Now Windsurfers Are Joining the Beeper Brigade


When the onshore wind begins to howl at Surfers Point in Ventura, Morgan Webber can hear its call from his financial consulting office in Oxnard.

So can insurance broker Scott Carter from his office in San Pedro and Dave DePaolo from his Thousand Oaks law office.

Each of these die-hard windsurfers carries a pager that chirps when the wind reaches a sailing speed of 13 m.p.h., the minimum needed to power their sails. Updates on the digital readout come every 10 minutes as the breeze builds.

"I don't even think about the wind anymore, with this beeper," said Webber, who used to spend almost as much time tracking the wind as he did the stock market. "But as soon as it goes off, I reschedule my appointments and I'm outta here."

Windsurfers have long embraced innovation to help them jump higher off waves or skitter faster across the chop.

But this latest marriage of high technology and sport is changing the rituals of windsurfing culture--those that revolve around guys hanging out at the beach waiting for the wind.

In primitive times--that is, just a few years ago--the parking lot across from the Ventura County fairgrounds would fill each afternoon with dozens of trucks and vans bearing masts, sails, boards and sailors with high-velocity dreams.

The guys in this male-dominated sport would spend hours sitting on tailgates, sipping beers, swapping stories or sizing up beach-goers.

Now the prime oceanfront parking slots remain empty for days on end. Yet once the onshore breeze hits a certain speed, a herd of windsurfers stampede the lot, each one tugged by the electronic leash fashioned by Ventura inventor Jim Martin.

"In a sense we have ruined the community," said Martin, who now has 430 customers carrying his Call of the Wind pagers. "There are not as many girl-watchers down there any more, that's for sure. But when it does blow, nobody misses it."

Martin's network now covers 14 popular windsurfing sites in California, stretching from Seal Beach to Marin County. Others locations in Southern California include Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro and Leo Carrillo State Beach just north of Malibu. And there are sites at Jalama Beach in northern Santa Barbara County and Lake Isabella near Bakersfield.

For the Baby Boomer set, Martin's automatic wind reports have arrived at a good time. As a group, windsurfers tend to be older than surfers--and more affluent. With their accumulated years and largess, come more responsibilities.

"I have a wife and two kids, so I just can't go any time I want to," said DePaolo, a 35-year-old Thousand Oaks attorney who carries the pager. "A high percentage of windsurfers are professionals," he said. "We have busier schedules now and can't always clear out five-hour blocks of time to hang out and wait for the wind."

Carter said the precision of the pager lets him maximize his time at the office, a short distance from the thermals at Cabrillo Beach. "I'm in a wind-protected area, so I rely on the beeper," said Carter, 41, who teaches windsurfing through UCLA. "When it reaches 13 knots (just over 13 m.p.h.), I know I can be on the beach in 10 minutes and fully rigged and on the water in a half-hour."

Unlike other sports, windsurfing is limited to a narrow window of weather conditions.

The wind must hit at least 13 m.p.h. before a billowing sail can lift a small, high-performance board out of the water so it can plane on the surface. Winds of 15 to 30 m.p.h. or more are needed for the kind of high-speed, wave-jumping thrills sought by the hottest sailors.

A sudden lull can ruin a sailing session. Short boards sink under a person's weight. Windsurfers caught at sea are forced to drop their masts and bob in the ocean until a puff returns to carry them to shore.

All of these factors makes sailing time fleeting, if not fickle. And the fear of missing those precious moments inspired the Call of the Wind pagers.

Martin, one of the regulars at Surfers Point, persuaded a collection of friends three years ago to chip in and buy a $900 computer attached to a wind gauge.

The Windtalker, as the contraption is called, was developed for hang gliders. Once he installed it on the fairgrounds across from Surfers Point, Martin and his friends could telephone the computer and an electronic voice would announce up-to-the-minute wind conditions.

"I was calling it so much during the day, it was interfering with my job production," said the 46-year-old Martin, a former general contractor. "I finally said, 'OK, it's time that I make the machine call me.' "

He spent the next eight months working with the Windtalker's manufacturer to devise the pager system and a new business was born. The computer measures the low, high and average wind speed, wind direction and air temperature. Once the average speed hits 13 m.p.h., the automatic wind report beeps every pager and displays the particulars.

When Martin started to market his beepers, he had a tough time finding takers. So he lent them to friends. When he tried to retrieve the pagers, no one would give them back.

"Once you've got it, it's hard to give up," said Ian Boyd, a UC Santa Barbara student and a top-ranked professional windsurfer. "It's been great for me because the closest spots are a 45-minute drive, either Ventura or Jalama (Beach). It cuts down on all of the guesswork."

Like any new business, it's still a daily struggle, Martin said. But a few new customers trickle in each day, forking over about $210 for the pager and $16 to $21 a month for the service, depending on how many sites will be monitored.

Martin recently wired three more sites on Oahu and three on Maui and has two more planned for the Bay Area.

Martin said the service has begun to saturate the windsurfing market in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and now is beginning to spread, with hundreds signing up in the Los Angeles Basin and in the Bay Area.

"There are a few guys who still hang at the beach and that is their lifestyle," he said. "But for most of them, their time is very valuable."

Carter, who has been windsurfing for 18 years, said most of the regulars no longer hang out at Carrillo Beach anymore. Instead, they subscribe to Martin's paging service or otherwise improvise.

"Only about a third of my friends have a beeper," Carter said. "The other two-thirds call me all of the time."

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