoking the flames. Half of the fleet this week was under 18 years old too! Everyone took notice, and it bodes well for the future of the sport.
One thing is clear: windsurfers enjoy each other’s company. You can count on them to stay in touch even when they’re not on the water, until another regatta offers them a chance to get back together. I’m part of the tribe now, and I hope to see all those smiles many times over the course of the summer, made wider, perhaps, by a few extra knots of wind.