Would-Be Windsurfers Look to Palm Springs Desert Mirage


As a teenager in Glasgow, Scotland, Brian Caldwell was entranced with stories of a famous windsurfing spot half a world away on a windy spit of sand in the California desert.

The dream combination of strong, steady winds whipping across a glass-like surface created some of the best sailboarding in the world, the magazines said. But by the time he arrived in the United States in 1992, the water agency in charge of the spot windsurfers call "the Ponds" had sealed it off to public access.

Caldwell and legions of other diehard windsurfers got their hopes up in recent months after a company won approval to reopen the Ponds and create a windsurfing park.

"I've sailed there a couple of times now, and it's like heaven," said Caldwell, now 30 and living in Escondido, who was allowed in as a guest of the company, Palm Springs Windsurfing. "It's like sailing on a mirror--just lovely and smooth."

The windsurfers' hopes were dashed after the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California decided to divert water to fill its huge new Diamond Valley Lake east of Los Angeles, leaving the Ponds as dry as the surrounding desert.

The decision, announced earlier this month, disappointed more than a thousand windsurfers who sent e-mails in anticipation of the park's planned March opening. The park now is delayed for up to two years.

"It's a pity it's not going to open," Caldwell said. "Everybody wants to come down--everybody who's anybody in windsurfing."

Like Valley Girls and Pet Rocks, windsurfing in the desert has that only-in-California ring to it.

The Ponds' prominence as a sailboarding spot is really a freak offspring of geography and Southern California's quest for water.

The Ponds are a series of 18 channels carved like a fan into the desert along the western approach to Palm Springs, about 110 miles east of Los Angeles. During typical years, they are filled with Colorado River water, which trickles through the soil and fills the underground water supply for 250,000 residents as far east as the Salton Sea.

Near a promontory called Windy Point, the mirage-like setting is at the end of the San Gorgonio Pass, a wind funnel between rocky, scrub-brush covered foothills that separate Palm Springs from the congested corridor leading to Los Angeles. Hundreds of windmills sprouting from the desert floor to the mountain ridges attest to the consistency and ferocity of its main feature.

The winds howl spring to fall, with gusts regularly exceeding 50 mph in May and June.

But the water on the Ponds remains relatively flat, unlike famous West Coast windsurfing spots such as the Columbia River Gorge or San Francisco Bay, where strong winds also mean dangerous, whitecapped swells.

Built at a 90-degree angle to the wind, each channel is only as wide as a football field is long, not enough area to wind-whip the surface. The right angle also allows sailboarders to catch the wind in perfect relation to their direction of travel. With some channels as long as four football fields, windsurfers liken the spot to a drag strip on water.

"To an experienced skier, it's like fresh powder on an open run where you can cut loose and go fast," said Ron Cunningham, 48, who runs an aquatic center at Lake Hodges near Escondido and sailed the Ponds more than a dozen times in their heyday. "There's really nothing like it, and every serious windsurfer in the world knew of the Ponds, just like every skier knows of Vail, Colo."

From the time they were built in 1973, the water agency channels have been a favorite for trespassers who used them to swim, sail and even boat in a region where daytime temperatures can hit 90 by April and hover above 110 for much of the summer.

The Coachella Valley Water District fenced them in 1987, fearing that the combination of windsurfers, personal watercraft and alcohol created a liability time bomb.

"We were not opposed at any time for some vendor to take responsibility and control it, someone who would indemnify us so we weren't liable," said Owen McCook, the water district's assistant general manager.

The district last year signed a 35-year lease with Palm Springs Windsurfing to turn three of the ponds into a 90-acre sailing park. Up to 300 windsurfers would be expected on weekends.

But the proposed March opening was dropped after the MWD, the wholesaler for 27 water agencies serving 17 million Southern California residents, said it needed the water normally sent to the desert to fill its new reservoir.

The diversion will not affect the desert aquifer, which is full, water officials said.

"Unfortunately, it just means that we'll have to sit on the sidelines and wait," said Miles Barrett, president of Palm Springs Windsurfing and owner of a desert wind-energy company.

Windsurfers hope the wait is short. If reopened, the Ponds would attract customers from across the West and likely would entice vacationing European sailboarders to stop on their way to Hawaii, said Brad Duffy, 39, a windsurfing expert from White Salmon, Wash.

"Everyone knows that it's coming. The sooner, the better," he said. "I would hope that they can get it together and have a few speed contests before I get too old to do it."

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