Windsurfing has a fascinating history that is filled with intriguing moments that forever changed the realm of water sports. This article will provide a thorough rundown of this history, from the conception of windsurfing all the way up to the modern day.
The Controversial Origins of Windsurfing
Believe it or not, the birth of windsurfing is a subject that draws a lot of controversy.
There are those that argue that windsurfing was an ancient art and therefore has no definitive beginning. On the complete opposite side of the coin, there are those that argue that windsurfing did not take form until the 20th century. But even this lends itself to controversy since the true inventor of the sport is a radical point of argument in the windsurfing community.
To help clear up some of this confusion, we will take a look at the perspective of all of these factions.
The Claim: “Windsurfing Began with the Polynesians”
Some people claim that the Polynesians were the first to ever consolidated the worlds of sailing and surfing long before the 20th century.
Their argument stems from the fact that certain ancient Polynesian tribes were credited with being the first to conceive the idea of surfing (source). Thus, it would only be natural for them to be the first to windsurf as well.
Although this argument does make some sort of sense, there is no definitive evidence to confirm this suspicion. As a result, it is hard to really say whether windsurfing is a practice of ancient times. For this reason, only a small fraction of the windsurfing community truly believe that the ancient Polynesian tribes are the inventors of the sport.
Summary: The Polynesians may have been the first individuals to windsurf but there is no clear evidence to corroborate this claim.
The Claim: “Tom Blake Was The First to Combine Sailing and Surfing”
Tom Blake was a renowned Waikiki surfer that was an American athlete, inventor and dominant influencer in the water sport industry during the 1920s and the 1930s. Among one of his inventions was plopping a sail onto a board, what many refer to as the first attempt at constructing the first sailboard.
Blake came up with the idea after a particularly long day out on the surf. He was extremely exhausted, yet he could not shake his yearning to get back out onto the water. As a result, he started to experiment with the idea of using the power of the wind as a source of propulsion to move out on the surf without having to spend too much of his own energy.
The following account comes from the narrative Tom Blake: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman by Gary Lynch (source).
At first, he started with a simple umbrella and a board. Later, he refined this idea to utilizing a sail instead of an umbrella. The design was so well constructed that the Los Angeles Ladder Company began mass production for the model in 1940.
Unfortunately, the model did not appeal to the general public. As a result, his invention fizzled out. It is for this reason that Tom Blake is much lesser known compared to other figures when it comes to the origins of windsurfing.
Summary: Tom Blake was the first to try and establish a rudimentary design for what would become the modern sailboard.
The Claim: “Newman Darby Constructed the First Windsurfing Sailboard Unit”
Approximately three decades later, the concept of the sailboard was revisited by none other than Newman Darby.
It was during the mid 1960s that Darby improved upon the basic design of Tom Blake by coming up with the “Darby Sailboard.” This sailboard featured a kite sail attached to a buoyant board.
Unlike the modern windsurfer, riders leaned their back on the kite and maneuvered the sailboard from this position. This is because the boom had not been constructed just yet, so the rig was still only comprised of the mast and sail. Riders could not rely on a boom to place their hands, so the only real option for optimal maneuverability was placing their back on the kite sail.
Although the kite sail was a remarkable innovation in and of itself, what made this sailboard design so unique was the introduction of the universal joint, a staple feature of modern windsurf boards. The universal joint allowed for multi-directional movement of the rig, which formed the basis for the free sail system.
The inclusion of the universal joint in the sailboard design was a massive leap in the realm of windsurfing. Riders were now able to take advantage of this freedom of mobility and perform dynamic movements on the water that were impossible to do prior to this invention. It granted riders immense control over their speed and steering.
Although the Darby Sailboard permanently altered the course of windsurfing, the design never appealed to the mainstream. As a result, the startup business struggled to make ends meet and Darby never secured a patent on his sailboard design (source).
Summary: Newman Darby is recognized as the inventor of the sailboard largely due to his remarkable innovation of the universal joint.
The Claim: “Jim Drake and Hoyle Schweitzer Created the Sport of Windsurfing”
Following the work of Newman Darby, a pair of aspiring water enthusiasts named Jim Drake and Hoyle Schweitzer saw potential in the sailboard and decided to add a couple of improvements to the design.
In March of 1968, the famous duo of Jim Drake and Hoyle Schweitzer combined forces to propose several novel innovations to the sailboard.
