I’ve long had a fascination with the idea of windsurfing on the open ocean, but it has always seemed like a distant dream. The added dimension of actually surfing on waves seemed thrilling, but the skills required to be able to even attempt it are fairly advanced and the awesome power of the sea is intimidating. Last year, on a drive up the coast in Santa Cruz county, we came upon Waddell Beach. There were dozens of kiters and windsurfers zipping around in the surf. It looked challenging, but not as extreme as I’d imagined. I made it a goal to get good enough to give it go. This summer, I finally made the dream a reality:
I walk my windsurfing rig down the ramp to the water’s edge, gently lower it into the bay, wade out a bit, fly the sail and let the wind pull me up onto the board. Looking forward, I hook into the harness, let my toes find the footstraps, and find the balance point with the wind. It’s steady and strong today. I’ve only sailed this spot a few times — I probably couldn’t have handled it just a few weeks ago. In a minute I’m in the churning chop of the deeper part of the Bay. The “terrain” is much like moguls on a double diamond ski run — with the added challenge that the “moguls” are moving. I tilt the board’s left side downward a bit with my heels, turning the board upwind, launching off a wave. I’m only in the air for a second but it’s a great feeling. Upon landing, the fin loses traction and starts to slip downwind but I’ve anticipated this and pull my back leg under my body to bring it back in line. I continue carving a path through the swell, using my knees as shock absorbers to keep the board from inadvertently launching. I spot a nice rolling swell ahead. Just as I’m about to reach it, I carve a steep turn to the right, shifting the balance of the sail, oversheeting a bit so that it depowers, and end up on the slope of the swell, facing down it. Briefly, I’m surfing this rolling wave. The shift from wind power to wave power feels like walking on the moon. I carve left again before the wave crosses another swell and power the sail again, skimming across the surface.
Although other windsurfers continue until they disappear as tiny specs in the distance, I decide it’s better to not venture too far across the bay. I look behind me to make sure nobody is following too close, unhook from the harness line, and perform the complicated dance called a carve jibe. In the space of 5 seconds I carve the board downwind, shuffle my feet (briefly looking like I’m trying to plié), flip the sail around and grab it on the other side, and end up on the opposite tack. This move, which essentially amounts to simply turning around, has taken four months of intense practice (with many spectacular crashes along the way) to get right. It’s still a joy when I complete it, and I still crash half my attempts. I let out a “whoo hoo!” and carve a path toward shore.
In three short weeks the engine that generates the San Francisco Bay wind will shut down for the winter. My friends will see more of me and I’ll start mountain biking again, mainly to stay in shape for the beginning of the next wind season in March. By the beginning of February I’ll be jonesing so much for my next windsurfing fix that I’ll write a blog post just to relive the last one.
In the mid-eighties my parents gave me a Bic BeBop windsurf board for my birthday (pictured: me sailing it last year. Note the new wave neon 80’s look… ignore my awkward posture). I don’t remember if I’d been asking for one or if it was a total out-of-left-field thing but I do remember the first few tries. One of the most frustrating experiences of my life to that point. The sail was so heavy to pull up out of the water. Trying to balance on what seemed like a 2×4 while yanking that big sail up required so much coordination. Once the sail was up I’d have so much momentum that’d fall backward with the sail landing on top of me in the water. Or I’d manage to sheet in only to get slammed down by the wind on the other side. A couple of hours of this would pass and I’d finally notice that’d I’d drifted almost to the other side of the lake.
Slowly, over the course of a couple of summers, I started to get a feel for it. I’d be just about ready to give up and then get a taste for what it could be like: a 30 second rush of pure adrenaline as the board whipped forward, followed by the inevitable uncoordinated plunge. This is exactly the kind of random reward our brains seem wired to get addicted to: it’s how slot machine operators make all their money on late night gamblers. Only this was outdoors and only resulted in sore muscles, not an empty bank account and baggy eyes. That electrifying half-minute was enough for me to pull myself back on the board and start uphauling the sail once again. My focus was so intense that I wouldn’t notice until that evening the cuts and bruises on my feet and knees from my clumsy attempts to get on the board as quickly as possible. Eventually those bursts would extend to minutes at a time, the sail would seem to get lighter as I learned to let the water slowly fall off it before hauling it up and the board became more and more stable as I understood where to put my feet and how to keep enough wind in the sail to keep from falling over. I learned some technique, like tacking (turning around while stepping around the front of the mast) and planing (gaining enough speed that the board lifts up and skims across the surface of the water).
Twenty-plus years into this sport I still experience the same thrill and catch glimpses of what the next level of skill will be like. It’s a pretty solitary activity (although there’s great camaraderie among windsurfers onshore) and there’s something about harnessing the wind directly with your own body that is incredibly meditative, therapeutic and stimulating at the same time. I’m very happy that my nephew, Erik, has taken an interest in windsurfing and I’ve seen his excitement when he gets going for a few seconds.
I am sailing my trusty old board (the whole rig is in surprisingly good condition after all these years; most of the decals are still intact and I’ve managed to not tear the sail). The wind is just starting to pick up after being fickle for most of the afternoon. It’s been mostly cloudy so far this summer so the lake hasn’t had much of a chance to warm up: added incentive not to fall in. But I’m focused on the wind. I’m on a broad reach, getting a feel for the conditions. There’s a lull but I’ve come to realize over the years that there’s always a pocket about this far from shore. Sure enough I see the telltale ripples just ahead and I sheet out a bit to anticipate the sudden pull. I ease the sail back in a bit and in no time I’m planing. I hook into the harness line on the boom. This is still a new thing for me even though I’ve been using a harness for a few years. Especially the first few times I go out in a season I’m acutely aware of the probability that I’ll be catapulted by an unforeseen gust. But this time I feel fairly secure. I sheet in some more, lean back, and commit most of my weight to the harness. I step back on the board and the wind picks up some more. I’m constantly making minute corrections in the angle of the sail as the wind and the waves change the weight balance. Aside from a single fishing boat in the distance I have the entire lake to myself. I hear the waves slap against the bottom of the board and the wind hiss through my ears and feel myself hurtle across the surface of the infinite blackness of the water reflecting the shifting clouds above and I have no thoughts racing through my brain — just the intent focus on maintaining this balance. It is glorious and blissful and thrilling and familiar and surprising. My breaths seem to take in twice as much oxygen as normal. I look back at the shrinking buildings I left behind a few minutes ago and the rounded mountain behind them set against brilliant, clear blue. For a moment, all that exists is this moment.