Free Sailing

Sailing on the blue waters of the Adriatic Sea, a mile off the coast of Yugoslavia, 22 year old Mike Zajicek (“ZY chek”) and his brother Val, 23, could have been testing the boards they had built in their garage near Prague. But they weren’t. Mike and Val were attempting to windsurf to freedom on that bright and clear summer day in 1983.

When Mike Zajicek, builder of Mike’s Lab boards, and his brother Val took up windsurfing in Prague in 1978, it was a natural extension of their lifestyle at the time. They had done a lot of canoeing at summer camp and bought bikes for bike camping trips as soon as they were old enough. They skied every winter from the converted barn that their family shared with two other families. After Mike bought a car, other activities became available.

Val was interested in hang gliding, but the danger inherent in the rather crude equipment that was around and the sparsity of flying sites turned his interests elsewhere. They discovered that one of Mike’s schoolmates at the Arts College where they were studying furniture design and manufacture had built a windsurfing board and learned to sail. Mike, Val, and two of Mike’s college friends went to visit the fledgling sailor and to look at his equipment.

Part of the inspiration behind the design of the Mike’s Lab board that Matt Pritchard rode to victory in the recent 1995 USWA Nationals, can certainly be traced to Mike’s first exposure to board building. Mike, Val, and their two friends all decided to build boards and learn to sail them. Building their own boards was their only choice; production and custom equipment was simply unavailable in Czechoslovakia. In fact, they had to build their masts, booms, fins, daggerboards, universals, and finboxes too. You name it, they built it! The only thing they could buy was the sail, which their friend’s father made for them. For the mast and boom, they went to a metal salvage yard and bought appropriate sized aluminum tubing. The mast was an untapered pipe, the booms they bent up as best they could, then mitered and screwed them together, front and back. They copied details that they saw pictured in magazines, such as the old boom front end with a plastic handle, making the parts by hand out of glass cloth, epoxy, and bits and pieces of wood and aluminum tubing. Their universals were made out of high pressure hose that had a woven steel cord. They made detailed drawings for the mast base pin and receiver, and found a machinist to make the parts. They made un-foiled fins from sheet aluminum and quickly learned that swept back, low aspect fins let them sail right up to the beach. They made their own daggerboard cassettes and finboxes from plywood. And when they were done making all the equipment and they needed to get out on the water, they went out and taught themselves to sail.

By the next summer, Mike and Val sailed well enough to plan a major windsurfari to the Bulgarian seashore. For three weeks they camped by the sea, enjoying the fresh air, fresh breeze, and the freedom of living outdoors. By the last days of the vacation, they were confirmed windsurf addicts.

Over the next few years, Mike built six more boards and sold them through newspaper ads. It was the first custom windsurfing equipment available in Czechoslovakia. To sell a board, he had to supply a complete rig, so he made six masts, six booms, and six of all the other necessary big and little parts. Then he bought a sail for each one from his friend’s dad. Val built and sold three, and the brothers saved their money, using it sparingly to buy gas for their weekend trips to the lakes, and to form a pool of ready cash for whatever expenses came up.

The brothers’ father died in a traffic accident in bad weather a few years later in 1982, an event which precipitated their decision to try to escape from communism. They had been considering getting out for many years. Their dad had dissented in the seminal days of Czech communism around 1950, and had been driven out of Army flight school for speaking his thoughts. Though he later was allowed entrance to engineering school and made a career for himself, he never forgave the communists and taught his sons to dislike the system, and to keep their mouths shut. Mike’s mother had secured a good job with the Foreign Ministry because of her facility with languages, so the family was comfortable, but never quite able to tear away and escape. Mike and Val felt that the time had come for them to try.

They applied separately for visas for a trip to Yugoslavia the next summer and were quite surprised when both visas were granted. The government was very wary of escapees at that time and unlikely to grant travel privileges to two family members at the same time, except by oversight. Their good luck enabled them to proceed with their escape, which they would finance with the money they had made by building and selling boards.

The plan for the trip was simple: load all of their windsurfing and camping gear on Mike’s car, take all of their money, and go. Information on how to actually get out of Yugoslavia and into Italy was lacking at the time and international long distance calls were routinely monitored, so it was risky to receive information by phone. Mail was also sadly lacking in privacy. All they knew was that they had a good chance of escaping through Yugoslavia; the exact method was a complete mystery.

