Windsurfing, Kitesurfing & Sailing

Windsurfing In The Rio 2016 Olympics: A Brief History Of The Sport

Windsurfing is a relatively young sport, but it's got an interesting back story. Here's our quick guide to the history of windsurfing...

Windsurfing became an Olympic event for the first time in 1984. Photo: iStock

Windsurfing is now a major sport and became a part of the Olympic Games in 1984.

Polynesians have been standing up on boards with sails for centuries before the modern windsurf board came into existence. In its modern form, however, windsurfing is a relatively young sport, like snowboarding and kitesurfing.

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Newman Darby, a 20 year-old American, is said to have been the first person to invent the rudderless sailboard in 1948, using a handheld sail and rig mounted on a universal joint. It was steered by the person on board shifting their weight fore and aft in order to tilt the sail.

Newman Darby windsurfing on his early sailboard design in the 1960s. Photo via.

Newman didn’t patent his design, but he is widely credited with the invention of the windsurf board. In the UK, Peter Chilvers independently came up with a similar sailboard design on Hayling Island in 1958.

In the 1960s, aeronautical engineer Jim Drake and surfer Hoyle Schweitzer ironed out the early design flaws, including adding an uphaul rope to pull the heavy sail out of the water. They called their design the ‘Skate’ and eventually changed it to the ‘Baja Board’. This became the windsurf board that we know today.

Jim and Hoyle patented the designed in 1968. Jim had no idea at the time how much impact their invention would have on the world of watersports. So he sold the patent to Hoyle in 1973 for $36,000 USD.

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An early drawing of Hoyle and Joe’s sailboard design for windsurfing. Photo:


Hoyle became the first person to successfully market the sailboard to the public. He went on to found Windsurfing International in Southern California. It became the first company to mass-manufacture polyethylene windsurf boards and Hoyle made millions from it.

Windsurfing boomed in the 1970s and 1980s. The first world championship of windsurfing was held in 1973. It was estimated that one in every three households had a windsurf board. The Professional Windsurfing Association (PWA) was born around this time as well.

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By 1984, windsurfing was such a growth sport that it was included in the Los Angeles Olympics for the first time. Dutchman Stephan van den Berg won the first gold medal.

In the first Olympic events, daggerboards weighed 4kg and were taken out when sailing downwind and slung over the windsurfers’ arm, leaving many sailors with badly bruised thighs. The course was nine nautical miles long, so it was quite a feat to even finish the course.

Windsurfing at Sandbanks, Poole Harbour, UK in the 1980s. Photo: Wikipedia

The 1988 Olympics were said to be the windiest ever with 30 knots of wind and 5 knots of current going against the wind. One day of racing was postponed that year because of too much wind.

Women were allowed to compete in windsurfing from 1992. Barbara Kendall from New Zealand won the first ever female windsurfing Olympic gold medal in Barcelona, Spain.

From 1992, windsurfing saw a huge boost, launching it even further into the public eye as a result of the Olympics. Pumping the sail was allowed for the first time in 1996 and this had a big impact on the sport – fitness became a big factor in who became the Olympic gold medallist.

“In the 1980s, it was estimated that one in every three households had a windsurf board

Olympic windsurfing uses ‘One Design’ boards, so all the competitors have the same boards, daggerboards, fins and sails. The equipment is chosen to allow racing in a whole range of sailing conditions – this is important because events have to take place, even if there isn’t enough wind for planing. The current Olympic class is Neil Pryde RS:X – it changed in 2008 and has been used ever since.

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In May 2012, the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) voted to remove windsurfing from Olympic sailing from 2016 and replace it with kitesurfing. However, after many complaints from the windsurfing federations, the decision was reversed in 2012, much to the annoyance of kitesurfers.

Today, there are more Olympic class windsurfing organisations around the world – plus more Olympic class windsurf boards on the water than ever before.

Photo: iStock

There are many difficult disciplines within windsurfing. Olympic windsurfing is different from Formula windsurfing, which was developed over the past 15 years to allow high performance competitions even in the lightest of winds.

Unlike the Olympics, sailors can choose boards and sails from any manufacturers, as long as they are certified by ISAF.

Slalom, Big Wave, Freestyle, Super X and Speedsailing are among the other disciplines of windsurfing which hold their own competitions around the world.

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