Windsurfing is an intriguing sport that has a rich history behind it. It has surfaced as one of the premier activities in the water sports industry, which caused many people to wonder at what exact time did windsurfing emerge into the spotlight.
The popularity of windsurfing gained significant traction in the late 1970s largely due to the work of Hoyle and Diane Schweitzer. The sailboard had been invented a decade prior by Newman Darby, but the Schweitzer couple propelled windsurfing to new heights by founding Windsurfing International.
The road of Hoyle and Diane Schweitzer was a rocky one at best. But they discovered eventual success after their long and arduous journey. This column will take a detailed look at their integral role in birthing the popularity of windsurfing and how the sport fares today.
The Late 1970s: The Rise of Windsurfing
As aforementioned, the sailboard had been available to the general public nigh on a decade before the sport actually took off. Why is that?
The Humble Beginnings of Windsurfing
When Newman Darby constructed the first sailboard in 1964, dubbed the Darby Sailboard, it had a rather rudimentary design.
Darby did construct the first universal joint, which was a novel innovation at the time. However, it still did not have the necessary mobility to accommodate the needs of the general public.
It featured a flat, broad, square-sized board. Nowadays, windsurf boards carry a noticeable structural resemblance to surfboards. In addition, the windsurf board sported a kite sail. Riders had to pin their back up against the sail to direct the sailboard to wherever they wanted to go on the water. Darby had yet to construct the wishbone boom, a staple feature of the modern windsurf board.
Darby never secured a patent for his construction of the Darby Sailboard because the upfront costs were too expensive. His startup company, Darby Industries, could never really gain a foothold in the water sports industry, racking up a mere 80 board sales in its first couple years of business (source). As a result, Darby abandoned his sailboard dreams and cut his losses.
At this point, windsurfing seemed like it was dead in the water. But just when this industry seemed like a lost cause, someone revisited the concept of the sailboard. But this time, it did not involve Newman Darby.
Events Leading Up to the Popularity Rise in Windsurfing
Aeronautical engineer Jim Drake and sailing extraordinaire Hoyle Schweitzer revamped the design of the sailboard by introducing a couple of key innovations to its overall construction in March of 1968.
The most notable innovations they made to the sailboard included the wishbone boom, the uphaul, and the Marconi rig. These windsurfing novelties forever changed the way that people would do windsurfing across the world.
The wishbone boom allowed riders to place their hands on the rig and conveniently control the sail without having to pin their back up against it. The uphaul provided a user-friendly means of lifting the rig up and out of the water while still standing atop the board. The Marconi rig allowed riders to make much more efficient use of the wind and get moving with some speed out on the water.
With all of these advantages, the stage was set for a dynamic shift in the way people perceived windsurfing. Drake and Hoyle patented their sailboard design following all of their laborious work in 1970 (source).
Hoyle, and his wife Diane Schweitzer, saw the potential in their sailboard design and had a strong yearning to take the invention global. Unfortunately, Drake did not share this same sentiment. Losing the initial fervor he once held for the sailboard, Drake sold his share of the patent to Hoyle for $36,000, which would have an equivalent value of $175,000 today (source).
Hoyle and Diane Schweitzer didn’t stop their risks there. After purchasing Drake’s half of the patent, they invested their entire life savings into creating a company called Windsurfing International. This investment was bold, daring, and a bit outlandish, considering the previous failures that the windsurfing industry had endured in the past.
But it was just the sort of spark that the sport of windsurfing desperately needed.
Why Windsurfing Exploded in Popularity in the 1970s
The early years of Windsurfing International were rough years for Hoyle and Diane Schweitzer. Much like the difficulty that Newman Darby faced with his startup business, Darby Industries, it was challenging for the couple to generate board sales. In fact, they nearly reached a point where they gave up the business endeavor completely.
Diane was even forced to sell off her prized Morgan car to make up the production costs for the very first sailboards (source). When these first sailboards were first made available to the public, they were priced at $385 apiece.
But Hoyle and Diane persevered through these trying times and eventually struck gold. Their business took off in a small little place in California named Baja. In fact, the very first sailboards were not called sailboards at all. Instead, the water sports community named them “Baja boards” after the location where the little seed of windsurfing was beginning to sprout.
It wasn’t until a PR man from Seattle, named Bert Salisbury, actually witnessed the boards for the first time that a new name was suggested for this trending board: “The Windsurfer” (source).
During these early days, windsurfing was little more than just a band of rebels looking to spice up their experience on the water. It was a subculture. Everybody knew everybody who went down to that little town in Baja.
Slowly but surely, the sport began to spread as people began to take an interest in the notion of combining the worlds of sailing and surfing.
As the sport became more popular, windsurfing also appealed to a broader target audience. The extreme nature of windsurfing that we know and love today had not yet established itself. Instead, the general public perceived windsurfing as a family-friendly endeavor. People were out having picnics and bringing their kids along to have a nice outing on the water.
