A "Squamish" - also known as an Arctic outflow wind in winter months - is a strong and often violent wind occurring in many of the fjords , inlets and valleys of British Columbia . This description would inspire many to batten down the hatches and wait for calmer weather. In the oh-so-appropriately named District of Squamish, the opposite occurs - when the wind blows steady folks hit the decks of their sailboats and kiteboards in droves. And in early August they did it together when two Squamish wind sport competitions - one decades old and the other a mere neophyte - joined forces in Howe Sound.
"S.O.A.R. (Squamish Open Annual Regatta) is in its 32 nd year now, so it's been going on a long time and kiteboarding is relatively new so the whole idea was to make a bigger event and bigger festival of it," said Squamish Yacht Club commodore Dave Beech.
"This was just the inaugural running of it and next year we plan on making it quite a bit bigger and eventually turning it into a maritime festival.
"It's kind of like how the Test of Metal has turned into a mountain bike festival for three or four days, that sort of thing."
The sailing component of the S.O.A.R. event is a longstanding draw for sea dogs from all watery parts of the Lower Mainland, occasionally even drawing a few folks from south of the border. The competition is fierce but friendly, and the weekend-long party that ensues is typically just as entertaining as the day's races. The kiteboarding competition, while more sparsely attended than the sailing event, has a similar vibe but a far more international draw. That's because kiteboarding equipment is easier (and cheaper) to move around than a sailboat and because organizer Colin Ernst sought out the world's top competitors and invited them to play. By luring them with prize money and securing the event as an officially sanctioned competition on the International Kiteboarding Association (IKA) circuit, Ernst drew 23 racers and over 40 competitors for the freestyle slalom and course racing events.
"I went out and drummed up some prize money from sponsors and was able to accumulate enough prize money to attract these guys," said Ernst, himself a ranked Canadian kiteboarder who placed third overall at this summer's competition. "That is the only way to go, as they can offset their travel costs and win something and then also get some world ranking points so they can accumulate some points."
Squamish is known for its mountainous, glacial beauty and this year's competition served to only solidify its reputation. The water was colder than normal due to an extended winter and spring, but exceptional and dependable wind conditions backed by the stoic beauty of Shannon Falls made for ideal conditions. Ernst said that next year's competition will likely be positioned a little closer to land to allow better viewing for audiences, which grew daily over this year's Friday-through-Sunday challenge.
"This year we decided to have the event out in the bay more so we were a little bit further off the spit than we wanted to be," he said. "I think next year the idea would be to have it more spectator-friendly and at the sacrifice of a few people's pleasure (Squamish kiteboarders not participating in the competition) have it more attractive by being closer to the spit."
As it was only the kiteboarding competition's third year and athletes weren't entirely familiar with the newish addition of course racing - an up and down-wind race with fewer markers and turns than the slalom course but requiring more stamina - Ernst is confident next year's event will be even more popular with spectators and competitors now that the groundwork has been laid.
"People hadn't really seen a major event until they saw it here and a lot of people took a lot of interest in it so I can see that it will grow," he said. "It's still new but it's growing and I can see the competitors list for next year is going to be around 40 to 50 for next year for sure."
The winner of this year's 2011 Canadian National Open was Johnny Heineken of San Francisco. For complete results from the regatta and kiteboarding events, go to http://www.squamishyachtclub.com/2011soarresults.pdf and www.squamishwindsports.com , respectively.