Opinion » Alta States

Alta states: A blast from Whistler’s past

Where have all the windsurfers gone?



I spent a lot of time on my board this summer. Caught a lot of wind; logged a lot of miles. And it helped. There's nothing I love more than flying over the water on the most minimalist of self-propelled sailing machines - shagging the breeze and chasing the gulls and surfing the currents.

Know what I mean? Windsurfing was my best friend this summer. The pal who encouraged me to turn my conscious brain off and concentrate more on my senses: the magic/elastic feel of wind-borne lift; the insistent, hypnotic buzz of a fast-planing hull; the punch of adrenaline as you suddenly surge across the aquasphere like a flat stone skipping across a pond; the ineffable exuberance of finally dropping your earth-bound chains and becoming free at last. Seriously sensual stuff, no question. And it allowed me to forget - if only for those brief moments - all the crap that impatiently awaited my attention on dry land.

I was a low-flying Daedalus. I was Sisyphus unleashed. I was the Ancient Mariner on a space-age rig. Okay, so I'm getting carried away a little. I was myself again. And that too is a victory. For windsurfing and I have been friends for a long, long time. I mean, I've been a wind-slut (and I say this with the best of intentions) for over three decades now. Started back in the days of the Windsurfer One-Design, when booms were made of teak and only poseurs used harnesses. It was a time of long hair and new horizons; of naked moonlight sails and on-water magical mystery parties. It was a time when seeing another windsurfer on somebody's car rack was cause for serious celebration...

Still, I know what you're thinking: "Yeah whatever. Just another old guy stuck on a sunset sport," you say, rolling your eyes yet again. "Should have graduated to golf years ago and left the adrenaline stuff to us..."

But don't be fooled. The stuff I'm talking about isn't anything like your father's old gear gathering mould in the back of the garage. Light and powerful and structurally bombproof, the 21 st century windsurfer is a thing of beauty. From light air to big winds, from mast-high surf to flatwater raging, today's designs can smear a smile across a sailor's face in just about any wind condition.

And it makes me wonder. What ever happened to windsurfing at Whistler? With its mountain lakes and summer thermals, its population of hardcore jocks and big-time sport junkies, the Whistler Valley is an ideal location for the new sailing paradigm. Heck, with today's monster sails and high-volume boards, you could be flying across Alta Lake at full-tilt boogie on just about any sunny day between May and October. In fact, the gear is so good now that you can actually sail faster than the wind. Don't ask me how - it's got to do with maximizing your apparent wind and minimizing your drag - but it's possible. I do it every day. And it's very, very addictive...

I mean, there's nothing like skittering over a perfectly smooth body of water in marginal wind conditions seemingly pulled along at mach speed by an invisible skyhook. It's big-board speedsailing at its most desirable.

I know. I know. Kiting is way cooler. The price of entry is lower. The learning curve is smoother. The aficionados are younger. And you don't need a cargo van to cart all your damn sailing gear around. But mark my words, like the surge in popularity that skiing experienced a few years ago, windsurfing is on the verge of a comeback.

Don't ask me why. Don't ask me how. Just trust me. It's gonna happen. What goes around, come around. Isn't that what they say?

But where was I?

Back in the day - back before snowboards and mountain bikes and hang-gliders and kites - windsurfing was considered the summer sport at Whistler. I'm not kidding. At its height, Alta Lake's weekly Wednesday night races would attract hordes of keen sailors - between 20 and 30 would show up on a big night. Don't laugh. Back in the '70s, Whistler had a resident population of less than 500 in the summer months. This was big. "Seemed like we had the whole lake to ourselves," remembers former Canadian windsurfing champion Jinny Ladner. "It was like sailing and racing with a big group of friends. It was very social." She smiles. "The racing was still fierce though..."

An early convert to the sport, Ladner was the first to offer windsurfing lessons and rentals on Alta Lake. She operated out of a tiny nook next to the old JB's in Alta Vista. And for a while there, business was good. "Windsurfing became popular quite fast here," she says.

