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Last year, on an ocean downwinder from Rodanthe to Salvo, Robert Netsch noticed a beachgoer struggling in the water just 30 feet off the beach. “The waves weren’t big by any means,” Robert recalls, “Nothing you and I would glance twice at, but this guy was taking them on the head.” Robert read the early signs of panic in the man’s eyes and offered to help by body dragging him back to safety. After a 30-year career in the Coast Guard working behind a desk on Search and Rescue logistics, in the waters off of Hatteras, he was able to experience his life’s work in real-time.

Robert can tell you better than anyone else, as you read these words, somewhere in American waters, there is a fisherman or a small family whose boat is going into distress. Having answered a newspaper ad fresh out of college, he began a Coast Guard career programming the models that predict where to find troubled boaters in an ocean environment that is constantly changing. According to Robert, the search models are based on high-level mathematics using probability and statistics that factor in the distress info you have, whether that’s an EPIRB, radio SOS or a reported failure to return. Using modern computing power, distributed architecture and now cloud services, Robert’s models compute object drift using complex weather forecasts and generate probability distribution maps that are used to coordinate the most effective way to perform searches with aircraft and cutters. Robert explains, “If a helicopter has the range to conduct a 90-minute search pattern—it’s important they spend that 90 minutes looking in the right place.” Having grown up and started his career with the Coast Guard in Cape May, New Jersey, watersports like surfing and sailing have always been a part of Robert’s lifestyle. After marrying his college sweetheart and starting a family by the age of 27, for his first Father’s Day present, his wife Valerie surprised him with a F2 windsurfer, a gift that would steer their family’s trajectory for the rest of their lives.

When his job with the Coast Guard required them to move, Robert and Valerie happily relocated their family to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. From then on, “We became a windsurfing family.” Robert, Valerie and their kids, Evan and Hilarey, would ritually drive south from Nags Head after workdays and on weekends to windsurf out front of Hatteras Island Sail Shop. In 2001, his son wanted to learn how to kite. “I was 100% against it,” Robert explained, “We finally had everyone set up with windsurfing gear and they could all do their own thing.” Having been brainwashed with windsurfing videos as an infant, Evan was already an accomplished windsurfer with heli tacks and other advanced moves under his belt.

Robert Netsch and son Evan Netsch horsing around on the sandy shores of La Ventana circa 2014.

“At first, I went through the stages of grief, denial and anger. I spent a lot of time walking him upwind so he could figure the kite out, but the southwest wind and shallow, waistdeep water behind Hatteras Island Sail Shop was the perfect place for a 12-year-old to learn.” Evan and his sister Hilarey joined the Hatteras Island Sail Shop rat pack, learning with other local kids, Reider and Vela Decker, and Morgan and Brock Skiperdene. Equally capable in the waves as well as sliding big features in the Real Watersports slider park, Evan scored a sponsorship with Cabrinha and quickly became one of the most diversely talented riders on the East Coast.

Soon enough, Robert followed suit, trading his windsurfer for a kite. Robert remembers first getting heavily into the twin tip flatwater scene, but kitesurfing in the ocean followed because it was easier to get out through the shorebreak than windsurfing. When Evan was old enough to drive himself to the beach, Robert and Valerie revisited their bicycle racing days—Robert scored some prized wins like the Virginia State Championship in Cyclocross, but after a significant crash, Robert returned to kitesurfing. Surprised by advances in kite technology, he found himself once again in the grips of the kitesurfing obsession.

This past summer, Robert officially retired from the Coast Guard with 30 years on the books, though for the moment, he has kept one hand in maritime search modeling with a part-time consulting gig. Beyond regular SUP surfing and wingsurfing sessions, in his free time, Robert can be found restoring a rare Hobie 21, crewing on a 38’ catamaran charter and working towards his captain’s license. When asked about his greatest accomplishment, he points to his two kids, “who both grew up into well-balanced, quality citizens.” Watching Evan navigate the perfect career path with Cabrinha, Robert jokes with his wife, “Evan is either a complete workaholic or never working. Either way, he’s always planning his day around the wind and waves.” Having spent his entire life within a stone’s throw of the Atlantic, Robert is a classic role model for balancing the demands of work, family and water time.

This article was featured in our summer 2021 issue, Vol. 18, No. 2. To read more, click here.

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