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A Quiet (so far) Revolution
Story by Kimball Livingston - Photos by Bryan McDonald
(August 2, 2009) Can I get an Amen to the proposition that windsurfing looks dismal in the USA? Down numbers. US Sailing Team Olympians finishing 60-something at world championships. Scant visibility accorded a discipline that outside the USA is second only to Lasers in Olympic sailing.
And if you're not a windsurfer, why even care?
Unless perhaps you care about dropout rates in junior sailing. In that case, my friend, pull up a chair. Adversity breeds opportunity, and opportunity was on the wateróand in the airólast week on San Francisco Bay, where a 16-year-old from Florida, Austin Emser, won the Techno 293 North Americans.
Don't be lulled into indifference by a modest turnout for that regatta (18). Ditto the Techno class at the Windsurfing Nationals completed earlier at the Gorge. It matters that Technos are the worldwide standard for beginning juniors. There is a quiet revolution under way.
Soon after the Qingdao Olympiad the "opportunity" thing started gnawing at me, and I had an idea that was absolutely brilliant. So I approached key people at my yacht club to tell them we ought to crank up a junior windsurfing program and grow us some champions to fill an obvious void. The response? They were already all over it. Thus the St. Francis Yacht Club hosted the 2009 Techno 293 North Americans, and I'm not so brilliant after all. But, somebody made something happen.
Now think 2010. Techno Nationals. SF Bay, July. Seabreeze.
Think 2011 Worlds. Same place, same time.
Yep, coming to an America near you.
In Europe, junior windsurfing draws Opti-like numbers. Will a Techno World Championship on San Francisco Bay draw 300 kids? That's the plan, but this isn't about numbers, really. It's not even about Olympic medals somewhere down the road. It's about people. It's about different strokes for different folks.
"Most junior programs have one mold, one pathway," says Nevin Sayre. "The dropout rates are staggering. Not every kid has an Opti frame of mind."
St. Francis, back in the day, was the first yacht club to bring boards "in" from the beach, well before windsurfing became an Olympic sport, so there is history here. The clubhouse sits next-door to Crissy Field, one of the great sideshore sites for windsurfing and (now) kiting, and club members took up the sport. Ed Bennett, 1968 Olympic Finn rep, for example. When your former Olympians start windsurfing, you have to pay attention. These days we get a bit of Crissy Field sand tracked into the showers, but that's the only downside, and we can deal, and US Sailing is way-doggies onboard with revving up windsurfing in the USA.
In the interest of clarity, let's specify that Nevin Sayre, a five-time National Windsurfing Champion, sells Bic equipment, which includes the Techno 293. The axe is his to grind, but that doesn't make him wrong, and he has his own teenage kids in the game. To update my club he pulled together an attractive package. Here's Sayre again: "For the price of one-and-a-half 420s or three Optis you can get eight 293s and twelve rigs to cater to kids of different sizes. At my home at Vineyard Haven Yacht Club [Massachusetts] the kids come off the water from Opti sailing, and then they take the Techno's out. I think everybody should be doing this."
Well, of course he thinks so. But again, that doesn't make him wrong.
Marion Lepert: Remember the Name
She's only 13, a slip of a thing, so when the breeze is light she's wicked fast. When the wind is screaming, she's even faster, because she's that good. Marion Lepert (marionusa143.com) was born in France but races on San Francisco Bay, and she is fearless. Here are reads from two adults, first from Dennis Deisinger, one of the sparkplugs in our local revival: "A year ago I was with my daughter at a regatta at Stanford, and there were serious squalls and the kids were blown off the water, all except for this one little girl who was out there just ripping it up." And this from US Sailing Windsurfing Task Force guru Bryan McDonald: "We have races on the city front every Friday night, and sometimes it's just howling and grown men ask themselves if they really ought to go out. Then they see Marion rigging up - "
At the Windsurfing Nationals at the Columbia River Gorge, Marion won the girls' national titles in slalom racing and course racing on Formula boards. She also won the women's division of the Gorge Blowout, 17 measured miles downwind-upstream from Cascade Locks to the town of Hood River, a hallowed destination. Looking at Marion's track over 74 gybes, it's easy to believe she covered twice 17 miles in 1 hour, 37 minutes of racing. Did I mention tough?
Returning to the bay for the Techno NAs, Marion was qualified to race in the Under 15 division but chose to race Under 17 just to have some competition. She found that in the form of the winner, her senior by three years, Austin Emser, and finished second. At the revived Round the Rock race, however, Marion was the winner going away.
In the 1970s, it was a big deal for grownups to sail all the way around Alcatraz on a Windsurfer brand board. Then the game itself grew up and moved on, and the Round the Rock trophy languished in a closet at the YC. Reviving it as a junior trophy makes perfect sense. Marion is too seasoned to find an Alcatraz rounding intimidating, but that's not true of all the kids, and with the current running and the breeze ripping and waves pounding hard rock, it's real out there.
Marion plans to race the Techno 293 Worlds at Weymouth, England August 22-29, but after that she'll be back to her regular ride, an Exocet Formula board. "The 293 is great for beginners," she explains, "but when you get good, when you get fast, there are better boards."
Years ago I was on the scene when a young unknown had a breakthrough regatta at Crissy Field, and I wrote the headline, Bjorn Dunkerbeck: Remember the Name.
I was right then, and I'm right now. Marion Lepert: Remember the Name.
Now, if Techno 293s aren't the hottest thrill machines going, they do have a place, Bic's product being a toned-down version of the RS:X board sailed in the Olympics. This is a path that kids in other countries have followed, and now that path is opening in the USA.
Meanwhile, I have friends in the windsurfing world (hey there, USA 4) and, yes, I did wave the word "dismal" and I hope I attracted attention. So let me try to unwind myself with a few more thoughts. Those Windsurfing Nationals at Hood River drew 83 riders, about a fourth of them juniors. That's promising, and for those on the scene, the experience was nothing dismal. It was hella cool.
But we can imagine more.
A tip of the hat to national champion and slalom champion Bruce Peterson, who's on top of his world. The core is fine. Now let's go make something happen.
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