The following stories describe some of the many steps I had to take in order to climb to my present level of non-proficiency in the art of windsurfing. Anytime you've had a bad day at the beach, just click onto this page and relax. You'll soon realize that you're not alone. So whether you've broken equipment the first time you've used it, left something important at home, left something important at the beach, or just forgot how to sail, these adventures are sure to make you say to yourself...I can't believe he's still trying?
This one comes pretty early in the game and as you gain experience you'll still swallow your pride a little but probably without as much water to chase it. My first experience at this was the very first day I tried this crazy sport. Keith Knight had told me that he sailed at Buckroe so I figured that I would too. Who was this Keith guy anyway? I met a few other Buckroe regulars on a sunny day in the middle of April. They rigged, and I rigged as I watched them. Of course I didn't want them to know that I didn't have a clue what the clew was or if I should use a left or a right mast foot. Somehow I must have figured it all out because I made it down to the beach with the others and my setup at least closely resembled theirs. They dressed funny though. It was 75 degrees out. Why were they wearing these silly wetsuits. I wasn't planning on getting wet so I knew I didn't need one. Some even had funny looking rubber sock thingies too. No need for these for me.
Down at the shore I watched as they snapped up their boards and sails together and took them into the water, doing some sort of ritual with the sails by snapping them back and forth and making a lot of unnecessary noise. I casually carried my gear toward the occasional wave breaking at the shore, being sure to let the sand carry the bulk of the board's weight because the handles on the deck were all in the wrong places. They were not above the board's center of gravity. I've had physics. I know all about this stuff. Who decided to put them there anyway? It looks like someone could trip on them and get hurt while they try to sail. As I stood up on the deck of the board and grabbed the sail puller-upper, I was surprised at how unstable the whole thing was. I knew it would be even harder when I tried it in the water.
I entered the water. The first major hurdle was to get up on the deck and stay there long enough to be able to stand up. This was harder than trying to get out of bed at 5:00 in the morning and remaining upright. I knew then I was in for a challenge. After several attempts I decided that the water must be too shallow and the backwash from the waves, that were now 4 to 5 mast-diameters high, was interfering with the coriolis effect and causing way too much turbulance beneath the board. I dropped the centerboard down, in such a way that no one would see me of course, and walked the rig out into deeper water. I knew that if I couldn't see anyone on the beach laughing at me that no one really was. After several more failed attempts I finally managed to stand on the board and grab onto the mast rope long enough to look around in triumph. After getting washed back off by waves several times I quit looking around and just stared down at the deck. I kept my eye on the little rubber mast holder-downer part knowing all too well (there's that physics thing again) that if that thing broke while I was pulling up on the boom leash, the whole sail stick would become an intimate part of me. Fortunately that story hasn't been written yet.
After what seemed to be an hour (and I know it must have only been 5 or 6 minutes) I finally got the sail up out of the water and actually sheeted in and started moving. Boy was I hot. Looking around for an audience or a panel of judges flipping numbered cards at me, I was rather dissapointed to see that my buddies were mere specks of color on the horizon. I immediately fell in and learned that it really messes you up when you try to look over your shoulder while on one of these things.
Pulling up the sail and moving forward was the easy part. The hard part was turning around. I quickly found out that it was a lot easier if I waited until I fell in then swam like a duck to the other side and pulled up the sail the other way. I think that's what they call a duck gybe. Some people take years to learn that maneuver. The other problem I had was that hook on my diaper. It kept getting caught in that rope handle on the boom and I fell a lot because I would get pulled over by the sail. After a while I managed to keep the rope out of the hook and concentrated on practicing my duck gybes even though I knew I had them down pretty well.
After a while I took a short rest and sat on the board soaking in the scenery. Boy the beach sure looks small now. And these crab pots are moving fast. My intuition (and that physics class) told me that I was drifting with the current. Of course I was drifting away from where I really wanted to go. No problem. A windsurfer is just a sailboat with a broken mast right? I'll just sail back upwind to the beach. Well it didn't turn out to be quite so easy as I had first thought. As I got tired, my time-on-the-board to time-in-the-water ratio began to decrease and my understanding of the wetsuit began to increase. My rate of exhaustion began to increase and I got colder and colder. Knowing I had to pace myself, I took breaks sitting on the deck, checking my rate of drift against the crab pot markers that were still cruising past me. I uphauled, sailed a bit, fell, rested and drifted. Uphauled, sailed, fell, rested, and drifted. Over and over. I was making progress towards the beach but I was making more progress down the beach and away from where I had started hours earlier.
