The several hundred spectators who gathered to watch the fifth Annual Storm Rider windsurfing competition this week had high hopes for Haifa native Arnon Dagan, the champion for the last two years.
After seven long days of waiting by international competitors and event organizers for the perfect conditions at Haifa's Bat Galim beach, 32 contestants competed in eight-minute heats.
The competition, sponsored by the energy drink company Red Bull, is a two-week stand-by contest, during which participants patiently wait for the biggest storm to break over the water before starting, thus giving the event its name, Storm Rider.
In the very first heat, Dagan twisted his left ankle when it became ensnared in his board's foothold during a rotating jump.
But Dagan managed to overcome the setback and reached the finals against Ben Van Derstein within an astounding four hours. The two finalists exchanged a hug and a big pat on the back before hitting the late afternoon surf for the 12-minute championship heat.
In a 3-2 split decision by the five contest judges, Holland's Van Derstein took the honors, cutting short Dagan's winning streak at Bat Galim. According to head judge Duncan Coombs of the Professional Windsurfers Association (PWA), Dagan was only one jump away from potentially taking the title for the third year in a row.
Coombs was also impressed by Adi Zoma, who "put up a great fight," considering that the Israeli rarely competes outside of the country. Zoma was Storm Rider's winner in 2003, prior to Dagan's domination of the field.
The new and past winners celebrated with a generous uncorking of champagne and much toasting with an apparently endless supply of Red Bull.
Storm Rider is a wavesailing competition, which is commonly considered the most athletic and difficult style of windsurfing. In wavesailing, stunts and tricks consisting of aerial summersaults and aquatic rotations are awarded points for how well waves are ridden.
During Storm Rider, a competitor is judged - first on "jumps" as the sailor goes out from the shore meeting the oncoming tide, and secondly on "waves" as the sailor surfs the tide coming back in. The sailor with the best technique and diversity wins.
Bat Galim's Surfpoint club owner Eran Inbar, himself a seven-time national windsurfing champion, remarked on the uniqueness of the locale. "Most of our riders come from Tel Aviv, driving an hour to reach this special place," Inbar says. "There is no other place in Israel that can produce such conditions."
Ten years ago Bat Galim was barely developed, and largely a site of refuse with virtually no water sports. Over the past years, the existence of Bat Galim has been under serious threat of real-estate development by contractors planning to build a large marina, which would result in the partial destruction of the beach and the reef below.
Only last week, Haifa conservation groups and water sports fans-turned-activists defeated the notion of a marina at Bat Galim. "It may still be built elsewhere, but it won't be built at Bat Galim," a relieved Inbar said.
Bat Galim is considered by professionals to be a top venue in the Mediterranean due to its exceptional geographic conditions. The best conditions for wavesailing involve open swells breaking parallel to the beach, with winds blowing along the beach. With its south and southwest winds curving around Mount Carmel, Haifa is considered a natural model for the sport and its consummate sailors.
The shape of Haifa Bay, its underlying reef and shallow waters allow windsurfing speeds up to 25 knots, which are achieved with waves reaching heights of greater than three meters.
Windsurfing as a hybrid sport between sailing and surfing took Israel and the European continent by storm in the mid-1970s through the 1980s.
"There was a time," mused Inbar of the Surfpoint club, "that people would carry their wind sails on top of their car, even when they weren't heading out to windsurf, purely for the sake of being fashionable."