My Eagerly Awaited Return to Sailboarding, -or- “Blown Away”

Note: As I was typing the title of this post, I began to doubt that I actually knew how to spell “eager,” because it looked weird. In my defense, we just got a new Nespresso machine and I’m trying out a fortissio lungo, which is Italian for “guaranteed to make you not sleep for two days and to question the spelling of common English language words.”

My buen amigo and his fetching wife have a beautiful home on South Padre Island (that’s at the southern tip of the Texas Gulf Coast for you non-Texans), mere footsteps away from Laguna Madre, aka “the Bay” for purposes of this post. I could spend a lot of words on Laguna Madre because it’s one of the true natural wonders of Texas; suffice it to say that it’s >100 miles in length, not very wide, and is quite shallow. It’s also a sail- and kite-boarder’s paradise, thanks to its flat waters and generally reliable and ample winds.

If you stroll down the street where my friend lives, and peer into the open garages along the way, you might see a car parked inside…but it’s more likely that the garages are packed with sailboards and sails and all the gear that go along with this equipment-intensive sport. And, as far as I can tell, most of the owners of said garages and equipment appear to be my age or older. Don’t read anything into that observation, at least not for a while.

My friend and I have been trading texts about the latest sailing conditions in the Bay, which he describes as epic. Yesterday, for example, winds were sustained at around 30 mph, gusting to almost 40 (or, as we used to say in West Texas, mildly breezy). Of course, he speaks in terms of knots, only resorting to miles per hour when conversing with folks of childlike understanding, like me.

Aside: Surely you’re aware that a sailboat, sailboard, iceboat, etc. can glide at speeds exceeding the actual wind speed. It’s all due to physics, calculus, angle of momentum, angels’ wings, and the dark arts, but it’s true. Feel free to look it up.

His excitement about those conditions and desire to share them with me brought back memories from last year when we visited SPI and I got back on a board for the first time in decades. And therein lies the tale.

But first, some context.

Debbie and I learned to windsurf in the mid-1980s at a small body of water called Moss Creek Lake, near the West Texas burg of Big Spring (only tobacco-chewing residents with missing teeth are allowed to un-ironically refer to it as “Big Springs”). We enjoyed it enough to eventually buy our own boards, and when record-setting rainfall a few years later filled a big playa lake between Stanton and Big Spring, we were able to do quite a bit of sailing before evaporation made the water too yucky. I’ve previously written about an adventure on that body of water.

Once that playa lake became un-sailable, the boards and sails went into storage and came out only once in the ensuing decades. However, as with falling off a bicycle, once one learns to windsurf, one never forgets how competent one believed oneself to be, despite all facts to the contrary.

So it was with completely unwarranted confidence that I agreed to let my friend rig up a board for me to try out on the Bay. 

The wind that afternoon was less than 20 mph which, if my calculations are correct, made it still in excess of my capabilities. The sail my guru chose for me was postage stamp-size, the sailboard equivalent of training wheels on a quadracycle. IOW, no one could possibly fail to handle such a sail, even in gale force winds. 

The board itself was a floater, meaning that it was designed to accommodate a hippopotamus without submerging. Between the teensy sail and the huge board, only a consummate screwup could, you know, screw it up.

We hauled the gear to the water’s edge and I climbed aboard. As I hauled the sail up for the first time since Reagan was president, I was overcome by that old familiar feeling: “I’m gonna die out here!” Keenly aware of my friend’s watchful eye, I nevertheless pulled the boom toward the wind and the board leapt into action, like a stallion too long in the pen.

Miraculously, I managed to remain upright as I raced across the Bay. I leaned back against the wind, trying to balance my body weight against the pull of the wind-filled sail, and skimmed the  surface of the water until I grudgingly deemed it time to turn around. (This is what sailing on flat water is, basically…back and forth, back and forth, back and…well, you get the picture. It is more exciting than it sounds, though.)

Now, try to stay with me here, because I’m going to move pretty fast. There are two methods to turning a sailboard. One is called “tacking” and the other is called “jibing” (or “gybing” if you’re snooty). I’m not going to explain the differences between the two techniques, primarily because I don’t know what they are. I do know that tacking is much easier than jibing. So, of course, I try a jib. I immediately succeed in falling. And not just falling, but falling so that the sail is on the wrong side of the board and the board is still pointed the wrong direction and the wind seems to be getting stronger.

Against my better judgment — and, really, I have no better judgment — I insist on trying to do things the right way, by getting back on the board and hauling up the sail and attempting another tack. The results are the same, and I repeat this insanity multiple times before resorting to the ultimate windsurfing ignominy: standing in the water (it’s only chest deep) and manually turning the board around and putting the sail where it should be and just starting over. I now remember that I’ve always hated windsurfing.

But now I’m ready to head back to shore, and this is where the fun really begins. I realize that despite my mental reminder to do so when I first got on the water, I neglected to memorize exactly the spot that I departed from. I was far enough from the shore that everything looked the same. Also, I had somehow drifted downwind from where I thought I needed to be. I know, I know; how is it possible that someone with such considerable sailing skills could end up in this situation? What can I say? I have a gift.

I finally pick out a spot on the horizon that looks vaguely familiar — I’m guessing I’m about forty miles from shore (later I learned it was more like 400 yards, but that’s still a really long way, and I’m not wearing my glasses) — and start heading that way. 

I’m fighting the wind the whole way, and it’s taking its toll on my strength. I finally get close enough to the shore to recognize…nothing. Except I recognize enough to know that I have no idea where I am, relative to where I need to be. I could be north of it. I could be south of it. I could be in another time zone. But, guess what? I’m too tired to care anymore. I let the wind carry me close to shore, where I drop the sail and paddle the rig to a dock in back of a home where I hope I can get my bearings.

I’m floating in the water like a bedraggled lily pad after a hurricane (sorry), unrigging the sail so I can try to get everything onto the dock and then try to figure out where I am, when a man comes out of the house and warily approaches me.

“Uh…are you OK?” he asks, obviously knowing the answer. “Can I help?”

“Well, I’ve managed to get lost and there’s no way I’ll ever be able to get found by getting back on this board so, yeah, I sorta need some help.”

With his assistance, I get the rig up onto the dock. At that point, I notice several people on a balcony next door watching me with barely concealed mirth. I mentally run back through my extensive list of embarrassing moments and thereby take comfort in knowing that at least I’m not wearing a speedo and nothing else. (That’s another story for another time. And perhaps something stronger than an espresso.)

“Uh…my friends have no idea where I am and I don’t have a way to contact them. Do you mind if I borrow your phone?”

The Good Samaritan produces a cell phone and I dial Debbie’s number. And, of course, not recognizing the number, she doesn’t answer. I don’t remember anyone else’s number. I’m totally, absolutely alone, and will have to survive on my wits and skills. 

I do remember the street where our friends live, and when I tell the man that, he says “oh, you’re only about five or six blocks away from there.” Well, so much for my wilderness experience.

I get his permission to leave the rig in his front lawn and start the Windsurfing Walk of Shame back to where my friends are living it up with tea and crumpets, completely oblivious to my desperate situation. After what seems like an hours-long trek — sure, it’s only six blocks, but they’re long blocks, plus there’s no straight shot to where I’m going, so it’s the equivalent of like, ten blocks or even more. It’s horrible! — I drag myself up to the front of the house where everyone makes a big deal over my ordeal by laughing only behind my back.

We pile into my pickup and make the two minute drive back to where I had landed, and load everything up. Everything after that is a haze, although I do remember not being able to move the next day. It was quite an adventure.

I can’t wait to do it again.

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