Bewitched in Bonaire

“Your friend asked me to teach you to windsurf.”

On my first visit to Bonaire I became a windsurfer. Never mind that seven or eight years ago I resolved that never again would I subject myself to the torture and humiliation of my very first attempt at windsurfing. Never mind that I was determined not to give my boyfriend the satisfaction of converting me to “his” sport. I was among the group collectively known as “wind widows” and willingly accepted a dusty sandblasting on the beach each time that my beloved boardhead quenched his thirst for wind induced thrill. But it is amazing what a trip to the Caribbean during a long New England winter can do to even the most determined soul.

Bonaire, I was told, is a naturalists paradise, and having an environmental background, the portrait of my imminent vacation did not immediately include windsurfing. Note that this is in direct conflict with my boyfriend, whose sole purpose of visiting Bonaire was to satisfy some primal adrenal urge and to perfect his jibes. Jibes! What could be so challenging about turning around? My primal urge on the other hand,  was merely to saturate my deprived skin with some invigorating, if cancer causing rays. Believe it or not, I was content with this expectation.

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One of the first things that I noticed upon our arrival on Bonaire was that the whole island operates at a pace that is predetermined by the sun and the wind. And since both are virtually constant, there is little rush for anything, including windsurfing. This concept was as foreign to “Mr. Windsurfing Vacation” as sailing without a wetsuit in March. He was determined that if the palm leaves were quaking, even at six in the morning, there was absolutely no reason to wait to go windsurfing. As a result, I was dragged, half asleep, to the hotel lobby just to be first in line to pick up our rental car.  There was no line to wait in, (as everyone else was smart enough to relax and sleep in) and our departure to the most popular windsurfing area, Lac Bay, on the windward side of the island, was swift.

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Behind the wheel, my wind maniac was driving with one eye on the road and one eye on the trees, leaving me with the map and as I saw it, free reign to go wherever I wanted. While he watched a single cloud streak across the perfect blue sky, I purposefully dictated a wrong turn and then feigned ignorance when we found ourselves on a curvy road on the leeward side of the island. Being that Lac Bay is on the windward side, when the road subsequently turned into a one way route as we entered the 13,500 acre Washington Slaagbai National Park that occupies almost the entire northern end of the island, he realized he’d been tricked. I was thrilled by the chance to explore the park, even if the plants and animals appeared merely as colorful blurs from the windows of the van.

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Soon we had left the park and we were careening down a desert road toward Lac Bay. From the way our little van was being buffeted around on the road, I could tell that it was windy and I  prepared for my first sandblasting of the trip.

A sigh of relief was breathed as we arrived to see that the wind was still blowing across Lac Bay when we pulled up to  the Bonaire Windsurf Place, or “The Place”  for short.  We were introduced to Elvis Martinus, one of three co-owners, one of whom is Roger Jurriens, who runs Roger’s Place, two islands over, on Aruba.

Elvis let my wind starved man pick out a suitable board and sail and before he carried the gear into the steady 18-20 knot breeze on  Lac Bay, my beloved pulled a longsleeve lycra shirt from his backpack, and tossed it to me with a “you’ll know what to do with this” look. Although the slippery feel of the white lycra shirt felt cool in the warm breeze, it looked like something to protect me from the sun, and since it so closely resembled the colorless tint of my skin already, I decided I wouldn’t wear it.

“Are you ready?” asked a shy voice from behind me.

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“Excuse me?” I felt for sure that some mistake had been made.I turned to meet the voice. A slight, dark man with a huge smile was expectantly waiting for an answer, apparently from me.

“I am Pitoon, your instructor. Are you ready for your lesson?” He paused for my reaction but continued when he saw that I was still confused, “Your friend asked me to teach you to windsurf.”

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I stumbled to answer and my mind churned to come up with one of my usual excuses as to why I don’t windsurf. The problem was, none of my usual excuses would work here; the conditions were undeniably perfect for a beginner. Besides, this man seemed so friendly and eager to help me that I just didn’t have the heart to disappoint him. Revenge for my trickery this morning had found me.

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Without missing a beat, I introduced myself to Pitoon, and tried to suppress my resentment for this obvious move of foolery. I didn’t want Pitoon to know that my desire to windsurf had been lost many years ago, so at Pitoon’s suggestion, I donned the lycra shirt in lieu of greasy sunscreen and, though I didn’t know it at the time, took my first step toward becoming a windsurfer.