Mike and Val reached Yugoslavia late in the spring of 1983 and set up residence in a pension near the beach. After a day of getting their bearings and checking on the border situation, they decided to try a simple ploy: at midday, clad in their swimwear and carrying absolutely nothing, they would take a casual stroll down the beach and across the border. The key to this plan was to remain unnoticed; to fade into the background of other strollers and sunbathers. Unfortunately, a sharp eyed Italian border guard decided the Zajiceks were more than casual strollers and blocked their path to freedom. He ordered them to return to Yugoslavia and, seeing that he was heavily armed, they walked back to their pension frustrated and disappointed, but not beaten. They brainstormed overnight and decided on quite an unusual method for their next try.

They sailed out over a mile from the beach in light, steady breezes and sailed parallel to the beach, toward the border, hoping to pass unnoticed. But their escape would have to wait for another day, for on this day a nosy Yugoslav Coast Guard boat blocked their way and forced them to turn back. They sailed back to the Yugoslav shore and spent yet another evening brainstorming in the room at the pension.

Mike and Val were twice frustrated, but they had one card left up their sleeve. When their father had been expelled from military pilots’ school for speaking out against the government, another among those expelled was his close friend whose punishment was to work in the uranium mines. Fortunately, he had escaped to Switzerland rather than go to the mines. He had, in the ensuing years died, but his sons lived there still. The sons were Mike’s secret card.

Mike called them from the pension. Mike and Val didn’t worry too much about a call from Yugoslavia to Switzerland in Czech being overheard successfully.

The two young men agreed to help and immediately made the half day drive to Yugoslavia to meet Mike and Val.

When the two exiles arrived, there was another feverish planning session at the pension. The new arrivals said that they had heard of a town on the Italian-Yugoslav border where people had escaped by climbing over the low wall in the center of town. Mike and Val decided to try this method. The four of them agreed upon a rendezvous point about a mile into Italy where they would regroup if Mike and Val were able to get over the wall undetected. The two friends loaded the Zajicek’s gear and clothes onto their car and drove across the border to the rendezvous point. Mike and Val drove their car to the town with the wall, parked and abandoned it. The Zajiceks were successful at climbing the wall unnoticed and the reunion took place as planned. The two Swiss drove Mike and Val to a refugee camp in Austria and then left for home. Mike and Val were each left with some clothes and about $100; their friends took the windsurfing gear on to Switzerland, where it may still be languishing in a garage.

Austria was only a necessary way station for Mike and Val, who wanted to settle in the United States. But one person was still missing from the group: Teresa, Mike’s girlfriend. Mike knew that Teresa, 18, would soon be in Greece touring the ruins with a group of art students. Mike phoned a mutual friend in Prague to give Teresa a phone number where he could be reached in Austria.

Teresa took that number with her to Greece. One evening she slipped away from her group at the hotel and persuaded the hotel desk clerk to return her passport which had been collected and placed in the safe by the tour leader to prevent defections. Teresa called Mike, who wired her enough money for a plane ticket. Money he had earned during the two months he had been in Austria. Teresa had a ticket and a passport, but no visa so she was prevented by the airline from boarding the plane for Austria. She asked for an interview with the pilot and appealed to him; he insisted she be allowed to board the plane with him and fly to freedom.

Mike and Teresa married in the refugee camp in Austria, and within a month Mike, Val, and Teresa were on a flight bound for San Francisco, having found sponsors to arrange for housing and jobs. Mike resumed building boards as soon as he could, and was working about half time at board building within a few years. In 1987 he made Mike’s Lab a full time job, and soon thereafter a majority of San Francisco Bay racers and many recreational sailors were sailing Mike’s Lab boards. Along with the growth of his business came the start of his family. Mike and Teresa have a son Alex, born in March 1993, and a daughter, Stephanie, born in August, 1995.

Mike continues building boards, though not to escape on. But if he did need to escape, it’s unlikely anyone could catch him (at least not anyone on a sailboard) because he’s also winning races on the boards he builds. A 1993 U.S. Open champion, two time winner of the Cal Cup, and winner of the Bay Challenge, Mike and Mike’s Lab Sailboards have become a force to be reckoned with in the world of racing and high performance race and recreational board building. All of this only a few years after his flight to freedom.

by Bob Huberman

"Berkeley Bob" has been sailing and feeling free for ten years. He has accumulated many frequent sailor miles, primarily on San Francisco Bay, Bahia Las Palmas in Los Barriles, Baja California, and at the Gorge. He is sponsored by BIC Sport USA.