Where were my friends I thought. I could see them off in the distance, barely visible. I figured that as long as they kept seeing my sail pop up they thought I was doing alright. I was getting exhausted very quickly now and at times felt like I was going to lose my breakfast. What breakfast? I probably should have eaten something before I started. A little late now for that. I knew I had to make it to shore before the end of the beach or else I would end up on the other side of Back River.
There were several long boats cruising the area, checking on their crab traps that were still swimming past me. As one of them moved to within hailing distance, I hailed. One of the men waved and yelled something unintelligible so I waved back as if I understood. The boat then turned and went off in the opposite direction. I was not feeling good about this now. In an attempt to stay warm I sat on deck and began to paddle towards shore, making about the same progress as before. Not much. Hearing the muffled sputter of an engine I turned to see that the boat had come back to me after finishing the row of traps. The two men were very friendly and helped me load my board and sail aboard their vessel. I explained to them what happened and they took me as close to the shore as they felt they safely could for fear of running aground. I thanked them graciously and smiled as I noticed the name "We Three Angels" across the stern of their boat as it pulled off into the distance.
Although closer to the shore I was still a long way from the beach and still had to swim my equipment a hundred yards or so. As I made it in about half way, barely able to move any farther, I was greeted by a bearded man wearing dark sunglasses wading out to greet me. He took my rig from me and told me to go ahead to the beach as he took care of my equipment. I was so tired that all I wanted to do was lay down on the sand and rest but I still had enough strength to walk a little. The man brought my gear far enough up the beach that the tide would not take it off and led me back up the beach to his place where he gave me a greatly appreciated glass of orange juice. He took off his sunglasses and smiled as I recognized him as someone who worked in the same building as me. We had passed in the halls a number of times but had never met until now. He introduced himself as Newton Sims and told me that he was also a windsurfer and had seen me out on the water and was preparing to sail out on his long board to get me when he saw the boat stop to assist me.
After resting I walked back up the beach to my launch site to find my friends in a panic, thinking I was lost somewhere in the bay. I drove the mile or so back down the beach and picked up my gear and packed it away in my van. I realized at this time that I had left my shoes at home as the sand spurs embedded themselves in my flesh as I walked across the sand, taking 3 trips to gather up all my gear. Now not only was I tired, cold, and hungry, but I was now in pain. What next?
At home I reflected upon the day's lessons, promising myself to never get stuck out in the water ever again. I also learned that I should bring shoes but I learned most of all that I should not try to tackle something so big by myself. One's pride is not worth getting hurt over. I also learned how easy it is to burn in the sun. I ended up getting a really bad burn on the top of my foot. I didn't think to put sunscreen there but I sure do now.
From then on I approached the water with a lot more respect, having been humbled by that first experience, knowing that if I always play safe I will always be able to come back and play again another day. The funny thing is that I still need to be reminded of this every now and then as you will see as you read on.
It was a beautiful day at Buckroe Beach. Temperatures were in the 80's, plenty of sunshine bearing down on our rigs which were laid out in the grass like fighter planes ready for the signal to launch into the wind. But we were lacking one ingredient. Wind. We were promised 20 knots that day but there was hardly enough for my kites. Frisbee was the call of the day.
