From fad to full-fledged sport

It is presumably the only meeting ground for the Beach Blanket crowd and Fortune Five Hundred honchos. Where the sun-kissed surfer meets yacht-racing executive. For sure.

Most Americans know it as windsurfing, a ''free sail'' sport that combines the elements of snow skiing, surfing, and sailing and ten years ago looked as if it had all the staying power of hula hoops.

Look again.

Today windsurfers, or more correctly ''board sailors,'' number in the millions worldwide. (The bumper stickers: ''Bored sailors go board sailing'' were inevitable.) Culled from the ranks of surfers and yachtsmen alike, board sailing devotees have grown from rank novices, hacking around the southern California waters during the late '60s, to expert and professional sailors, who now pursue their sport from the Mediterranean Sea to Rocky Mountain lakes.

While initially considered a warm water sport, devoted sailors (often in wet suits) are now found in the chillier waters of Canada, New England, and northern California. And hundreds of board sailing schools as well as championship races have sprung up worldwide. In fact, despite the sport's American roots, Europe still remains the largest market.

The industry itself has surged from lone California inventor Hoyle Schweitzer's Windsurfing International Inc., which still produces the Jell-O brand of sail boards - the Windsurfer - to more than a dozen international companies jostling for a slice of this new multimillion-dollar-a-year industry.

Last year nearly half a million boards were sold worldwide, and US sales alone have jumped more than 100 percent since 1981. Some observers expect board sailing, because of its lower cost and greater availability, to eventually outstrip the ski industry.

And if all that isn't enough to make doubting old salts come around, this summer board sailing will attain that acme of sporting legitimacy - a medal event in the Los Angeles summer Olympics. Officially part of the larger sport, yachting, board sailing will actually be divided into two parts: freestyle and traditional yachting triangle racing, each requiring a different board. While only the latter will be a medal event, most observers expect the freestyle demonstration - complete with slalom course, rail-riding, and pirouettes - to be the more popular with both spectators and network TV.

OK, so how hard can this be, pirouettes or not? You can swim, are fairly agile, and assume you have a sense of balance. And you are anxious to join this surfer and ex-yachting crowd who zip about your favorite harbor every sunny Saturday like so many gossamer moths.

Besides, rumor has it that board sailing is the cheapest sailing thrill around. Most polyethylene boards - more popular and durable than fiber glass - start at around $1,000 including the sail. Top-of-the-line equipment - customized racing boards - run up $2,000. Rental rates usually start at $10 to $ 12 an hour, or $40 to $50 a day.

But a word of advice from those in the know: Do not attempt to teach yourself no matter how many rental shops may cross your path. You will most likely feel frustrated or you may run the risk of being swept out to sea.

''Board sailing is a lot like snow skiing,'' says Blaise Colt, an avid board sailor and marketing vice-president for Windsurfing International Inc. ''Lots of people want to try it by themselves, but that's a frustrating experience. I see people learn in two weeks with instruction what it took me an entire summer to master on my own.'' Indeed, stepping onto the board cold - without benefit of instruction - is reminiscent of Bambi's first steps. Any motion at all is almost certain to be downward - into the drink.

But don't be dissuaded. Take your initial enthusiasm and hop over to a board-surfing school. One candidate might be a Windsurfer Sailing School - a professional and widely franchised operation of roughly 500 schools worldwide, although most are concentrated in North America. (In fact, it's the largest such operation in the US.) Other boardmakers also offer instruction packages. Classes are not expensive at the Windsurfer School ($35 to $50 for a full day of lessons , equipment, and instruction) and instructors guarantee that you will sail after a few hours.

If it's summer near any kind of body of water - lake, river, ocean - you can learn during the odd weekend. However, if you are totally landlocked, or prefer to add sail board skills to your vacation roster, try a more exotic aquatic locale. Try Tahiti. Or Greece. Or the British Virgin Islands, one of the better places to first put foot to board.

Already renowned for their ideal sailing conditions - clear bathtub-temperature water and consistent yet gentle trade winds, the British Virgin Islands, or the BVIs, as they are commonly called, work just as well for board sailing. And unlike the Hawaiian Islands, they aren't cradled by a strong surf - appealing to the expert but wreaking havoc for the shaky beginner.

Here in Trellis Bay on Tortola, Boardsailing B.V.I., run by two experienced sailors, David Ross and Jeremy Wright, offers its Caribbean Resort Course ($35 per person), which should have you nailing down the basics and sailing up a relative storm in a couple of hours. The longer six-hour course offers further instruction on rigging and self-rescue, and provides the learner with a certificate enabling the novice to rent sail boards virtually anywhere. (The board sailing industry is little like the charter-yacht business - most places want to see some proof of your ability before they hand over a ''boat.'')

Most courses, and Trellis Bay is no exception, begin with some chalkboard instruction of rudimentary nautical principles while students are perched on the beach. Board sailing is instructor-intensive, and there should be no more than two pupils per teacher. A 1-to-1 ratio is even better.

While some prior knowledge of sailing is helpful, don't assume that because you can successfully navigate a Sunfish or a 40-foot C&C that board sailing will be a snap. In fact, it helps to be humble and willing to risk more than a few tumbles into the water during the learning stage. (Wet suits are recommend when sailing off-season or in colder water.) Also, size and muscle strength have little to do with success in this sport. Indeed, many instructors insist that women and young teen-agers are actually the fastest learners.

''Balance, body mechanics, and taking direction are the key points in learning to board sail,'' says Ruth Strahan, a board sailing instructor in Marblehead, Mass. ''It is not a sport to muscle your way through.''

Before you know it, it's time to hop on the simulator - probably the niftiest device since the wheel. This little sawed-off Windsurfer, complete with sail, sits right on the beach and will enable the persistent to acquire a feel for the board.

A sail board was no rudder, simply a centerboard, and a flexible mast controlled - or intended to be controlled - by the sailor. Ideally, when the mast is moved forward, the sail draws the boat away from the wind; when pulled backward, the sail pushes the boat into the wind. But don't be surprised if you spend up to two hours on the simulator putting this principle into practice.

Soon you take to the water on an extra-wide, extra-stable board with a small, easy-to-handle sail and a boom matched to your height. You will practice tacking , jibing, bearing off and heading up. Meanwhile, you will still be tethered to the shore or the instructor's board. (Unnecessary here in Trellis Bay where the prevailing winds blow you onshore.) After a couple hours of this, you should begin to yearn for small gusts of wind to power you across the water. (For the novice, a 5-to 8-knot breeze is considered optimum.)

After a catamaran that also operates on a planing principle, a sail board is the fastest sailing craft. Racing speeds have been clocked at 30 knots and those in the know say the actual speed sensation is even faster. Most instructors suggest a good 200 hours of practice before advancing to racing equipment - larger sails, chest harnesses, and shorter, less stable boards that come with footstraps and without centerboards and require a tricky launch called a ''waterstart.'' These advanced boards are meant to be ridden over waves and catapulted into the air. Windsurfer International's racing boards are baldly called the Rocket Line.

Practical information:

Windsurfing International

1955 West 190th Street, PO Box 2950

Torrance, Calif. 90509

(213) 515-4900

US Board Sailing Association

PO Box 206

Oyster Bay, N.Y. 11771

American Board Sailing Industry Association


Robin Hill Park

Paterson, N.Y. 12563

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