What Women Really Want

We suspect that there is one guy that really knows the answer to this question.

LARRY RUSSO is a legend among San Francisco windsurfers. His maroon Saab is well-known at Crissy Field as the gathering place for a unique school of windsurfing where the lessons are free and the students are exclusively female. (In fact, the car is such a fixture that according to rumor, it was included in the blueprints for Crissy’s recent renovation).  Over more than ten years, Larry has introduced hundreds of women to windsurfing, and on any summer afternoon you are sure to find a few former students stopping by to say hello, sometimes from places as far away as the East Coast and even the United Kingdom.

How has one man succeeded in bringing so many women into the sport of windsurfing, where so many boyfriends and husbands have failed?  The answer is not location. Crissy is no Aruba – the water is chilly and the tides can make it a tricky spot for experienced windsurfers, let alone beginners.  Larry’s loyal following has much more to do with his approach to teaching.  While it is impossible to speak for all women, Larry’s success does offer lessons about what at least some women want in their introduction to the sport of windsurfing. In no particular order, here are some of the winning characteristics of learning from Larry:

Low Up-Front InvestmenT: At risk of making a gross generalization, I will venture to say that men spend their money on “toys” more freely than women do. How many women drop thousands of dollars on motorcycles or stereo equipment? We direct our resources toward important things like retirement savings, charitable contributions, and infomercial shopping. As a result, we are reluctant to invest large amounts of money in lessons and equipment to try out a new sport.  Larry solves this problem: not only is his instruction free, but he also provides the equipment, which is carefully selected to be lightweight. Just to make things interesting, he only teaches with short boards. In his quest for the perfect instructional equipment, Larry even traded his previous car (a black Saab) for a Bic Techno board, ideal for teaching the use of footstraps.  When students are ready to accumulate their own gear, he combs swap meets with a special eye for color coordination (under the theory that even if you’re a beginner, you may as well look good).

In addition to equipment, Larry’s car is always well-stocked with drinks, snacks, sunscreen, dry towels, warm jackets, and socks.  Yes, socks.  Larry’s students are probably among the only windsurfers in the world who wear socks underneath their booties.  Hey, don’t knock it until you try it.


Safety: A favorite conversational topic of one of my male friends is his most recent “NDE”—near-death experience. The general formula is, “My buddy and I set out on this (sheer face climb, cornice jump, etc.) and everything was great until (we got separated, storm set in, lost our way, equipment failed, wolves came after us, etc.).  My buddy had the only (tent, food, map, matches, etc.).  He searched for me desperately but because of the (thick fog, night falling, blinding snow) finally gave me up for dead and, broken-hearted, crawled into his tent to figure out how to break the news to my parents in the morning etc., etc., until I miraculously showed up, saved by (luck, intuition, innate survival instincts, pure testosterone, etc.).”  Leaving aside the fact that most women wouldn’t have been in this situation in the first place (they would have asked for directions), they probably wouldn’t recall it with such glee afterward.  Sure, we like an adrenaline rush, but we tend to be a little less excited about putting our lives at risk in the name of fun. Despite teaching at a challenging and potentially dangerous spot, Larry is very safety-conscious. At the beginning, he teaches his students a triangle pattern: beach-start and head out, self-rescue by clearing the sail and swimming the board back to shore, then walk up the beach and start again.  No uphauling or tacking (both of which are impractical for beginners on a short board, anyway).  The triangle method has a number of virtues (not the least of which is creating a very strong motivation to learn to waterstart on the way back!).  It teaches good sail handling and gives students a sense of how far out they can sail and safely get back to shore if the wind dies or equipment breaks.  When students have mastered self-rescue and are ready to learn to uphaul, Larry offers plenty of warnings and insists on the use of a helmet.


Individual Attention: A problem with many beginner windsurfing lessons is that the instructor’s attention is spread too thin.  Despite total mastery of the dry-land simulator, students scatter as soon as they hit the water, and the instructor is often called to rescue the one who has drifted the most hopelessly downwind, leaving the rest of the class to fend for themselves.  This is not the case with Larry.  Larry teaches one student at a time, calling out instructions from the shore or even swimming out to give pointers on waterstarts.  It’s pretty hard to develop bad habits with Larry around.  He has a precise set of instructions for rigging, clearing the sail, beachstarting, and waterstarting, and has an eagle eye for any skipped steps.

Love of Teaching: Let’s face it, not everyone is cut out for teaching.  A certain number of the previously mentioned husbands and boyfriends would like their mates to learn to windsurf, yet when asked to stay near the beach to offer pointers on a windy day, they show signs of deep suffering, look wistfully at the horizon and mutter things like “nuclear” and “epic” under their breath. (A friend of mine calls this “wind panic.”  Scientists believe that the condition is related to “refrigerator blindness” and “remote control obsessive disorder.”)  Larry, on the other hand, makes his students feel that there is nothing he would rather be doing than teaching them.  He offers plenty of compliments, and if one of us is absent for too long, calls us to say, “I miss you sweetie.  When you are coming to windsurf?”

Camaraderie: I personally got hooked on windsurfing while on a girls’ trip to Margarita Island that involved plenty of fruity cocktails, board games and deeply insightful (at least after fruity cocktails) analysis of ex-boyfriends’ behavior. One of the beauties of learning from Larry is the opportunity to meet lots of other women who windsurf, who are always positive and encouraging and who, being from Venus rather than Mars, know to empathize rather than trying to solve the other person’s problem.  Of course, where women gather, men follow, and that’s cool too.

As a result of all of these fine qualities, Larry’s school of windsurfing continues to grow and thrive.  Larry has a steady stream of new students via word of mouth, and he has even branched out a bit into kiteboarding, keeping an eye on a few former windsurfing students who are learning the new sport.  The tradition is likely to continue for years to come: many former students stop by with tots in tow, who will no doubt be the next generation of students at Larry’s very special windsurfing academy.

Melissa Graebner received her PhD in Management Science this June from Stanford University. She is spending the summer windsurfing and traveling before returning to the working world.  Her favorite snack from Larry’s car is Oreos. 

by Melissa Graebner

Melissa Graebner received her PhD in Management Science this June from Stanford University. She is spending the summer windsurfing and traveling before returning to the working world. Her favorite snack from Larry’s car is Oreos.

photos by John Chao

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