IT IS OCTOBER. Windsurfers have all left Hood River, to follow summer into warmer parts. Days are short and cold, and I am a weekend-warrior windsurfer, working my corporate-suck desk job in Seattle.
It’s too cold to sail barefoot anymore. In another month, I’ll be adding neoprene gloves to my winter windsurfing ensemble. How does the expression go? “No glove, no love…” This is especially true in Seattle. The wetsuit is OK, but where windsurfing gets absorbed by the senses, the hands, and feet, neoprene is a drag. Gloves put me a little more removed from the action than I want to be. If you’re not afflicted by this seasonal disorder where you live, try a neoprene blindfold the next time you sail, and you’ll get the idea(1).
1) Sexual metaphor, allusion and comparisons between windsurfing and sex have no business in a G-rated, family operation like this one, so discontinue reading this subtitle this instant. Additionally, I also caution you about ostensibly harmless windsurf jokes with non windsurfers. I once, to my profound regret, because she never forgot it, joked to a non-windsurfing girlfriend that windsurfing is better than sex, on the theory that, between your feet, hands, retina and tympanic membrane, you’ve got more surface area through which to, uh, appreciate the good times. I explained to her that although the difference in my case is slight, there is, nonetheless, a disparity. I thought it was a nifty theory. She failed to see the humor, probably because she failed to grasp (ha ha…sorry) the concept of windsurfing. She was so nice. We had to break up because she wanted to get married but had fallen drastically off schedule, and was stuck at stage one of The Windsurfer’s Guide to Dating. (2)
The Windsurfer’s Guide to Dating:
2.1 Meet nice woman at you local beginner spot. She uphauls, you date.
2.2 She masters waterstarting, you date seriously.
2.3 She masters jibing, you move in together.
2.4 She tacks a shortboard and confidently sails places like Ho’okipa and The Hatchery, you become engaged.
2.5 She learns to loop, you break up, because you don’t have the self-esteem to handle a girlfriend who windsurfs better than you. Return to beginner spot and repeat.
It is the first day of fall. It is windless and silent. By way of explanation, during the summer—when I’m at work in Seattle—I hear the Gorge winds, faintly, like a train coming towards me. The sound gets louder as the week slogs along because I can only get to the Gorge on weekends. But I can hear the train all the way from Seattle. My co-workers and non-windsurfing ex-friends think I’m crazy. I tried to explain it, once, and they looked at me like I had two giant conch shells taped to my ears.
In September, I can still just make out the Gorge winds, but more like a train fading into the distance. I’ve always wanted to jump on it, bound for windsurfing destinations unknown, places that are warm and windy in January. I don’t hear it all winter, then faintly hear it coming back around in the spring, like the sound of your lover’s Harley a mile away, coming up your street, out on good behavior. You tingle all over, knowing it won’t be long before you hear that bang on your door.
Periodically, Seattle will get Chinook Winds, warming things up in February. Once I loaded up the car and drove in a trance for an hour before I remembered, “Hey, dumbass, it’s February.”
Like Don Juan between lovers, I’m even harder on my windsurfing videos during the winter than I am in summer. During the work day, I fantasize about the one I watched last night, only starring me instead of Josh Stone. I am interrupted prematurely by an office assistant, informing me that I am not Josh Stone, but I am invited to an impromptu meeting at the office. This is a little weird, as my line of work never necessitates impromptu meetings, and even less often am I invited to them. I go into work and my boss is personable and in good humor all morning. Not a good sign. Then at noon, she informs three of us that we’re being laid off. I take it personally. “Don’t take it personally,” she says. “It’s 150 people, nation-wide.” I am indignant for about 30 seconds, then realize my good fortune. I am going to . . .
It’s all I can do not to scream it during my exit interview. My boss, (uh, ex-boss) is unknowingly giving me a shot at the title! Sure, I’m a bit of a bum, without Rocky’s potential, but isn’t windsurfing a little more about internal victory than holding up a gaudy belt while people take pictures of you with two black eyes? It’s all I can do to act distraught, as my two co-workers are freaking out about being without a job, which, for some reason, they consider to be an asset in life. I hate my job, the Nasdaq took my 401k, and I am gone like summer. While they whine about the conditions of the severance, and the chances of getting rehired, I am fantasizing about the conditions in . . .
and worry about getting rehired. The whine of the wind in my ears is making it hard to think, let alone act convincingly regretful about the way things worked out at work. Chucked into the alley from the office, I have landed in a pile of masts, booms, and sails.
