Florence, Ore. — Florence, Ore.
At the top of the slope, Erik Johnson is a tall, lanky figure silhouetted against a sky darkening with rain. He peers down the face of the run, straightens, then slowly begins to slide his body from side to side, swaying as if to the sound of distant music.
He leans forward, feet strapped to his board, and pushes over the rim. Sliding down the hill, he gathers speed, trailing a pale spray of sand.
With roughly 14,000 aficionados worldwide, sandboarding is among the latest in a long line of board sports to draw participants eager to blaze new trails. Many of them are snowboarders who have turned to the sand as a way to extend their seasons.
Sandboarders compare the feeling of flying down a dune to anything from surfing to snowboarding, depending on which discipline they come from. Lon Beale, editor of the online Sandboard magazine, and officials at Dune Rider International, the international governing body for sandboarding, attribute much of the recent interest to the easy crossover with snowboarding, particularly since the boards share a similar design, though with different bases.
"In surfing, not only are you moving, but the board's moving and the water's moving below you," Beale says. "But in sandboarding, you're moving and the board's moving, but the sand isn't, just like the snow isn't moving. I can tell if a guy's a surfer or a skater or a snowboarder or a wake boarder by the way he rides the sand."
Boarders get a slower start on sand than they would on snow -- although it doesn't take long to get up to snowboard speed. Sand has more give and there's more friction, so more angling and less edging is involved. And while snowboarders lean their weight forward to gain momentum, sandboarders have to lean back to keep from pitching face first into the sand.
"I'll go 70 miles an hour on snow no problem, without feeling uncomfortable in any way, shape or form," says Johnson, 26, an articulate redhead with arrow-shaped sideburns. "But on sand, it gets much rougher because you're not cutting through it like you would cut through the snow. You're kind of skimming over it."
Johnson's run at the eighth annual Sand Master Jam last week is not bad, but nothing like the one near Baker, Calif., at Dumont Dunes, where he set the world speed record for the sport at 51 mph in 1999. Here at Sand Master Park in the Oregon Dunes, about 40 acres of shifting sand that sometimes is piled up to 300 feet high, the weather hasn't been cooperating. Rain and even some hail are hindering competition. For sandboarders, moisture is the enemy -- to reach competitive speeds that allow for maneuvering and acrobatics, the sand needs to be dry.
The weather has reduced the field to a handful of riders, with a crowd of a few hundred. But the competition is still stiff. In addition to Johnson, there is 21-year-old Digiacomo "Digi" Dias, a professional sandboarder in Brazil who holds the world record for most double back flips, and 24-year-old Josh Tenge, who holds the record for longest back flip.
The sport has about 25 competitions a year internationally, though the purses tend to be small, topping out at about $1,500. ESPN's X Games is considering adding sandboarding.
One of the things Tenge says drew him to the sport was the opportunity to break new ground and set new records. "If Digi hasn't done it or Erik hasn't done it or my friend Alex hasn't done it ... then no one's done it, ever," he says. "So the chances of me being the first in the world to do something are pretty high."
The sport has enthusiasts worldwide, including Japan, the Netherlands, Brazil and Germany. The Sandboarding World Championships, which last year drew 5,000 spectators, are scheduled to be held next month at Germany's Monte Kaolino, a quarry outfitted with a 12-person lift.
The growing appeal of sandboarding may also have to do with its cost. Unlike its snowy counterpart, it's relatively inexpensive and not gear-intensive -- a board and a dune are about all that's needed. There is no need for bundling up in cold-weather gear and no pricey lift tickets to buy.
With so few lifts at sand parks, boarders must hike their way back to the top of the dunes after each run, but once on top they don't have to contend with lift lines. Here at Sand Master Park, people might be able to catch a lift on the four-person buggy that tools around the site throughout the day -- maybe even get dragged behind it using a rope pull.
Sand Master Park, which is owned by magazine editor Beale and contains a full-service pro shop, is one of hundreds of places listed on the Sandboard magazine Web site (www.sand board.com), including about 20 in California, where people can barrel down the barren, tan-colored dunes.