Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Why Don't Bubba Windsurf?

What's your image of a typical windsurfer?

Personally I admire these guys for all sorts of reasons...

  • Windsurfing ain't easy. I know, I've tried. It's harder than it looks.

  • Windsurfing is an athletic sport that works just about every muscle in the body.

  • Windsurfing is gentle on the environment.

  • Windsurfing is accessible to folk of almost any income level. It must be about the cheapest way to enjoy sailing. It's the antithesis of the rich yachtie life style with megayachts and fancy marinas and swanky yacht clubs.

  • Windsurfers will go out and sail in crazy windy cold rainy conditions that would drive any normal sailor to the comfort of his fireside. These guys are tough.

But apparently I don't understand American culture (in spite of having lived here almost twenty years). For reasons that are a mystery to me, windsurfing is seen by many Americans as elitist and effete. I became aware of this image of the sport during the 2004 presidential campaign when candidate John Kerry took an hour or so off from campaigning to go windsurfing. The press filmed him and the resultant coverage was used to brand him as an out of touch liberal elitist.

Sure it didn't help that his opponent produced a juvenile ad using a clip of Kerry windsurfing to draw a parallel between his tacking back and forth on his board to his history of "flip-flopping" on political issues. Kerry had surely deserved the flip-flopper charge. But the harm to his image was also largely because, horror of horrors, the guy was actually windsurfing!!!

I don't get it. Why is windsurfing seen so negatively? What sports are acceptable in the land of the free for someone with presidential aspirations?

Well, there's shooting of course. It's almost mandatory that anyone with ambitions to sit in the Oval Office spends at least some time in the woods dressed in camo blasting away at furry or feathery creatures (not to mention winging the occasional lawyer.) Even if you've never hunted in your life, you'd better do your best to fake it for a photo opportunity.

And golf seems to be OK. Presidents Clinton and Bushes have often been filmed on the golf course playing each other or visiting dignitaries. Nobody seems to think that this betrays them as being part of the country club elite. And nobody dares to resurface in the presidential context the old joke that golf is a sport for "white guys dressed like black pimps".

So why has windsurfing got such a bad press? Apparently if you are a windsurfer it proves you are unable to relate to regular Joes in the South and Midwest. Doesn't anybody windsurf in Texas or Georgia or Ohio? Don't any of those guys with a pickup truck displaying a Confederate flag ever throw a board in the back and head off for a quick blast around the local water hole?

Is it true as the conservative National Review claimed that Bubba Don't Windsurf?

Please help me out with this. What is your image of a typical windsurfer? Why is it such a negative in a country proud of its traditions of tolerance and diversity? And if you're not American does the same image hold true in your country? For example, would you advise David Cameron or Brendan Nelson to avoid being seen reaching around on a windsurfer?

Please comment. But please restrain yourself from rubbishing the policies or personality of any individual politician. If you want to indulge in Bush-bashing or Clinton-bashing or Kerry-bashing there are plenty of other places on the Interwebs you can do that. Let's keep the discussion to the place of windsurfing in popular culture, why it has such an elitist image, whether it's deserved, the reasons for it, etc. etc.


Litoralis said...

I don't think that any suggestion of elitism conveyed by windsurfing is the problem; golf has more of an elitist image but carries none of the negative connotations of windsurfing. I think windsurfing is seen as a fad sport, like rollerblading for example, that has only niche appeal. For some reason windsurfing has not been accepted as a "cool" thing to do, like surfing. For example, imagine if John Kerry had been observed surfing his favorite point break. This would have conveyed a certain athleticism and "coolness" that, for some reason, does not extended to windsurfing.

PeconicPuffin said...

Windsurfing is a lot easier than it used to be (though it’s still not easy.)

“Working men” (and women) are a substantial component of the American windsurfing ranks. Many self-employed contractors have figured out how to tell their clients that they “can’t make it today” whenever the wind is up (I sail with landscapers, electricians, house painters, general contractors, welders, carpenters etc.) Most all of the best windsurfers I know are self-employed.

There’s a solid windsurfing culture in Texas. South Padre Island and Corpus Christi are excellent sailing locations, and Texas has some strong windsurfing clubs.

Windsurfing is physically easier than it looks, though we’re loathe to admit it. Everyone says “you must be awfully strong to do that!” “Yes ma’am, I reckon we are.” Not really.

Purchasing (much less storing) a Sunfish was beyond my means at the time I started windsurfing. For windsurfers, a roof rack and $500 will get you on the water and sailing.

For anyone who both windsurfs and plays golf (myself, for example), there’s absolutely no comparison which sport is elitist. It ain’t windsurfing.

If you clicked on the link in Tillerman's post and look at the photo, every single person you see is self-employed and works with their hands.

When held against reality, "elitist" just doesn't stick. "Crazy" might, though I'd venture to guess that only half of all windsurfers are actually nuts.

Windsurfing carried no negative connotations (other than that it is difficult) until Karl Rove came along.

USA 4 Steve Bodner said...

