Wind worshippers

HOOD RIVER, Ore. -- Wind has been very good to Hood River.

"I remember when I was a kid and we would drive through here on vacations," said Darren Rogers, the principle race officer for the U.S. Windsurfing National Championships. "I would think, why would anyone want to live here? This is the emptiest place in the world."

Of course, that was several decades ago, after the timber industry collapsed. Two decades ago, you could buy homes with a Columbia River view for $40,000 to $50,000. Then the town became world famous for its windsurfing, and now homes fetch more than 10 times that. Thanks to windsurfing, Hood River has become one of the most popular destinations in the Pacific Northwest, a town of historic, renovated hotels, multiple windsurfing and bike stores, and superb restaurants, wineries and coffee shops. It is so upscale there is even a shop selling nothing but treats for your dog.

"It's been a boyhood dream of mine to come here and race," said Jasper Vesterstrom of Copenhagen. "I've been reading about it for so many years and now I'm finally here. It's as good as I read. The water is choppy like nothing else and it is beautiful as nothing else and it is windy like nothing else."

Ah, yes. The wind. Hood River is in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge, where temperature and pressure system differences between the wetter, milder west side and the drier, more extreme east side of the Cascade Mountains create regular 20- to 30-mile-per-hour winds. That may be rough for Wiffle ball, but it's great for windsurfing -- which is why Hood River is hosting this week's U.S. Windsurfing Championships.

Windsurfing is a big sport in Europe, where it is a cheap alternative to sailing or Jet Skiing, but its popularity plummeted in the United States a decade or so ago for various reasons. People at the U.S. Championships cited everything from bad wind that canceled key events and drove away sponsors, to equipment geared for the expert surfer but discouraged the beginner, to low birth rates among fanatics.

"People were having so much fun windsurfing that we didn't have kids," Barry Spanier said. "We lost about a generation."

Plus, there are just a lot of recreational alternatives out there, from skateboarding to Jet Skis to video games.

"You lose to anything that is simple," Spanier said.

"You don't get instant rewards in this sport," U.S. Junior National coach Charles Ivey said. "It's not like a video game where you can learn to play it and get good in one evening. It's old-fashioned -- you have to work at it a long time to become good."

As sponsors pulled out, the prize money dropped considerably, making it difficult to earn a living in the sport in America. Just transporting the equipment -- the multiple boards, masts and sails -- can be maddeningly expensive. Mike Porter said he recently flew from Greece to London and the airline's charge for his gear was more than his ticket: $1,100.

"Let's just say we're not in the black in this sport," he said with a grin.

The hope is the sport is back on the rise. Improved, easier-to-handle equipment is one reason, allowing children to enter the sport at Little League ages. The sport's leaders are also more mindful of growing the sport through the younger generation. Indeed, there seemed to be as many juniors, from age 10 on up, preparing for this week's championships as adults. Several people pointed to the junior racers and said, "Those guys are the story."

"What I like about it is it's a sport with so many variables," said 18-year-old Bob Willis of Chicago, a junior champion with Olympic ambitions. "Unlike basketball or football where you only have to adjust to changing competitors, you have to adjust to the course conditions as well -- the water conditions, the wind conditions. It's not only physically challenging, it's mentally challenging as well.

"Plus, it's fast."

Which may be what draws people to the sport most of all. The windsurfing record was recently set at 48.7 knots, or about 55 miles per hour. Anything going that fast on water ought to be towing someone on skis. Watching the windsurfers, with their colorful sails, racing across the water, you get the feeling that Lewis and Clark would have loved the opportunity to use these things when they came down this stretch of the Columbia River exactly 200 years ago.

"It feels like flying," Spanier said. "You're standing on a wing. There's a wing in the water, and a wing in the air, and you're going fast enough to be flying."