Chipping in gets kids into the wind


News staff writer

June 10, 2006

Each spring more than a hundred Hood River Middle School students sign up for a class called Wind Sports. Due to limited resources, a lucky group of 45 get into the class, which is designed to teach youngsters the basics of windsurfing and kiteboarding.

After working on swimming skills and water fitness at the Hood River Aquatic Center, and practicing with simulators and trainer kites on land, the nine-week lesson climaxes for the kids with three all-day trips to the Hook.

Everyone in the class gets to windsurf inside the Hook. And about 20 of students who show interest and maturity have the opportunity try kiteboarding in the open river as well.

“We’re just interested in getting the kids interested and excited about the wind and the water and living here in the Gorge,” said instructors Joe Dolan and Eric Cohn. “Windsurfing or kiteboarding … it doesn’t matter. We just want to get kids out on the water having fun and challenging themselves.”

With volunteer instructors from local windsurfing and kiteboarding schools and the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office, and gear provided by a group devoted local businesses, students take part in what many consider the best class they’ve ever had. And this year’s class got lucky. Their three days on the water were this week, and they were graced with blue skies and the best wind of the spring.

“This is so much fun,” said student Hunter Knoll on Wednesday, decked in a wetsuit and waiting patiently for his turn to body-drag with an instructor. “This is way better than being in school all day. It’s so much fun to learn a new sport.”

“The best part of the class is definitely being out on the river,” Grant Young said as he rested with Knoll. “It’s pretty sweet really; most school classes aren’t nearly as fun. But you have to be careful and make sure you’re safe. You can’t do anything stupid out there or you’ll end up skipping across the water.”

As the two take a breather on the shore, volunteer instructors and HRMS teacher Joe Dolan a rebusy helping kids windsurf in the Hook, where Big Winds has 25 up to date windsurfing boards and sails available for the kids. Most kids learn to stay up-wind within the first hour on the water. By the end of the first day they are, for the most part, sailing upwind at will. Many students also learn to beach start, tack and jibe.

“It’s great to hear kids asking for help with genuine excitement and enthusiasm, as they work to master new skills,” Dolan commented.

Meanwhile, Cohn and Jim and Cori Bison of New Wind Kiteboarding School work with the kids who want to try kiteboarding. New Wind provided professional instructors and jetskis and the land crew was organized by local Slingshot rider Laura Maher.

A handful of kids in the class hop off of their sailboards in the Hook, cross the road, and try body-dragging from the Hook downwind toward the Event Site. Jet-skis on the river, manned by more volunteers, follow for safety, helping re-launch kites when they crash and giving draggers a ride back to the Hook.

“I’m going to try it with a board next,” Knoll said. “I think snowboarding will help me because I’ll know where the board is and how to stand up on it. I’m a little nervous because you really have to know what’s going on with the wind and the kite or you can pay the consequences.”

Later that afternoon Knoll went back out. With Jim Bison coaching by his side on a Jet-Ski and Cohn helping from the water, Knoll slipped a board on his feet, pumped the kite a few times and took his first solo ride on a kiteboard.

Bison and Cohn shouted with encouragement, seeming more excited than Knoll, who stayed focused on keeping his kite in the air as he sunk back into the water. On his third time up, Knoll discovered one of the first lessons a rookie kiter learns: Getting up on a board is one thing and figuring out what to do once you’re on your feet and gaining speed is another.

A decent face plant slowed the eighth-grader down in fine form.

For students who pick up kiteboarding fast and take an interest in continuing in the field, New Wind Kiteboarding takes on interns for the summer. The interns are provided an opportunity to increase their kiting skills and work in the industry.

Providing local kids lessons on how to windsurf and kiteboard, for school credit, is a perk of living in the Gorge. And the class would not have been possible eight years ago, or this week, without considerable support from the community.

“This class is all about the kids,” Dolan and Cohn commented. “And we simply can not thank our sponsors enough for helping make it possible. The community of kiters and windsurfers who have helped are literally too numerous to mention.”

Steve Gates of Big Winds has sponsored both the HRMS and Wy’east Middle School programs for 15 years, which means he has helped almost 3,000 kids learn to windsurf over the years.

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