Related Sections: Hood River | Outdoors

History of Windsurfing in the Gorge

History of Windsurfing in the Gorge
by Stuart of

In 1980, thirteen windsurfers attempted to sail from Cascade Locks to Hood River. This became the first windsurfing event in the Columbia River Gorge. Not one single windsurfer made it. As it turned out, their rigging was far too primitive and their boards too long to handle the strong winds of the Columbia River.

Now, one of the world’s premier windsurfing destinations is the Columbia River Gorge. Hood River has become the center of the action and has developed a growing industrial base providing equipment for the sport on a worldwide basis. An estimated 150,000 windsurfers visited the Gorge from around the world in 1990. Many people have relocated to Hood River because of the sport and have started new businesses employing hundreds of people. An estimated sixteen million dollars was brought to the mid-Columbia in 1989 from Cascade Locks to The Dalles with approximately two-thirds of that in Oregon.

The question arises as to exactly what windsurfing is and where it came from. How did Hood River become the ultimate destination for windsurfers?

In 1970, a patent was issued to Jim Drake and Hoyle Schweitzer for their “Baja Board.” There were experiments with various boards as early as 1948 but it was Drake and Schweitzer who developed a board that had a hand-held sail and was free moving. The sail was attached to the board with a sailboat daggerboard added on for stability. They formed a business called Windsurfer International and introduced the Windsurfer Standard in 1976. The Windsurfer Standard was a plastic molded twelve-foot board with a hand-held wooden boom which controlled a fourteen-foot mast and cloth sail.

Designed for fleet racing, Windsurfer International sold its boards as a one-design sailboat and modeled it after the success of the Hobie Cat sailboat. Wherever there was a dealer by a lake or harbor to organize certification lessons, large groups of new windsurfers gathered. Following the rules of international yachting, sailboarders raced around a triangular course on identical Windsurfer equipment. There were also classes for lightweight and heavyweight surfers.

Many early gorge windsurfers first learned the sport at Green Lake in Seattle and many small businesses in Hood River today are owned by the original Green Lake sailors. They had outgrown the lake in Seattle and went in search of more adventurous waters with more wind.

Meanwhile, in Europe the sport developed differently and boards were designed without patents. Competing European companies developed boards with improved designs and in 1981, thirteen European companies showed their boards at the New York Boat Show. They were immediately threatened with lawsuits by Windsurfer International for patent infringement. For the next six years, the court determined the future of the sport. Windsurfer International, along with claiming rights and licensing fees and royalties on their boards, also claimed the words “windsurfer” and “windsurfing” as copyrights. This created confusion about what to call the sport. The brand name Windsurfer had to be circumvented so words such as “sailboards”, “boardsailors”, “windriders”, and “boardheads” were created. Despite the ongoing legal battles, Windsurfer International was losing its hold on the U.S. market, dropping from 85% market share in 1979 to less than 2% by 1986. Windsurfer International’s patent expired and twenty million dollars worth of boards were imported into the United States that year.

With advanced equipment being developed in Hawaii and Europe, the sport grew phenomenally in just a few years. The neoprene drysuit allowed sailors in colder climates to lengthen their season. Thrill seekers enjoyed the lightweight, multi-concaved hulls, fully battened sails, and other high performance components. These new developments allowed for new sail speed records and perform maneuvers that were inconceivable a few years earlier.

In 1984, four windsurfing shops opened in Hood River. By 1985, there were 200 competitors in the second annual Gorge Pro-Am. That same year there was an estimated 1.2 million windsurfers in the United States as stated by Sailboard News with 50% taking up the sport that year. With the publicity concerning the sport, it was learned there was lots of wind in the Columbia River Gorge and boardsailors from around the world wanted to challenge themselves and their new equipment. The sailors were outgrowing the conditions where they learned the sport. They were now learning high wind tricks which they could not do in their own localities.

Inland on the Columbia River, windsurfers found the conditions they dreamed of and more. In other locations, high winds meant cold, stormy weather but in the gorge, the wind blows when the sun shines. It was also safe in that there were other boardsailors nearby if rescue was needed and the shore was never more than a half mile away.

The sport of windsurfing is as popular now as snow skiing was thirty years ago. Hood River is destined to have a place in the future of windsurfing and with the popularity of the sport, there will always be a demand for wind. Hood River has plenty of that.