What happened to windsurfing?
Kiteboarding is now all the rage, but kiteboarding isn’t doing for the world what windsurfing did back in its heyday. Before this last Olympics I heard that windsurfing was going to be replaced by kiteboarding, but I was relieved to find out this wasn’t the case: kiteboarding was just entering as an exhibition sport. Windsurfing was still in, albeit called RS:X. Then I had to look up what an RS:X is: It’s a windsurfer.
Back in 1967 my dad’s former roommate from Pomona College co-invented, and later co-patented what would be called the Windsurfer. Hoyle Schweitzer and Jim Drake came up with the idea of combining surfing and sailing, but it was Hoyle who founded Windsurfing International, and the Schweitzer family who promoted the sport and brought it out of its inception. My dad, Seymour, became one of the first Windsurfer dealers, in Newport Beach, and still probably holds some kind of record for teaching the most people how to windsurf…definitely a record for getting the most crusty old traditional sailors to give it a try.
It was our family sport. My earliest memory is playing in the sand at Bahia Santa Maria, Baja California, while various Beeks, Schweitzers, Waltzes, Swateks, and Parduccis raced on the first generation of windsurfers, with teak booms. By the time I was old enough to pull the sail out of the water (a fateful day, also at Bahia de Santa Maria) windsurfing was exploding…but we didn’t know it.
Our tribe migrated around the Southwest for regattas most of the year: Long Beach, Mission Bay, Newport Harbor, Huntington Lake, Pyramid Lake, Castaic Lake, and Bahia de Santa Maria every Easter and Thanksgiving. We almost always camped. The windsurfing tribe, in hindsight, looked like a nascent version of Burning Man. The Schweitzer’s big van was always the anchor tenant, but the Waltze’s VW bus and my dad’s Ford lease car du jour (he worked for Ford for 23 years) were always stuck in the sand nearby. The Schweitzers always had wooden planks for getting cars unstuck.
Schweitzers, Waltzes, Demonds, and Parduccis, on the beach at Bahia Santa Maria
Then one day the crowd changed. Our little band of Southern California windsurfers was joined by Sven from Sweden, Jorg from Germany, Toro from Japan, and Dario from Italy. They’d all come to race against the best. Unbeknownst to us kids, the original tribe had been outnumbered tenfold around the world. In Europe the idea of a fully-functional sailboat that could be carried on top of a car led to an explosion of the sport. Soon there was competition in manufacturing sailboards, and years of legal battles. At the world championships in 1974, where my dad won the heavyweights, it seemed there were as many Europeans as Americans. And a few years later a punk kid from Hawaii named Robby Naish began his domination of the sport that lasted most of my lifetime.
It wasn’t just the fun and convenience. Something about Windsufing embodied the Zeitgeist of the seventies: independence and individual freedom, with strong counter-culture overtones. It put a sailor closer to nature–just inches above the water, and often in it. It was the poor man's sailboat, which had never existed before. A windsurfer sailor didn’t need yacht clubs, a fancy home, or a lot of money. He just needed a patch of sand to set up his rig and he was off into the sunset…until he’d crawl back into his tent on the beach.
By the eighties it was everywhere: The Sunkist orange soda commercial, the Frosted Flakes commercial ("They’re Great!"). A 14-year-old Clark Beek even windsurfed in a TV commercial for Nature Valley Granola Clusters, with my big speaking part (“Alright!”) which kicked me into the higher pay scale, and netted me enough money to buy my first car. In 1984 it became an Olympic sport, in Los Angeles, right where the sport began.
We flew to Maui every summer to stay with the Schweitzers, and saw revolutionary developments every time: Wave jumping, harnesses (and getting “launched” until we learned how to use them properly), the RAF (Rotating Asymmetrical Foil AKA Not Normal), Mylar sails, and then the biggest development of all, the water start. With the water start you didn’t have to stand up on the board to pull up the sail, meaning the board didn’t have to be big enough to float body weight, meaning the birth of the short board and serious speed. The world sailing speed record, tandem boards, professional sailboarders…there was no telling where it was going next.
But alas, windsurfing's days as everyman's sport are gone. Some say it’s because you can’t buy a cheap sailboard package anymore. In its heyday you could buy a cheapo sailboard for less than $500, then move up once you decided you were hooked. Those in the know will be quick to point out that the top of the sport is still moving up: windsurfers keep going faster, equipment keeps getting better, and back in the day we couldn’t have dreamed of the moves they’re pulling in the surf these days. Check out this guy:
Maybe the times have just changed…dang kids and their video games. I, however, will always go back to Bahia Santa Maria (we've got a shack on the beach now) and sail my original Windsurfer through the shallows at high tide.
Ted, the youngest Schweitzer kid, has put together a great website, Original Windsurfer, which chronicles the first ten years of the sport. For me it’s like reading a family scrap book. There are debates as to who actually invented the sailboard (it turns out there were sailboard-like-prototypes clear back in the forties), and to what direction the sport could have taken at various times, but I think everyone agrees that if Hoyle and Diane Schweitzer hadn’t packed their young family in that van and carted them all over creation to promote the sport—in the most fun, sharing, Tequila-around-the-campfire kind of way—the sport would have never grown beyond a silly contraption you’d find in the back of Popular Mechanics.
…and I doubt kiteboarding would have followed.