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Chased out of Israel, international windsurfing event lands on Clearwater Beach

Competative windsurfers Tucker McElwaney, left, 15, Charlotte Samson, 17, and Noah Lyons, 14, surf off Sand Key Park in Clearwater on Wednesday while practicing with the Clearwater Community Sailing Center Windsurf Team team for an upcoming windsurfing event, the RS:X Youth World Windsurfing Championships that will be held on Clearwater Beach. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Oct. 17, 2014

CLEARWATER — The best young windsurfers on the planet had a big problem.

This year's youth world championships were all set to be held in Israel. But that was before violence erupted on the Gaza Strip, before weeks of death and destruction wrought by rockets and mortar fire. All that turmoil was scaring away competitors.

Where else could they go on such short notice?

That's when a couple of people in Clearwater basically said, Hey, bring the party over to our house.

And that's how, based on a few personal connections and some serious last-minute scrambling, the Tampa Bay area landed one of the most significant windsurfing competitions ever held in the United States.

Nearly 100 world-class windsurfers from four continents are coming to Clearwater Beach for the weeklong RS:X Youth World Windsurfing Championships. These are top-shelf teenage competitors aiming for the 2016 or 2020 Olympics.

"In Olympic-class windsurfing, most of the world championships are held in Europe. They're trying to start hosting more international windsurfing events outside of Europe," said Jerome Samson of Clearwater. He's a vice president at Nielsen Research who volunteers as president of U.S. Windsurfing.

In July, he took his 17-year-old daughter, Charlotte, to a youth windsurfing competition in Portugal. There, the sport's organizers took him aside and explained their problem in Israel.

We're in a bind, they said. Do you have any ideas?

So Samson called Clearwater mover-and-shaker Frank Chivas.

Chivas owns waterfront restaurants, including the Island Way Grill and the Salt Rock Grill. He's on the board of the Clearwater Community Sailing Center on Sand Key. A few years ago, he lured an annual offshore powerboat race to Clearwater Beach after he saw a race in Key West and figured it would be a good fit for this area.

"This thing happened real quick," Chivas said. "We had two and a half months to plan an event that typically takes years to pull together."

He and others have been lining up sponsors, hospitality, transportation, food and entertainment. Tourist-friendly Clearwater, always hungry for exposure, fast-tracked the necessary permits and is setting up tents for a "race village" on the beach south of Pier 60.

"We had other options," said Andrus Poksi of Estonia, the executive secretary of windsurfing's youth division. "But Clearwater's solution was most attractive as it was well prepared within a very short time."

Practice races begin this weekend. After an opening ceremony at 4 p.m. Sunday, they'll hold three races a day between 10 a.m. and 4 or 5 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, Oct. 25.

"Our intent is to run the races very close to the beach," Samson said. "Each race can last anywhere between 20 and 45 minutes. It's very demanding physically, and spectacular to watch."

The racing fleet will be divided into groups of up to 50. They'll start together and race around buoys, upwind and downwind. A commentator will explain what's happening on the water.

All of the competitors are 18 and under. Four are local students — Osceola High ninth-grader Tucker McElwaney, Morgan Fitzgerald Middle eighth-grader Noah Lyons, Palm Harbor University High senior Jonathan Rudich and Clearwater High senior Charlotte Samson.

Officials say Clearwater Beach is becoming a sailing and windsurfing training destination for prospective Olympians from the United States and Canada.

Rich White, director of the Clearwater Community Sailing Center, credits the warm winters and the mix of environments — calm Intracoastal waters and the choppier Gulf of Mexico.

"We've been telling everybody that Clearwater's the sailing capital of Florida," White said. "We're the best-kept secret, and now it's time for the world to find out."

Contact Mike Brassfield at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.

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