The story of this sail and photograph
The board in this photograph was my board. I came up with the idea of a reefable Windsurfer sail and made the modifications to an old sail. I only used it a few times, because, to put it succinctly, it didn't work.
The implementation was pretty elegant. At the head
of the sail I extended the mast sleeve, but it was
narrower than the main sleeve and set in toward
the sail side, so in full-sail position, the top of
the mast was in front of the extended
sleeve. And, the extended sleeve was
folded down and secured with Velcro.
To use the reef, you freed the extended sleeve, let off the downhaul, and guided the mast into the extended sleeve. Along the new foot was a row of grommets with short pieces of thin line in them, to tie up the furled sail. As I write this, over 35 years later, I don't remember how I handled the clue--the bottom of the sail at the mast. I must have had a zipper or something to free the sail from the mast. Then a new downhaul was attached to a grommet.
So far so good. You furl up the extra sail tightly and tie it off with the short lines. But, I discovered that no matter how tightly you furl the extra sail, its weight radically changes the luffing characteristics of the sail. The booms would whip back and forth with a vengeance, making it extremely difficult to perform the acrobatic feat of grabbing booms, falling backwards and sheeting in at precisely the right moment and in precisely the right way. Of course in light air this would have been easy, but you wouldn't be reefing the sail in light air! This was a sail for 20+ knot winds. Or at least it was supposed to be.
Once you got going, it worked fine... until you wanted to tack. Then the extra weight came into play again. We aptly called this sail the "Reefer Madness".
As I said, that's my board in the picture, but it's not me on it. I took the picture--from another board.
I had a Nikonos underwater camera. When Windsurfing, to ease the strain on your arms you use a harness, and the harness included some gear you'd wear like a backpack (without the pack). I made a heavy cloth case for the camera with nylon webbing on the back. I put these oval grommets in the webbing that would feed onto pins that were grommeted onto the straps of my harness. (It would be easier to explain this if I knew what those attachment things are called.) Anyway, the result was that the camera was attached to my harness. I could take it off the harness and a safety rope kept it secure. I could sail with one hand on the boom and the harness line keeping me supported, and turn my body and push the shutter release with my other hand to get a shot while sailing. The framing was very approximate.
However, to get the above shot, I would have had to shoot behind my back, and I couldn't twist that far around while sailing, so I must have dropped my rig and been just standing on my board. I probably also used the viewfinder fo this one.
The original was in black & white. I added the color in Photoshop some years later. That sail was actually lime green, but I never liked that color. (It's all they had when I bought the board.)
My Windsurfing history
In1978 my brother, Rocky, worked on an ocean-racing yacht named Gem. When he returned to Connecticut in the spring from the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit, he had a big surfboard strapped to the lifelines. “What’s that?” I asked. (Long Island Sound is not known for its waves. Some friends and I once tried surfing on the wake of a tugboat, but that’s as close as you get to surfing there.) It turned out this thing was a windsurfer; something I’d never even heard of. I watched Rocky sail it a few times and he let me try, with spectacularly dismal results.
Gem needed some serious work done, so she was out of the water at a boatyard a few towns away. Rocky spent all day every week day there, supervising the maintenance. I took his windsurfer out. Every day. Here’s how it would go: the sail is in the water, and I climb onto the board, grab onto the up-haul rope, and shakily stand up, using the rope for support. I pull on the rope and the mast and sail start coming out of the water. I lose my balance and fall backwards into the water. Repeat. Keep repeating. I can be pretty stubborn, and I was about this. People going by in the harbor would point and laugh. Really! Out loud!
After a while — I don’t remember whether it was days or weeks — I managed to get the mast all the way up so that I could grab onto the wishbone boom… before I fell off. In another unknown time span I managed to keep the mast up and trim the sail, making the board actually move. I was quite excited. Tacking (changing direction so that the bow of the boat goes past head-to-wind) is a pretty straightforward operation on most boats, but not so on a windsurfer. This engendered another unknown time span of practice.
