Arizona’s Windsurfing Scene, Rising Like a Phoenix, Celebrates Its Resurgence!
By Stephane Fitch
It was a stir that few would have envisioned five years ago. Dozens of windsurfers and their friends gathered on the south shore of Lake Pleasant, Arizona on May 1 to socialize, sail and celebrate the revival of windsurfing in the Sonoran Desert.
The occasion, dubbed the Spring Wind Thing, was organized by a rapidly growing area windsurfing club called Arizona Wind Fanatics and sponsored by the US Windsurfing Association and Murrays Sports. Sailors showed up at dawn and staked out 100 yards of premium waterfront on Lake Pleasant’s south shore. They handed out free sandwiches, taught beginners on a newly-built windsurfing simulator and shepherded them out into light winds on a Starboard Start. Revelers gawked at the USWA banners and the wind feathers Murrays planted in the rocky soil at the water’s edge. “Pinch me,” one of the club members remarked upon seeing the gathered crowd buzzing excitedly about windsurfing. “It really feels like we’ve arrived.”
Call it a comeback. In 2016, you could count the number of windsurfers regularly showing up at Lake Pleasant on one hand.
If you live in Florida, Oregon or California, you may be surprised to hear that there was ever a windsurfing scene in Arizona at all. It has understandably had its ups and downs over the decades. The state is home to one legendary sailing spot: Lake Mohave. Alas, the powerfully windy section of the Colorado River along the Nevada border is too remote to make for good day-sailing for most Arizonans. Lake Pleasant, a 32,000-acre reservoir that sits behind a dam on the Agua Fria river, is close to Phoenix. And despite some iffy wind, it’s the main engine for the sport’s growth in the region.
As far as anybody can tell, the first people to windsurf on Pleasant’s waters were two teenage boys, Tom Mulligan and his older brother John, who in 1977 borrowed a Schweitzer-made Windsurfer that their father had purchased at a boat show in California. The pair waded out into the lake on a breezy morning with few clues as to how the gear worked. There were “no instructions, no manual, no internet,” explains the younger Mulligan, who still windsurfs at the lake regularly. “Just two brothers trying to figure it out.” It took the pair a year of clumsy experimentation to get it right.
A decade later, the windsurfing craze had arrived. “Guys would come up from Tucson and down from Flag. We sailed out of a spot called Dirty Shirt Beach,” Mulligan recalls. There were “lots of windsurfers and catamarans. And shore bonfire parties were common.” On good weekend days, the Mulligan brothers would look out at their lake and see two dozen windsurfers slicing through the chop and making the best of uneven winds.
Then came a long and puzzling decline. In 1994, Lake Pleasant’s New Waddell Dam commenced service, raising water levels by dozens of feet. The new dam submerged Dirty Shirt Beach, but it quadrupled the surface area of the lake. And yet, even though Lake Pleasant had more space than ever, the windsurfers stopped coming.
Why? Lake Pleasant’s intermittent winds and light chop didn’t work well for the tiny sails, skinny boards and flashy, big-wave sailing styles that the industry was promoting. Hard-core sailors who dreamed of “planing” on boards scarcely wider than a water ski moved on. They abandoned Lake Pleasant for the world-class wind at Lake Mohave three hours away. Or flew to Hawaii. Meanwhile, beginners and folks just looking for a merry hour or two on a local lake in the summertime were left behind, their gentle sailing styles dismissed as mere “slogging.”
Lake Pleasant was left to the jet skiers and motor boaters. “We had a little resurgence when the new wider board styles came out around the early 2000s,” says Mulligan. But the windsurfing scene continued to weaken from 2000 to 2020 even though the population of Maricopa County grew by 1.4 million.
When did the comeback start? Hard to say precisely. But it has clearly gained speed since 2019, helped along by some perfectly timed innovations and accidents.
