For Love or Wind?

The bug had bitten.

Windsurfing and love entered my life at approximately the same time. Living and working in Hood River introduced me to both, in a juxtaposed manner. I was working at Mike’s Ice Cream, meeting lots of windsurfers and getting plenty of offers for sailing lessons. Though intrigued by all the windsurfing activity around me, I was still perfectly content with my non-windsurfing life. I had yet to crave jumping on a board and flying across the water; it was going to take time for this windsurfing bug to bite.

Another bug was to bite me first. Taking the shape of a tall, handsomely tanned and sun bleached blonde windsurfer, this bug buzzed around the ice cream shop for a couple of weeks before intoxicating me with an emotion called love.

The first six months of this blossoming romance were blissful but, like most new relationships, a slightly skewed picture of what was to come. This windsurfer-boyfriend had suffered a broken ankle, so unable to windsurf, devoted himself to the “boyfriend” part of his personality. At this, he was very good. He would visit me at college nearly every weekend, write and call with affection and frequency. Beautiful red roses bedecked my dresser on a number of unexpected occasions. My girlfriends were all jealous of this sweet, charming prince of mine and wanted to hear the secrets of our fairy-tale romance. I must admit- I believed I had found the perfect guy. He certainly seemed happy with me, too. I knew it was serious when pro-windsurfer (yes, sailing wasn’t just an addicting sport, as it was to most windsurfers, but also his career) told me, for the first time, he shared his heart with two loves: windsurfing and me.

When spring arrived, ushering in warmer weather and westerly winds, I learned the extent of his other love- the one involving wind and water and hi-tech equipment. By this time his ankle had healed nicely (he claims the steel rod holding his once-fractured bones had made it “stronger than ever”). All the more reason to sail harder and more “aggro.” I was beginning to miss my old boyfriend, the one I was seeing less in person and more from a distance in the water.

Spring term brought the realization that if I wanted to see my boyfriend on the weekends, I’d have to make the trek back to The Gorge, because that’s where the windsurfing was. The leisurely weekend pace we had once enjoyed (pre-windsurfing season) was giving way to 6 a.m. wake-up calls, he frantically looking out the window for swaying branches and me trying to adjust my eyes to the too bright, too early morning sun. Our former weekend brunches enjoyed lingering over pancakes, hot chocolate, and unhurried conversation soon became Grape Nuts and yogurt straight out of the plastic container, munched in the van, en route to the sailing site. If I got lucky and somehow convinced him not to rush off so early in the morning, I would pay the price in the evening, as dinner dates were being delayed until the sun had dropped and the wind died down. I couldn’t understand this new behavior prompted by the spring wind and warmth- at least, not yet .

Wondering if the wind could really have such transformative powers, I asked a few friends what they thought. Those with no windsurfing world experience were mystified, too. Those with windsurfing mates immediately empathized with my situation and were quick to explain by welcoming me into the world of “windsurfing widows.” I had heard the term before, but this was the first time I personally related to its meaning. Not that our relationship had suffered tremendously, I just wasn’t accustomed to sharing my boyfriend without two out of the Earth’s three elements. (Had he been a pyromaniac, I would have really been in trouble.)

After three months of being so closely connected with windsurfing yet not actually doing it, I couldn’t wait for school to get out so I could return home and devote myself to learning the sport. My determination was fueled by a ripe curiosity ready for satiation and by the old “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude. I was finally totally psyched to windsurf.

My first windsurfing lesson took place in the still chilly Columbia River while my boyfriend was racing with the best in the world in Aruba’s 80-degree water. When I told him about the experience and what I had learned, he seemed proud and enthused but couldn’t help asking whether I was proficiently waterstarting and confidently sailing across the river. What? After my first lesson!?! Did he expect I had absorbed windsurfing skills from him via osmosis?

I further began to understand the absurd expectation levels of the experienced sailor towards the one learning when my boyfriend took me out sailing one day for my first “lesson” with him.

It was a fairly windy day (I think I was on a 4.4 sail) and I knew how to sail (or should I say get up on a board, hang onto the booms and fly!) and my waterstarts were at that wobbly beginner stage. I criss-crossed the river for several reaches (a workout whey you’re not yet in the harness or straps and it’s crankin’ out there), then got catapulted by a gust smack in the middle of the river. Swells never looked so big than from the bottom of those troughs. Everytime I tried to get positioned to waterstart, my sail was ripped away or the towering swells washed over me, drowning me, my sail or both in the blue-green depths. Then there’s my boyfriend, perfectly jibing around me, shouting, “Just lift the sail!” like it was the easiest, most natural thing in the world to do. Oh, sure! No sweat. Thanks for the explicit advice. It wasn’t until he actually came closer and explained I needed to swim to the tip of the sail (the lightest part) and lift from there that “the lesson” became productive. I must admit, what he advised me to do worked. But the delivery could have been a little smoother.

Whether it’s conscious or not, I think guys make it just difficult enough for their girlfriends to let them know they’d rather be out dicin’ and shreddin’ with da boys than teaching their significant other how to sail. Based on my own experience and that of others, this fact seems to have little to do with how much they love you, but with ” Y chromosome-factor” as he claims. They say “Money is the root of all evil;” sometimes I like to substitute “testosterone” as the subject of that saying.

Sharing equipment is another fun subject. While I am completely grateful that my boyfriend entrusted his expensive race gear to me, I became all too aware of the emotional leverage he gained by this act of generosity, for which I constantly felt indebted to him. Everytime he lent something to me, it seemed he was racking up points, like ammo to fire against me at some opportune moment. Not that he always used them, but they hovered in our collective subconscious Paranoia of damaging one of his eggshell, epoxy raceboards as I carried it down a rocky launch in the whipping wind added to the emotional baggage of borrowing gear. Had I been able to afford all my own stuff from the beginning, rather than gradually buying one thing at a time, I would have been spared such suspiciously guilt-trippish comments as, “Have fun out there and just remember that’s a $1,000 board.” Of course, other times his caring side shone through when he’d say things like, “As long as you had fun sailing, I don’t care if anything gets damaged.” Knowing how dear his equiptment was to him, this was truly a remark of genuine love.

Our relationship grew stronger, developed more character and we got to know more facets of each other thanks to these trials and tribulations of windsurfing, love and the combination of the two. With the frustrations of each world, I learned that good things often do come to those who stick it out through the tough times. Then you truly appreciate and respect the good traits and times of either pursuit.

Despite the trying moments, soon after my first windsurfing lesson I became infatuated with the sport and couldn’t wait until the next sailing session. Suddenly I understood perfectly the need to rise with the wind and plan our days according to its schedule. It also became much easier to relate to my windsurfing boyfriend. What seemed like odd behavior before now seemed perfectly normal.

The bug had bitten.

by Kath Burton

Kath Burton grew up in Hood River before windsurfing came to Oregon