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Alexandria: Birthplace of windsurfing?

In order to change direction while standing on the sailing surfboard, Seltz had to hold the sheet line in his teeth to control the sail while switching hands on the tiller. Standing and sailing took skill, but the model allowed the boat to heel (lean) well with no loss of steerage or stability. (Contributed photo)

One day, about 50 years ago, Al Seltz daringly rose to his feet on the edge of a sailboat, and skillfully skimmed over the waters of Lake L'Homme Dieu. That moment may have put him in the history books.

While it is widely believed that windsurfing first originated on the California coast in the mid 1960s, Seltz, 79, of Fergus Falls, begs to differ.

During the summers of 1960 and 1961, Seltz experimented with what he called "surf-sailing," which added a new dimension to the ancient sport of sailing. The act of standing up on a small sailing surfboard had perhaps never been performed before.

The innovative experience came about as Seltz spent many summer weekends in his hometown of Alexandria.

After graduating from Alexandria High School in 1949, spending three years in the Army, and graduating from Valparaiso University in 1958, he enjoyed having more freedom, but was in need of a job.

During this time he became acquainted with Louis Whinnery, a founder and president of Viking Reinforced Plastics in Elbow Lake. Whinnery was a fiberglass designer, and had designed a line of small sailboats. The boats had a bathtub-like cockpit to seat one or two people, and handled high winds well, due to their 14-foot length and gold-anodized aluminum mast. They also came complete with fashionable fins on the rear edges to attract buyers.

These fins, which had no functional purpose, later proved to be the key to surf-sailing.

An aficionado of water sports, Seltz soon took up sailing on Whinnery's models. He and friends would often meet up to spend time on the water in the new boats.

One day during the summer of 1960, Whinnery made a suggestion to Seltz.

"Why don't you try standing up?"

To this challenge, Seltz replied, "Why not?"

By balancing on the fins of the sailboat, taking a rope in one hand to control the sail and another in the other to control the tiller, Seltz was able to harness the power of the wind. He and his buddies were astonished by just how well the new method worked.

"It was simply more fun to sail that way," said Seltz. "It was more of a challenge, but also more of a thrill. There was a sense of speed way beyond what you were really going, and a sensation of being close to your source of power."

Soon, the allure of sitting while sailing was completely diminished for Seltz. It was simply dull compared with the alternative.

According to Seltz, surf-sailing "wasn't as difficult as you might think," but it still took some skill and daring to master.

When Viking Plastics was in need of a salesman in early 1961, Seltz was the ideal candidate due to his expertise with the boats and with people. He spent the first part of the year toting the Viking Mark II and Mark IV boats across Minnesota, strapping one model on the top of his station wagon and towing two others on a double-decker trailer.

Although he managed to sell about 100 boats at shows and dealerships that season, the company went under at the end of the year.

After leaving surf-sailing behind, Seltz never forgot the exhilarating experience. There was always a question lingering in his mind - had he played a role in inventing an international sailing sport?

For years he has made his phenomenal claim facetiously, yet after listening carefully for important dates in many television windsurfing specials, he has yet to hear of any predecessors to his 1960 windsurfing endeavor.

"In 1962 some people had the first idea to use kites to propel surfboards," said Seltz. "In 1965 someone else thought of sailing. There has been an evolution of the design, but it is all anchored on the same concept. Standing on a sailboat is a new sport, just a part of the evolution."

One day, Seltz would like to help have Alexandria recognized as the birthplace of windsurfing. For now, it's fun to ponder what might have happened had the idea caught on in the lakes area 50 years ago.

As he enjoys the lakes with his wife, children and grandchildren, Seltz will never forget the excitement of standing on the edge, attempting the unattempted.

"It is fun, let me tell you," said Seltz. "The silence on the water is important...all you hear is the gurgle of the water, the scream of the wind as you pull the sail tight. It's thrilling."