We’ve had three unknown timespans during which I’ve been using Rocky’s windsurfer without his knowledge—or, of course, permission. (By the way, what allowed me all this time was that I was teaching photography at night. I had days free.) It’s now a Friday in late July, and Rocky will be heading up to Cape Cod for a windsurfer regatta as soon as he gets off of work. I’m out in the harbor doing my usual falling-in-the-water thing, except that now I’m actually on the board more often than in the water.
What makes the windsurfer unique in the sailboat world is the way the mast attaches to the boat. On all other boats this is a rigid connection, but on a windsurfer it’s completely flexible, so that if you let go of the mast, it falls down. This happens because a universal joint attaches mast to board. There are many implications to this concept, but none of them concern us here. What concerns us right now is that on this Friday in late July, when Rocky is getting ready to go to a regatta, I broke his universal joint.
I immediately got on the telephone to track down a new one. In the entire state of Connecticut there was just one shop that sold windsurfers. Although on the phone the guy said he had no replacement universal joints, I hopped in the car and went up to the shop to beg, borrow, or steal one. Anything! I had to replace it… today!
The owner, a big guy named Steve (nickname: Round Man) was friendly and sympathetic but truly had no spares. I had only one choice: I bought a windsurfer.
When Rocky got home from work, I said, “Well, there’s bad news, and there’s good news.…” After I explained, he asked to see the broken universal joint. He said he thought he could fix it, so we drove to Gem’s boathouse, where there was a well-equipped woodshop, and Rocky fashioned a replacement for the broken part. I still gave him the new one, but with two functioning universal joints we both headed to Cape Cod for the regatta.
The regatta was in Buzzards Bay, near Falmouth, where the wind is typically light in the morning and builds all day. By midafternoon you almost always have a very respectable breeze. In Long Island sound, where I’d been sailing, it would usually start very light in the morning and build by a few breaths in the afternoon. Occasionally you get a nice sea breeze in the late afternoon, about the time I had to get ready to go to work. Buzzards Bay was a new experience. On Saturday I didn’t race. (After all, I wasn't even registered for the regatta.) But I did sail all day – well, nearly all day.
In my early sailing days as a kid I had a real fear of of not being able to get back to where I started. It had been a lot of years and a lot of sailing experience since then, but that Saturday afternoon that fear came crashing down on me with force. My original fear had been of not being able to sail to windward, but the windsurfer sails to windward easily. In a strong breeze. It’s sailing with the wind that is a challenge. I don’t know how well I can explain this without getting into the physics involved, but when you start sailing if you trim the sail (fill it with wind) slowly, the board will turn into the wind. So you have to fill the sail quickly — all at once. One of the beautiful aspects of the windsurfer concept is that you balance the pressure of the wind in the sail with your body weight. If the wind is very light you can simply stand upright, but as the wind exerts more pressure on the sail, you have to lean out to counterbalance that pressure. You must achieve perfect equilibrium between the pressure of the wind in the sail and the angle of your body. And you have to do it all at once. If you overestimate how far you must lean, you fall in the water. If you underestimate, you might do what is referred to as a catapult, where the sail propels you up and forward, sending you flying, head-first, off the front of the board. Either way, you take a swim. That Saturday afternoon on Buzzards Bay I took many swims, and I was getting very tired. The strength required to control a windsurfer in 15 knots of wind is not trivial, but the strength required to repeatedly pull the sail out of the water and start sailing is much greater. A few years later, also on Buzzards Bay, I would find myself in a similar situation, but that time I had better balance, more strength, and more knowledge of windsurfing. On this Saturday in July I was approaching panic. But fear brings adrenaline, adrenaline brings strength and strength is what got me home. I sat out the rest of the day.