This steady popularization did not merely happen by accident. It was the work of Hoyle and Diane Schweitzer. The couple invested a massive chunk of their earnings into board manufacturing and marketing efforts to take the sport worldwide.
When they weren’t out marketing their boards to the world, they enjoyed the product for themselves with friends and family. To see the earliest days of windsurfing firsthand, check out the video below!
They spread their marketing efforts by lining up deals with local fleets and districts. They even struck deals with national associations worldwide. This led to the creation of the world championships for the Windsurfer Class in 1974.
The world championships attracted people from all over the place to participate in one unique pastime.
When the 1970s finally gave way to the 1980s, windsurfing was no longer just a band of rebels any longer. Instead, it was beginning to overtake the water sports scene.
How the 1970s Fueled the Popularity Boom in the 1980s
As a direct consequence of the marketing efforts of Hoyle and Diane Schweitzer, the sport erupted in Europe. Windsurfing steadily spread across the continent until it became the thing to do. Sailboards were popping up in small towns and big cities. Practically any body of water where you could windsurf, people were out there taking advantage.
It grew even bigger than Hoyle and Diane Schweitzer could have even imagined. Everywhere you went, there were windsurf boards strapped to car roofs.
Many people dub the 1980s the golden windsurfing of windsurfing because of this massive spike in popularity. Everybody who was anybody was buying a new windsurf board in what seemed like every couple of weeks!
This is because, by the 1980s, all of the patents had expired, permitting other companies to get in on the action and put forth their own novel ideas on how to revolutionize the sport.
With so much new windsurfing gear available, people were trying all of the latest trends and fads to up their speed and control on the water. Individuals were starting to realize the importance of having a sleek, well-manufactured board. This journey began an endless cycle that would last well into the coming decades as windsurfers committed themselves to the perpetual search of finding the perfect windsurf board.
Beyond the realm of equipment experimentation, the sport of windsurfing reached huge milestones during the 1980s. For one, windsurfing acquired Olympic status in the 1984 Olympic games. This was a crucial step in popularizing the sport to new areas that had never been exposed to the latest trend in the water sports world.
The 1980s also saw the birth of the windsurfing mecca… Maui, Hawaii. Windsurfing stars began to notice the potential of this island as they experimented with fresh locations around the world. The unending sea breeze combined with the sunny days made Maui the ideal location for windsurfers.
There was one location in particular that struck the hearts of many high-caliber windsurfers. This location featured some of the largest waves around, reaching upwards of 60 feet in height! As a result, this little spot in Maui, Hawaii earned the nickname Jaws, which it is still called to this day.
Many windsurfers agree that the 1980s was the climax of the sport, having witnessed the sport go mainstream in Europe, reach Olympic status, and establish a collective hub for windsurfers everywhere in Maui.
When Was Windsurfing More Popular: The 1970s or the 1980s?
With all of this information in mind, you are likely wondering which decade was windsurfing was more popular?
Well, to answer your original question, windsurfing first became popular in the 1970s. However, the sport did not become a household name until the 1980s.
So I suppose it depends on what your definition of popular is. If you are wondering when windsurfing first burst onto the scene of water sports, the answer is the 1970s. But if you’re wondering when the sport really became mainstream, the answer is the 1980s.
There is no real definitive point in time that really marks this transition. The sport really seemed like it just took off overnight. However, I would argue that the main takeaway is that windsurfing first became recognized as a real, tangible sport between these two decades, the 1970s and the 1980s.
Is Windsurfing Still Popular?
Although windsurfing is not as mainstream as it once was, the sport is definitely still a major force in the water sports community.
Windsurfing may be dying in certain towns, but it is just beginning to take off in other locations. The thing with measuring popularity is that it is all about perspective.
If you pit the popularity of windsurfing today against its highest point in the mid-1980s, of course, it’s going to seem like windsurfing is dead. But if you compare the participation rates of windsurfing from the mid-2000s to the modern day, you may be surprised to find that the sport shows a significant upward trend in popularity.
The exact numbers illustrate that windsurfing had an approximate participation rate of 940,000 in 2006. Since then, that number has jumped to 1.56 million in 2018 (source).
This goes to show that windsurfing still is, and always will be, relevant in the water sports community. Those that have a passion for windsurfing aren’t just going to let their favorite sport go. Instead, they will do everything humanly possible to expand windsurfing to the next generation, just like Hoyle and Diane Schweitzer did.
So if you were under the impression that the sport had gone extinct, it is not. In fact, the truth of the matter is quite the opposite. Whether or not this is the start of a second golden age of windsurfing, nobody knows. But, for certain, I can tell you that the numbers say that windsurfing is blossoming, slowly but surely.