Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Windsurfing Through Life

About twenty years ago, friends of ours invited us to the Cape with them for the day. Tom brought his windsurfer to the beach. I was transfixed by the way he effortlessly zipped back and forth in the wind and water, and asked if I could try it. He showed me the basics of standing on the board and using the rope to haul the mast, sail, and boom up out of the water, then holding the sail in "the neutral position" (where the wind is at your back and the sail is parallel to the wind without catching it) while trying to maintain your balance. But whenever I moved the sail, it would catch the wind in a way I didn't expect, and I'd lose my balance and fall off the board. Tom would yell sailing things at me like "don't pull it into the wind so much," but never having sailed, I didn't know what that meant.

The next year, we returned the favor and invited Tom and his family down to Nantucket where we rented a place every year. When we met them at the ferry, I saw, to my delight, that Tom had brought the windsurfer. I spent most of an afternoon wrestling with it, and got pretty good at standing up on it, but I never mastered the problem of not knowing what to do when the sail caught the wind and everything started moving.

The following spring, I bought a used windsurfer and resolved that I would crack the nut of getting it moving without losing my balance and falling off it. Before we took it to Nantucket that summer, I did quite a bit of reading. Of course, learning to windsurf by reading is probably like learning to do gymnastics by reading; there's only so much you can learn without doing.

However, I stumbled upon a kernel of knowledge in an on-line tutorial that made sense to me. It said "The neutral position is crucial. You need to learn to return to this position. Learn to live in this position. Lean to read War and Peace in this position. Then, and only then, can you can gradually pull the sail in and orient the mast and boom in different ways to catch and control the wind." It went on to describe how to hold one hand on the boom close to the mast and move your other hand further down the boom. The further down you move your outside hand, and the further in you pull the boom, the more wind the sail will catch. If it catches too much wind, you can always reposition your hands. If you're really perplexed, you can always return to the neutral position and start over.

"Learn to read War and Peace in this position" was the piece of advice I needed. It worked. I cracked the nut. I also figured out the part that you can only learn by doing--the balance part, the small rapid changes in boom/mast/sail/hand position and your weight distribution that eventually become second nature. That summer, I not only got the board moving, I became a credible novice windsurfer. I stress the word novice; I was never launching off waves and catapulting myself twenty feet into the air or doing flips or anything like that. But I did get to the point where I bought the clip-in harness and could hang my weight off the boom, pull the sail in tighter, catch even more wind, and zip along in Nantucket harbor at a pretty good rate. I even once got going fast enough that I accidentally dug the nose of the board into the water and pitch-poled the whole thing end over end, something I regarded as a personal success, sort of like having a car with enough power that you can spin it coming out of an apex and exit the track backwards.

Windsurfing on Nantucket, 2003
I windsurfed every vacation for several years, but then hurt my back (bulged L5 and pinched S1 nerve root) in an unrelated incident. I tried windsurfing the next year, but taking the board, mast, and boom off and on the roof of my Suburban, assembling the system, and especially hauling the wet sail up out of the water, were painful. I described the spate of windsurfing activities to my back doctor and he said "yeah, don't do that."

So, nearly ten years ago, I gave it up and sold the windsurfer. Ah well. As I said somewhere, we measure maturity by how much we can leave behind and still smile.

Fast-forward to last year. My middle son Kyle's in-laws have an off-the-grid cabin on a lake in a very rural part of Maine. Several thousand acres of land surrounding the lake are owned in common by a small number of homeowners. Mountains are close enough to the lake that there are no roads out to the houses; a caretaker has to ferry you out in a boat. No powerboats are allowed on the lake except for the one used by the caretaker. The deed restrictions state that houses can't be visible from the lake. And since the area is privately owned, with very little turnover, rules are actually followed. So when you're on the lake in a canoe or kayak, it's unbelievably pristine.

So you can probably understand why, when last year we first went up to the lake with Kyle, my daughter-in-law, and her parents, the fact that they had not only canoes and kayaks but an assembled windsurfer piqued my interest pretty hard. The sail was already rigged on the mast and boom. I just needed to carry it and the board about 40 feet from the house down to the water and snap them together and leave them on the dock when I was done. It seemed likely that my back could take that.

So I tried it. I gingerly stepped onto the board in light winds and hauled the sail up out of the water. That activity blissfully didn't generate any pain, so I checked to see if I had any windsurfing muscle memory left. I found that I could, to my delight, remain upright, pull the sail into the wind, get the board moving, and exercise some degree of control. I spent a very happy hour windsurfing on the lake.

Now, windsurfers have no rudder (we're talking the equipment, not the people, though the degree to which I have a rudder is a matter of debate as well), so the amount you're able to steer is somewhat limited. You can effect some amount of steering by tilting the bottom-hinged mast, but it's not as controllable as a sailboat with a rudder. And, even if it were, the fundamental problem continued to be that I never learned how to sail; I simply didn't speak wind. So even though I was able to maneuver the windsurfer and come about (falling off the board as often as not), I was largely at the mercy of the wind. I found myself downwind of the cabin by several hundred yards, and try as I might, was unable to get back upwind. Sailing out into the lake and tacking back didn't work, as, due to the presence of the surrounding mountains, in various spots the wind just died.

Fortunately two of my sons were in a canoe fishing. I shouted "Father down! Father needs assistance!" They paddled over, threw me a rope, and towed me back. It was a ignominious finish to the carefree self-image I had of windsurfing on Nantucket when I was younger and stronger.