That afternoon I bought myself a harness, which is a backpack-like configuration with a hook on the front where the straps meet. A length of line (‘rope’ to a non-sailor) is attached to each side of the wishbone boom in a loop that can be caught by the hook. You can then lean against the line rather than supporting the whole system with your arms. It requires greater finesse and quick adjustment, but less strength. I used a harness for the rest of my windsurfing career, with one exception, as you will see.
The atmosphere at this regatta was unlike any sailing experience I had ever had. There was universal recognition that we had discovered something really big, and the rest the world just had no idea. It was probably the most exhilarating thing any one of us had ever done. It certainly was for me. I’ve gone faster out on the trapeze of a Hobie 18, flying a hull, but I was probably 10 feet above the water. On a windsurfer, the faster you go the closer you get the water. You can be sailing with your head only inches above the water, and let me tell you, not only is that fast, but it feels fast! In such conditions, you can carve a turn like a traditional surfboard, position the board onto the other gybe (passing the back of the board into the wind) then flip the sail around to the other side, leaning into the new-found pressure, and feel the board accelerate under you. I’m jumping ahead in the story a bit here. I didn’t have that skill level at that time, but even at my novice level, it was the most exhilarating thing I’d ever done.
I imagine that most windsurfers in New England and Eastern New York were at that regatta. We were a cult. We were family. We knew!
Saturday night there was a dance. There were no tickets to get in. You had to show your hands. If you didn’t have substantial calluses on your palms, you didn’t get in. This was a 100% reliable indicator of a windsurfer. I was probably the least experienced person there and I had pronounced calluses.
I learned to use my harness very quickly, and I even raced in a few of the races on Sunday. I made an effort to stay out of everyone’s way since I was not official, but I still didn’t do badly. Rocky has always been an excellent sailor with his share of trophies to prove it, but I even beat him one race.
After that regatta I discovered that the place to windsurf in Connecticut was at Compo Beach, a few towns away, in Westport. Compo was only open to Westport residents, but I finagled a sticker from a friend who didn’t drive. I spent the rest of the summer at Compo Beach during the day and teaching photography at night. The wind was often light, sometimes too light to make sailing much fun. We would rig a badminton net between the roof racks of a pair of cars and play until the wind began to affect the shuttlecock. Then it was time to go sailing.
The designated windsurfing zone of the beach was off to the side, where we would not interfere with swimmers. This part of the beach was not maintained as the swimming area was, so there were rocks, barnacles, and mussel shells in abundance. We were always barefoot and in time didn’t notice these things. One day I had a doctor’s appointment for something I don’t remember, and while there I asked if he could remove something that seemed to be stuck in my foot. When he saw my foot he gasped. The calluses were a quarter-inch thick and shredded. He spent about 15 or 20 minutes picking pieces of shell out of my feet, one piece of which, luckily, was the one I actually noticed. All of our feet were like this. We could run across those mussel shells without a thought.
By the following summer I had gotten pretty good at windsurfing. I arranged a deal with Round Man at the Boat Locker, that I would give a free one-hour lesson to anyone who bought a new windsurfer from them, and in exchange I could buy any windsurfing gear at dealer cost. This was a great deal for me, because nobody learns to windsurf in an hour, so most people would pay for subsequent lessons. It was also a good deal for the Boat Locker, because windsurfing was notoriously difficult to learn, so the incentive of a free lesson helped to sell boards. There was a proviso on my discount that I could not turn around and sell anything at discounted prices. That was fine by me.
Years earlier I had learned from the ladies sailing class instructor what a sail should look like. Though she had been primarily interested in trim, i.e. whether the sails were in or out too far, as I said, I also realized that sail shape varied and realized that the differences mattered. As with most sails, a windsurfer sail is roughly triangular, and being a very simple system, the only adjustments available are on two of the three corners: the downhaul, which adjusts the tension on the front of the sail, and the outhaul, which adjusts the overall curve of the sail. It is surprising how much you can affect the shape of the sail with these two adjustments. Making the adjustments is called tuning the sail.