Maui. The windsurfer’s Jerusalem; Mecca. Where windsurfing began. Muslim, Christian, and Jewish windsurfers have been fighting over it for centuries. The only explanation for my addiction to windsurfing is that I was conceived there. My desire to return must be some sort of twisted Oedipal thing.
OK, maybe windsurfing didn’t begin there, I don’t know, and my parents have never been, but my addiction to windsurfing is at levels that rival a religious zealot on heroin, and Maui to me is a back alley score in the promised land.
If ALL ROADS lead to Mecca, do all waves wash to Maui? Will a holy war, fostered by wind worshipping zealots, descend on these sacred shores? Get your rocket launcher-equipped wave board today, and you won’t have to worry about anyone snaking your waves ever again!
With swirling, then slashing strokes, I paint a mental picture of my first day at Ho’okipa, annihilating wave faces, then looping on my way out for more.
I show it to people over the next few weeks while I prepare, to help warm them up to me going to Maui. My parents aren’t very comfortable with it. I call it a religious sabbatical, appealing to their Christian tendencies. Only my windsurfing friends get it. They hide their jealousy and schmooze me, offering free rides to the airport and such, hoping free lodging will await them the next time they come across.
My family and non-windsurfing friends have a hard time with The Plan. Actually, I haven’t had non-windsurfing friends for the year or so that I’ve been fanatical about windsurfing. As for family, this is no time to start listening to parental advice, so it’s AMF (2) , as they say.
2) A-dios M-y F-riend. (Clean up your language.)
I am finally making it happen, but I am more nervous than excited. I’ve never been to Maui, and in spite of my recently-found dedication to windsurfing, I am what an enthusiastic parent might call gifted if windsurfing was a socially acceptable sport, and I was six. Career Intermediate is a better category for me. I jump a little and jibe sometimes.
Also, what little I know of Maui consists of Jaws and Ho’okipa, on huge days. Starring, of course, nothing but professional sailors, with the occasional blooper thrown in of someone, better than I, in getting worked within an inch of their life in the shore break. I fear that people drown in six-inches of water on Maui.
The WINDSURFER GUIDE to dating may need a separate chapter for Maui. These “friends” make a non-sailing Jennifer Aniston seem as attractive as a Hawaiian man ‘o war. Brad Pitt eat your heart out!
Instead of being excited to leave Seattle, I have something better described as nervous tension, six days before my flight. I have pits, you could say, only they aren’t the sick, Maui pits I’d seen on videos. Although I’m sure I look sick.
As we drop out of the clouds I really start to sweat it, realizing that the wispy, white things below me are not some kind of forest, but the liquid smoke of a 30-knot trade-wind day, combining with the first 10-foot swell of the winter. The hills and the white make it look like I’ve moved to Colorado to be a ski bum.
Baggage claim, when I get there, is either hot as hell, or the AC is cranked and I’m just terrified of having to hit the water eventually. I look around. Nobody else had blown through their shirt. Nerves are customary at a new spot anyway, aren’t they?
I see my buddy Dan from across the baggage carousel. “Howzit?” he asks, making a fist and extending his thumb toward himself and his pinky toward me. This is known as the “shaka” sign in Hawaii, and the “Hang Loose” sign in places where it’s been marketed, like Oklahoma. The shaka is a cool Hawaiian thing and Dan, having been there 10 years, has a subtle way of doing it that can’t be mastered in a week of vacation. It’s still a nice local gesture here, used in situations like when someone slows up to let you in their lane of traffic. However, there should be a law against flashing it in places it doesn’t belong, like the Midwest, by people that don’t have the technique down. I make a point of not doing it, even here, because there’s nothing more painful than a jet-lagged hole double fisting the shaka sign all over the place like he’s doing it during the wave at the Pro Bowl. Rushing assimilation is a just imitation; if shakas start coming out my fingertips naturally in another month, I may give them wings. Perhaps with my hand still in my pocket for a while.
