Back when waterstarting was considered a freestyle maneuver and chest harnesses were worn over neon wetsuits, Big Winds set up shop in Hood River, Oregon. 25 years later, we’re still here and having as much fun as ever!
Set the scene for us back in 1987. What was Hood River like? What was the sport of windsurfing like at the time?
[Steve Gates] Hood River was a pretty sleepy town in the spring of ’87. The recession had hit rural Oregon hard and things were pretty dormant economically. Safeway was still downtown, Franz Hardware still anchored 2nd and Oak and The Coffee Spot was the place for good coffee. The locals were generally friendly, but a bit suspicious of the “Boardheads” moving into town.
When summer hit, so did the windsurfers. This was before everyone had a van, so the boards were stacked to the sky. And they were everywhere. Windsurfing was THE thing then. Kiting didn’t exist, mountain biking wasn’t happening yet and whitewater wasn’t really on the radar yet…it was all windsurfing, and windsurfing was going off!
Why did you want to start Big Winds? And why did you choose Hood River for its stomping ground?
My wife, Ginny, and I had been living in Girdwood Alaska for 15 years and were thinking of a move, we just didn’t know where. We had looked at the central coast of Cal and some small towns in the mountains of Colorado, but nothing had really grabbed us. I was a building contractor and my back was tired from having a tool belt on 7 days a week. We were ready for a change.
I caught wind that a friend was thinking of opening a windsurfing shop in the Gorge. Several friends and I had gotten totally hooked on windsurfing on trips to Maui several years earlier, so we had heard and read all about the Gorge. Ginny and I talked it over, and within about 5 minutes decided that I should chat with my friend. The rest, as they say, is history. We struck a deal, became partners, and we moved lock stock and barrel to Hood River, sight unseen.
How did being a new dad reconcile with opening shop? What were some challenges you encountered with both endeavors unfolding concurrently?
My daughters were 2 and 6 when we moved so they adapted easily. Fortunately, Ginny and I made a lot of friends quickly, so the fact that I was totally consumed by the new business wasn’t a disaster on the home front. Though I was working a ton, I was still staying really involved with the kids, primarily through sports. That continues to this day. I’m super lucky to be able to windsurf, ski, surf, bike, hike, and play tennis with my “kids”.
What are some highlights from the past 25 years for you and for Big Winds?
The highlights certainly revolve around all the great people I’ve had the good fortune to meet and call friends. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have so many great customers who have supported us over the years. Without them, the rest would be moot.
We have so many great folks working in our industries, as well. My mantra is that I want to do business with people who are fun and easy to business with.
The area that I’m most proud of is the opportunity I’ve had to mentor so many young people that have worked with us at Big Winds. It’s tremendously satisfying to watch kids grow in confidence and mature into really neat young adults and know that we have played an integral role in that process.
Is the shop today where you imagined it would be?
It’s way, way beyond where I imagined it could be.
Paint us a picture of Big Winds in 2036- 25 years from now. What do you think the wind sport scene will be like, and where do you see Big Winds fitting in?
I certainly see Big Winds still active and vibrant 25 years down the road. We’re definitely in it for the long haul. Though I won’t be at the helm, it’s my expectation that it will continue to be a well-run, successful business.
If the last gazillion years are any indication, the Gorge will still be windy. I do believe that windsurfing will still be a popular sport, as will kiteboarding and SUP. Hood River will continue to be a favorite destination for these sports, it’s natural beauty mostly preserved for generations to come.
The future looks quite good, really.