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Racing over surf at 60 (and older)

Seniors are as much a part of windsurfing in the bay area as lean, agile 20-somethings.

[Times photos: Dave Ellis]
Bill Hollinger, who drove a truck for 50 years and millions of miles, does his thing at Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs.

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003

TARPON SPRINGS -- Gene McCarren twists on his Prodigy windsurfing board, letting the sail move forward and transferring more weight to his front foot. The 9-foot board carves off the wind into a jibe.

After quick transfer of the free-standing sail around the front of the board, he grabs the wishbone boom and leans back and out to blast across the bay on another tack.

Rippled-abdomen, 20-something athlete? How about a somewhat round, retired Montgomery Ward sales manager.
Gene McCarren, 64, a retired sales manager, leans into a gulf breeze.
McCarren is 64. His white beard is a counterpoint to the flying spray at Fred Howard Park on the gulf near Tarpon Springs.

There are more than 400 sailors who use this well-respected venue for the sport of windsurfing. The average age is a little over 40 and they cover a cross-section of bay area demographics.

Common is a love for the freedom that comes from using the wind and one's practiced body movements to blast over the water at speeds of more than 20 knots, carving into a jibe and blasting off on a different tack.

There are spectacular crashes. Usually a dive into the water occurs at a turn, either a down-speed tack or an attempted high-speed, planing jibe.

The water is not deep. There are only a few places in the sailing area that require swimming. Being able to stand on the bottom makes starting less of a physical challenge and, with steady breezes, is an attraction of the sailing venue.

Not all of the sailors are longtime participants. Max Richardson was in his late 60s when he learned to windsurf. Now, at 77, he is a sight to behold as he wings over the water.

Bill Hollinger, nicknamed "Cue Ball," drove a truck for 50 years and 5.7-million miles before retiring to a life of bicycling (he was noted for rides of 200 miles a day) and shredding water on his windsurfer board.

"I've been sailing these things since the early 1970s," he said.

Boards have evolved into shorter, wider configurations. They are easier to balance than the longer, narrow boards of 10 years ago. They have more volume, so they float with an adult's weight even when not moving through the water.

"Boards and sails have become much easier to use," said Steve LeVine, who owns Watersports West of Largo. "It only takes a couple hours to learn to sail pretty well."

There are plenty of 20-something sailors shredding water at Fred Howard Park, too. And any sailor will help you get started. Richard Birchmeyer is Water Sport West's instructor. He's only 65.

Jack Sevier is a 70-year-old from Tampa who races his board, but he is better known for his journeys. Sevier would strap a credit card to his ankle with duct tape, grab a water bottle and take off early in the morning from the Davis Island Yacht Club. He would sail south as far as the wind would take him. Then late in the afternoon somewhere along the coast in Sarasota or Venice or Naples he'd sail ashore, book a motel and call his wife to tell her where to meet him.

If you see the flash of a shiny little sail zipping over the water at Fred Howard, Fort De Soto, the Skyway approaches or along the gulf, stop and take a close look. It may not be a lithe, agile youngster on that board. It may be a grandpa or grandma with a big grin, shredding the water like a pro.

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