PARIS—'Lights...camera...action...start the wind!"
There was a time when people laughed at the very idea of indoor bicycle racing, ice shows, roller derby, motocross and truck pulls. The fact that all these ventures have enjoyed at least some success undoubtedly was inspiration to the folks who staged the second annual World Indoor Windsurfing Championships in March at the Bercy Omnisport Arena in the heart of Paris. Wait, I'll repeat that: windsurfing, indoors, with industrial-strength March winds, on man-made waves.
Through the miracle of machines—specifically, a battery of 26 aircraft-sized wind machines arrayed along a sideline in the Bercy arena—spectators were treated to 36 of the best male and female outdoor competitors, including five-time men's world champion Robby Naish of Kailua, Oahu, and leading money-winner Bjorn Dunkerbeck of Spain, boardsailing across two million liters of Pacific-green-tinted water. While organizers, competitors and fans disavow indoor windsurfing as a real sport, the event is, at least technically, the world indoor championship. It's also the only indoor championship.
Hailed in the French press as the brainstorm of Fred Beauch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢ne, indoor boardsailing, complete with slalom and jump competitions, is more a tempest in a teapot, likened by one dispirited competitor to "sailing into a 747 backwash." Beauch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢ne, a 36-year-old Frenchman who crossed the Atlantic on a tandem wind-board in 1985, says the idea to move the ocean indoors occurred to him three years ago. "I didn't know if it would work or not," he says. After six months of consultation, "the idea seemed less crazy."
Last year's inaugural event was successful enough to encourage a grander display in 1991. Shouting to be heard over the whir of machinery, Beauch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢ne admitted there were still some technical difficulties: most notably, wind machines louder than a heavy-metal concert in overdrive.
They have to be. To propel racers across a temporarily installed, 80-by 35-meter pool at speeds approximating outdoor conditions, the bank of machines must generate a 25-knot wind. "A constant force 6 wind," said Beauch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢ne. Imagine Dorothy's cyclone striking inside—not outside—her Kansas farmhouse. Imagine Toto spinning around in the bathtub when it hits. Creating a non-stop force 6 in an enclosed arena hour after hour has a similar effect.
Consequently the conditions for sailing were less than perfect. An indoor cyclone has more dunks and spins than an NBA team and tends to drop sailors into holes and eddies at crucial slalom corners. For the wave-jumping competition, sailors dropped from a sloped racing gate and crossed the pool while aiming for a ramp that was intended to catapult boards into looping maneuvers. More often than not, the competitors ended up taking spectator-pleasing spills.
The irrepressible Beauch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢ne was confident, nonetheless, preferring to classify his event as "a sports spectacle. It's got the look, color and sound, no? Aesthetically, it functions perfectly for television."
Which suits organizers and sponsors just fine. Ocean currents, which are essential to the sport outdoors, keep TV cameras at a distance, thereby limiting spectator appeal. With close-up footage available for the first time, Beauch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢ne said, his competition last year became the biggest windsurfing TV event in the world. This year there were nine television cameras on platforms, both on the sidelines and overhead. One sailor even had a microcam mounted on his board.
Sanctioned by the Professional Board-sailors Association (PBA), which runs a circuit of 28 outdoor events around the world, the Paris indoor championships offered $180,000 in prize money. "What we have is an outdoor sport committed to going inside," said PBA president Christian Herles. With 60% of the cost underwritten by corporate sponsors, including equipment makers, food companies, travel packagers and French radio and television, the three-day event had brand names plastered on land, on sea and in the air—from sails to splashboards, from the jump ramp (sponsored by Yop, a French yogurt) to the Ha‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ügen-Dazs desert island that descended from the scoreboard. Ten thousand fans each day paid $36 apiece to see this high-velocity 3½ hour spectacle that commentators dubbed the Liquid Jungle.
The program included a laser light show, cascading fireworks, fluorescent wet suits, smoke, dancing waters, deafening music and a few uniquely French touches, such as interviews shown on arena screens, conducted by a fully clothed reporter bobbing midwaist in water.
Occasionally, spectators behind and above the electric fans on the arena's leeward side saw an exciting race or a back-flip performed by sailors dressed in Candyland-bright wet suits. An endless, blaring Beach Boys' rendition of Dance Dance Dance was meant to evoke tropical imagery. Watching from the windward side was another story. After an hour of brisk wind across the water, a mist condensed above the pool's surface and began sweeping over the seats, giving one the sensation of sticking through a late-inning rally at Candlestick Park. "This isn't a sport," said one 14-year-old, shivering on an upper bleacher. "But it is loud and very different, so I guess it's amusing."
"This isn't what windsurfing is about," said competitor Angela Cochran of Makawao, Maui, the third-ranked woman in the world. Comparing indoor windsurfing to "sailing under a helicopter," Cochran said, "I feel like I'm in the circus, like a clown. We should all be wearing sequins and tutus."
Herles hopes to have a Wind and Waves tour put together by December. The tentative plan is to breeze into Barcelona, Milan, Paris and Tokyo before landing in New York's Madison Square Garden by June 1992. Cochran is willing to test the U.S. waters, but she's not sure the indoor version of the sport will attract big audiences. "Windsurfing has already been in two Olympics and hasn't caught on big-time in America," she says. "This tour will either make the sport or kill it, because there will be these people going around on a little pool in gigantic arenas, and crowds wondering, 'Where does this come from?' "
Equally skeptical is Naish, who said, "I don't think it'll take off in America. We've too many other things, and it's not blood and guts, like most American sports. The idea's good, but the technical side has so far to go. Performance inside doesn't demonstrate the sport." Machines, Naish went on, "favor little guys because they're the only ones who can get any speed planing or height on the jumps."
Naish finished second in the men's overall competition in Paris. The winner, for the second year in a row, was Erik Thieme of France. Jason Polakow, a tour newcomer from Australia, won the jumping. Britt Dunkerbeck, sister of Bjorn, was the women's overall champion, with another Australian, Jessica Crisp, winning the jumping.
Beauch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢ne is already thinking up ways to improve his concept. At the top of the list is a more powerful turbine booster, located outside an arena, to replace the thunderous machines.
The major difficulty, said Beauch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢ne, "is that windsurfing isn't that big in the U.S. America invents these sports, like freestyle skiing and snowboarding, and then the Europeans take off with them. We're not certain whether the U.S. is ready for this on a big scale."
That doesn't seem to bother some folks. "The event was picked up by about 1,000 TV stations in more than 100 countries" said Cliff Webb, a PBA organizer, as he watched the audience perform its own wave around the Bercy arena. "You know any other niche sport that can make that claim?"
No, but perhaps he ought to look up the word niche before using it in France to describe his sport. According to the Larousse French dictionary, niche also translates as either "prank" or "joke."
Free-lance writer Peter Mikelbank lives in Paris. This is his first story for SI.