Windsurfing & Stand-Up Paddleboarding in Michigan
As the first of a Get to Know More Than Sail Size series, Michigan Windsurfing sent intrepid reporter, Will Splashtack, out to the Gorge to interview Tim Ortlieb. Tim is a made-in-Michigan windsurfer who found a career in the ‘industry’. If you ordered a new Ezzy sail, it may have come from Tim. So meet Ezzy’s main man on the mainland! (click the title or the Blogs tab to see full post)
Will Splashtack (WS): Tim, thanks so much for taking the time to talk. Let's jump right in and start at the beginning – how and where did you learn how to windsurf?
Tim Ortlieb: I learned to windsurf with a good friend named Rob McCready, during the summer of ’92 in Harbor Springs, MI. Rob lived in a house right on a small inland lake near Lake Michigan. He had a keen interest to learn how to windsurf, so we kind of jumped in together and figured it out. Rather than do lessons, we discovered the basics together. I’ll never forget trying to figure out how to tack and jibe. There was lots of head scratching and trial and error.
Learning to sail with a friend is the way to go. There is a little natural competition, which propels you through the rough patches. It is also nice to have someone with you in the event of a mishap…particularly on a big body of water like Lake Michigan.
WS: Michigan has some beautiful sailing sites. You must have some favorites?
Tim: Man oh man…I loved sailing Little Traverse Bay! We would launch from Harbor Springs or the Petoskey break wall depending upon wind direction. It was so much fun to cruise from one town to another and cover miles of open water. Harbor Springs of course has this beautiful exclusive landmass called “Harbor Point” which served as a nice little oasis. It was always a thrill to sail to the tip of Harbor Point and catch your breath. The views were just spectacular.
It was particularly thrilling to sail Goodhart and Sturgeon Bay. The better sailors were so inspiring to watch there. Jumping, swell riding, and big open water…ah man I miss that. To me, the most exciting part of windsurfing was the sense of exploration and adventure. I never had a boat when I lived in Michigan, so the thrill and liberty of being able to sail these big wide-open bodies of water was just spiritual.
I do love sailing places like the Gorge, the Caribbean, and Maui…but none of these destinations offers that feeling you get of being a mile off shore cruising to a different town! The fresh water is nice too. I never feel like I’m going to be someone’s lunch in Michigan! (Tim, don’t give away too much! We don’t want all those Maui regulars moving here! Sturgeon Bay is my personal favorite, but I want everyone to know that the sharks are really hungry there! )
WS: When and why did you leave MI, and where did you go from here?
Tim: My friend, Rob, moved to Hood River back in ’94. I remember speaking with him on the phone about how much he absolutely loved it. I put my nose to the grindstone and worked three jobs to save up enough money to give it a go. Once I arrived in Hood River I knew I was in the right place. Hood River has so much youthful energy and a sense of opportunity. It really wasn’t hard for a twenty-something year old kid to leave Michigan in February when all I could think about was windsurfing.
Once I moved to Hood River, things quickly fell into place for me. Almost immediately I got a job at Big Winds, and started sailing the first week of March. Shortly after moving to town I met my wife Layne, and opportunities seemed to be growing on trees for me.
WS: How did you start working with David Ezzy, and when did you first meet him?
Tim: My first Ezzy was a 7.0 Slalom from 1994. It was one of the few bigger sails you could rig on a 460. Once I got it, I fell totally in love with David’s designs. During the years I worked for Big Winds I really struggled feeling that connection with the sail brands that they represented. I remember trying out the three brand sails they were offering at the time just feeling like they weren’t working for me. Even though I was an intermediate sailor, I never felt the balance and power the same way I felt with Ezzy’s. I quickly got a full quiver of Ezzy’s over at Windance, while still working for Big Winds, and kind of set the stage for myself.
My friend Rob actually applied for and got the job as the US Ezzy rep. Shortly after, I was offered a retail management position under Brian Carlstrom at Windance. So, in effect, we were working together, sharing hours at the shop and on the water after work. Those were fun times. Windance had thousands of used sails priced from $75 to $400. It seemed like I could sell about 10 or so Ezzy’s (new or used) a day without trying because I was such an advocate for them. Everyone else was stoked with them too! That was the best part. Before long I took over for Rob and began managing the shop and the distribution for Ezzy. In 2000 David and I formed a business together called “Groundswell” that focuses on the global distribution of Ezzy, only. I’m blessed.
