Harken Derm

More than a regular regatta

Published on June 12th, 2019

The 2019 Windsurfing Course Racing US Nationals took place June 6-8 in beautiful Worthington, Minnesota. The Worthington community in southwestern Minnesota has organized a glorious windsurfing regatta and music festival on the shores of Lake Okabena for twenty years now, and this was the fourth time in that 20 year span that it was designated as a US National championship.

There aren’t many spots in the world where windsurfers get a chance to race in good breeze so close to shore and in front of thousands of spectators – many of whom couldn’t wait to hop onto a board themselves. As Janice Anne Wheeler points out in this essay, the event was a lot more than a regular regatta.


I am an observer here, and lucky enough to be accompanied by an expert, a very passionate expert, who shows me the learning curve. Before he even makes coffee in the morning he checks the wind forecast. There is a phone alarm that tells him when the gusts in his home harbor go over fifteen knots.

‘I’m going to rig the eight-five and the nine-five but not the new nine-five… the old nine-five,’ he tells me, ‘and change out for a smaller blade. Would you grab me the five-sixty? If it drops I’ll need the eleven.’

Just a few weeks ago I had no idea what this lingo meant, but now I do. I am surrounded by similar conversations this Saturday morning on the beautiful shores of Lake Okabena, Minnesota.

It is the final day of competition; Thursday was cancelled due to lack of wind. Mother Nature kicked it up Friday and today the athletes are trying to decide how to manage the magnitude of it; stronger than yesterday, but variable, and building. As I write this, I am in their midst watching them prepare.

Part of their skill, part of their knowledge, part of the complexity, part of the continuous challenge of this sport, is guessing what Mother Nature might throw at you as you balance wind and weight and equipment and skill and wit to finish faster than the other guys. Consistently faster. You have to be consistent to win, the mind and body in perfect unison.

Need to borrow a race watch? Need repairs? Spare parts? Input on a problem either technical or logistical or both? These competitors will help each other, hands down, perhaps even to their own detriment; they would go that far out of their own way.

They simply help each other. ‘I like him,’ this California guy tells me about his closest competition, ‘so it doesn’t really matter if I beat him or he beats me.’ It is an exceptional thing to observe, to feel, the genuine love of a sport that overcomes the need to win.

They gather, these competitors, from all corners of the nation, to compete at the championship. They travel from Florida, Texas, Maryland, Rhode Island, California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois; many winter in one place and summer elsewhere so that water and wind are available year-round.

They greet each other with genuine affection and camaraderie, the likes of which I have rarely seen. Friends and opponents, all at once, one and all. They are here to learn, to observe and to race. They help each other. They check, tweak, tighten and optimize their gear, rig their sails, don their harnesses, embrace the common goal.

The common goal here is not to win, but to keep their sport alive. Rejuvenate it, fuel others to learn it and love it. They teach and encourage. I am a beginning windsurfer, and with Thursday’s races cancelled I had four veterans teaching me the sport, more importantly their love of the sport. It was awesome, I was honored.

I am also honored to be taken into their fold, this warm, accepting group of out-of-the-box thinkers. This is, indeed, a thinking sport, more about wind mechanics than physical ability and fitness. This surprises me, intrigues me. Sailing, whether on a raceboard, foil, slalom, kona, freestyle, or simply on open equipment is a complex physics problem, as dynamic as Mother Nature and just as challenging; she is the most powerful force we know.

America should rise to the challenge of learning this fantastic activity.

There are entire families here rigging, learning, playing, enjoying the outdoors together; fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. Together they are enjoying and utilizing the elements, understanding physics, thermodynamics, lift, and center of force theories.

They are soaking up Vitamin D, fresh air and companionship. They are soaking up friendly competition, honing their abilities, discovering their weaknesses, striving to correct them, pushing themselves to the limits. They are outside with the elements, not watching television or playing video games.

Windsurfing is old-school exercise, and has a great ability to enhance one’s health, both body and mind.

One character, in his early 70s, has windsurfed in all fifty states. For over thirty-five years he has sailed on water, ice, and a few parking lots. ‘The sport includes balance, athleticism, and reaction time,’ he carefully explains to me, the rookie. ‘Periodically, I win. Today, I will not. Old geezers like me eventually switch to a smaller sail size,’ he confides, ‘but we don’t quit.’

Everyone here makes windsurfing look easy. But it is far from easy, and I tell exactly that to anyone who has seen me topple from the windsurfer board I borrow. And topple from it I do, more often than I can count.

The two-time national champion makes it look completely effortless, a simple act of letting the wind take you whatever direction you want to go. He does not falter, does not even get wet. Climbs on, stays on, with agility, speed, balance, and grace.

I started out very far from graceful. In fact, I got a lesson in humility. Lessons in humility are good for all of us on occasion; I truly believe that. And once you get the feel for the board, once you round one of those learning curves like I did yesterday, windsurfing makes you laugh, makes you smile.

I’m not yet graceful, mind you, but vertical, and sailing with the wind! The feeling is worth every splash, worth every scrape of the shin, worth every bit of effort and concentration. I am already addicted.

Source: US Windsurfing

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