Greg Fowlkes was jonesing hard for a windsurfing trip. He had finished his MBA, put in his time at a dot.com startup in San Francisco, and recently sold his soul (my language not his) to a global investment banking behemoth. So what was his last wish before facing the firing squad? A week at the mother of all windsurfing eventsthe HIHO.
Since Bruce Brown chronicled the search for the perfect wave in his epic film Endless Summer, surfers and windsurfers have been slipping south in search of the adrenaline fix that sustains them. Some are long-haired dropouts taking odd jobs and riding around in smoke-filled vans, and some, like Fowlkes, are professionals trying to protect that something inside them that makes them feel different from their co-workers. Today, the windsurfing trip is alive and well in the form of a high-gloss Caribbean event called the HIHO.
Andy Morrell has run the HIHO (formerly the Hook In and Hang On) out of his base on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands since 1993. The concept is simple: Find a large group of people who can't live without the speed fix of boardsailing, assemble them in a tropical paradise famous for strong breeze and epic nightlife, organize races and recreational activities during the day, and host a dinner and a party each night. For seven days and nights each summer, that's the HIHO, a floating, moveable extravaganza.
HIHO participants are billeted on 38 to 50-foot bareboats that sail from island to island, serving as mobile bed and breakfasts for the fleet. This year cruising catamarans were the boats of choice. These mother ships not only support the competitors, but also are populated by the family and friends of the racers as well as recreational windsurfers who engage in non-racing activities during race days. And there are even some folks who just think a weeklong cruise through the British Virgin Islands with some hell-raising boardsailors might be a good vacation. Make no mistake, the racing is keen, but the emphasis is on fun. There are HIHO veterans who don't even windsurf; they just enjoy cruising in the carnival-like atmosphere of this event.
Along with everyday escapists like Fowlkes, professional windsurfers annually make a pilgrimage to HIHO to join the fray. These pros mingle with obsessed amateurs and rank beginners, creating an atmosphere that is relaxed for the pros and engaging for everyone else, giving them a chance to measure themselves against some of the best in the world. Imagine spending a week with Andre Agassi at a tennis campthat's the idea.
Day One of the HIHO 2000 featured two around-the-buoys races just off the reef near the Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda. Professional windsurfing instructor Andy Brandt showed the fleet some speed right out of the gate, leading wire-to-wire to take the first race. Brandt travels the US in a camper-van teaching windsurfing seminars with his girlfriend Sarah James. He's been riding the Bic Techno boardthe mandatory equipment stipulated by the organizers for this year's HIHOfor almost a year. Brandt likes the Techno, as well as the one-design approach to racing. In previous years, the HIHO had been run as an open event with no particular equipment restrictions except for a limitation on the number of sails. This year, the new, one-design format resulted in close racing with more emphasis on technique and tactics and less of the arms-race mentality that has characterized windsurfing in the past.
Again in Race Two it was Brandt who took the victory, but the big story was the breakdown by past winner Eli Fuller of Antigua. Fuller, a pro and the clear pre-event favorite, broke his booms in the first race and was forced to withdraw. A loud bang on the first upwind leg of Race Two left him swimming again as his second set of booms gave way. With Fuller out of the running, a surprising caste formed at the front of the pack. Fowlkes had a great day, posting a third and a second. And 16-year-old St. Martin sailor Antoine Questel staged a coming-out party in the 15-knot easterly, recording a fourth and a second overall to take a huge lead in the Junior Division.
In the Women's Division, US Olympic Trials runner-up Mariel Devesa was the early favorite, but a freak accident at a mark on Day One left her hobbled and her future at the event in question. Devesa caught her skeg on the mark's anchor line and drove the nose of her board into a coral head that lay treacherously close to the surface. The tip of the board was crushed, but it was Devesa's knee and ankle, which ended up badly swollen from a collision with a drum-tight section of her sail, that would hamper her performance.
After long days of racing, competitors can look forward to the legendary HIHO parties that grace each evening of the event. Reggae music, a limbo-dance contest, and rum-based painkillers combined to fuel the first evening. It was the organizers' way of saying 'live it up now; tomorrow you're going to get tested again.' The following day's agenda called for the race to Anegada, some 18 miles to the north across open ocean. This race supplies some of the diversity that the HIHO is famous for. The sailors pumped their way out of North Sound and charged over the open sea toward the flat, desert island to the north. From the deck of the support vessels, Anegada didn't come into view until it was less than five miles away. From the boards, it wasn't visible until they were much closer. Still, Brandt took the victory with Eli Fuller charging hard from behind to record a second place. At the finish, the cruising cats met the fleet, ready to transport them back to the Bitter End after a buffet lunch on the beach followed by some snorkeling along the surrounding reef.
Distance racing on boards is a unique discipline. In these events, tactics take a back seat to speed and fitness. Sailors hook into their harnesses and groove on the speed as the waves beneath them change size and shape. The breeze strengthens and weakens as the fleet passes the wind shadow of the nearby islands. The best sailors are those who make subtle alterations to sailshape, trim, and sailing technique to account for these changes.
There were other races as the HIHO fleet worked its way around the scenic British Virgin Islands, but the biggest challenge came on the final day in a shifty, puffy breeze that made tactical choices difficult. Huge lulls alternately mired even the fastest sailors while the rest of the fleet sprinted away in elusive puffs. The two races scrambled the standings a bit, but not enough to topple Brandt. Though Fuller came on strong to win the last three races, there was only one throw-out and he had to settle for tenth overall. Antoine Questel edged out Greg Fowkles for second place overall and first in Juniors, and Mariel Devesa overcame her injury to defeat Julie Rosenberg of Florida for the Women's title. Among the more mature sailors, Jean-Mark Peyronet of St. Martin took the Masters Division and Tom Suits won the Grand Masters.
Sailors from 21 nations, islands, and protectorates made their way to the HIHO this year. Despite diverse backgrounds, the shared love of a cult sport, the abundant food and killer parties, and the island lifestyle seemed to forge a bond among the competitors and cruisers alike. The crew of each of the charter cats developed an esprit de corps that united disparate personalities and nourished inside jokes. At the awards ceremony, new friends traded e-mail addresses and made plans to sail together in "real life." But the sailing and the parties took a toll. There were actually sailors who were so tired that they were looking forward to their quiet lives back home. Who knows, maybe more training next year might help.