At about 3:30 there appeared a dark band across the bay, approaching slowly. The air became cool. The wind swung from SW at about 3 knots to NE at about 25-30. The temperature dropped about 20 degrees and in ten minutes the crowded beach was almost deserted. The sting of the sand against my skin was a welcome pain. I was already rigged and ready with a 6.5 on my 285 for light wind. For this wind this board was too big as was the sail but I went anyway, not wanting to take the time to change boards or sails. It was great. It was really fast and the waves were building by the minute. Even though the water temp was 49 degrees, the air was about 80 and I was comfortable in a shortie. After being rattled about for a while I finally switched to my 8'6". Keith urged me to switch to my steamer since it seemed that the wind was going to hold. Yeah, good idea. I made a few more passes and got some of the best wave rides ever. Keith was behind me, overpowered on his 7.3 but holding it down as he always does. He was faster but I was really out pointing him. He jibed around and headed back for shore as I continued towards the shipping channel. The chop was perfect for port jumps. There was practically no small boat traffic because the bay had gotten so rough. All of a sudden the wind dropped to about 10 knots. Hoping it was just a lull, I slogged as far as I could. After a few minutes I finally decided to attempt a jibe to keep from heading offshore any farther but I went down in the heavy chop, unable to stay up on 80 liters of epoxy. I turned the board around and tried to pull off a waterstart but the strong current moving in the same direction as the wind dropped my apparent wind to practically nothing.
I started out about 1 mile offshore I would guess, occasionally trying to pull off a low wind waterstart after lowering the boom as much as I could. No luck, and uphauling in that chop was just a waste of precious energy and I couldn't afford to lose much of it. With one arm wrapped across the deck of my board and the other stroking at the water, I started a course for shore. It wasn't until I passed a crab pot marker that I realized how fast the current was really running. I wasn't scared but I was very concerned. At first I thought that I would end up way downwind and have a long walk back up the beach but as time passed and I made another assessment of my course, I realized that I was going to land a lot farther down the beach than I had first thought. My next assessment made me wonder if I would make land at all. My 4/3 suit was keeping me totally comfortable but I knew that if I got tired and quit swimming I would begin to get cold. I had no gloves and no hood, just booties. I was becoming quite tired but I paced myself and almost never stopped swimming. I began to consider my options. If I ditched my rig and paddled the board I could make land for sure but would lose some good equipment. If I missed my landing at Fort Monroe altogether I would be swept into the shipping channel and possibly back offshore as the tide changed in a few hours. I also had another factor working against me. It would be dark soon and I wouldn't stand a chance in the channel without some sort of light to mark my presence. I calculated that I still had a chance at the rate of progress that I was making towards shore but I didn't want to cut it too close.
Although I was careful to pace myself, at times I was exhausted to the point of nausea. Being an above knee amputee and having only one leg to effectively swim with, my calf muscle finally began to cramp up into a tight knot from overuse. The pain was not my main concern but the leg would be totally useless for swimming in this condition. After trying to massage the rock out of my leg to no avail, I just let the leg totally relax while I swam with one arm. That worked. It was slow and painful but I could not afford to stop my advance towards the shore that was disappearing at a rapid rate. After a few minutes the cramp eased and I was able to use my leg again although I took it a little easier.
Llooking back towards the area where I went down, I was unable to see the beach where I had launched from because by now there were three piers in between. I had hoped to see a familiar sail somewhere behind me but it was hard to see anything because of the chop and it probably would have been next to impossible for anyone to see me. I figured that my friends back there had at least begun talking about some sort of rescue effort. Surely they like me that much.
By now there were no other watercraft in the area. I was all alone and my fate was totally up to me and my judgement. I constantly took course bearings by noting the changing relative positions of fixed points of reference on land and imagining a scale model of the scene as viewed from above. I was still pretty sure that I could make land. I still had some time left. As I got close enough to the shore I noticed someone on the boardwalk at Fort Monroe watching me. As I drifted, he walked to keep up with me. I could see that he was shading his eyes with his hands as if he was trying to see if I was truly in trouble. I finally waved to him a few times and he continued to follow me down the beach. I was still about a quarter mile out but seeing another person gave me the extra drive for the shore. I no longer considered dumping my rig an option. As I got within a few hundred yards from the shore I noticed several others running along the boardwalk to catch up with me. They were wearing some sort of dark uniforms and were holding radios. I felt a sense of safety knowing that I had been seen and that at least someone knew that I was out there even if they could not help. Although I was still drifting quickly down the beach I was definitely making good progress towards the shore.
