Three beeps from the race committee horn and the group of windsurfers competing in the U.S. Junior Windsurfing Championship pull up their sails, get settled on their boards and glide to the starting line.
Two beeps and it’s two minutes to race time at the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club.
One beep and 13-year-old Geronimo Nores from Miami, FL,, along with the rest of the fleet, is at starting line.
The starting horn blows. The sailors head east towards the first marked buoy, pumping their legs up and down on their boards.
“It propels you, kind of like a fish,” explained Geronimo after winning the 40-minute race. “Especially since there is a swell, you can pump and then catch those waves to go much faster.”
This year’s championship, which ran on Wednesday and Thursday, had 26 young people competing, ages 11 to 19, and separated into silver and gold fleets based on experience and skill. Competitors hailed from Florida, California, Mexico, Canada and, of course, the Vineyard. Although the different ages raced all at once, the competition was divided into four levels: under 13, under 15, under 17 and an open age group. Just like sailing, the windsurfing competition is a series of scored races.
On Wednesday Charlie Felder, manager of the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club, drove a small boat of bystanders around the harbor to watch the race up close. He was situated near the starting line buoy.
“We’ll have to move back because some of them will come right at us,” he said.
Sailboats and dinghies shared the water with the racers, and the competitors maneuvered through the obstacles making close encounters on their way to the next buoy. Eli Hanschka said sharing the waters was nothing new. He’s a 15-year-old gold fleet racer from the Vineyard plus a surfer and sailor, too. “I’ve been maneuvering around boats most of my life, so I’m used to it.”
Culley Deisinger, a 15-year-old gold fleet racer from San Francisco, CA, said part of the challenge is getting a feel for each new environment.
“In all races you have to adjust to different wind patterns and waves,” he said. “Like in San Francisco it’s much wavier, choppier and there’s more boat traffic.”
Back on the water, the gold fleet traveled close together as they headed towards the first buoy.
The transparent sails with veins of red, orange and green skimmed the water effortlessly; from far away they looked like a pack of moths or butterflies buzzing around the ocean.
But after the first turn around the buoy, the wind picked up and the fleet thinned out along the ocean.
Sailing close behind the young group in a separate race was the Kona One New England Championship fleet — an adult class. Sailing with them was Nevin Sayre, regatta chairman for the events and a long-time windsurfer from Martha’s Vineyard. He said the Kona class is more for recreation; the primary focus for the two-day competition was the junior windsurfers as they were competing for national titles.
The U.S. Junior Windsurfing Championship is part of a series of Junior Olympic events that take place around the country, some for windsurfing but most for sailing.
“It’s a grassroots campaign to have kids think ‘Gee, maybe one day I can be in the Olympics,’ and some of these kids are definitely thinking that way,” said Mr. Sayre. “The fact that the Olympics are going on right now is a direct tie. These kids are likely to be our future Olympians.”
In fact, his daughter, 20-year-old Solvig Sayre, who has won the U.S. Junior Windsurfing Championship several times, is the U.S. alternate for windsurfing in the ongoing London 2012 Olympics as she placed second in the trials. But on Wednesday she was out in the harbor coaching the silver fleet from the regatta.
Mr. Sayre said the silver fleet is primarily for encouraging more kids to try windsurfing.
“It’s to welcome new sailors and new racers,” he said. “To stick a kid in the gold fleet who have never raced before would be very intimidating.”
As for racers in the gold fleet, Mr. Sayre said many will go on to compete in the RS: X World Championship in Holland taking place in a few weeks.
“I’m here to train for Worlds,” said Geronimo. He has only been sailing for two years but as of Wednesday he was in first place overall for the championship.
Mr. Sayre said the competition is much more stiff at the World Championship, with hundreds of racers competing.
“We [U.S.] are actually weaker in windsurfing than other countries,” he said. “It’s a much bigger sport in, say, France or Holland, but we are catching up.”
He said that’s why kids from Canada and Mexico made their way up to the Vineyard.
“It’s tough for the countries in this continent to have a pool of good competition,” Mr. Sayre said. “They travel here to measure themselves against the top North American sailors.”
Mariana Aguilar, a 13-year-old gold fleet racer from Mexico City, windsurfs on lakes back home.
“I came to the championship to learn more, to see the level of competition they have in the U.S.A. and to have fun,” she said.
Mr. Sayre actually helps promote youth windsurfing all across North America.
“I just see it as a great thing for kids,” he said. “I see what it’s done for my kids. They are passionate about windsurfing and, as a result, sailing. It’s taken them places — all over the U.S., Europe and Brazil.”
He added: “Windsurfing is a fantastic sport and has actually been neglected by traditional sailors as not an obvious path for kids to get into sailing. In fact it’s a terrific path because it’s the most affordable and also arguably the most fun.”
Eli Hanschka started windsurfing just for fun after having already sailed for many years.
“I was sailing down here and there was a scene, so I tried it,” he said.
After Wednesday’s final race Eli was tired, and not just from the windsurfing competition. “I actually surfed this morning,” he said. “The waves were good, the best so far this year. We got up at 4:15 a.m.”