Drake had a prestigious background as an aeronautical engineer. This aeronautical knowledge came in handy when it came to the sailing portion of the sailboard. Hoyle, on the other hand, had an uncanny knowledge on the mechanics of surfing. Their backgrounds were a perfect match for each other, which resulted in some of the greatest advancements in the sailboard to date.
Drake and Hoyle are accredited with the invention of the wishbone boom, the uphaul and the Marconi rig. Once these elements were put into place, windsurfers no longer had to pin their back to the sail. Windsurfers could place their hands on the boom and better absorb the power of the wind. This provided the fundamental basis for the modern windsurfer as we know it today.
They acquired a patent for the design nearly two years after they first drew up their proposals for the new and improved sailboard design.
Drake later sold his half of the patent to Schweitzer for $36,000. This amount of money would equate to approximately $175,000 by today’s standards. As far as the reason for why Drake did this, he is quoted as saying “It’s just not quite my cup of tea” (source).
Hoyle and Diane Schweitzer poured their life savings into the windsurfing business, believing that they could turn the sailboard into something extremely special. Together, the couple formed Windsurfing International in Southern California to mass produce and better market their board design to a larger audience. When the sailboard first hit the market, it was sold at a price of $385.
Surprisingly, these windsurf boards were not even marketed under the name of windsurf boards at first. Initially, these unconventional boards were termed “Baja Boards.” This name stemmed from the location in California that all of the windsurfing riders would be found.
It was only when Bert Salisbury, a public relations man from Seattle, saw these boards for the first time that he eagerly named this up and coming board “The Windsurfer” (source). And thus, the sport of windsurfing was born.
Summary: Jim Drake and Hoyle Schweitzer invented the first modern windsurf board. Hoyle and Diane Schweitzer are responsible for popularizing the design and creating the sport of windsurfing.
So Who is the True Inventor of Windsurfing?
The answer to this question depends on the context of what aspect of windsurfing you want to analyze.
If you want to know who was the first to come up with the idea of uniting sailing and surfing into one activity, the ancient tribes of the Polynesians show the earliest signs of putting this idea into practice.
In terms of the person who definitively built a design incorporating a sail and board, Tom Blake is accredited with this milestone.
Newman Darby is largely responsible for first creating the unit of windsurfing with his design of the Darby Sailboard and the presentation of the universal joint. Jim Drake and Hoyle Schweitzer are generally acknowledged as coming up with the modern day sailboard.
But as far as who the true inventor of the sport of windsurfing is concerned, Hoyle and Diane Schweitzer lay claim to this illustrious title. They are the ones that risked their entire livelihood in order to turn windsurfing into something bigger. They sparked the momentum that eventually led to windsurfing taking the world by storm. Without them, it is hard to say where windsurfing would be today.
The 1970s: The Steady Popularization of Windsurfing
Before people began to take windsurfing to the extreme with speed racing and wave riding, windsurfing was perceived as a family friendly sport. In the 1970s, windsurfing was comprised of a very close knit group of people. Everybody knew everybody.
The Booming Popularity of Windsurfing in Europe
The sport really skyrocketed in Europe around this time. Windsurfing companies popped up in locations all over the developed world, including Europe, Canada, Japan, and Australia. Windsurfing was no longer exclusive to the United States.
The Evolution of Unique Windsurfing Disciplines
This period in windsurfing history is where the Windsurfer Class reigned supreme. With the newfound mobility that this sailboard offered, new windsurfing disciplines began to materialize and take hold.
For example, the branch of freestyle windsurfing began to emerge as riders yearned for a way to express their creativity on the water. People were drawn to the acrobatic artistry of using the sail board in unconventional ways, which would helped the sport to trend in popularity even further.
The Coronation of the Windsurfing King: Robby Naish
Windsurfing prodigies also began to claim the spotlight and lead the sport to new horizons. The most renowned windsurfer at this time was Robby Naish.
In the year 1976, Naish claimed his first World Championship Windsurfing Title at the age of 13. Little did the windsurfing community know that this was not the peak for the young aspiring windsurfer. It was only the beginning. Naish dominated the realm of windsurfing, finishing his career with 23 World Championship Titles to his name.
Naish was undoubtedly the face of the windsurfing world. As his fortune and fame grew, so too did the sport of windsurfing.
