Los Angeles — Forty-eight hours ago, I didn't know anything about windsurfing either. It is also referred to as sailboarding. Then I met Ken Winner, the sport's 26-year-old world champion, who surprised me when he said that windsurfing is his only job -- the way he makes his living!
There is a little more to it than that, because the prize money by itself in competitions isn't that big. But somewhere in this world, according to Winner, there are between 50 and 100 windsurfers who are in the 50 percent tax bracket.
They have gotten there by signing lucrative contracts as consultants, promoters, and representatives with worldwide windsurfing equipment manufacturers, who are not unaware of what a famous-name endorsement can do for a product.
The rapidly growing sport of windsurfing is barely 15 years old, but already it has Olympic aspirations; in fact, it is supposed to be part of the yachting program at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles if certain legal problems that have arisen can be ironed out.
On a recreational level, industry members predict it will someday surpass skiing in popularity because it is accessible to more people around the world. I would consider the source of that statement, however, before quoting it as fact, although the sport does have tremendous visual appeal, and learning it is not all that tough or expensive.
Winner says the way to start is to take two or three one-hour lessons from an instructor on the same weekend, and if the cost exceeds $50, you're paying too much.
Windsurfing is done on a specially designed plastic board with a foam center. The board is usually between 12 and 13 feet long, two feet wide, and weighs between 40 and 50 pounds. The one-piece, 15-foot mast is made of either Fiberglas or an aluminum alloy.
The sail is Dacron and has a plastic window, so the windsurfer can see where he is going. A circular handle loops around the mast to provide a way to both hold on and steer. And although newcomers fall often, it is more like a slide into the water than a fall.
Sailboards cost between $700 and $1,200, depending on whether it's recreation or racing that you're after. They are most popular right now with the 12 to 45 age bracket, although Winner knows of people in their 80s who have tried it.
Boards last two years or longer, are not adversely affected by saltwater, and can be repaired. It takes approximately two minutes for the average person to either attach or separate the mast and sail from their mooring. The equipment is light enough and portable enough to be carried comfortably in a small pickup truck, a station wagon, or even on the roof of a car.
Windsurfing combines the principles of sailing and surfing and can be done along ocean coasts, rivers, inland lakes, reservoirs or canals, with the cooperation of the wind of course. Rough water only adds an extra challenge to the sport's dimension.
''Next to the catamaran, windsurfing is the second fastest way of sailing in the world, '' Winner explained. ''To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, the 12-meter boats that compete for the America's Cup rarely reach speeds of more than 12 to 15 miles an hour. But even the recreational windsurfer will often get up to 20 mph and the professional racer 30, which feels even faster on water.
''Races are whatever you want them to be; anywhere from a quarter of a mile to 30 miles; anywhere from 10 minutes to three hours. And it is the competitor who learns to trim a sail best who is probably going to be the winner. Even though windsailing is difficult to describe to someone who has never done it, the feeling most people get is one of total freedom. And it's this feeling that probably brings them back.''
Coming up late this month off the Japanese coast is the Japan Cup, a world class, 50-man windsurfing invitational with overall prize money of $50,000. Almost all of the sport's top windsurfers will be there and first place is worth
Although the manufacturers putting up the money also pay all of their contestants' expenses once they get there, transportation is not included.
''Right now I'm undecided about accepting their invitation,'' Winner said. ''But if I can clear my schedule, I'll probably go.''