Dan’s truck is fully loaded with windsurfing gear and his dog Hina (means “gray” in Hawaiian), so my baggage hardly fits. “I thought you’d want to go straight to the beach,” he says, in his low-key, inaudible way. I make him say it again. Maybe part of my Hawaiian assimilation will result in eventually not having to ask Dan to repeat everything he says. Things are low-key in Maui. I knew this but didn’t realize it meant below the range of stateside hearing.
On the way to the beach, I feel like I’m about to lose my virginity, with Jennifer Aniston. Maui is a step up, like Jennifer, saying she’ll help you out with your problem, only it has to be during a Friends episode. Daunting; territory best left to pros like Brad Pitt.
The Hawaii trade winds cruise at 15, then get bottle-necked between Haleakala and the West Maui Mountains, jacking up to 25+ to fit through the valley. With a few cumulus making for a cloud line somewhere between Pa’ia and Hai’ku, it works a little like the Gorge, only without the gratuitous, vindictive interregnum of an 8-month winter. Maui is complete without temperature variations to come between you and your windsurfing, as a matter of fact. They don’t switch to hockey in the winter in Maui. Maui’s version of winter is when the wind quits the second week of February and you are forced to surf for a week. But it is October, and the wind is bending the palms hard to the southwest.
“Seems pretty windy,” I say. I must have spent all my stoke on my plane ticket. My fantasy has reverted to first-day loops being done by Josh and co., and I am Blooper Guy.
“I hope you brought your virginity,” says Dan, tripping over my angst and stumbling across my Jennifer analogy.
“I did, but not any gear.”
“You’re covered,” Dan says, nodding toward his loaded truck, which, with gear for two, seems like going to the beach in Noah’s Ark.
The ride to the beach does not give me time to become Hawaiian and settle in, because if you’re not messing around with renting a car and gear, Kanaha is literally a 3-minute drive from baggage claim.
The trees at the beach seem near breaking from the wind, and the lines of white water above the reef, the breaking waves, are dauntingly big. The garbage cans are all full of masts.
“We had some swell last week, but it’s down,” says Dan.
“It still looks up to me,” I say. “Are those the tops of masts?” I ask, realizing that the sticks poking above the waves are the top foot of people’s rigs. “I don’t know,” I say, picturing myself held under water for a half-hour by a wave. “Do people windsurf with scuba gear, for the hold downs?”
“You got it,” says Dan. “Just work the channel and don’t try to grind out through the surf.” He points out three or four other things to avoid. I make a mental list. I think of the guy in Momento with tattoos of everything he needed to remember.
Dan throws me a 4.5 sail and accouterments. He nods reassuringly. It looks more like a 3.5 day to me. There is an unnecessarily high amount of spray coming off waves and windsurfers, but I trust his advice, and he is 10 pounds lighter than I.
“We hit it,” says Dan. We wade into the waist-deep water and get into position for a beach start. I kick coral. Dan beach starts and planes off toward the break. I get lulled back into the water, then gusted head over heels, landing on the sail, chest first, with my back arched and feet above my head, scorpion-style. I eventually get going, but when I go to harness in, I can’t because Dan’s spare harness lines are the adjustable kind that, after a couple of seasons, flop around like a noodle while you’re trying to hook in. I prefer my harness lines a little more al dente, so they don’t get blown underneath the boom or wrapped around my head(3). After four flailing tries at swinging it into my hook, I get harnessed in. I feel exhausted. I remind myself that it is probably just nervous tension, but I feel like those guys in the Tough Guy competitions, in the third round, barely able to hold up their gloves.
3) If I weren’t trying to wean myself off of innuendo and sexual allusion, I’d say something here like “Dakine Stiffies are a little more my style”.
I take a swing at the footstraps. I, of course, didn’t try them on the beach. I have wide feet, which are now hanging off the side of the board because only my toes are inside the straps. It’s a real confidence booster. I am too happy to turn back, though, because I am in . . .
So I plow out toward the channel. The Channel is a deep spot; an easier way to get beyond where the waves are breaking.
I find I am a lot less powered than I thought I’d be as I have downhauled Dan’s 4.5 to about a 3.2, in an attempt to douse the lightening bolts of fear shooting out of me. I consider less downhaul, but again, that would require going back to the beach, and my stoke is much too rejuvenated to do anything sensible at this point.