When sailing a windsurfer you pivot the mast until the sail is at the optimum angle to the wind. I discovered that when the sail is perfectly tuned for the strength of the wind there is a subtle “catch” at the correct angle. It’s like there is a pocket right there. If the sail is tuned too tight than the pocket is too big and you can pivot the sail a few degrees within it. If the sail is tuned to lose there is no pocket at all. The original windsurfer sails were made out of very lightweight Dacron and one outing in a really strong breeze could stretch the sail such that it could not be properly tuned for heavy air conditions again. For recreational sailing this didn’t matter, and we rarely got strong breezes and even more rarely got them during a race. Nevertheless, my arrangement with the Boat Locker allowed me to have good sails.
One night I was at my girlfriend’s house where I got a call from Rocky around 11 o’clock. He said, “The tide is high, the moon is full, and it’s blowing 15 knots. I’m going sailing. Are you coming?” I said, “I’ll be right there.”
We launched off the public beach, where boats are not allowed, but who’s going to complain at midnight? Sailing out through the harbor was a bit dicey as the only lights directly in front of us were on Long Island, 7 miles away, but the moon, at our backs, provided enough illumination that we could see a moored boat before we ran into it. Once out of the harbor, we turned east and headed toward a familiar lighthouse.
The first time I was ever in a boat alone I just reached back and forth all day. On this night the route between the point of land we just rounded and the lighthouse was a reach. There were houses on the point with lights on, and the lighthouse was functioning. We just reached back and forth between the point and the lighthouse, never coming anywhere near either one, and we knew there was plenty of water with no obstructions in this entire area.
We began to play game. My family was always into games. We were on opposite tacks, crossing each other somewhere in the middle of the run. If you were sailing toward the moon, you could see the other person’s sail silhouetted in the moonlight. If you were sailing away from the moon, you couldn’t see a thing. By the way, my understanding of the sail’s “pocket” was one of the factors that made it comfortable for me to sail in the middle of the night, because I could feel when the sail was trimmed correctly. I didn’t have to see it. Anyway, the way this game worked was if you were sailing toward the moon you tried to pass as close as you could to the other guy on the windward side. He, of course, didn’t see you coming.
As you now understand, a sailing windsurfer represents perfect equilibrium between the pressure of the wind in the sail and the sailor’s weight counterbalancing it. When another boat passes you closely to windward, there’s a moment when that boat’s sail is stealing your wind. During that moment there is much less pressure on the sail, so if you can’t get your weight in quickly and exactly the right moment, and then — when the full force of the wind hits the sail again — get back out again, you’re going to take a swim. I don’t know how long we kept this game up, but we kept at it for quite a while and neither of us took a swim.
Fifteen knots was pretty much a perfect breeze for those original windsurfers. When it got much stronger some design issues came into play which I’ll discuss shortly, but at 15 knots, there were no issues; just speed and grace. Add to that speed, grace, and the control we had over our windsurfers the fact that we could not see anything nearby and yet were confident that that there was nothing around us that could hurt us, and the feeling was sublime. It was magical.
Going back into the harbor was a different experience. We were going directly with the wind, which meant that our sails were perpendicular to the boards, directly in front of us. There is a clear plastic window stitched into the sail to give some visibility, but it wasn’t really enough visibility for avoiding moored boats at night. However, there were lots of lights on the shore, so we would occasionally rock the sail out to the side and look for interruptions in the reflections of lights ahead of us. If a reflection was interrupted, there was a boat there.
When I think back on the peak experiences of my life, that night of sailing with Rocky ranks as number one.
In early September, 1979, hurricane David worked its way up the eastern seaboard. While the eye of the storm never made it to New England, we did get some really good winds. My buddy, Patty, and I decided to give David a try. We rigged up our smallest sail and we both got on the board. On the boom: my hand then her hand. My other hand then her other hand. Feet were likewise staggered. It took us a couple of tries to get our rhythm, but ultimately we screamed across the bay, miraculously managed to tack, then screamed back. The strain on the mast and booms was so much we were afraid we’d break something, so we quit while we were ahead, but we claimed the title of Hurricane Sailors.