Windsurfers have often had a hard time identifying who they actually are- part surfer, part yachtie, part wave rider, part freestyler, part racer. We are so diverse that our image is actually confusing. It really is a great sport that you can pursue all these different aspect of the sport from a pond in Ohio, to 40' waves in Maui. There are old guys riding long boards, young kids doing free style, racers doing their thing in 1m wide board and 12m2 sails. Classifying us into one group would do the sport injustice.
Alas the best description of the windsurfer has been the red headed step child of the yachting world. Nobody wants to touch us.
Well even better for us as the beaches are still uncrowded, there's no localism like surfing and most everybody in the sport is out to help the next guy.

Brian said...

As someone who would normally be considered a "rightie", I never understood that characterization of windsurfing by Kerry.

As to my own perception of windsurfers, I lump most of them in with surfers and kiteboarders - an interesting subculture characterized by tight cliques, a laid-back attitude, with maybe more of an emphasis on the adrenaline rush.

My perception is VERY contrary to the idea of elitism.

As to golf... I grew up in MI, where golf is right down there with bowling in terms of blue collar appeal. It's relatively cheap there. I gave it up when I moved here - way too expensive on the east coast!

Joe said...

Windsurfing, IMHO, has never been terribly well accepted in the USA. I used to sail my board on the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay and I always garnered strange looks, but little other curiosity, from the folks on shore and those in various sail and power boats.

While I do not consider sailing elite, at best it is certainly less understood than shooting, golf, and eating greasy diner food. People may not like guns or golf, but they understand that many regular folks like these things. But sailing and windsurfing? Many see those things as way out there, for way out there people.

Personally, I cannot stand John Kerry, but I found it cool that he was a hockey player, sailor/windsurfer, and I think he also plays guitar. All good things, at least in my book. But I also played hockey (and might play again some day), sail, and I try to play the guitar. Again, others may not see those things as being cool.

In the 2004 election cycle, it was simply used... well... in any way it could be used negatively. There is precious little Kerry could do that would not have been used against him. But please understand the very same applied to Bush--anything and everything was used against him. It is the (new?) nature of our political campaign culture.

I am guessing that most who read Tillerman's blog are intelligent enough to know for whom they will vote, regardless of what silly commercials they see. These commercials are not intended for this audience. They are intended for the undecideds*.

*I am not referring to intelligent people who study the candidates, work their way through the lies and other crap, apply the filter of their own positions on various issues, and then finds themselves terribly disappointed with the choices. I am referring to those who have no idea what they want, have no desire to read and learn, and yet somehow find their way to the polls on election day. And make no mistake about it--in the age of political consultants and 50.1/49.9 election results, those who have no idea in hell what they are doing are very important. *Sigh*

Pat said...

I think that any time a candidate gets caught on camera doing something unusual or unexpected, the other candidates will try to figure out a way to use that as campaign ammunition. Think of Dukakis poking his head out of a tank and how that was contrasted with his previous defense record.

And, it's probably easy to make fun of an older guy who appears to be attempting to look athletic for the cameras, even if his love of the sport is genuine and long-held. Witness all the jokes that were made about Gerald Ford in his day.

So, I think the whole Kerry windsurfing flap said far more about American politics than it did about windsurfing.

Windsurfing is something that not all that many people understand. I think it gets lumped in with extreme sports to the extent that the general public thinks of it at all.

I do believe that windsurfers, sailors, anglers, and other recreational water users have a lot more in common than they may realize. We should work together to preserve the waterways and environment, protect shore and water access from government neglect or private over-development, and work to pass on a love of water sports to today's too-often sedentary couch potato kids. I would love to welcome windsurfers to our local sailing clubs and help host regattas for them.

JSW225 said...

I think that Windsurfing IS a fad sport. It's popularity will come and go many times throughout our lives. I'm not so young that I haven't seen it happen once.

But a big schism occurred with the popularity of Kite sailing, or whatever it's called. I think that the windsurfing fleet lost 20-35% of the surfers when Kite sailing became popular.

PeconicPuffin said...

Bubba don't sail boats, neither. He's motoring on jet skis and bass boats.

Dylan said...

I think Litoralis has a point. It isn't known as a cool sport even thought it deserves to be. How else can you combine surfing and sailing in one extremely fast cheap package.

Menchuvian Candidate said...

Isn't there an aspect in pop cultural acceptance that has to do with people being able to imagine themselves doing a thing? No real knowledge is applied, in fact, it gets in the way, but golfing, and surfing, and running, and touch football, or whatever, are easily conceived of by most folks.

Similarly, sailing may be identified as an elitist sport, but it is still something an under-funded landlubber can imagine doing-it's just sitting on a boat, right?

Windsurfing has about it a kind of psychic ungainliness. For the uninvolved, uninitiated, or just plain stupid, it looks more a pole dance on a balance beam, or surfing with a zimmer frame, or some other unholy hybrid of testosterone sucking inelegance. It isn't intuitive for most.

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