It's certainly not the kind of boat you'd hire for a moonlight cruise. Nor is it only for thrill-seekers who enjoy the feel of wind rushing past their ears. But a sailboard has some combination of water, speed, wind and freedom that's charming sailors and landlubbers far and wide.
Wind-surfing -- or, as sailboard dealers generally call it, boardsailing -- offers the sensation of gliding through deep powder as in snowskiing, the spray of water on your legs as in waterskiing, and the chance to be at one with the sail as in hang-gliding. The craft looks like a small sailboat on a surfboard-like base, and its colorful striped sail stands our in the crowd in busy sailboat territory.
It's no longer the secret sport of beach bums in California, where it all began around 1970. Boardsailing exploded in Europe in the early 1970s (even Prince Charles occasionally climbs aboard for a ride), but it's only in the last two or three years that the rest of the United States sat up and took notice. Now, as one sailboard dealer puts it, "It's the biggest new sport since motorcycles."
But is it just another fad that will peak and die in a few years? "No," says Bob Singer, a former accountant who "gave it all up" to boardsailing in 1979. Now he runs Windsurfing Unlimited, an authorized Windsurfer brand dealership in Rockville, three rental and lesson outlets on the Eastern shore and is president of Capitol Windsurfing Club. "It's too much fun to be a fad," he says "It takes very little strengh so it's great for the whole family. Boardsailing is an ideal recreation for the '80's."
Even the Navy is equipped with sailboards for off-duty enjoyment, Singer says: About one-fourth of the 100 boards the Navy ordered through his dealership have already been sent to ships at sea.
Boardsailing is a little like waterskiing, more like surfing and a lot like sailing. The board is about 12 feet long and has a small fixed skeg at the rear to help balance the board, like the skeg on a surfboard. But it also has a removable daggerboard like on a sailboat. The sailor stands on the board and holds the sail and mast up. Steering is different. Since there's no rudder, the edges of the board and the sail steer it.
The board is rigged with a mast and sail, about 14 feet high, supported by the sailor with a wishbone-shaped boom. The mast is not fixed, but turns in all directions in a swivel mount. The sailor tilts the boom forward or back to steer, pulls it in to accelerate and pushes it out to slow down. If the boom is dropped the board will stop.
"One of the beauties of it is you can go really fast in high winds to the point where it's almost scary -- like skiing the fall line of a mountain," explains Singer. "Or you can only sail in 12- to 20-knot winds and just cruise around."
Being just a few inches above the water gives the sensation of two to three times your actual speed. "When the wind is blowing 20 knots you feel like you're going 100 miles an hour," says Singer. "It's just an incredible feeling."
"It's exciting," says Bob Engl, a dealer in Severna Park. "At 10 knots the board planes. When the board explodes and picks up speed, you're part of it. It sings under your feet."
Engl and his 17-year-old son Jeff started their dealership, East Coast Board Sailers, last year before ever climbing on a sailboard. Both are competitive waterskiers and saw ads in waterski magazines for the boards. "We liked what we saw," recalls Bob Engl. "We thought boardsailing could be something to do when it's too rough or windy to waterski."
But both flopped around in the water their first few times out, trying to learn with only a pamphlet from the board's manufacturer. "My first time out I got towed in by an antique sailboat, the second time by a neighbor in a rowboat," says Bob Engle. Jeff Engl learned how to use the board from their first customer, a 15-year-old neighbor boy. Jeff is now certified to teach by the United States Board Sailing Association.
"The way you sell boards is to get people on them," explains Jeff Engl "But it can be frustrating to learn. Tacking and jibing are the same as in sailing, but the steering is different."
Singer says he tries to keep sailing terms out of his lessons. "I didn't know a thing about sailing when I started," he says. "Most people taking lessons don't, either, so why confuse them with words like tacking and jibing?" Instead, he uses a system based on the face of a clock to explain wind and sail direction to his students.
Windsurfing Unlimited has eight instructors certified by the International Windsurfer Sailing School Program. Lessons usually start with a ride on a simulator, which gives an idea of what the sailboard feels like. A board is attached to a tripod-like stand on shore and the sail rig is attached to the board just as it is in the water. A beginner can then work with the wind on the simulator without even getting wet. In the water a board is sometimes attached to a tether and a smaller training sail can be used.
Singer says it takes only four to six hours to learn how to maneuver the board and how it functions. "Not too many people can see what kind of feeling it's going to give unless they're really into sailing," he explains. "The main thing is to get people to understand it and see that it's easy to do, then they really enjoy it."
Wind-surfers like to boast that their sport has many advantages over other water sports. Singer recalls that he was planning to buy a Hobie Cat sailboat but felt a sailboard would be much more practical. "You don't need anyone to help you set it up and you don't need a trailer," he explains. "You just throw it on your car, then in the water and you're off."
Boards alone weigh only 40 to 60 pounds -- about 20 pounds more with the mast and sail -- and are practically maintenance-free. It takes about 10 minutes to rig the sail. The boards won't capsize: Both board and sail float on the surface if you fall in. The initial cost is steep (around $900), unless you compare it to the price tag on many sailboats. You don't need a boat launch, license or permit, and you can sail anywhere there is wind and water. A surf isn't required, so it's practical for inland lakes and waterways.
And if you like it as much as Singer, who boardsails from March through December, you can stretch the sport over three seasons by wearing a wetsuit. "It's a lifestyle," says Singer. "Once you buy a board you're committed. Your Saturdays and Sundays you used to spend golfing, playing tennis or barbecuing will suddenly be devoted to boardsailing."