THEY CHASE the wind, these nomads whose journeys are governed by the whims of weather fronts. Their dreams are of tropical breezes and the crashing waves of Hawaii and Florida.
But reality for Washington's windsurfers is early-morning and weekend pursuit of swift sailing at such Maryland and Delaware shorelines as Dewey Beach, Assateague Island, Thomas Point, Kent Island and Sandy Point.
"You plan your life around the wind," says Bob Singer of Bethesda. "You watch the fronts. You know where the wind's blowing. We are wind-starved people. I want the wind. I love the wind. I worship the wind."
Singer and many of his surfing buddies will be among an estimated 75 competitors this weekend in the first Craig Stroetzel Memorial Regatta, a three-day festival for competitive windsurfers and spectators at Kentmorr Harbour on Kent Island.
For those windsurfers who would like to challenge the best, the regatta will feature eight to 10 members of the U.S. Olympic team, including Annapolis' Scott Steele, the 1984 silver medalist in wind- glider yachting, as well as many of this area's more accomplished surfers. For the less-skilled, an amateur class of competition is offered. Spectators, who get into the regatta free, are welcome to watch the whole works and chat with the competitors about tips on trying the sport.
The regatta offers $8,500 in prize money for bay crossing, course racing, slalom and tandem course racing and freestyle events. Proceeds, derived from the $45 entry fee for professionals and $25 for amateurs, go to benefit the family of Craig Stroetzel, the Annapolis innovator in windsurfing equipment who died last month from a fall suffered while sailing on a skateboard.
Windsurfing is the 1967 creation of surfer Hoyle Schweitzer and sailor Jim Drake, Californians who sought to combine the best of both sports in one activity. It is sailing in its simplest form, a person on a surf board with a mast and sail.
"It's not dangerous, but the thrill factor is really high," says former World Cup competitor Hayes Harris of Chestertown, who develops windsurfing products for his livelihood. "It's like a combination of water skiing, hang gliding, sky diving and snow skiing. And it's non-polluting, it doesn't use any natural resources and it doesn't make any noise.
"The speed sensation is real, but, though you're doing only about 20 miles per hour, it feels like you're doing 100. It's a very addictive sport. Once you get bitten by the bug, you become fanatical about finding the wind."
The stronger the wind, the faster the sailing, the more magical the maneuvers and the more spectacular the spills.
"It's like living in a different world, it's so relaxing," says Christie Leffel, an IBM product planner and windsurfer from Olney. "It's an adrenaline thrll, too -- a thrill a minute, and I like that. It's relaxing, but it's not like sitting back and reading."
A windsurfing get-together, however, is noted as much for the socializing on the beach as the action on the water. Driven by the singular pursuit of strong wind, most windsurfers invariably cross paths, which makes for a close-knit group.
"Everybody is enjoying the lifestyle. Everybody likes each other," Singer says. "We have a good group of people and it's nice to spend time with your friends," adds Leffel.
The combination of fraternity and fanaticism extends to a phone network for exchanging the latest info on wind conditions; an abundance of automobile weather band radios; and for enthusiasts like Leffel, the daily strapping of board, mast and sail to car rooftop, in prepararation for a moment's notice escape from work to chase an inviting gust.
"I listen to the weather every day," says Scott Steele's brother Ron, a Chesapeake Bay ship pilot who is the current wind-glider champion for the Mid-Atlantic surfing circuit. "We don't get that many windy days around here because this is a light-air place, so when the wind's blowing, we're all out there sailing. You can't beat the feeling. You're not really going that fast, but it feels like you're screaming."
Obtaining those thrills isn't cheap, says Singer, whose Windsurfing Unlimited stores in Bethesda, Annapolis and Dewey Beach provide equipment and logistical support to many of the area's enthusiasts. While access to the water usually costs little or nothing, he estimates a beginner needs $600 in gear, though this can be halved by buying used equipment. But once indoctrinated into the sport, many windsurfers feel compelled to immediately replace their 12-foot board with the more maneuverable "short" board, which is 9- 91/2-feet long.
And while the dedicated sail virtually year-round aided by advanced- technology outerwear, Singer recommends summer as a time for beginners because the warmer weather conditions are "conducive for falling in the water."
The sea dips mark the true measure of a windsurfer. "They say you're an experienced windsurfer after 100 hours or 100 falls, whichever comes first," says Christen Pfennig, who recently reached that milestone. "But the skinned knees, bruised ankles and sore muscles were worth the joy." ALL A BOARD
The tentative schedule for this weekend's regatta, subject to frequent changes depending on the vagaries of the wind, has the 16-mile bay crossing Friday at 1 p.m. and the tandem (two-man) freestyle and course racing at 3:30 p.m. On Saturday, individuals will challenge the triangular yacht-style course at 10:30 a.m. The slalom event begins Sunday at 10 a.m. Registration is Friday from 9 to 11 a.m. and Saturday from 8:30 to 10 a.m.; there's no registration Sunday.
Spectators are invited to parties Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 7:30p.m. There is no charge for Friday's affair. But Saturday a $15 donation is requested from non-competitors for dinner and a two-hour open bar. Halloween attire is suggested for that night. GETTING THERE -- From the Beltway, take U.S. 50 east half a mile past the Bay Bridge. Go right on Route 8 for 41/2 miles to the entrance of Kentmorr Harbour.