Editor’s Note: Issue 3.3

How can we find our way back to the starting line?

american_windsurfer_john-chaoTODAY, early in the summer of 1995, I sit on a made-for-windsurfer sailboat off the shores of Virgin Gorda, watching competitors sit on the beach and wait for wind. I can’t help but wonder, how can competitive racing survive with today’s high wind demands? The attrition of events around the world fuels my concerns and seems to reflect upon the sometimes backward consequences of our human technical developments.

When a sport evolves to a level where it loses it’s competitive edge because the opportunities for competition have diminished due to the need for more wind or more complex equipment- running a windsurfing regatta is like playing Russian roulette with a gun loaded with five shells and one blank; the likelihood of skunking your brain apart is quite high.

Windsurfing competition was quite different fifteen years ago when I stumbled onto this sport. In 1980, on a six-month photographic assignment in Taiwan for National Geographic Magazine, I made friends with a group of Chinese Laser sailors. One of them happened to chair the Chinese Olympic Yachting Committee, a man I affectionately call the Ted Turner of Taiwan. Years later, during a visit, he suggested, “Why don’t you represent Taiwan in the first Windglider event!” (Windglider was a brand of windsurfer chosen for the 1984 Los Angeles games.)

Having never tried windsurfing, but figuring, “If I know how to sail a sailboat, I can sail a windsurfer,” I said “Sure!” It was, after all, a great opportunity to masquerade as a windsurfer and photograph the Olympics from a competitor’s point of view. To make a long story short, by the time the Pre-Olympics came around in August of 1983, I found myself in L.A. having only 4 months of windsurfing under my belt. Needless to say, I wasn’t anywhere near Olympic caliber, in fact, I could hardly make my way to the starting line.

Each day, the thermal wind would kick up to 20 knots, and with no harness, a 6.5-meter sail and a 13-foot long board, I would quickly retire, spectate in lonely dejection, then struggle back to the beach.

To my horror, camera crews from the TV stations would come running up and request interviews. I explained meekly that I was just a beginner, but they didn’t care. All they needed was a talking head for the news, and with their evening deadline, they could not wait for the fleet to finish.

As my reputation filled the air, it became increasingly difficult for me to face the wind every day and swallow the humiliation of knowing; I was in way over my head and not worthy to be with these well-tuned international competitors.

Painful as it may have been, throughout this blatant display of ineptitude, there was a majestic force that turned my week in hell into a week that was knocking on pearly gates. This force was the sprinkling of sportsmanship gracing my Olympic path and etching me forever with the ultimate value of competition.

Bruce Kendall, from New Zealand, tried to give me pointers about closing the gap. ‘Course I had no idea what he was talking about, and only later did I discover the increase in speed when the bottom of the sail is trimmed close to the deck of the board.

Mike Gebhardt, the alternate U.S. competitor at the ’84 Olympics, was filled with the Olympic spirit and totally stoked to meet somebody representing Taiwan. Stephan van den Berg, from Holland, would stop and visit on the water and then invite me to sail with him.

I found it rather profound that these three young racers who enhanced my experience went on to win three Gold, two Silver, and two Bronze medals subsequently in three Olympic games.

On the last race, the winds dropped and I managed to complete the grueling course within the required time to officially register in last place. When I crossed the finish line, the committee boat sent up a cheer and fired a cannon. As embarrassing as it may have been, it was for me a celebrated moment of triumph.

Times have changed, what got me into competition a decade ago might never happen today. When I look at the sailors sitting on the beach, I do wonder: How can we find our way back to the starting line?

by John Chao

Publisher / Editor is a former photojournalist for GEO, National Geographic and Time-Life Magazines.