Need for Speed

Meg Mackenzie is the fastest woman speed sailor in the United States- clocked at 43 M.P.H. at the 1992 Jantzen Speed Series in Klickitat, Washington. In a sport where willingness to endure physical abuse is a prerequisite, Mackenzie dominates…but why?

Why would a young woman want to strap 20 pounds of weight on her shoulders so she can stabilize her board and hold down a bigger sail during a race? Why would the holder of a Masters’ Degree in physical education want to scream along at more than 40 M.P.H. on an eight foot board with only a helmet and a four-millimeter thick wetsuit to protect her from inevitable wipe-outs?

“There are many times when I think to myself: this isn’t very fun right now. I scream that same thought into the wind every time I’m overpowered, out of control and heading for a major wipeout,” admits Mackenzie. There are two kinds of crashes. The “best” is when she flies clear of her equipment, and the “worst” is when she slams onto the booms with her stomach. “But it’s not really as much about danger as it is working with my gear, the water, and the wind,” she says.

She should know. Meg Mackenzie has been a competitive athlete all her life. An accomplished equestrian and ski racer, Mackenzie has always sought out sports where control of the elements and mastery of equipment is essential. A native Californian, Mackenzie lived at the Lake Tahoe Ski Etude during her high school years in an effort to pursue ski racing as a career. Ultimately, her decision to attend college caused her to give up skiing, but not after one of her ski coaches took her out to a lake and introduced her to a new sport.

Windsurfing. “Oh god…” Mackenzie recalls, “it was a chore. In 1979, windsurfing equipment was crude at best. I remember standing on a board in the middle of a freezing lake, trying to uphaul the sail. Every time I pulled, the universal would pop out and whack me in the shin.” She loved it.

“It’s a totally individual sport,” says Mackenzie. “You can practice by yourself, learn by yourself, and accomplish your goals on your own. It’s also a comfortable sport from the standpoint that while you’re doing it you can make small adjustments that improve your sailing. If you’re sensitive to your equipment, you can really excel. In addition, there’s a freedom to windsurfing that I haven’t found in any other sport.”

Several days after the first trial-and-error session, Mackenzie went out and bought a windsurfer. “No how-to books on the sport existed then, so I’d just hang around the beach and watch racers to learn how to sail” she recalls. “It wasn’t too difficult, because there wasn’t as much to learn about equipment as there is today. In fact, the equipment was so basic you didn’t have to tune it. Booms didn’t have adjustments, and sails didn’t have cambers. The biggest concern I had was to buy sails with colors in them- that was considered really cool.” As high school drew to a close, Meg returned to her parents home in Southern California and began sailing at Hurricane Gulch in San Pedro, a well-known flat-water sailing area.

The area may have been well known, but speed sailing had a long way to go before it evolved into the highly technical sport it is today. In ’79, speed sailors were still using huge high-volume boards. On windy days, it was almost impossible to sail because the boards would wallow around and fly off the water. “There was this guy who made his own version of a short board in order to find a way to sail in high winds. He called his board ‘the wedge’ and it looked like a doorstop. It didn’t work, but he had the right idea,” remembers Mackenzie. She kept sailing her big board until the “wedge,” or the shortboard could be perfected.

Time for college. Meg attended California State University in Northridge. While she missed sailing, she was convinced that an education should be her number one priority. Mackenzie graduated in 1986 with a BA in Radio, Television, and Film. Then she headed back to the water.

“The summer after I graduated from college, a sport shop in southern California had a demo day, and I was sailing in the same area,” Meg recalls. “I went out with antiquated equipment, and when the wind came up I came in and packed up my gear. In those days, when there were no small boards or sails, everyone just packed it in when the wind got too strong. One of the guys from the sports shop came over to ask where I was going. I told him it was too windy, and he told me to use a smaller sail. A smaller sail? It was a whole new concept for me. In the early eighties we didn’t have sets of sails that would allow us to adapt to virtually any condition. We had one regular sail and one storm sail for high-wind days. A smaller sail?”