The 1980s: The Age of the Windsurfing Renaissance
The entire landscape of windsurfing changed with the onset of the 1980s. It was a renaissance of sorts since the sport exploded once again with the revitalization of windsurfing equipment. All of the sailboard patents had expired, so companies were eagerly looking to etch their own mark onto the world of windsurfing by proposing new sailboard designs.
The Continuous Cycle of Windsurfing Trends
To put it bluntly, this decade was an era of experimentation. It seemed as if there was a new piece of windsurfing equipment sprouting up every week. With every fall of one trend, there was a new trend right there to replace it. This is because windsurfers were beginning to take into account the importance of their equipment to more efficiently maneuver themselves around the water.
Thus, both manufacturing companies and windsurfing consumers alike began a process of trial and error. Examples of these experimental projects included unorthodox sail designs, twin fins, and can opener boards among others. Most of these trends died within a short span of time, but some trends solidified themselves and became the new standard in windsurfing equipment.
The world began to take notice of windsurfing throughout the 1980s. Its popularity reached its pinnacle when windsurfing finally earned Olympic status for the 1984 Olympic Games.
The Emergence of the Windsurfing Epicenter
This sparked a windsurfing revolution, expanding the sport to new and unfamiliar territories from indoor windsurfing in France to the Oregon coast. Out of all of these newfound windsurfing hubs, Maui rose above the rest. It soon became the windsurfing capital of the world, attracting windsurfers far and wide to enjoy its ideal windsurfing conditions.
It was on this island in Hawaii that the most notorious windsurfing location was discovered… Jaws. Named for its monstrous waves, Jaws was reserved for only the best of the best. Those that were willing to brave these 60 foot waves earned themselves a high degree of respect in the windsurfing community.
The Recognition of Windsurfing Talent
Speaking of respected windsurfing figures, there were a considerable number of riders that gained recognition during this time. Examples of some of the figures include Fred Haywood and Laird Hamilton. Both men were pioneers in the world of windsurf speed sailing. In fact, Haywood would eventually break the world speed record in windsurfing in the late 1980s.
This was made possible by the refinement of the windsurfing harness and footstraps. With these windsurfing accessories made available to the public, riders could take channel their entire bodyweight into counteracting the force of the wind. This allowed more wind power to be absorbed, resulting in more speed.
To get a glimpse of some of the pioneering days of speed windsurfing, check out the video of Laird Hamilton below!
For many, this experimental decade was the pinnacle of windsurfing. It appeared as though everybody was hopping onto the bandwagon. There is something to be said about taking part in a new revolutionary wave. During the 1980s, windsurfing was the very essence of a revolutionary wave.
The 1990s: The Windsurfing Era of Technological Advancement
The 1990s brought in an era of technological advancement in windsurfing equipment that allowed individuals to perform miraculous feats on the water that were not even within the realm of possibility a decade prior.
Faster, Lighter, More Efficient Sailboards
The trendy asymmetrical sailboards finally gave way to symmetrical sailboards, allowing riders to do most anything out on the water. The baggy sails of old were replaced with superior five batten sails, upping the maximum potential power of the sailboard.
Whereas before the majority of sailboards featured surfboard fins, vertical fins became the new norm. This helped windsurfers to retain better control over their sailboard even in the harshest of conditions.
The weight of the sailboard was cut down tremendously as windsurfing manufacturing companies began to gravitate toward carbon materials. From carbon masts to carbon booms, manufacturers were looking for every edge they could to better accommodate windsurfer needs.
New Equipment, New Opportunities
These technological advances in the sailboard paved the way for aspiring windsurfers to tackle their wildest windsurfing dreams. The sheer potential power and lightweight nature of these sailboards allowed riders to gain the necessary speed to perform airborne tricks.
This is what initiated the transition from the family friendly sport to the extreme sport we know today.
Certain riders took advantage of the perks of these technological advances more than others. One renowned windsurfing figure that was a major proponent of these technological advances is Bjørn Dunkerbeck.
Dunkerbeck was another dominant force in the windsurfing world, claiming a record 42 World Championship Titles (source). In the 1990s, Dunkerbeck was known for showing up to competition with up to twenty sailboards in tow.
The days where windsurfers would only need one reliable sailboard were gone. Dunkerbeck established just how imperative windsurfing equipment was in competition. This forever changed how people perceived their sailboard. This caused many to conclude that windsurfing competitions were not only decided by the skill of the rider, they were also decided by the equipment. Thus, windsurfing competitions became not only a physical contest, but a technological battle ground.
