Give Us Our Dailey Wind

Give Us Our Dailey Wind

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Megan Ault

Sure, you could drive north to Martinsdale or Canyon Ferry Lake, east to Harrison Reservoir, or south to Ennis or Hebgen Lakes and probably find wind. A wind phone service will even tell you how hard it’s blowing at some of those places. But ask Bozeman windsurfers what their favorite lake is, the one they head to for morning thermals, evening sessions, and every puff of wind in between, and they’ll say Dailey.

The season starts in May – March or April for the really hardcores – and goes like this: Wake up at the crack of dawn, and start calling the wind talker every fifteen minutes. On a good day, when it’s nuking at Dailey, it’s scramble for calories and coffee, cram windsurfing gear into car and drive like hell. May sound unlikely on a frosty spring morning, but it’s a typical start for thirty or so addicted adrenaline junkies like me here in the Gallatin Valley, and it only gets better in the summer.

Ask a non-windsurfing-addicted Minnesotan who’s grown up on lush, tree-lined lakes what she thinks of Dailey and she’ll tell you it’s the ugliest drink of water she’s ever seen. Ask a local windsurfer, though, and she’ll tell you about the view of Emigrant Peak or Dome Mountain, how at sunset the hills take on more shades of purple than there are names for, until they’re a feeling more than a color. Or she’ll tell you about jet-black coots bobbing in and out of the water as she sails by, and the bald eagles scouting above. A place surrounded by desert prairie wild enough that rattlesnakes and antelope still call it home, abundant enough to be seen.

I discovered Dailey Lake about ten years ago, when I first learned how to windsurf on a beginner board so big and sturdy I could have hitched an outboard motor to it. That’s the beauty of Dailey; depending on the way temperatures are rising and falling on the Yellowstone plateau, funneling air through the valley, it can be a place for a beginner to get a clumsy but thrilling start, or a place for Columbia River Gorge-level sailors to go out on their lightest, tiniest gear and get launched off the whitecaps, airborne for a few endless seconds.

Here are a few snapshots from my Dailey portfolio:

The Walk of Shame
In windsurfing, the idea is to park your car in a place where the wind will allow you to launch, ride, turn around, and sail right back. Easy. However, this assumes some technical proficiency, and if you’re on a large body of water, can be dangerous if you get blown downwind. But the worst that can happen at Dailey is you have to endure the Walk of Shame. Which I have. Many times.

While everyone else is out rippin’ back and forth across the water, I have been swept across the lake and dumped on the far shore, unable to sail back. I have laid my sail down flat across my board in defeat, and begun the long walk around the lake, further punished by occasional slogs through sucking muck.

Most often, by the time I get back from this humbling hike with weights, silently cursing the bulk of my gear, the wind has stopped and I have a happily spent audience of people waiting for me in lawn chairs, sandwiches and drinks in hand.

"Took the grand tour, huh?" someone comments.

I nod, barely.

"We’ve all done it," he adds.

Yeah, yeah.

It’s spring, or maybe it’s early June and just feels like spring. In any case, it’s nippy, with nighttime temps keeping the water cold enough that everyone’s out in dry suits. Even on the warmest Dailey days the water is still frigid, and most people wear wet suits – though I’ve heard of birthday suits on special occasions. The wind is in charge today, and everyone hoots and hollers as they harness ride after screaming ride.

I take a few great rides myself, feeling like a wind goddess, trying not to think about what a fall might feel like at the speed I’m going. Then I’m down, hard. It happens so fast that I don’t have time to unhook my harness line from the sail, and there I am – trapped. Of course all it requires is that I unhook myself and swim around the sail, but it’s enough to leave me shaken by the time I’m up for air again.

I take a deep breath, flip my sail into position for a waterstart, a little trick where you hold the sail up just enough that the wind catches it and pulls you back on your board. I am blue-lipped cold by now, despite my suit, my fingers frozen meat sticks. I hold the sail up, and a huge gust catches it, slams it over the other side of the board like it’s a napkin, with me still holding on, ragdoll style.

"Are you okay?" I look up; it’s Keith Marr, friend and head of the Montana Windsurfing Association.

"I can’t get my waterstart!" I yell back.

"Do you need help?" he asks, dropping sail.

Something stubborn overrules my common sense. "No! I’m gonna get this," I say.

Three other windsurfers come by, hollering to see if I need help before I finally maneuver back to shore, exhausted in a way that makes me consider collapsing into a heap on the rocks, so I don’t have to drag my bones up the short rise to the car.

I feel a hand clap my shoulder, which pulsates down my throbbing arm, now ten inches longer than when I arrived. "You should go sit in my van for a while," the voice says. It’s Neil Smith, a youthful fifty-something sailor who has been windsurfing with his family on this lake since the sport became popular in the eighties. "I’ve had my heater on so anyone can go and sit and warm up between rides," he says.

"I’m done for today," I say, now chattering and shaking spastically.

"I know, I saw you out there," he says. "Hypothermia isn’t good.”

Midsummer, hot. The weekend forecast calls for winds, 15-30 miles per hour in Paradise Valley, but they haven’t materialized yet. Not a whisp. It looks like a windsurfer’s garage sale, or a graveyard, with rigged sails lying all over the ground like useless wings, boards beached like baby belugas. The boaters and jetskiers are out, while windsurfers swat at the clouds of gnats that hang out at Dailey whenever it’s ovenlike.

Kids drag their parents’ boards out into the bay to splash around, a few guys pull out a hacky sack, bags of chips are passed around, and coolers opened. Someone pulls out a weather radio and cranks it for the wind report.

I can hardly stand the wait. The last time I sailed, a week ago, I passed a few of the really incredible windsurfers on my board and got to heckle them about it afterwards. A tiny little evil part of me loves this, can’t wait to get out there and kick up some spray.

"Should we head for Canyon Ferry?" someone says.

"Maybe it’ll still happen," someone offers.

"I think we got skunked," someone else replies.

My family and I’ve brought food and gear to stay the weekend. I notice nobody actually gets in their car to leave.

Gnats and swarms of motorized watercraft can all be a part of Dailey. The kinship of shared sun and wind, moonlit nights with glowsticks attached to windsurfers, skimming across magical waters, feeling the power of playing with the elements – if you wait around long enough, that’s Dailey too.

Getting Started

Years ago, during the height of the sport's popularity, there was a windsurfing shop in Bozeman that offered gear and instruction. It's a little more challenging now for new people wanting to enter the sport, but not impossible. I've witnessed several newcomers getting hooked up with used gear and a few pointers just by striking up a conversation with windsurfers at Dailey.

Look for a board that will provide good floatation for your size, as well as a sail or two. A mast, mast base, boom, and wet or dry suit are also necessary. Try these resources for further assistance:

Second Wind Sports, 15 W. Olive, sells used windsurfing gear that often includes items appropriate for a beginner. Owners Scott and Becky Luckay are seasoned windsurfers and can guide you in choosing gear to get started. 586-7441.

MAWI (Montana Association for Windsurfing Individuals) is the local organization that provides subscription service to the "Wind Phone." For a yearly fee, patrons receive access to wind conditions at Canyon Ferry, Martinsdale, and Dailey Lakes. Use of this service can greatly reduce chances of getting "skunked." Keith Marr is the president and can be reached at 587-5803.

If you already have an idea of the gear you want or need, there are several windsurfing dealers out of Hood River, Oregon, and other hot spots that offer e-commerce via the Web. Try or for listings and photos of new and used gear, as well as instructional videos.

For tips and techniques, gear-rating articles, clinic information, and reviews on the best places to windsurf, log on to the Windsurfing Magazine Web site at

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