Finally I had progressed to within hailing distance. I waved to the crowd that had now gathered. I could see that some joggers and others out for an evening stroll had stopped to see what the excitement was all about. "What was a fire truck doing here?", I asked myself. One of the uniformed men called out to ask if I was alright. My reply was a "thumbs up" and a yell of, "No wind". I never quit stroking because although I was pretty close to the shore, the only thing keeping me from missing this last piece of beach was a jetty of rocks extending about 100 feet from the shore. This was my last chance and I was approaching it very quickly. I knew the land curved away from me just after the jetty but as I got closer to the beach I noticed that my forward progress was slowing. I was being opposed by the backwash of the waves pounding against the 8 foot high concrete bulkhead. I began to get more concerned. It reminded me of the emergency shows on television where the rescuers are talking to the victim holding onto a branch one minute and then watching him being swept down the rapids the next. I was close but still far away from my warm shower at home. The closer I got the more difficult it became to swim towards shore. I finally felt some relief when I realized that my downshore movement had almost stopped. I had become caught in the eddy current near the jetty. All I had to do now was fight the backwash without getting pounded against the concrete, all the while trying to hold on to my rig which was being tossed with each cresting wave.
After some more labored swimming and making little progress, I happened to feel something below me. I had to laugh at myself just a little when I realize that I was now stroking so diligently in about four feet of water. Some of the men on shore were hailing to someone behind me. I turned to see a rescue boat heaving up and down in the waves, trying to find me. There were two men on board only about 50 yards away yet they could not locate me even after following hand signals from the men on shore. When they did, they approached slowly. One of the men on the boat told me to let my board go and that somone on the shore would get it. I delcined, explaining that the board would quickly become bulkhead filler material after a few bashings against the concrete. He insisted that I take his bow rope so I grabbed it and pulled the boat in behind me. "Who's supposed to be getting rescued anyway"? At knee depth I threw the rope back towards the boat, gave them my thanks, and picked up my board and rig. As I wearily made my way to the top of the rocky path leading to the boardwalk, one of the onlookers asked if I was ok. Again my answer was "No wind". I got the usual, "He's gotta be crazy" look from them. What was really surprising was that no one even offered to help me carry my equipment up the steep bank. I WAS a little tired afterall. I had been down in the water for over an hour and drifted over two miles from my launch site. Up on the boardwalk I saw a small gathering of civilians, military police, fire department personnel, a fire truck, and a couple of dogs. Once it was obvious that I was uninjured, the boat left, the firetruck left, the crowd left, and the MP's stayed as I filled out the required incident report. There really is a form for everything. No big deal. While filling out the report I heard someone call my name. It was John, one of my windsurfing buddies who happened to be there rollerblading with his wife. He had watched the whole encounter and was volunteering to take me back to Buckroe. I graciously accepted his offer. I would not have to make the dreaded walk of shame afterall. I was getting a ride. Upon arrival at Buckroe, it was reassuring to learn that my buddies had begun rescue procedures and were on the phone discussing options with 911. They DO like me.
All turned out well in the end. I got a story to write, I learned a little more about keeping an eye on wind conditions, I got a first-hand self rescue lesson, and no harm was done to me or my equipment. I learned a few important lessons from this experience. First, even though precautions are taken by always sailing with a buddy, at the speed of two windsurfers moving away from each other, it only takes a few seconds to become separated by a great distance. Keep a watchful eye on others and do it often. Secondly, once separated, it becomes VERY difficult to locate one another when one is down in the water, especially in rough water. Thirdly, always stay near shore when there is a possibility of the wind shutting off, especially in the presence of strong currents and when on a low volume "sinker". In fourth place is the value of a proper wetsuit to retain crucial body heat. And finally, if you are ever in a potentially dangerous situation use your most important tool. Your head. At least take the time to think out a rational plan with contingencies if possible. Don't panic and never leave your board. It may be what saves you in the end.
Anytime we learn a lesson we need to put it into practice so that we can climb one more rung of the ladder to being a perfect creature of this earth. So what do I do? I go out really really far again on my sinker. Yep! Did I have to swim this time? Of course not. Dave and Keith sailed out to me, we did a sort of musical boards and sails and we all sailed back in. Ok, here's what happened. It was very similar to my first experience. Sailing out of Buckroe, 80 liter board, 6.5 meter sail, plenty of wind. Sounds great right? Right. Javier and I were powered up and on a course heading away from the beach when the wind did an "out to lunch" on us. He was on a floaty board so he turned around and headed for shore. I was way out in front of him when I hit the hole. Same senario as before, slog, look for an upcoming gust to ensure a waterstart in case I missed my jibe (What? Me miss a jibe?!), slog further waiting for the gust, slog, slog (away from shore in case you don't remember). I finally decide that I'd be better off drifting in an out going tide at 2 miles from shore rather than at 2.1 miles so I initiate my jibe. All of a sudden, a pack of dolphins came across my path, one surfaced and landed on my deck just long enough to leave a slimy mess beneath my feet. Not having adequate traction, I slipped and missed my jibe. Honest.
