Windsurfers on the Columbia River Gorge.
Drivers on Interstate 84, which follows the Columbia River Gorge, are treated to the spectacle of hundreds of colorful sails skimming the blue river, for miles and miles. (Photo: Michael Peterson Photography)

Where to Windsurf

BACK WHEN I LIVED IN Bend, Oregon, I drove north as often as I could to the Columbia River and hiked, biked, or boated up its tributary called Deschutes. My mission was to catch a steelhead, an elusive sea-run fish, on a fly rod. 

What I remember most is the wind. One August day, a friend placed his nine-foot graphite rod on a reclining camp lounge chair. In a split second, a fierce, hot gust turned the chair into crocodile-like jaws that snapped the rod into five dangling pieces.

That relentless wind attracts windsurfers from around the world to the deep Columbia River Gorge—as many as 1,000 to 2,000 a day during peak season, which lasts from Memorial Day through Labor Day. They climb on a board with a handheld sail rigged on a universal joint. Drivers on Interstate 84, which follows the gorge, are treated to the spectacle of hundreds of colorful sails skimming the blue river, for miles and miles.

“We have a cold ocean 100 miles to the west and a hot desert 50 miles to the east,” says Dave Nunn, who operates Windance Boardshop, one of dozens of businesses catering to water sports in picturesque little Hood River, Oregon. Nunn explains that, as the hot desert air rises, it sucks in the cold ocean air to replace it. The wind gets squeezed through the Columbia’s massive basalt canyon walls and accelerates. Daily winds average 17 mph with up to 40 mph common. Gusts often reach 50. 

“It’s the only place I know where, when the wind really blows, instead of boarding up windows, people head to the water,” says Eddy Patricelli of Big Winds, another local shop.

Not surprisingly, the town hosts many windsurfing manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, making it the center of the sport nationally. A big plus is the Columbia Gorge Windsurfing Association, a community nonprofit that has been promoting the sport locally and ensuring access to and cleanliness of launch sites for many years. Locations such as Swell City, the Hatchery, and Doug’s Beach are all under the supervision of the CGWA, which works closely with local government authorities.

PATRICELLI IS 44 and has been windsurfing Hood River since he was 16. He says it’s the only sport he’s still doing as well and as easily as he did as a kid. “Compared with running, skiing, tennis, and other sports, there is a low rush-to-risk ratio,” he says. “It’s easy on the joints.”

Patricelli adds that when he started during the 1980s, windsurfing had a reputation as an activity for high-end athletes. The equipment was designed for going faster and faster. But today, many people in their 50s and 60s are discovering windsurfing—and the increasingly popular kiteboarding. Wider boards and lighter sails make it easier and faster to learn. A beginner can pick up in one or two days what it used to take two weeks to master. 

It’s also a highly portable outdoor adventure. You can take it with you to a lake in the Adirondacks or a beach in the Bahamas. But before you go to one of those places, consider the many advantages of surfing the inland Columbia River. Last time I looked beneath the waves, for example, I saw no man-eating sharks.     

Raise a Local Pint in Hood River

With four superb breweries in town—Full Sail, Double Mountain, pFriem Family Brewers, and Big Horse—and just 7,380 residents, Hood River prides itself on being home to the most breweries per capita among American towns with more than one. That’s a lot of locally handcrafted beer and ale for everyone.