After a few pointers on the simulator, Pitoon took me out onto the water with a huge board and a tiny sail. From what he had told me on the simulator, there were only a few basic movements I  would need to remember.

When my toes hit the water, my mind immediately jumped back to the day when I first stepped onto a board… and had to be picked up hours later, in tears, by a conscientious boater, miles from my launching point.

Here I was again, climbing on the board for another dose. I jerkily uphauled the sail and promptly fell off the board, a couple of times. Nothing had changed.

On the verge of giving up despite Pitoon’s encouragement, I tried once more. The sail rose slowly out of the water, and then things started happening fast. The wind tugged at the sail and tried to pull me over. I reacted by stepping back and putting a hand on the boom to steady myself. And then suddenly I felt that awful, sick, uncontrolled thrill, as if my feet were glued to a skateboard with loose wheels going down a steep hill. Too fast to be comfortable. Not wanting to fall. Water moving beneath me swiftly. Where am I going? How am I going to get back? Bail out! Now! I jumped away, bitten, and fell into the secure warmth of the Bay.

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I expected to come up and turn to see Pitoon a half mile away, but to my surprise, he remained, smiling, at a friendly distance of only 20 yards. That intense trip that felt like it lasted a lifetime was only twenty yards? Suddenly, I saw before me, a Bay of potential.

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I had an irresistible urge to get back on the board and see how much better I could do, to match that thrill,  to extend it. By the end of my lesson, I could complete a primitive tack and was able to steer the board adequately to avoid obstacles, not that there are many in Lac Bay. After another hour of practicing by myself, my salt water tendered hands badly needed a break, and I reluctantly navigated the board to the beach.

Now I was faced with a dillema: how to approach “my man with a plan” about the experience. I desperately wanted to tell him all that I had learned that morning, how exhilarating it was, and that I was beginning to understand his addiction to windsurfing. But the dreaded and inevitable “I told you so” would be an ego bruiser.

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Luckily, when I got in, he was nowhere to be found. I figured that he was probably checking out the other windsurfing concessions in Lac Bay. Although, with a nude resort just a few hundred yards down the beach, I wasn’t positive. I saddled up to the lacquered wooden bar on the deck of the Place, and cooled my burning hands with a frosty Amstel beer, and chatted with Pitoon. It turns out that he is the third co-owner of the Place and also the Dutch Antillean windsurfing delegate to the Olympics in Atlanta. He also told me that it is not unusual to see a naked bather from the nearby beach resort wading through a group of windsurfers, and even more entertaining, nude windsurfers, covered only by a harness. Ouch!

It was mid afternoon now, and as I sat watching from my newly acquired perspective, the windsurfers carving perfect arcs in front of Jibe City, a Bic Center next door, I noticed that the sails and the people attached to them were getting smaller! Either the local beer was very powerful or there were some new smaller sailors out on the water. When I realized that they were local kids windsurfing, (something that I had never seen on a beach before in the US), I was very impressed. Pitoon explained that Elvis and Ernst have really been influential in helping out the local kids. Apparently, the kids were persistent in their pleas to Elvis and Ernst to let them learn to windsurf and eventually they wore them down enough to allow them to use some equipment. Like a lot of kids, they learned quickly and soon they had earned some old equipment from Ernst and Elvis.

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My boyfriend finally arrived and the smile on my face and the way that I was clutching my beer with both hands gave away that I had had a successful lesson. He sat down next to me in silence, smiling in exhausted content, and then began to muse about endless reaches, chop hops, and jibes. About what those pink mounds on the other side of the Bay really are when you sail close to them, (piles of discarded conch shells) and finally about how he had been watching my progress from his upwind perspective. His words were slow, relaxed, and sedated. Comfortable and content. He had slowed down to the meet the pace of the island.

I on the other hand, I was energized. I had been teased by the wind and challenged by the board. I had a whole week here and I wasn’t going to waste it. The next morning, as we were finishing breakfast, my windlover decided that it would be a good morning to take the scenic route around the island, since we would have plenty of time to sail in the afternoon. Once again, I got to navigate. Naturally I tricked him again: this time I found the shortcut to the Lac Bay and my windsurfing destiny.

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by Karen Engler

Karen innocently accompanied her boyfriend, our Associate Editor Jud Batlett, to Bonaire not realizing it was a set-up.

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