And why not? Other than climbing and hiking, there wasn't a surfeit of summer activities at Whistler back then. For the fast-growing community of young thrill-seekers who spent their winter months exploring the powdered slopes of the local mountains, windsurfing was just the ticket to make those dead summer months come to life a little.

"Those early years were amazing," adds local iconoclast Binty Massey. "We'd spend virtually the whole summer down at the lake. It was a gas." And then he breaks out with that unique braying laugh only a Massey can make. "Nude windsurfing was huge," he continues. Another guffaw. "I remember guys course racing with nothing on but their harnesses..."

With the ongoing sanitization of Whistler culture (wouldn't want the world to know just how weird we really are, would we?), it seems that newcomers don't appreciate just how irreverent and outside-the-law the original denizens of this valley were. Whether skiing or surfing, racing or partying, early locals were definitely the stars of their own movie.

And nowhere was that more evident than in the growth of this newfangled sailsurfing sport. Wherever Whistlerites windsurfed a celebration was sure to follow. Didn't matter where they went. Didn't matter who else was there. On the water and off, Whistlerites were invariably in the thick of things. I remember, in fact, a memorable road trip down to Corpus Christi, Texas back in 1978 where our rented Winnebago became the unofficial clubhouse for the whole race fleet...

Indeed, it could be argued quite successfully that "Whistler Style" had a profound impact on some of the sport's most famous destinations: Kailua Bay in Oahu, Paia and the northshore of Maui and, of course, Oregon's notorious Columbia Gorge (to name but three). I mean, characters like Mike Gadd and Larry McKee and Betty Birrell and Harry Hall and Peter Lamont and Dave Ezzy and Gord Huxtable loom large in the early annals of the sport.

"Those were pretty exciting times," says Ladner. "I still remember our first trip to Kailua. 'Here come the skiers,' the Hawaiians would say. And they'd all point to our thighs - which were admittedly large compared to their skinny pins - and they'd laugh and laugh." She pauses. "But what they really liked were our Vuarnet sunglasses. They'd never seen anything like them. And they wanted some." Legend has it that you could trade your 'Nez for some righteous windsurfing add-ons back then...

So who gets the credit for introducing Whistler to the sport?

"Mark Dufus brought the first board to Whistler," Jinny informs me. And she should know because he dropped it off at her house first. The year was 1975. "Mike Gadd and René Paquet had recently seen windsurfing pictures in a magazine," she continues. "And they both thought it looked like a really cool sport. But that was about it. Nobody else had a clue."

Alas, Dufus didn't know the first thing about assembling the new gear either. "So when Mark dumped it on our doorstep," recalls Jinny (who was partnered up with Gadd in those days), "we didn't have much choice but to learn how to put it all together ourselves."

A star was born that day. "The moment we got that windsurfer on the water, everyone wanted one," she explains. "Dave Murray bought a board right away. Larry McKee wasn't far behind. Soon the lake was full of them..." Windsurfing ruled Whistler summers for just about a decade. "Those were certainly epic years," sighs Binty Massey. "Back then we thought the sport was going to grow forever..."

But by the late 1980s it was all but over. Too much fascination with the high end and little appreciation for the seasonal weather patterns of most North American consumers (listen up ski and snowboard industry!) doomed the sport long before it could establish itself commercially. Besides, mountain biking was making its first inroads into North American ski towns. And painful as the learning curve was for newcomers, off-road cycling seemed way better suited to its surroundings than its sail-driven counterpart.

Sure, weekend trips to the Gorge - and sunny afternoon sessions at the Squamish Spit - kept the local hardcore sailors satisfied. And Maui continued to be their favoured tropical trip. But the zany lakeside antics of Whistler's early windsurfers were soon relegated to the memory box.

And how sad is that? Maybe the windsurfers will come back to Alta Lake one day. Maybe a whole new group of kids will discover the joys of the new gear and realize they can be self-propelled in their own back yard on just about any day of the summer. I mean, it's a lot cleaner than getting dragged behind a smelly outboard. Isn't it? One can only dream...