Some of the best windsurfing in the world is just a 4-1/2 hour drive from Spokane.
Local devotees of this high-tech, high-adrenalin sport make the trek to the Columbia River Gorge as often as they can.
“It’s world-class sailing,” said Spokane dentist Mike Trantow, explaining why he cruises to the Gorge at least twice a month and was nursing a broken rib a few weeks ago.
“I was doing kind of an off-the-lip maneuver on a big wave, my board spun out, I fell 10 vertical feet and, crunch!”
Windsurfing has its risks. Sailors on the Columbia River compete with giant barges that can’t see the brightly colored windsurf rigs and couldn’t stop if they did. Natural hazards include winds that often scream up to 30 mph and more, giant swells formed by the wind blowing against the river’s current, strong currents, cold water, and floating debris.
But the conditions also make for great windsurfing. With feet slipped into straps on their boards and hands gripping the booms of their sails, windsurfers can zip across the river, turn among the swells, and fly into the air amid clouds of spray.
The wind in the Gorge is strong and consistent, because of the difference in atmospheric pressure between the hot, arid land east of the Cascades and the cool, moist Oregon and Washington coasts. The wind howls along from west to east through the long, deep gorge that connects the two.
And for those who aren’t ready to fly off the highest swells, the Gorge has some spots, like The Dalles, Ore., and Home Valley, Wash., where winds are lighter, water is smoother and conditions are less intimidating for those who are still learning.
The Gorge also has a huge concentration of windsurfing shops, guides, schools, equipment renters, repair centers and related businesses to help get sailors on the water.
Karen Stafford, 40, a preschool teacher from Coeur d’Alene, took a beginner lesson at the Rhonda Smith Windsurfing Center in Hood River in June. “It felt like a real safe situation,” she said. “I went out and it all clicked.”
“There are lessons offered and plenty of equipment,” said Tom Nephew, 47, a Spokane insurance and securities salesman. “There are great deals on stuff if you look around.”
Nephew generally sticks to the more desolate eastern end of the Gorge to avoid crowds. “I don’t like to have a lot of people clogging up the works,” he said.
Trantow, 41, estimates there are about 100 windsurfing devotees from Spokane who visit the Gorge each summer. Other sailors come from North Idaho and other parts of the Inland Northwest.
Cliff Montee, a computer systems manager from Coeur d’Alene, makes frequent trips to the Gorge. When he can’t go, he sometimes mounts his sail on a skateboard and practices windsurfing moves on the basketball court at Coeur d’Alene’s City Park.
Many Inland Northwest sailors sail at Roosevelt, Wash., a grassy park at the east end of the Gorge that features a wide stretch of river and big swells on the far side. It’s another hour’s drive on in to Hood River, the center of the sailing scene.
Windsurfing sites dot the river from Roosevelt west. Some are rugged, rocky launches. Others, like Maryhill Park on the Washington side, are developed parks with campsites, hot showers, swimming areas, grass and trees.
When the wind is blowing hard, the entire 80-mile Gorge will have wind. When it’s lighter, the wind may be confined to a mile-long stretch at busy Hood River.
And occasionally, particularly in early spring or late fall, the weather conditions reverse, and the wind blows from the east. Then the best sailing sites are farther to the west, at Home Valley and Stevenson, Wash., and Rooster Rock, Ore.
That happens when rainy Portland gets warm and sunny, and colder weather prevails inland.
Windsurfing can be a frustrating sport, Trantow said, “because you live and die by the weather.”
“Myself and a lot of my friends have weather computers in our basements,” he said.
He subscribes to a computerized weather service that gives him the latest conditions, forecasts, and barometic pressures in the Gorge and the surrounding area.
Trantow also watches the Weather Channel on television and keeps an eye on local conditions. “The windsurfers really do live for the days where they’re predicting southwest winds 10-20 mph and windy in the Tri-Cities. We get our gear packed and roll to Roosevelt.”
