At 16, Beacher Max Robinson was by far the youngest windsurfer to race the Olympic-class regatta in Miami, Florida.
The next youngest, David Hayes, his mentor from Toronto Windsurfing Club, had three years on him.
“Everything felt so surreal still,” says Robinson, now 21. “The speed, especially because you’ve got barely anything under you, it’s like you’re almost connected to the water. It’s such an amazing feeling.”
Robinson placed 31st out of 34 in his first Miami OCR – a tough finish, but a brave start for a kid challenging the likes of Dorian van Rijsselberge, who later won a commanding gold at the London Olympics by finishing first in seven of 10 races.
This September, on his 21st birthday, Robinson vowed to campaign hard for the Rio Olympics in 2016, and Toronto’s Pan Am Games next year.
Over the winter he travelled to Houston, Cancun, and Puerto Vallarta, doing international races and training camps with Carson Crain, a member of the US national team.
Robinson also went back to Miami, where he finished 20th, not far behind Gabriel Verrier-Paquette, who holds one of Canada’s two coveted spots in world-class windsurfing.
“That’s where it happens,” Robinson said. “If I’m top in the Miami OCR next year, then I’ll be going to the Pan Ams.”
Growing up, Robinson got his first taste of windsurfing the summer that he and his dad rescued an old board and sail from under a cottage on Georgian Bay.
It was a BiC Dufour Wing from the early ‘80s – an ancient rig for a sport that had its first boom just a few years before. Still, for 11 year-old Robinson, that first day on the water felt “unreal,” especially once he got fast enough to plane, or skip the board over waves.
He and his cousin set up another board their parents had forgotten, and windsurfed every day.
Back in the city, Robinson started lessons at the Toronto Windsurfing Club, a non-profit that runs training camps and Wednesday night regattas out of a clubhouse on Cherry Beach.
“The place is beautiful,” he said. “It’s like a little cottage in Toronto.”
When Robinson was getting serious about it, windsurfing was in a bit of a lull. Nearly everyone else on the water was in their twenties or early thirties.
But Robinson found strong mentors in the TWC’s David Hayes and Andrée Gauthier, and in top competitors like Alan Belduc and Bob Willis. All of them guided him as he started doing Ontario and then US races on an RS:X, the windsurfer designed for the Olympic Games.
“The atmosphere of the sport – I don’t know why, but it’s second to none,” Robinson said, who agreed that windsurfers share something like surfers’ attitude, minus the need to compete for waves.
“The stoke everybody has when they’re off the water is just amazing, and they’re so laid back.”
Robinson will get a chance to give back to TWC this summer when he takes over as lead instructor. From June to October, he will teach master’s classes to a growing number of younger windsurfers.
“There’s a surge of young guys now, like there wasn’t before,” he said.
For six months in 2012 it seemed kite surfing would replace windsurfing at the Rio Olympics, and many RS:X competitors actually switched. But the decision was reversed, and windsurfing is now a confirmed event until at least 2020, putting the Olympics back on the horizon for the next wave of athletes.
When Toronto freezes up again, Robinson has another big trip to look forward to – he plans to join Crain for another training camp, this time in Maui, Hawaii.
“On top of being my favourite sport, it takes me all over the world,” he said, smiling.
Fun as it is, competing at international RS:X events takes a lot of work. Though he prefers the water to the gym, he also runs, rows, and does some weight training.
Robinson also has to fundraise and find sponsors, for gear as well as travel and training. While RS:X boards are designed so they all come out of the mold exactly the same, competitors do shop around for faster boards, and usually keep a quiver of sails and even multiple boards so they have relatively untouched gear for key events.
And when Robinson isn’t training or fundraising or gunning for a top spot in competition, windsurfing is still just plain fun.
“There’s really no feeling like chilling on a board and flying across the water.”