Well. We just returned from Lakefest 2017, a reprise of last year's trip. It was delightful in all aspects. All three of my boys were there this year, as were Kyle's wife, in-laws, and other members of their family, all of whom I genuinely like. And the windsurfer was there too, sitting under the porch. The weather was lovely for mid-September, about 70 degrees, oodles of direct sun, and a nice afternoon breeze. To say that the windsurfer and lake beckoned me for Round II is an understatement.

I found that my muscle memory was still pretty good in terms of the mechanics of standing up and catching wind without falling off, but was preoccupied by the idea that I needed to be able to control the rig and sail out and back to the dock. I asked Maire Anne to make sure there was someone on the dock who could act as the family version of windsurfer AAA if it looked like I was repeating last year's performance, but, to my delight, by the end of the first day, I seemed to have that largely under control. The wind was blowing in the opposite direction from how it stranded me last year, and kept sending me into a cove at the end of the lake, but I never had any trouble getting back.

The second day, filled with some measure of confidence, I tried to sail out into the central body of the lake. Unfortunately, on four attempts, the wind kept pushing me into the cove. It wasn't where I wanted to go, but on the positive side, each time I headed back, I was able to come about and wind up directly in front of the dock. I became less concerned with whether there was a tow truck I mean canoe at the ready.

On the fifth attempt, I pulled the windsurfer harder upwind, and smiled as I successfully steered it wide of the cove and found myself heading into the larger part of the lake. I wondered "Should I come about here and make sure again that I can head back?" but the wind quickly made that decision for me. With the wind no longer blocked by the proximity to the mountains ringing the shore, suddenly I was in more wind. A lot more wind. I picked up speed and began heading further out into the lake.

The wind began to pull the boom and sail out of my hands. I compensated, regained my footing, pulled the sail into the wind, started to lean back on it, then the wind died and I fell backwards off the board. Fortunately it was still warm and sunny, so there was little consequence to getting wet. I climbed back on, acclimated to this new set of dynamics, and had at it. Pretty quickly I found myself leaning back on the boom, catching a respectable amount of wind, and shooting across the lake like the borderline-competent novice windsurfer I was a decade ago.

However, the wind out in the middle of the lake, unaffected by the surrounding mountains, wasn't blowing in the same direction as the wind closer to shore. My new lines across the lake bore no resemblance to those nearer-to-shore passes that reliably took me back to the dock. My anxiety about needing to be able to control the windsurfer well enough to get back without an embarrassing "tow" returned.

But here's the thing. A voice inside myself said "You've just been working for an hour to get into this part of the lake. You did it. You're here. NOW ENJOY IT, you overly analytical risk-averse son of a bitch. What's the worst thing that can happen? You beach it on the shore somewhere and walk? It's not that big of a lake."

So I did. Enjoy it, that is. For about twenty minutes, I zipped back and forth in the middle of the pristine lake, without a house in sight or a power boat to mar the ear, leaning back hard on the boom, catching as much wind and speed as I could. September 12th, 2017. The last days of summer. The trees ringing the lake beginning to turn. The sun shining, the air and water warm. It was fucking glorious.

When I began to get tired, I sailed as far upwind as I could, then tried to wrestle the windsurfer toward shore. I wound up several hundred yards upwind of the dock. You can run directly downwind on a windsurfer, but you have to be able to hold the mast up in all that wind, and I couldn't. Fortunately, I found that I could put the mast in the good old neutral position, with the wind at my back and the sail luffing, read War and Peace, and gently tilt the boom to move the sail left or right, having it act effectively as a rudder in the wind rather than in the water. It wasn't pretty, but it was astonishingly precise. I dropped the sail in the water ten feet in front of the dock.

I've often said that I'm where I am in life because I've floated downstream with the river, and that the river has carried me to some interesting places. I never thought I'd spend 33 years doing applied geophysics for the detection of unexploded ordnance, that my automotive hobby would flourish into a profession, that after 30 years I'd still be writing my Hack Mechanic column and have four books published. The windsurfer--the apparatus and the person--could be a better metaphor than the river.

But that's the wrong use of the metaphor. It completely misses the point. It's not that I've been warped by the wind and driven by the sleet (apologies to Little Feat). It's that I've been determined, stubborn, at times obsessed, with obtaining and exercising control over certain situations that I can control. It's that I've recognized when I need to be less conservative and go outside my comfort zone. It's that I've maintained my balance. And it's that, at times, I've actually listened to that voice that says for the love of all that's good an holy, ENJOY THIS, RIGHT NOW.

(If I really wanted to go for the gold and bludgeon the metaphor home, I'd add that I freely admit that, in my life, I overuse the mechanism of "returning to the neutral position," but if I were to say that, I'd need to wrap it up with a bow by saying "Besides, I like reading War and Peace," and, in truth, I've never read it. Why, oh why, didn't the online windsurfing tutorial I read 15 years ago say "Learn to read Ulysess in this position? Damn you, online windsurfing tutorial! Damn you to hell!)

It probably doesn't make sense for me to look for another windsurfer. It's September. I don't currently have a vehicle I can easily mount it on. Even if I did, although my back is better than it was, all of the issues of loading are still in play. It's probably best to simply take the memory and file it under "smile."

But if I'm back up at the lake next year, and the windsurfer is still there under the porch, and there are white caps on the water, my pulse will quicken more than a little. We measure maturity by how much we can look forward to, and still smile.

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