The ugly truth is that I’ve never windsurfed a wave, technically, other than a few rollers in the Gorge. I mostly just got annoyed at people who rode the rollers all over the place, jibing back and forth on the wave faces, interfering with my beam reaches, as I bounced merrily along, happy just to be planning.
Back in Maui, I slog up to the first wave, which is only half breaking in the channel. I get yanked as the wind picks up near the top of the wave because my feet only fit into the straps about an inch. I splat on the sail again like a dropped egg. I give all my gear the finger, which makes me feel a little better (give it a try).
Waterstarting is exhausting and takes ages because waves keep covering my sail. I tread water with my feet to help maneuver the gear. I Karate Kid the reef, cutting my foot. I stop treading water with my feet. Making matters worse, I haven’t adjusted the boom to rest on the back of the board, to make clearing the sail easier. Frustration meanders up and says, “Howzit?”
I drift into The Triangle, as I try to waterstart. The Triangle is a place Dan might have mentioned avoiding. The current washes you back into the breaking waves, which come too often to manipulate your gear into the water start position. I feel like I’m in a WWF match, and my name is Buck Fifty. After 10 minutes I throw in the towel and just prop my torso on the board and let the breaking waves slap the back of my head. Between floggings, I spot Dan doing clean slow power carves on a smooth, 7-foot face, 100 yards upwind from me.
I finally get going. I have a hard time staying planning and customs is holding my jibe until I pay the duty on it, which causes more labor-intensive waterstarts. Where the waves break, I am either ahead of them or slogging to a dead stop so one can catch up to me, assist me in a shallow-water cartwheel, and a 5-minute swim for my gear. I try to get upwind to where Dan is, for an hour, but only get close enough to watch him blaze by me on his way out, air out a couple of waves, jibe on a nice face, and ride it in as it peels down the reef.
I slog, plane, get yanked, get crushed and miss jibes. I am imprisoned in The Triangle, always within 50 feet of terrific waves. Jennifer is not allowed conjugal visits. She announces on the season premier that I sucked.
During one of my few powered-up moments, some sort of jellyfish sticks to my ankle, like the guy in Alien. The pain is really something and I bend over to pull it off without unhooking or slowing down. I have a hard time reaching the jellyfish because my wipeout in-progress is creating tremendous centrifugal force. When I finally get the alien off my leg, it stings, and I have stuck my torso through and out the far side of Dan’s 4.5.
I go in and rest. I come in considerably down the wind and have to posthole back to the parking lot through thick sand, with my gear, into a 20-knot headwind. My left leg feels like a shark gnawed on it, although it looks just fine. Dan sails in to check on me. He chop-hops his board around backward and rides the nose of it into 6 inches of water, keeping the fin facing forward and dry. I gripe about my day and mention the jellyfish. I ask him if it’s normal for the pain to move to my knee and hip.
“Man-o-war,” Dan says. “Step up to the ball-kicking’ machine.” I assume this is a generic expression for just about anything bad. Haha, that’s kind of funny. Dan goes back out, and in about 5 minutes I discover that Dan wasn’t being generic at all. The pain has moved from my ankle (which now feels fine) through my knee and hips to, you guessed it, my testicles. It wasn’t exactly, “I told you not to walk behind my mule,” type of pain, but it was close and time-consuming. Dan’s friend Toni has 4 Advils, which she gives me. “It’s a little late to pee on you,” she says, bursting into raucous laughter. This tactfully-delivered news is a shame, as I am ready for anything that will make me feel better, socially taboo or not. My first day on Maui ends with me on an Advil and Corona life-support machine. Eventually, I can sleep, and wake up feeling OK, but it’s my turn to be somewhat off schedule. My first-day agenda of learning a forward has been downgraded to relearning the waterstart.
GETTING BIG air on Maui is often best left to the locals. Note the unlicensed “shaka” sign this airborne tourist is forming with his right hand on his way to an inevitable crash and burn. Howzit? LEFT: Neoprene is optional on Maui. Even without “glove,” there’s still plenty of love.
“Try Lowers,” Dan says. Downwind of the channel, more waves were breaking and people are wave sailing there. “You don’t have to tack up to it.”