This was not good. This was bad. Everyone else was on the beach and there was not a sail in sight. So here I am again drifting in the Chesapeake Bay. After a quick check of a couple of reference points I determined that the tide was heading out and I was on a course towards the Thimble Shoal light house and the main shipping channel. This was real bad. At least the memory of the previous week's swim of shame was fresh in my mind so I had no trouble knowing just what to do. Panic. Actually I had to laugh at myself for getting right back in the same situation. I did the usual. Lower boom, set up for waterstart. No good. Not even any decent gusts. I looked back at the beach but I was way too far out to make out anything even closely resembling a sail.
Back on shore, Javier gave his account of what had happened to the rest of the guys gathered on the beach. While Javier worked up a land-based patrol, Dave Kashy and Keith Knight hopped on their rigs and headed out to search for me.
Back in the bay, I was still trying to pull off an occasional waterstart during the breaks from swimming. Remembering my previous week's muscle cramp, I was careful not to overdo it this time. After what I guessed to be about 30 minutes down in the water I began to get chilly. I was glad that I had let Keith talk me into changing from my shortie. You'd think I would have learned my leson from the last episode a week earlier. The sun was somewhat low but it was out so I alternated between swimmimg and sitting on top of my board, trying to keep my body out of the water so I could reserve a little body heat and rest at the same time. I also figured that I would make a better profile than I was making down in the water. At one point a small boat was on a course towards my position. Swallowing my pride and using my head, I stood up on the board and grabbed the uphaul for stability and waved for attention but I was never seen as the boat passed within about a quarter mile and was soon headed away from me. This was not fun anymore but I did learn that I could stand upon the board if I balanced against the uphaul now that the water had calmed down considerably. I also realized that I could try uphauling. I figured that even if I didn't get underway, I would at least warm myself up a little. It didn't work however as all I could do was either lose my balance or burry the nose of the board and fall back in. I was still getting colder and more tired. Even though I could not uphaul the sail, I continued to stand on the deck for an even better profile. It gave me a better view too and I could see a sail off the beach of Buckroe. At first it seemed as if the lone sailor was just cruising close to the shore but after a while it was clear that whoever it was, they were heading straight out. "This is good", I thought. As this lone sail slowly approached, I spotted another one alongside the first. I waved occasionally to ensure that I would be spotted against the background of water, knowing that I would be hard to pick out. Finally I could make out Keith, with Dave close behind. It made sense because they were the most experienced of all of us on the water today. They were also on short boards but they weren't on sinkers like I was. Upon their arrival, I put up with their laughs and criticisms because I knew I deserved it. After all it was only a week ago that I was in the same situation, on the same body of water, and on the same equipment.
After a period of teasing, Dave swapped boards with me, giving me his floatier board while Keith stayed close at hand. But even Dave's experience wasn't enough to allow him to uphaul my little board. Since I had the smallest sail, Dave gave me his Tiga 298 to put beneath it. Keith then swapped sails with Dave, taking the larger of the two, an 8.3. Keith's board was pretty floaty so he steadied it while Dave stood on it and beach started my sinker off of it. Keith then uphauled, I uphauled, and we all headed for the beach. Dave and Keith both slogged back in while I occasionally picked up on a plane so I hit the sand long before either of them. Basically here's what happened...
