Windsurfing competitors from across the nation have converged on Worthington’s Lake Okabena to show off their skills this weekend.
This is the third time this unassuming town of about 12,900 residents has hosted the U.S. Windsurfing National Championships, which usually takes place in coastal communities such as San Diego, Calif.; Maui, Hawaii; Cocoa Beach, Fla.; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Cape Hatteras, N.C.
When locals Bill Keitel and Jeff Hegwer suggested an annual regatta dedicated to the sport 15 years ago, “we were considered wild-eyed dreamers,” says Keitel, a recreational windsurfer from Worthington and vice president of U.S. Windsurfing.
The landscape at the time had a few wind turbines pinwheeling on the horizon, but it was nothing like today, with 196 wind turbines churning across Nobles County, he says.
“We’re between two of the largest wind fields in the nation,” Keitel says, with one stretching to Fargo and the other to Des Moines.
It takes looking at a topographical atlas to see Buffalo Ridge, an expanse of rolling hills on the southeastern tip of Coteau des Prairie, a 100-mile-wide plateau that sprawls for 200 miles across northeastern South Dakota into southwestern Minnesota. Even Joseph Nicollet, the first European explorer to map the area in the 1830s, noted in his journal that “the wind is elastic, and there are no trees to stop its progression,” Keitel said.
The beautiful but often overlooked coteau topography enriches the scenery straddling the South Dakota and Minnesota border, but those virtues can be hard to detect in the flat-looking prairie farmland surrounding Worthington. But that magnificence can certainly be felt in the wind that funnels into the area, shutting down Interstates during winter blizzards and inspiring recreation by summer.
Fun for spectators
More than 100 competitive windsurfers are expected this weekend, with past participants coming from Australia, Great Britain, Canada and Malta. Closer to home, they come from Fond du Lac, Wis., Minnesota’s Lake Mille Lacs and Saylorville, Iowa — all places that host windsurfing events.
The community expects about 10,000 spectators throughout the week, says Ken Moser, president of the festival. While the event has grown, organizers try to keep it welcoming and not overly commercial. The weekend also includes an art fair, bike ride and food vendors that reflect the town’s ethnically diverse population with Hispanic, Asian and African influences.
The small size of Lake Okabena, 750 acres, makes it an easy place to plunk down a lawn chair and a blanket to watch the windsurfers from Sailboard Beach or a three-block stretch near downtown. Spectators often get a chance to try windsurfing and see what the sport is all about on a lake that’s always been the heart of this community. It regularly hums with runners, anglers, bikers, walkers and cruisers who use the 7.3-mile circumference like a community track.
At flashier coastal locations, it’s harder to see the action, which is usually a few miles offshore, Keitel says, rather than just off a comfortable lakeshore dotted with several parks.
While Mother Nature isn’t predictable — one year it skunked participants — the second week of June is historically the windiest. The wind usually begins blowing around 11 a.m. until early evening. Organizers try to run several races each day, zigzagging the mile-and-a-half-long lake in a figure eight or other configurations to emphasize control and speed that ranges from 30 mph to 65 mph.
“It is astounding,” says Keitel, who likes to quote a Chinese proverb that says flying a kite (or holding a giant kite-like sail) “is like holding the wind in your hands.”
The Worthington Windsurfing Regatta also runs in conjunction with the Unvarnished Music Festival that fires up each evening as the wind dies down. The music offers participants something to do and adds to the congenial, welcoming atmosphere with free stage acts until 10 p.m. From 10:15 p.m. until midnight, jam sessions and spontaneous busking take over in casual clusters that form around lakeside tiki torches.
Inevitably, a little breeze stirs up, and the sound of musicians — some of them windsurfers — carries across the water and disappears into the dark farm fields where the turbines keep churning, harnessing prairie winds that keep the regatta going.
St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick, www.10000Likes.com, writes travel features and guidebooks.