The 1979 Windsurfer World Championship Regatta was to be held at Clearwater Beach, Florida in October. The Combo Beach crowd talked about it all summer. I had just completed my first semester as a matriculated student at a liberal arts college, so the timing was not great for me. Other folks had jobs they couldn’t leave or couldn’t afford the entrance fee. But we continued to talk, and the more we talked the more interested I became in going. A few of us started batting ideas around, and eventually we came up with a plan: Patty, Mike, and I would buy a used van, go to the Worlds, then travel and windsurf as long as we could. We would start by exploring the rest of Florida then perhaps head west.
I applied for a leave of absence from college, but the deadline had already passed so my application was denied. I scheduled a meeting with the Dean of Students. He told me that if I took the semester off I would have to reapply to the college if I wanted to return. I told him that I was definitely taking this trip, and that if I would have to reapply to the college I probably would not return. I suggested he asked my professors if they wanted me back. A week later a letter arrived from the college saying my application for leave was accepted. (Side note: I did return and earned my degree—with honors.)
The three of us bought a used Volkswagen Westphalia van and in the beginning of October we packed up all our windsurfing gear and a few changes of clothes and headed out. Mike had a bumper sticker saying something about a moose. (Maybe it was for Molson’s Ale?) We put that on the dashboard and dubbed the van the Moose, and our trip the Moosecapade.
The three of us drove from Connecticut down to Clearwater Beach, arriving at night. Four or five windsurfers were out riding the waves, and one in particular was doing things I couldn’t believe. Of course, having done nearly all of my windsurfing on Long Island Sound, where a one-foot wave is really big, I hadn’t had the opportunity to explore this aspect of the sport. Besides not quite understanding the physics of what I was seeing, I was particularly impressed by this guy’s grace and balance. I thought, “If this guy’s typical of the competition, then wooeee!” The following day we saw other folks out on the water who weren’t so good, so I felt more like I belonged.
As with boxing, windsurfing competitors are divided into weight classes (or at least they were in 1979), however unlike boxing, there are no specific weight targets. When you checked in at the regatta you were weighed (in your racing attire, of nothing but a bathing suit). The male competitors were then divided into four equal groups by weight: light weight, light-medium, medium-heavy, and heavy. It turned out that at 168 pounds I was the third lightest boat in the heavyweight class. Lighter is faster. The women were all in a single, separate category. I suppose if there were enough women they’d be divided into weight classes too. There were about 50 people in each class, including women.
The thrill in windsurfing comes with wind. If you live in Hawaii or San Francisco then if the wind is light you don’t go sailing because the wind will fill in later and that will be more fun. But if you sail on Long Island Sound then if you wait for a good breeze you could be waiting for weeks, so if there’s enough wind to fill the sail you go sailing. Light air sailing is a different skill than heavy air sailing. Light air sailing is about nuance. Shifting your weight the slightest amount will rock the boat and slow you down. By far the heaviest part of a windsurfer is you, and you want to keep all that ballast perfectly still. Tacking is the most difficult sailing maneuver on a windsurfer, requiring a great deal of movement of both your body and the sail. In heavy air you literally jump around the sail, but in light air a smooth tack requires slow, gentle, flowing motion. It takes practice. That week at Clearwater Beach the wind was light. The first day the races kept getting postponed due to lack of wind.