10 CURSE FOR 15 SECONDS 20 FOR I=1 TO 86 30 SETUP FOR WATERSTART 40 WAIT FOR GUST 50 GET WASHED BY A WAVE 60 NEXT I 70 MAKE UP A GOOD STORY AS DAVE AND KEITH SAIL UP 80 SAIL BACK TO SHORE WITH MY OWN SAIL, WITH PRIDE TOTALLY INTACT BECAUSE NO ONE NOTICED THAT I WAS ON A DIFFERENT BOARD 90 DRINK ANOTHER MOUNTAIN DEW FROM BUBBA'S WHILE EVERYONE STILL THINKS I'M A WINDSURFING GOD 100 END
Moral of the story: Just when you think nothing can go wrong, it usually does.
Thanks go out to Javier, Dave and Keith for providing a happy ending to this episode.
One of my earlier episodes occurred at Mill Creek. I sometimes call it McMud and for good reason. On this particular day the winds were out of the ENE and I was on my first short board, having recently learned to waterstart. I made several passes across the creek and was having a great time, feeling like I was the best sailor on the water (I would have been but there were other sailors there that day). Usually when I start to feel that confident it's a sure sign that the monotony of the day is about to be broken.
The course that I was on was taking me across the creek to the windward end of one of two small bridges that border the west side of this particular body of water. The bridges clear the water by about 9 feet. This creek only allows for about a quarter mile run with this particular wind direction so I was going as far as I could before turning around. Since I could not jibe (and still can't) I figured that I would sail right up to the bridge and take advantage of the shallow water there in preparation for my waterstart. I'm so smart.
But no one told me the tide was now going out and that the wind did weird things around obstructions. I learned some physics all of a sudden. As I got close to the bridge two things happened:
1) There was no more wind...
2) There was a lot of current.
I also realized something. A 16 foot mast will not clear a 9 foot bridge.
As I slowed to a stop and fell in I was carried towards the bridge at a speed I could have been proud to have sailed. Boy those concrete pilings were a whole lot bigger than I thought they were. And those barnacles were so...sharp! Fortunately I was wearing booties because I would have ripped the skin off the bottom of my foot as I fended myself from joining the molting crabs. As I went under I managed to keep my equipment (and me) from being grated and swam towards the shallows where I knew the current would be a few orders of magnitude weaker. This allowed me to make my way to the semi exposed rocks which made up the abutment on the other side. Do you know what it's like to carry your equipment across wet rocks? I can't even carry my equipment across the grass. After making my way back under the bridge to the windward side, I rested, prayed to the wind gods, cursed to the wind gods, and rested as if I had just sailed across the Bering Strait. I relaxed and had to laugh at myself for now I had learned lesson 18a. But there was wind a wasting so I left the slippery rocks for the safety of the water to continue my reign of Mill Creek.
Not true. You can do it more than once and there is no mandatory waiting period between wash cycles. I am living testimony to that. Having rested on the slippery rocks for a while, I entered the water once more. The abutment sloped off rather quickly so I did a sort of rockstart, and sheeted in on a course back to the launch. But sheeting was to no avail. There was no wind to sheet in against. I was still in weird things area. In my effort to keep my composure, as if I had meant to go under the bridge in the first place, I had not thought to move further along the abutment, far enough away from the bridge, so that I would get clean wind. Not good.
Back to basics:
10 SAIL TOO CLOSE TO BRIDGE 20 GET SUCKED UNDERNEATH 30 SWIM FOR MY LIFE 40 STAGGER ACROSS SLIPPERY ROCKS 50 REST ON ROCKS LIKE I HAD DONE IT ON PURPOSE (pride retention subroutine) 60 IF LESSON 18A WAS LEARNED THEN 80 70 GOTO 10 80 GET AWAY FROM THE #@!% BRIDGE 90 STAY AWAY FROM THE BRIDGE 100 END
Yep. I went right back under the bridge. Same bridge. Same day. Another sailor came near to offer assistance but I told him this was way too much fun for more than one person to enjoy. At least this time I played the game a little differently. Swimming towards the opposite end of the bridge, across the strong flow, I made it to the abutment on the leward side of the near end of the bridge. Now that I was an expert at negotiating slippery rocks, I made it back under the bridge and on the preferred side in about half the time as before. The water here, I knew, was quite shallow and I took advantage of this fact to successfully beach start and get the heck away from the bridge. The total time spent negotiating with Mercury Boulevard was about 30 minutes. I could have carried my rig back in shorter time than it took me to sail it back. I'll never let that happen to me again.