Fresh Faces on the Windsurfing Scene
Bjørn Dunkerbeck was not the only person that took advantage of these new windsurfing developments. Jason Polakow also shook the very foundation of windsurfing by bursting onto the scene with a new dynamic, flashy surfing style.
As aforementioned, the additional power and reduced weight of the power allowed windsurfers to go airborne. Polakow put these innovations to the test by attacking some of the biggest swells and going airborne with no regard for the potential risks. If he felt fear, he certainly did not show it.
This further pushed windsurfing to expanding its boundaries into the lands of the extreme. Although there were definitely some cuts and bruises along the way, Polakow accomplished some magnificent feats on the water that revolutionized the perception of the sport.
The Unintended Consequences of the Technological Upsurge
Although sailboards were definitely taken to new heights during the 1990s, some argue that the sport suffered more from these advances than windsurfers let on.
The main argument for this perceived popularity dip is that the equipment simply became too complex. As manufacturers began to chase down how to best optimize for specific windsurfing disciplines, they began to pigeonhole themselves into one tiny niche. This resulted in them losing sight of their primary customer: the novice windsurfer.
It is argued that many potential windsurfing athletes were alienated by the overwhelming selection of specialized equipment available that they merely abandoned the sport altogether.
Although not all windsurfers share this same sentiment, it is definitely a point to consider when analyzing the windsurfing history of the 1990s.
Present Day Windsurfing
This brings us to the modern day world of windsurfing. Although windsurfing is not as mainstream as it once was, there is still a massive community out there that share a passion for windsurfing.
However, there are some windsurfing innovations looming on the horizon that may revolutionize the sport yet again.
The Windsurf Foil Board
Recently, the windsurf foil board has risen in popularity. This new age sailboard physically lifts the windsurf board up and out of the water. The premise behind the foil is that it completely eliminates the effects of water drag. This offers riders a smoother, yet faster, ride.
As with all revolutionary innovations, the windsurf foil board was initially met with some backlash by the windsurfing community. There is a great deal of riders out there that prefer the traditional means of windsurfing. However, as time has gone on, windsurfers have grown to embrace this new windsurfing element.
Even the king of windsurfing himself, Robby Naish has jumped onto the trend. If you don’t believe me, check out the video below!
As far as whether or not the windsurf foil board will eventually overtake the traditional sailboard, it is hard to judge. There is a substantial number of people that are happy to revitalize their windsurfing experience. But there are others that are perfectly satisfied with their traditional windsurfing sailboard.
Only time will tell whether or not this is a simple fad or the next big thing. After all, nobody can predict the future.
Where Are Windsurfers Now?
In the past, there were many windsurfing figures that broke the mold when it came to the sport, sending waves throughout the windsurfing community. This has caused many to question, who are the new faces of windsurfing? And where are they?
The predominant figures of windsurfing is a blend of up and coming windsurfers and faces of the past. We already know that Robby Naish is still very much active in the windsurfing community with his experimental efforts with the foil board. But what you may not know is that Jason Polakow, the 1990s windsurfing trendsetter, is still hitting the waves on a daily basis!
Mind you, he has not let go of his flashy style of windsurfing either. If anything, he has ramped it up. Remember the 60 foot waves in Maui we were talking about earlier? The paradoxical windsurfing dream and nightmare of Jaws?
Polakow has been making a concerted effort to attack Jaws on a consistent basis. If you want to see this insanity for yourself, click the video below!
As far as new windsurfers that have made a name for themselves, the most prominent of which is Antoine Albeau.
Albeau has one miraculous accomplishment to his name that singlehandedly propelled him to stardom. Albeau holds the record for the fastest speed on a windsurf board ever.
On a particularly windy day in November of 2015, Albeau sped a whopping 53.27 knots on his windsurf board (source). For those of you that are not familiar with knots, this equates to 61.3 miles per hour! That is as fast as a moving car on a highway!
There are plenty of other renowned figures in the contemporary windsurfing community. Although there has been discussion as to whether or not windsurfing is dead in the water, there is still a considerable number of windsurfers in spots around the world. Some spots are certainly more popular than others, but this does not mean that the sport is gone for good.
Given the rich roots of this sport, it is hard to imagine that windsurfing will ever go totally extinct.