I kept a journal on the Moosecapade. From the journal, October 6, 1979:
I finally did race this afternoon. We started around 4:15, I think. I had a mediocre start but thanks to sailing with Rocky, I recognized the phase cycle and played it up the entire windward leg. I rounded the first windward mark in third. Platt Johnson was just in front of me approaching the mark, but he tacked too close and missed the lay line. He might have hit the mark because he fell off and told me not to worry about giving him room. On the first reaching leg (very broad reach) I kept my eye on two boats behind me, and two boats in front of me. Nobody gained or lost anything. In fact the first four were pretty evenly spaced, and the fifth was very close to the fourth. On the next reaching leg (pretty beam) I was gained on when I got stuck in a glue pot, but not seriously. The guy had borne off to get air, and the distance lost to leeward reduced the gain. On the next windward leg I played the phases again. It was an eternally slow leg. Just getting away from the mark took forever. After rounding the mark on port tack I tacked over to starboard. I noticed after several minutes of just trying to make a wake that I was being set back to leeward more than I could afford. I tacked again and sailed on port till I got some wind. I played that breeze, and then, kaput! I have never stood so dead in the water before! My concentration was centered on trying to keep the sail still. In order to keep the sail still, I had to keep the bows and hull still, which meant I had to keep my body still. Well I’ll tell you! So finally, something came in. Primary concern now was just staying in wind — to hell with the direction its coming from. Then it came in more universally, but with radical shifts. By now I was in second, and I had closed considerably with the first place guy. At one point he and I were about four boat lengths apart, me right behind him, going in the same direction, at the same speed, and on different tacks, both close hauled!
So the new third place guy is hot on my heels rounding the mark. He is right on my transom as we head down on a dead run! He tried several times to get around me on one side or the other but couldn’t do it. About two thirds of the way down the course, I began moving out on him. I just headed for the mark and gained myself about four boat lengths. The first-place boat was well ahead. He had made tracks on me. We were nearing the time limit, with 10 minutes remaining as the first-place boat rounded the leeward mark. He had to make the final beat in 10 minutes or the race was abandoned! He couldn’t have been more than two minutes away when the hour and a half elapsed! Shit! Oh, well.
Over the course of the week I had finishes ranging from second to eighth and ended up fifth in the heavyweight class. I even got a trophy. Patty was 13th in the women’s class. Mike didn’t compete, because he preferred to save his entry fee to prolong our trip.
Traveling around Florida after the Worlds was great fun, because every place we went there was somebody who had been there, and having placed fifth was almost always good for a free beer! Wherever we went we’d always ask the locals where else the sailing was good, and that would direct us to our next stop.
Back in June I had put a deposit down on a “Rocket” board — which was pretty much a standard windsurfer, only with foot straps and two skegs. The mast and dagger board may have been further aft too. I don’t remember. I took delivery of it at the Worlds. (This was the first Windsurfer Rocket on the East Coast.) Mike had modified a standard board by cutting some of the back of it off, attaching a new skeg, and installing foot straps. So with our standard boards and these two, we had five boards on the roof of the Moose. We each had three different size sails and two different size dagger boards. We had one spare mast and pair of booms between us. All of this and our clothes, food, and Myers rum and orange juice fit comfortably in the Moose.
We worked our way down the east coast of Florida and Round Man joined us for Thanksgiving at the Sunshine Key Campground, which I believe still exists, although I seriously doubt it’s as basic as it was in 1979. Our camping space was about 50 yards from the beach, but we would just leave our boards on the beach fully rigged. The water was that magnificent aqua color that you see in postcards, and every day that breeze was 10 to 12 knots.
That’s where I learned to water start. The traditional way to get going on windsurfer is to climb on, grab the uphaul rope, stand up, and pull the rig out of the water with the uphaul rope. In a water start, you float on your back with your feet (and calves) on the board and your hands on the boom. You work the mast up out of the water enough that the wind can catch under the sail. You sheet in and allow the sail to pull you out of the water — if you haven’t drowned first. When a water start goes well it takes less energy than a traditional start, but if it doesn’t go well you expend a great deal of energy, then end up doing a traditional start anyway.
We left that campground after a week or so, because one can only stand so much of a really good thing.
