FIFTEEN YEARS ago, windsurfing was big business in the UK. First appearing commercially in the US in the mid-seventies, the windsurfer quickly caught the public imagination worldwide, and in the early eighties it seemed as though every other car on the road had a board on the roofrack. In those days there was actually little alternative for anyone seeking an easily accessible and available "adrenaline sport" - mountain biking, snowboarding, rollerblading, paragliding, indoor climbing and so many other modern action options were yet to hit the scene.

The industry has spent the years since that initial boom "downsizing" to a more realistic level. Although it will never return to the heady heights of those initial boom years, it still accounts for a multi-million pound share of the leisure activity market, with somewhere between a hundred thousand and a quarter of a million active participants in the UK. It has learned to coexist with the newer adrenaline sport - indeed, most windsurf retailers now also stock the goods for many other action options, switching priorities according to the season.

While still largely run by active enthusiasts, the industry has become much more professional about its business, as has the sport in general. Windsurfing today looks very different to how it did in those early years. In Britain it is governed by the Royal Yachting Association (RYA), who have put together what is widely regarded as the best teaching system in the world, particularly with regard to introducing children to the sport.

The RYA also manages competition training, with considerable success. An Olympic medal has proved elusive for our sailors as yet, although a podium position at Athens 2000 is not outside the reach of our present lottery-funded Olympic squad. However, British sailors have really proved a force to be reckoned with in the realms of "funboard" (high wind) competition, with racers such as Jamie Hawkins and Ross Williams regularly winning the Production board World Championships, and the brothers Nik and Ant Baker high in the top ten World Professional rankings. Nik has on several occasions won the British Windsurfing World Cup event at Brighton, and is also many-times world Indoor windsurfing champion.

Windsurfing has proved to be another of the "minority sports" that Britain excels in but rarely gets reported on. It is no mean feat to do well on the windsurfing Professional Tour, which is exceptionally hard-fought, with the top sailors making millions in prize money and sponsorship.

It is a tribute to the immense talent and dedication of our sailors and teaching systems that the British contingent has won such a disproportionately high number of World Championships.

It also says something about the windsurfing conditions on offer here in the UK. While the warm blue waters of the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Hawaii may provide much more appealing imagery and make for more comfortable learning, the ocean swells and surf battering our western shores and low pressure systems all too regularly sweeping in off the Atlantic give Britain one of the most varied and testing windsurfing environments on the planet. If you can sail well in all the conditions the UK can throw at you, you can sail well anywhere in the world!

Windsurfing equipment has also improved dramatically since the sport first started. The first boards were simply large lumps of polyethylene (washing-up bowl material), whereas the latest designs feature space-age technology construction, utilising such exotic materials as carbon, kevlar and the most sophisticated epoxy resins, to produce an incredibly light but tough hull. Sails have progressed from simple triangular pieces of cloth to computer-designed 3-dimensional foils supported by carbon battens and rigged on carbon masts.

These rigs are extremely light, provide extraordinary stability and can be used in an amazingly wide range of wind conditions. With such improvements in every aspect of windsurfing equipment, the sport is now far easier to learn, especially as modern boards are also much wider than those of yesteryear, which increases the stability yet further.

Windsurfing is now very much a year-round sport. However, the sport tends to go fairly low profile through the winter and starts properly in March at the Windsurf and Sailboat exhibition at Alexandra Palace which will be the first real opportunity to see all the new 1 999 product line-ups from the major brands

For more information on any aspect of windsurfing contact the RYA on 01703 627400.

Bill Dawes is the editor of UK's Boards Windsurfing Magazine.