The sport takes tons of gear. High-wind sailors need an entire quiver of sails, so they can pick the perfect sail size for the wind speed. Most also have several boards, with the smaller boards for maneuverability in higher winds and larger boards for flotation in lighter air.
Then there are all the pieces to put the rig together, the wetsuits, the camping gear, and the food to keep fueled during grueling, exhilarating sailing sessions.
Trantow has made that loading-up process easier. He added on to his house to allow him to keep his extra-long van fully loaded and ready to go, parked inside.
Windsurfers also sail at various local spots, when conditions allow, including Sprague Lake, Liberty Lake, and Pend Oreille. But the wind seldom blows like it does in the Gorge.
Said Trantow, “When it looks like the conditions are right and I have a day off, I go for it.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Good places to watch: The Hatchery, a fish hatchery located just west of Hood River on the Washington shore. Parking is scarce (and costs $3), but the up-close viewing of high-flying sailors on some of the Gorge’s biggest swells is breathtaking. Hood River Event Center, in Hood River just west of the Hood River Marina. The event center was designed for windsurfing, with plentiful parking, a grassy, sloping beach, and great viewing. Celilo Park, on the Oregon side midway between Biggs, Ore. and The Dalles, is a freeway rest area with tall, shady trees and lots of grass stretching down to the riverbank. Stop off if you’re passing through, find a spot in the shade and watch the sailors charging across the river. Learning/renting equipment: Rhonda Smith Windsurfing Center is located on the water at the Hood River Marina, with daily lessons for beginners to experts. Equipment provided or bring your own. Special kids’ programs and women’s clinics. (503) 386-WIND. Other windsurfing shops include: Big Winds, (503) 386-6086; Front Street Sailboards, (503) 386-4044; and Hood River Windsurfing, (503) 386-5787. Where to stay: There are tons of bed-and-breakfast inns, motels, campgrounds and the like in the Gorge. Here are a few: Hood River Hotel, a restored downtown hotel on Hood River’s main drag, features riverview rooms and an Italian restaurant with sidewalk seating. (503) 386-1900. Tucker Park, 5 miles south of Hood River on Highway 281, tent and RV campsites, showers, woodsy. (503) 386-4477. Columbia Windrider Inn, The Dalles, hot tub, swimming pool, equipment rentals and storage, daily and weekly rates. (503) 296-2607. Inn at the Gorge B&B; in Hood River, private baths, kids welcome, daily wind analysis. (503) 386-4429. Where to eat Bette’s Place, 416 Oak St. in Hood River, is popular with windsurfers for hearty breakfasts and a wide variety of fresh muffins. (503) 386-1880. Whitecap Brewpub at the Full Sail microbrewery, 606 Columbia in Hood River, has a riverview deck. Some light food in addition to Full Sail Ale tasting and tours. (503) 386-2281. Ole’s Supper Club, 2620 W. Second St. in The Dalles, offers gourmet food and an outstanding wine list in an unlikely location by the railroad tracks. Reservations recommended; (503) 296-6708. Big City Chicks, 1302 13th St., Hood River, is a new dinner restaurant catering to sailors, with “healthy foods of the world” and a full bar. (503) 387-3811. Shopping Airtime, 110 Oak St., Hood River, features custom-designed ski and snowboard clothing and activewear. This is Airtime’s factory store, and they’ll make you up a custom outfit in your choice of colors and fabrics. Kerrits, 316 Oak St., Hood River. Owner Kerri Kent started designing women’s swimsuits that would work for active sports like windsurfing and turned it into a line now sold around the world. The store offers Kerrits’ full line of swimsuits and activewear, plus closeouts, discontinued styles, etc. Windance, 108 Highway 35, Hood River, has a huge selection of new and used windsurfing equipment, plus an espresso bar and toddler play area. It’s one of an array of stores in the area selling every type of windsurfing equipment imaginable, much of it made in the Gorge. Visitor information: Call the Hood River County Visitor Center, (503) 386-2000.
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