National Post

Thursday, February 25, 1999
Canada's National Newspaper

"Charles Chepregi is literally chairman of the Snowfer board. He invented winter's latest answer to windsurfing and also takes the recreational sport seriously - he's a former world snow and ice sailing champion."

By Mike Randolph

Lake Simcoe, just off Jackson's Point, mid-February. Day two of the North American Snowfer Championships is not going as organizer Charles Chepregi had hoped.
In fact, it's not going at all. Weather conditions are clear, crisp and unfortunately, windless.
But just because today's races are cancelled, there's no reason to let the National Post writer go home.
Charles Chepregi, aside from being the race organizer, is the inventor of the Snowfer (a kind of the winterized windsurfer) and he's also its marketing team and PR agency - he's an entrepreneur. Not an annoying, over-eager huckster kind of entrepreneur, but not one who's about to let a chance at good publicity go home for the day, either.


So Chepregi, a charismatic 53-year-old Hungarian emigrant, leads me out onto Lake Simcoe.
There are lots of fish huts out there in the distance, sinister-looking snow machines screaming across the ice at extreme speeds and extremely annoying decibel levels, and a strange six-wheeled tank-like vehicle with an apparently homemade tin shack for a passenger cabin.
The driver of this vehicle has mastered the technique of executing sharp, snapping doughnuts on the ice and he is amusing himself in this way not far from us, oblivious, it seems, to the resulting creaking noises in the ice.
I recall a recent picture in a Toronto newspaper showing a late-model Japanese import half submerged in the ice of this very lake. Charles senses my concern.
"Don't worry about those noises," he tells me. The ice is thick. One, maybe two feet thick. It always makes those noises."
I consider anything he has to say about ice-related safety completely unreliable. He's already admitted to me that he once surfed on ice only two inches thick. "It was at the world championships in Poland. If a bunch of people stood on one spot you could feel the ice bend. It was kind of crazy, but they had an emergency crew. No one went through."
The worst part of this is that I can't imagine what we're going to accomplish here. I want to take some photos, but there is hardly enough wind to put out a match, much less sail a Snowfer.
Chuck from Illinois and Joe from Michigan and Barney from Saskatchewan are standing around their boards looking hopefully at the limp flag Chepregi planted near the shore for the purpose of wind monitoring.
There is only one other surfer on the ice at the moment, and he is moving about as fast as a Zamboni.
But Charles is game. Ludicrously, he puffs out a vapoury breath, watches as it drifts north-northwest, and gets on his board, snapping his sail expertly.
He can work the wind like a champ because he is, in fact, a champ.
He won the World Snow and Ice Sailing Championships in 1995 and in 1997. So while the others stand by their impotent sails, Charles gets on his Snowfer and carves out long figure-eights, leaning way back, riding his board on its rail, smiling for the camera on every pass.
It's like they say. The talented really do make it look easy. But I know better. I tried windsurfing once. Or rather, I tried swimming beside one, tried hauling up the water-covered sail, tried balancing on the board without tipping over. (Windsurfers have a technical term for this balancing problem, called, quite incisively, the "tipping effect.")
I tell Charles of my past experience, which is a bit like telling an evangelist you're lost and in need of some direction.
"With the Snowfer you can learn the same basic techniques but it's much easier.
"Once you understand a little how the wind hits the sail, you can learn very fast. Every time you get out there you're doing better than the day before.
"And if you don't know how to turn around you can just step off the board and turn it back again."
His genuine enthusiasm is catchy. He is the kind of entrepreneur with a simple, endearing strategy for success: If you believe in your product, they will come.
And yes, it helps if you have a good case, which Charles is about to make with me. He steps off the board, unsnaps his helmet and offers it to me. I'm close to explaining to him that I really do believe what he's saying, that this is not necessary, but I don't want to hurt his feelings.
The only problem is that the wind has died down even more, so the chances of me finding it - even with Charles' help - are remote. I stand on the board. A puff of wind flaps the sail and the board overcomes what little friction there is and I'm moving. Then nothing. I'm not holding the sail at the proper altitude. Charles sees the problem, probably senses I'm not going to overcome it in the next 10 minutes, and so he helps me out a little. He pushes me by the waist and runs alongside as I Snowfer at approximately five kilometres an hour.
Meanwhile, he details the finer points of his craft.
"Compared to windsurfing on water, the speed and acceleration are excellent. On the ice we can easily do two or three times the speed with the same wind."
The plain fact that I still can't Snowfer in no way detracts from his point. Even I can see this much easier than windsurfing. The only possible drawback I can foresee is the proverbial involuntary dismount.
But while water in its frozen state presents myriad injury-inducing possibilities, in Canada, we have the answer. Hockey equipment. Most surfers at the competition wear elbow pads, knee pads and hockey pants in addition to a helmet, though most of these appear to be of the motorcycle variety - you can really cook on a Snowfer.
Charles says you can do 100 km/h on one of his boards, if the winds and surface conditons are right.
Fast enough, it occurs to me, to leave most of those annoying snow machines behind. And what could be better than that?

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