Mackenzie not only got to try a smaller sail and board that day, but she bought new equipment and began to train for speed competitions. Her first speed event was in 1987 at Lake Lopez, near San Luis Obispo. “There was a giant metal trap that floated, but had a submerged frame. It was 25 feet long, and you were speed timed with a radar gun pointed at you from a boat at the end of the course. Back then we all thought we had to sail straight at the radar gun in order to achieve the fastest times. Today I know the fastest course is one that follows the gusts, but in the old days, I fought along with everyone else, to keep the board riding straight.” Mackenzie hit 25 m.p.h. and won the event. She was hooked.

As the eighties drew to a close, Meg became truly serious about speed sailing, and she headed for the town of Hood River, Oregon, and the Columbia River Gorge. “I was so excited. There’s a mystique to the Gorge. Even though I’d been sailing the coast for years, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sail in the Gorge,” recalls Mackenzie. After placing fourth in a speed event against seasoned Gorge competitors, Mackenzie not only knew that she was good enough to sail the Gorge, but within striking distance of the best women speed sailors in the country.

“But it’s not just about being fast. In order to be a truly competitive speed sailor, you need sponsorship from board and sail companies,” admits Mackenzie. At the higher level of competition, speed sailors generally need up to five speed sailing boards, seven fins, six sails, six masts, six booms, eight extensions, three wetsuits, and two harnesses. All told, that’s easily more than $20,000 worth of gear. “You can’t take the decision to become a national-level speed sailor lightly,” she says. “It would be insane to just dabble in the sport. And it would be impossible to become truly competitive in speed sailing without help from sponsors.”

When Meg Mackenzie first arrived in the Gorge, nobody wanted to sponsor her. “I don’t blame them,” she explains, “I was new to speed sailing and there weren’t a lot of speed events or coverage for speed sailing in the late ’80’s, and there was even less for women sailors.” Then she met Bob Camp, a team rider for Seatrend Boards. “Bob told me to talk to Randy French, the designer and shaper for Seatrend. After discussing the type of boards I needed, Randy agreed to shape a few speed boards for me. I tried them out, loved them, bought them, and eventually became a team rider for Seatrend.

Sponsorship was on its way for Mackenzie. By 1993 she was sponsored by Rushwind Sails, Seatrend Boards, DaKine Hawaii, Finworks Fins, Dynafiber Masts, O’Neill Wetsuits, Sailboard Warehouse, Primex, and Windsight. “I take my sponsorship very seriously, there is a definite responsibility that accompanies taking equipment – my sponsors give me an awful lot of gear, and all they ask in return is that I represent their companies, have fun, and do well.”

She does well. Very well. Mackenzie attributes much of her speed sailing success to her sensitivity toward her equipment. “I only change one thing at a time,” she explains, “if I don’t feel completely comfortable during a race, I might just change my mast placement or put in a different fin. I might change my outhaul by half an inch…it gets pretty tricky, but if you are extremely organized and listen to your equipment, as well as the wind and the water, you have a good chance of figuring out your problems and ultimately increasing your speed.”

But it’s not all in the equipment. Meg is a focused and determined speed sailor. “I try to keep the competition within myself, not with the others,” she says. “It’s not about what someone else accomplishes, it is about what I accomplish and how I feel about myself.” Right now she should be feeling pretty good. In fact, last July she was invited to compete in her first international events- the PBA Grand Prix Speed Event in Tarifa, Spain and the PBA sponsored speed event in Fuerteventura, Canary Islands. Among the competitors were the top speed sailors of the world. Her results? Meg placed fifth in both events and is now ranked sixth in the world.

She’s not content. Meg Mackenzie wants to go faster. Two miles an hour faster to be exact. “That would bring me to 40 knots (46 m.p.h.), ” she explains. “That’s really the mark that women speed sailors are shooting for, and I want that record.”

by Nancy Richardson

Nancy Richardson was a writer for the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. When the circus left town she became a children’s fiction book writer for LucasFilm.