At the far western end of north-central Costa Rica’s LakeArenal, with the volcano of the same name presiding in the distance, a strong and persistent wind, in combination with moderate water temperatures, creates ideal conditions for windsurfing.
Just a few years ago, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) chose the area as the site of its first commercial-scale wind power plant. Today the towering white turbines testify to the power of the wind.
If you’ve never tried windsurfing, imagine dancing across the water: your partner is the sail in your hands, the dance floor is the board under your feet and the soundtrack is the perfect hum of the wind in your ears.
This was the image in my head as I stood in the silky, reddish mud of LakeArenal preparing to mount my beginner’s board for the first time.
I climbed on, not too gracefully, and reached desperately for the sail. Before I could get my feet into position and brace my body for the force of the wind, I was in the water. In fact, your first few hours of windsurfing have very little to do with wind, and a lot more to do with water. But eventually, miraculously, it did happen – maybe almost 100 meters of sailing, before I suddenly found myself with a mouthful of water again. But that’s all it took: one long minute of success and I was hooked.
As an international sport, windsurfing has been around almost three decades. A sailboard – basically a surfboard with a universal joint attaching a mast to the board –allows the unique combination of sailing and surfing. Experienced windsurfers are able to execute jumps, spins and other tricks.
It’s a sport for those who like to go fast.
According to the International Sailing Federation (www.sailing.org), a windsurfer holds the world speed record for all sailing vessels (on a 500-meter course), measured at over 48 knots.
Windsurfing became an Olympic sport in 1984, and since then has gone through many swells in popularity. Although the newer adventure sport of kite surfing, in which a controllable power kite is used to pull the rider through the water on a surfboard, is attracting many from the adrenaline-addicted crowd, windsurfing still reigns supreme at LakeArenal.
After I took my licks on my first day of lessons, seasoned Arenal windsurfer Jim Ricelli offered me encouragement. The self-proclaimed “oldest guy on the lake,” at 70 years old, Ricelli has been enjoying the sport for more than 20 years. He explained that when he learned to windsurf in New York state, the only instruction he received was to stand up and hold on. After more than 100 spills into the water, he wound up at the other end of a lake with no way to get back. Fortunately the conditions at LakeArenal are much more conducive to learning, he says.
Arenal’s first windsurfing establishment, Tico Wind, appeared on the lake 16 years ago. Today, two well-established centers provide lessons and also rent equipment. In addition to the encouragement of fellow windsurfers and extremely patient individual instructors, the windsurfing centers also have jet skis so rescues can be made quickly.
From December through March, the winds at LakeArenal blow at a consistent 20-25 knots, and swells can be more than a meter high. The water temperature of the lake varies from 18-21 degrees Celsius, so a thin wetsuit is a good idea.
The well-equipped and professional Tico Wind operates December through April, offering beginner classes for $45 and a five-hour course to be completed over several days for $200, with instruction in English, German, Italian or Spanish. For info, call 692-2002 or visit www.ticowind.com.
The Marina at Tilawa is open year-round and offers beginner lessons for $60. Other packages may be arranged if staying at the nearby Hotel Tilawa. Contact the marina through the hotel at 695-5050, or go to www.windsurfcostarica.com.