RIDING THE WIND. With a piece of plastic and a patch of cloth, boardsailors wrestle the tumultuous winds of the Columbia River Gorge
Hood River, Ore. — THE wind that slams down the Columbia River Gorge is so strong here at Hood River, you feel as if it is about to rip the grass right out of the ground. What is thought of in these parts as a major wind is one that, in order to walk into it, you have to bend over double and butt your way through, using your head as a battering ram. People here always hated the wind, because it meant you couldn't fish or go to the beach or do anything outdoors. Back in 1976, there was a brave man who tried to boardsail here, but he quit. ``He figured he was just crazy,'' says Bill Kline. Actually he was only a couple of years ahead of his time. Now at Mr. Kline's shop, Sailboards Hood River, you can buy a sweat shirt that reads, ``Maui is for sailors who don't know about the Gorge.''
The Gorge is magnificently beautiful. Cliffs like waterfalls of rough gray stone line the gray river. Wildflowers are everywhere. The area is rather depressed economically, though the summer influx of yuppie tourists, who come here with boards stacked three high on top of their Audis and Volvos (thus the local expression ``boardheads'') has helped a bit.
On one late spring day, the news on the boardsailing grapevine is that Doug's Beach is hot. Where the break in the clouds is, is where you'll find the big air, and right over the river at Doug's Beach there is an oval hole in the clouds as big as 10 city blocks.
The winds are really cranking, even by exacting local standards, and most of the sailors out on the river are what Kline calls ``the fringe.'' A lot, like Kline, are professional skiers turned to boardsailing. Many make, test, or sell equipment, or give lessons. They are the people who go out when the wind is at its wildest.
The beach - a blank place in the scrubby vegetation - is full of people, mostly men in their 20s and 30s in black wetsuits with snappy pink-and-yellow shoulders. Lying on the ground are dozens of gaudy sails, in eye-popping California colors, narrow wings of turquoise, pink, yellow.
Out on the water, the sails catch the light. You can see black, man-shaped dots, madly hanging on, rearing back so that their bottoms just miss skipping like stones over the surface of the water, their sails tipped at crazy angles. Every few minutes one of these distant figures leaps into the air, doing an amazing sort of grand jet'e with sail and board, as powerful as a horse taking a fence.
``Days like today are good just to see how high you get. Sometimes you're up there and you actually get a second puff - it's pretty cool,'' says Kay Kucera, who is ``from Salt Lake City by way of Cleveland.''
A small woman with a long, blond braid, Ms. Kucera, the 1985 North American Telemark Series Champion, is one of the many skiers who have taken up boardsailing in a serious way. ``This is the best wind. Why have second best when you can have the best?'' she says.
People here use tiny sails - the faster the wind, the smaller the sail - and tiny boards, often under 9 feet (10 to 12 feet is more common), called ``sinkers.'' These are like a big waterski, with straps for your feet. They sink if you stand on them; to start you lie on your back in the water and hold the sail up so the wind can catch it and pull you up and on your way. With the shorter boards, there's less drag, says Kucera. ``You go a lot faster. You can lay out a turn as if you were water-skiing. You can go through the chop as if it were a mogul field. And then when you jump, I guess it's like hang gliding.''
Off-the-cuff shoreline estimates of the wind out on the water range from 45 to 60 miles per hour. The prime topic of conversation is equipment: what size sail to use today, how to adjust your rigging. There are at least twice as many people on shore as are out on the water, since a lot of people just don't own a sail that is small enough for this wind. ``This is like handkerchief weather,'' says Ron Gibson, who owns a ski and sailboard shop in Wyoming.
Other people are just studying the people who are out on the water to decide what sail to use, since it takes a long time to change a sail again if you guess wrong. ``When you gonna rig, Jim?'' says a man to Jim Naylor from Alaska.
``I don't know - we need more guinea pigs,'' says Mr. Naylor.
``They're also called wind dummies,'' explains one boardsailor, Max Henckel. ``You say `OK, he's overpowered; let's rig smaller.''
There is some debate on size of sail Mr. Henckel should use, and suggestions get smaller and smaller. ``Get out the scissors,'' Naylor says.
The biggest obstacle to sailing here is mental, Kucera says.
``The way to sail is to force yourself to relax. The wind is your friend. A lot of people come here with a lot of fear. It's really terrifying for people who have never done it. You tell yourself, `It's only wind and only water. And what's gonna happen is that you're gonna fall in and get wet.'''
On the other hand, there is some reason to be anxious about testing your skills in these extreme conditions. ``When you see the wind whipping off the tops of the waves, it's 50 m.p.h. When you see the spray off the water that looks like smoke, that's 60 m.p.h.,'' she says.
``When you see those white tornadoes coming at you, you just tell yourself you're going to just do it!!''