After the Keys we headed up the west coast of Florida but found few really good windsurfing spots. We were getting tired of Florida so we went up to Hilton Head, South Carolina. But it was cold and expensive, so after a couple days we headed back down to Florida. We settled in at Port Canaveral, right across the harbor from Cape Kennedy. The water here was not the aqua of the keys, but the wind was fantastic. One day I was out on my Rocket board in probably about 20 knots of wind and very small waves — maybe 6 to 8 inches. A submarine was leaving the harbor and I sailed alongside it (not real close) while the crew was storing lines and whatever other topside tasks had to be done when leaving the harbor. The back two feet or so of my board touched down on every third or fourth wave. I was otherwise entirely airborne. The sub and I continued together while the crew went below. I guess that’s when they stepped on the gas, because they just blew past me. And I understand submarines are even faster underwater!
Windsurfing is energy-intensive, so you build up a pretty good appetite. We always looked for all-you-can-eat joints, and Patty would enter with a large, empty purse and leave with it full. We did anything we could to stretch our dollars.
We discovered a bar/restaurant in Cocoa Beach (just down the way from our campground) that had a happy hour every afternoon at which they had smoked salmon for free. All three of us drank Myers rum and orange juice, so we always had those ingredients in the Moose. Our first day at happy hour we all ordered a drink, then we kept the glasses and refilled from the Moose. We had smoked salmon for dinner every night.
One night as we were leaving a convenience store we discovered a wad of money in the parking lot. It was $65. There had been no other customers in the store so we sat in the Moose, poured ourselves a drink, and discussed what to do about the money. We figured if we gave it to the clerk in the store, he’d just pocket it. Perhaps someone would soon realize they were missing it and would come back looking for it, so we hung out in the parking lot drinking for about an hour, but nobody showed up, and that was long enough. Patty remembered that we’d passed a steakhouse on our way to Port Canaveral, so we decided to spend the money there. This was one of those steakhouses with an all-you-can-eat salad bar, so we all ordered steaks then filled up on salad. We had the steaks for lunch the following day.
We stayed at Port Canaveral until about a week before Christmas, when we packed up and returned to Connecticut. We got some funny looks on the Connecticut Turnpike in the snow with five windsurfers strapped to the roof.
The following summer I continued to give lessons when the Boat Locker sold a board, and the Compo Beach crowd continued to play badminton, drink beer, and windsurf.
That year the North American Championships were in Buzzards Bay, off Cape Cod, so I went. As Clearwater Beach had had not enough wind, so Cape Cod had too much. And as the sailors from Hawaii and San Francisco may not have done so well at Clearwater Beach, they excelled at Cape Cod. In those days windsurfer racing was strictly “one design”, where only a Windsurfer brand board with original equipment was permitted. The original equipment dagger board was quite large, with a straight bottom edge. When you got going fast the dagger board would act like a hydrofoil so that the only things in the water were your leeward rail and the bottom of the dagger board. The boat would be tilted at such an angle that your feet would just slide off. I suppose in theory you can get your feet up onto the windward rail, but I never saw anybody do it. Recognizing this problem, the Windsurfer company made a smaller dagger board for use in high wind, but that one was not legal for racing. The standard sail was also extremely difficult to manage in heavy air, so a variety of sizes was available, but only the standard size was legal for racing.
One day as my (heavy weight) class was getting ready to start, the anemometer on the race committee boat was registering at least 35 knots, with higher gusts. As I recall, there were 40 boats in my class. Five of them made it across the starting line. The STARTING line! I’ll bet you can guess where those guys were from. Luckily there was a beach directly downwind from the starting line. I held onto my mast, allowing the sail to completely luff, and sailed in to that beach. The board actually got onto a plane with the sail completely luffing. At the beach I removed the sail from the mast and walked it and the dagger board to my car, where I grabbed my high wind sail and high wind dagger board, returned to my board, and had a fantastic afternoon of sailing (but not racing).