One factor was the explosion of interest here in standup paddling, or SUP. There are enough customers to support two SUP specialty shops in the Phoenix area. A SUP paddler, goes the thinking, is a windsurfer who just doesn’t know it yet. Several of the beginners at the Spring Wind Thing on May 1 were SUP enthusiasts looking for something new.
YouTube, Instagram and Facebook have put windsurfing back into view — and allowed enthusiasts to connect with each other and with beginners. Facebook pages about windsurfing in Arizona like AZ Windsurfers and Arizona Wind Fanatics have built followings of more than 200 people each. An Arizona State University journalism student named Amanda Marvin made a YouTube video about windsurfing at Lake Pleasant. The film, which included an interview with me, has grabbed more than 1,000 views since March 2020.
The Covid-19 crisis shut down stadiums, arenas, theaters and all kinds of other activities in Arizona, but it spared the state’s parks and drove a resurgence of interest in outdoorsy activities like sailing that don’t require you to be within six feet of anybody. (Arizona’s governor kept parks in the state open during most of the pandemic.) When Arizona Wind Fanatics held a free lessons day in the spring of 2021, more than a dozen students showed up.
Meanwhile, the windsurfing industry has been investing heavily in beginners. Manufacturers have turned to carbon-fiber and lightweight epoxy to make the biggest, most beginner-friendly windsurfing boards easier to load and lug. New carbon-fiber masts make rigs less back-breaking to uphaul. “The vision we sell now is an experience that is simple and accessible,” says Greg Mejlaender, a longtime USWA director who heads various clubs and programs to encourage new windsurfers in the Seattle area. “They want to see something that they can aspire to, that will be right in their wheelhouse.” Even the word “slogging” is out, says Mejlaender. “We call it ‘cruising’ now.”
Meanwhile, the experts have come back to Lake Pleasant — thanks to hydrofoils and wings. Foils were prohibitively expensive for decades. “With recent advancements,” says Thomas Sinnickson, a partner at Murrays Sports, “the cost and performance has become much more affordable and accessible.” Lake Pleasant pioneer Tom Mulligan began learning to foil in 2019. Master windsurf racer Xavier Ferlet spent a day sailing Lake Pleasant on an IQ foil in December 2020.
Wingfoiling has captured the imagination of beginners as well. Mandy Fitch was the first person to wing-foil at Lake Pleasant, in September 2020. Several others, including Sinnickson, a veteran catamaran sailor, now join her regularly on the lake. Says Sinnickson: “The ability to almost instantly depower a wing allows riders to handle puffs and inconsistent wind.” Perfect for Lake Pleasant, in other words.
“Foiling has increased time on the water 5 to 10 fold, no exaggeration,” says Mulligan. “Our best months of January and February used to produce 5-10 days total. This year, foiling, I got 17 days in January and 16 in February.” Now 60, Mulligan looks upon the influx of beginner and expert windsurfing enthusiasts with special satisfaction. “Seeing the resurgence is a little like bringing back my youth,” he says. “At age 60, I’m sailing better than I have in the last 40 years.” Most members of Arizona Wind Fanatics regard Mulligan as the top sailor on the lake and have dubbed him “Mayor Tom.”
Despite its unsteady winds, Lake Pleasant has regained a sense of community. “I finally feel like I have something to belong to like I did surfing,” says Robbie Frank, a long-time Orange County expert surfer who moved to Arizona in 2004. Frank took up windsurfing last year and showed up at the Spring Wind Thing with a Kona One longboard strapped to his truck. “Windsurfing has given me an outlet I’ve been looking for,” he says. Minus, he adds, the “mean son of a bitch” aggression that surfing at hyper-competitive point breaks around Seal Beach demanded. “Everyone has been so welcoming and helpful.”
As Arizona Wind Fanatics cofounder Sebastian Roy likes to say, “we want Lake Pleasant to be the best second-rate windsurfing destination in the country.” If you’re planning on passing through the Arizona desert, stop in. You might be surprised to find yourself among new friends.