I first met David when he came over from Maui for a trade show in 1997. I remember the clinic so well because he stood on top of the PVC window of the wave sail while he talked about the sail. The window stretched so much I thought was going to rip. As soon as he got off the sail it quickly went back to shape and was fine. That made quite an impression on me.
WS: You’ve windsurfed in some great locations - any special memories?
Tim: Yeah, sailing with Jake Miller, Jesse Brown, and Josh Angulo at Baby Beach on Maui together. Man, I’d basically just swim in the water and watched those guys tear it up. The skill level of the pros is jaw dropping!
WS: Not to stir up any sad memories, but I understand that you worked for Ned Keys at the Outfitter. Ned was a great guy and a great ambassador for the sport. Any windsurfer in northern Michigan probably knew Ned. Any reflections here?
Tim: Where do I start? Ned was my mentor. He was more than just a teacher for me. When you sailed with Ned you felt safe. You could learn so much every time. Ned was patient and taught me about sailing principals, weather, self-rescue, and just fundamental things that are difficult to learn from a video.
Ned was so helpful for me in other ways too. He worked out a deal with the shop (The Outfitter) where I could get a new board and sail in exchange for working the bill off with part time hours and small payments. I became an employee of the shop and my connection with the industry is still going strong 20 years later. He guided me about proper equipment and taught me about the industry. Ned inspired me to come to the Gorge and check it out for the first time. We went to Margarita and Aruba together. Heck, he was my best man at my wedding. Ned pointed me in a direction in my life, and I feel I owe everything to him.
I was in Harbor Springs visiting my family the day that Ned was diagnosed with a glioblastoma in 2006. I was at the airport in Traverse City with my family when we got a call that he was in the hospital. It was so amazing because oddly enough our flight was cancelled out of nowhere, and it afforded us an opportunity to drive back to Harbor to see him at the hospital before his surgery. It was a final opportunity for me to thank him for all he had done. I’m forever grateful for that last hour with him. (Thanks Tim.)
WS: The industry is facing some challenges these days. What's your outlook on the future of the industry?
Tim: Every year there is some gloom and doom, but I can usually shrug it off. You know, we sell about the same number of sails every year despite these announcements? David and I just keep our head down and keep focused on the fundamentals.
Ezzy has always been a practical brand. We don’t have 15 different sails in our collection. We don’t invent “sub categories” of sails to create new ways of just going out and go windsurfing. We try really hard to make refinements every year but build on the core philosophy that the sails should work great even if they are 15 or 20 years old. A wave sail should work great on flat water too. A sail just needs to be balanced, feel light, and have a big range.
Every time I go to the beach I’m amazed at how many old sails are still going strong. I see 25-year old sails and boards every time. However, sometimes I get frustrated with this. Windsurfing is a lifestyle. Windsurfing led me to this place I call home and to my family. Man, if I’m going to dedicate my life to windsurfing, then it should be pretty easy to justify getting some new gear every few years if I need it.
I see people who have made tremendous life and financial sacrifices to windsurf. They dedicate their life to maximizing their sailing. Oddly enough, some of these folks don’t have any problem justifying the purchase of a new Sportsmobile or expensive mountain bike, but they just can’t seem to bring themselves to updating their gear. If someone is that dedicated towards sailing it is nice to at least have an open mind about the improvements in the gear.
Perhaps people are suspect. The industry seems to have tried really hard to push too much equipment into the market. Many brands do not develop a sustaining sales model.
We really don’t jam sails into any shop. Dealers get to order just what they want and we back them up with the best service we can give. Heck, you can even call up David Ezzy and ask him rigging questions about sails that are 20 years old. He is there for you. Neither of us will to try to talk you into a new sail unless we think you’ll really get something out of it.
Lots of the other brands want to stuff the shops full of brand new gear, and as soon as they deliver the order in the spring they announce there is a new collection coming out any day. Just foolish and short sighted thinking as far as I’m concerned. I think this very issue is why so many windsurfing shops haven’t survived and why sailors cling on to their older gear. They are callous. Our program has been all about matching demand instead of overproducing. Luckily we’ve weathered the “storm” so to speak. There has always been more demand than supply.
WS: Lastly, why do you think MI windsurfers are so intelligent and good looking?
Editor’s Note: Privately, Tim expressed the opinion that, even though he’s partial to MI, he always thought that ALL windsurfers were intelligent and good looking!