Another notable occurrence during that regatta happened during the slalom competition. A slalom windsurfing course in the late ‘70s consisted of two columns of three buoys aligned with the wind. You would sail upwind, zig-zagging between the columns, then cross to the other column and zig-zag back downwind. Two courses would be set up side-by-side and the competition was one-on-one. But there were many competitors, so several pairs of courses would be set up side-by-side.
I didn’t race slalom, but the wind was fantastic that day and there were great waves. These were not “surfing” waves, like what surfers use; they were riding waves. Riding a wave is surfing, but because the wave is not breaking on the shore it can last a really long time. As a Long Island Sound sailor I didn’t get many chances to play with waves, so I was loving this. I caught one wave way out from shore and was able to stay with it forever. If I got going too fast I’d head up into the wave to slow down; if I started losing the wave I’d head off to speed up. I was in a groove, and only minor adjustments were necessary to stay there. Ahead of me were the slalom courses. Watching the competitors, I figured out where one course ended in the next began. I wanted to ride my wave all the way to the beach, and I thought I could do this by sailing between the courses. As I approached one of the buoys a racer was approach it from the opposite direction. I was confident that he would tack to stay in his course, so I was no threat to him. I was wrong. I was wrong about what was course and what was space between courses. I rammed him — at speed. My bow went under his board and struck his dagger board, breaking it in two. We both, of course, went flying. I was mortified, but when he surfaced, he gave a big hoot and shouted, “Yeah!” This was a guy who lived for action! The race committee wanted to disqualify me from the regatta, but he refused to protest me. I gave him my dagger board and he resailed his slalom. I was able to replace the dagger board before my next race.
In one race as I approached the finish line I was ever so slightly ahead of another guy, but it was ify whether I would be able to make the line without tacking. If I had to tack he would surely beat me. With just feet to go I was not going to make the line, so I abruptly headed up and my bow crossed the line literally inches from the buoy. The other guy crossed the line a half second later. The racing rules of sailing are intricate and nuanced. I finished as soon as my bow across the line, but if my boat touched the buoy after that then my finish would be erased and I would have to do a penalty turn and refinish. So, as soon as my bow across the line I swung my sail around to catch the wind backwards and backed away from the line. There were some other guys hanging out near the finish line, sitting on their boards with their sails in the water, so I joined them. We had been there for maybe a half hour, watching other folks finish, when someone sailed up to me and said, “The race committee wants to know if you are going to complete the race.” “Whatcha mean?” I asked. He explained that although my finishing position was set, I was still racing until I completely crossed the line. So I got up and sailed across the line completely, thus satisfying that condition of the rules. (That rule, by the way, has since been abandoned. You no longer have to fully cross the line.)
Every summer my parents, both schoolteachers, once school got out would sail their 36-foot sailboat from their home in Connecticut to Bar Harbor, Maine, where my mother’s brother lived. They would spend a few days there than sail home again. That took the entire summer. In the summer of 1980 they happened to be in Buzzards Bay during this regatta. They watched one of my races from their boat, and afterwards my father commented, “I would have tacked everywhere you did.” My father was one of the finest sailors I have known, and he was not a person who gave compliments lightly, so for me this was staggeringly high praise.
In the spring of 1982 I hurt my back — something about L5 — and I had to give up virtually all activity, windsurfing especially. I dusted off the windsurfer nearly 15 years later to join the Asheville Sailing Club’s races on Lake Julian. Because boats of many different designs compete in these races, a handicapping system is employed. The handicap for windsurfers was based on more advanced models than my 15-year-old board, so I was not very competitive.
Lolly and I took a vacation in San Diego with the idea that we would spend a lot of time flying stunt kites, but I ended up buying a more modern windsurfer. It turned out not to be a great purchase, because it really needed the type of wind that San Diego gets, whereas Lake Julian’s wind could best be described as “light and variable”. I only spent two seasons sailing on Lake Julian. That was the end of my Windsurfing career.
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