I man my gear, humbled, like the captain of the Exxon Valdez on his first reassignment, and stumble into the water. Every clump of seaweed looks like a Portuguese Man-O-War, but I manage to beachstart without one getting wrapped around my neck like a scarf. This time, going downwind instead of up gives me much more planing time, and I get out through the western section of the channel without any major windsurfing faux pas, like a jetski rescue.
A wave peaks in front of me on my way out. I have great hull speed and don’t quite know how to avoid it. I sheet out, but a gust is coming through and I don’t slow down at all. The wave is coming toward me like a vertical skateboard ramp. No matter how much I sheet out, the wind seems to find my sail and push me faster. I try to absorb the launch, but the ramp sends me straight up! I’ve jumped in the Gorge, but it’s always the long, low kind. I look down to see 10 feet of air beneath me, six inches of water, and multi-colored rock reef below that. I throw my gear, but it isn’t going anywhere because I’m still harnessed in. I brace myself to land my board, then my tailbone on the reef, but I hit with a big splash, dip my butt, sheet in, and take off planing again. Alive, I realize that maybe the water just looks shallow, maybe I can windsurf, and that that was kind of fun. I air out another one, just to make sure. Apart from sheeting in a lot more to not do an accidental back loop, jumps here are high and do-able.
Outside the reef for the first time, I sail for a while in deep water the texture of a Gorge day. With the straps adjusted, new harness lines, and the sun out, I reach along, blissfully soaking it all in. A windsurfer going the other direction crashes. My white skin has flashed his retina, but I don’t care.
When it’s about time to turn around, I spy a big, deep-water swell. It is intimidating because they come straight at you in Maui, not from the side, like in the Gorge. Plus, they’re rolling into shallow water, making them steeper. Plus, I am, well, in which is intimidation enough? I bear off and initiate a jibe at the bottom of the wave face, instead of waiting for safe, flat water on the other side. Realizing I am going to fly off the wave if I don’t turn, I stomp on the leeward rail, log-rolling the board onto its side. I lean into the turn with nothing to lose, more scared of flying off the wave than an aggressive jibe. Miraculously, I jibe the way I’d been told to, not the timid way I usually do, which always results in my speed dissipating before I’ve completed the turn. My board whips around fast and the angle of the peaking waveface accelerates me where I normally come to a stop. I let the sail spin and grab it on the new side. Because I’d kept some speed up, the wind doesn’t yank me off the board when I sheet in. Not catching the sail at a dead slog, I rocket into my new reach. My feet are already back by the properly-adjusted footstraps. My energy level is high because I haven’t blown the jibe and wrestled my gear for five minutes.
Suddenly I remember why I traveled 4,000 miles to do this. I bomb in toward the impact zone as the wave builds under my feet. I have confidence.
With more luck than skill, the wind keeps me right on the waveface as it builds. After a few seconds, I am at the crest of the wave, it is breaking windward of me, and a uniformly tapering shoulder is gradually transitioning into a deep-water swell to leeward. A surfer would call it a “right”. I turn toward the shoulder of the wave like they do on the vids. The wave’s steepness accelerates me down the face; a gravity/speed cocktail that you only have to drink once to go from work yuppie to wave junkie. It’s a little like snowboarding, only the dynamic, capricious forces of waves make being in the right place at the right time a one-of-a-kind sensation.
The better day-jobs here drug screen for it.
I have sailed ahead of the wave and am in the flats. I tentatively bottom turn and go back up the waveface for more. Up again on the crest of the wave, I again turn back toward a beam reach. The wind and the wave’s steepness yet again treat me to gravity-induced acceleration down the face. It is exhilarating!
In all, I got three turns on that wave. It was glorious. Sure, it was beginner’s luck. It was also waist-high, probably the smallest wave of the day. It wouldn’t have impressed an onlooker other than my mother, but something about catching your first wave, fresh off the plane, makes you feel like you’re ripping it with the guys in the vids. Maui. I reached victoriously toward the beach in the whitewater, basking in the sun with the wind screaming in my ears.
It was all I could do not to shaka a guy on his way out.
Tragically, Brett Nichols found a new job in Seattle and is in the process of moving back… look for a follow-up article on the joys of slogging Green Lake in 6 knots of rain — ed.