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Powder Puff Highly popular in Finland, will the fledgling sport of Skimbatting take wing in the U.S.?

We all know that a wombat is a stocky, burrowing Australian
marsupial with a generally uncouth and frowsy look. So what's a
Skimbat: the nonfat version? As it turns out, a Skimbat, though
feathery and capable of flight, is not an animal at all. It's a
handheld parasail that allows you to combine windsurfing with
skiing, snowboarding or hang gliding.

Held in the traditional windsurfing position (parallel to the
body) the 14-pound, V-shaped, $800 wing generates speeds of up to
85 mph--on skis or snowboards--and propels you over ice or snow
like a Skimbat out of hell. Held aloft, it can catch gusts that
enable Skimbatters, or wingsurfers as they're also known in the
sport's salty parlance, to hurtle hundreds of feet through the

The Skimbat was first sighted nine years ago on the frozen lakes
of Scandinavia. A couple of batty Finns, Sami Tuurna and
Carl-Magnus Fogelholm, adapted the flying-wing technology of
windsurfing for hard water. In those early days wingsurfers
tended to be middle-aged windsurfers who took a decidedly
grounded approach to the sport. "They were tired old
farty-darties trying to keep the thrill alive in the winter,"
says John Chao, an Olympic windsurfer in 1984 who is helping to
introduce the sport in the U.S. "Then, all of a sudden, some
young Finns figured how to maneuver their Skimbats to jump and
fly, and the door opened for kids. In Finland, wingsurfing has
become an extreme sport that involves serious hang time."

Seven years ago the aerial wingsurfing distance record was 84
feet. In 1999 Patrick Blom, an economics student from Helsinki,
ramped off a snow-clad ridge in Lapland and glided for 518 feet.
He has since extended the mark by nearly 200 feet. "At first, I
think the skiers [looking on] figured we were hang gliders," said
Blom, "or just crazy. I do not recommend inexperienced
wingsurfers to try flights like this."

Embraced by a small pocket of enthusiasts in northern New
England, Wisconsin, Minnesota and, more recently, Colorado and
California, wingsurfing is "still crawling" in the U.S., says
Chao, who estimates that 220 wings have been sold Stateside. Chao
himself winged it for the first time in December 1997 at New
Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee--the closest thing to a U.S.
wingsurfing hot spot--before traveling to Finland the following
year for the Finnish Open Ice and Snow Sailing Championships of
Skimbats and Kites. "I was hooked the minute the wind lifted the
sail and began to pull me across the snow," he recalls. "It was
an astounding sensation. The Skimbat made me feel like a feather
pushed by the wind."

What wombat can make that claim?

--Franz Lidz

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN CHAO Into Finn AirIn the land where the sport was born, wingsurfing's middle-aged inventors have been overtaken by teenagers who have learned to Skimbat aloft for several hundred feet.