Extreme Teachings

Working on my form.

The sound of the wind blowing through the palms outside my window tells me it’s another great day out there to play at my newest sport. We’re smack dab in the middle of Winder (my name for the season that falls between November and March here on the East Cape) and after approximately 20 sessions spread out over two seasons, I no longer feel like I must add the caveat “I’m just learning” when I say I kitesurf.

Kitesurfing is definitely an extreme sport. As anyone who’s tried it will tell you, it’s got a very steep learning curve and if you don’t think it deserves to be called “extreme” perhaps you need to read my post Welcome to my Kitemare.

I’ve always shied away from equipment intensive sports because of the associated expense, repairs and technical knowledge required. However, a couple of years ago when I started to spend a lot of time on the North Shore of Maui  – note: there are more windy days on Maui than any other place on Earth with the exception of Antarctica – I decided it was time to reevaluate that stance. I started out with one kite, one board, a harness to connect me to the bar and the necessary safety gear. Having only one kite meant I could only go out when wind speeds were within a specific range before I could head out. This reduced the number of days I could kite, slowing down my progress. Realistically, you need several different kites of differing sizes to cover the range of potential wind speeds you may encounter. Then there is the bar used to steer the kite – there are different sizes and styles depending on the kite you’re flying.  Safety gear includes a helmet, a leash and an impact vest.

I was debating recently whether I needed to keep wearing a helmet because my board had yet to hit me in the head despite some pretty impressive wipe outs, when it did just that. It hit me hard enough that it took a chunk out of my helmet. From there it ricocheted into my right thumb leaving an inch long gash that weeks later is still healing. That relieved me of any doubt regarding the need for a helmet.

Early on I also questioned how badly I needed to wear an impact vest. These are the vests that guys like Laird Hamilton wear when they surf the big waves at Pe’ahi and Mavericks.  Contrary to popular belief, they offer minimal floatation, but act like a flack jacket, protecting the wearer from bruising and breaks that would otherwise result from the force of impact during a high speed crash. I laughed to myself when my kiting instructor recommended I buy one, figuring there was no way I actually needed that kind of protection. “Does he think I’m crazy? I’m not going to go that fast,” went through my mind. Turns out I have gone that fast. More than once.

The first time it happened I was still hanging out at the lower end of the learning curve. I was out with my nine meter kite on a day when I should have taken out the 7.5 meter. This was also before I figured out that conditions tend to be fairly gusty in front of my house (I now head further North where winds are steady).  So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what ended up happening:

overpowered + gusty = epic wipe out

One moment I was up and running, the next I was lying in the water, dazed and in pain. I felt like I’d been run over.  Like a rag doll that had just been shook by a large dog. I began a mental body scan to assess the damage. My ribs were screaming at me, my left hip bone felt like there was a knife sticking into it, my ears were ringing, my eyes stung from hitting the water so fast I didn’t have time to close them before impact, and my ankles felt like the tendons holding them together had undergone a serious stress test.  My heart was racing and my lungs? Well, they were having trouble re-inflating.  I managed to choke down a few painful gasps of air and lay there trying to figure out what had gone wrong while the kite pulled me steadily and quickly downwind. That’s when I noticed my impact vest – it was lying in the water above my head, attached to me only by my shoulders.  With horror I realized that the force of the impact of my wipeout had exploded the heavy duty zipper and ripped the vest from my body. “That explains why my ribs hurt,” I reasoned, imagining what it might feel like to try to swim the half mile to shore with multiple fractured ribs. It was in that moment of clarity that I realized, “I guess I need this vest after all.” Ever since then when I zip the vest on, my mind flashes to that tiny but significant eureka moment.

I will say that while the learning curve may be steep and the equipment expensive and a pain in the ass to repair, the pleasure payoff is supreme when you are flying across the ocean powered only by the wind. This is the first sport that’s ever made me laugh out loud from the shear joy of it. Last time I was out I caught some air, for on purpose this time, which induced a big laugh of amazement when I landed it successfully and kept gliding. Of course I wiped out seconds later as my mind became distracted with reviewing my success.  Like a Buddhist master  with his bamboo switch, extreme sports have a direct way of letting you know each and every time your attention wavers and you stop being present in the Here and Now.

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Seasons Sandwich

Sailing the Windy Sea by Barbara Harper

A week ago, a former colleague and friend posted a photo on Facebook of this year’s first snowstorm. From where I’m sitting, that’s pretty hard to believe. Admittedly the snowstorm occurred on Victoria Island in the Arctic Archipelago, where Cathy and I used to work together. It’s been exactly ten years since I last got to witness the tundra turn various shades of gold, red and sienna, but I remember marveling at how, in August, autumn was already evident. Along with the landscape taking on new colors, the days shortened noticeably, mountain peaks became frosted with nighttime snowfall and the air would take on a chill that the sun’s rays couldn’t beat back like it had at the peak of summer.

In Baja, where I live, just below the Tropic of Cancer, variations in weather from one season to the next are not as dramatic as they are in the temperate regions of the planet, let alone the Arctic, where they are at their most extreme on the planet. Nevertheless, the passage of the autumnal equinox marks the transition towards shortening days, cooler nighttime temperatures and eventually to a lessening in the intensity of the sun.  Finally, sometime after mid-October seawater temperatures begin to decline.

It’s been four long months since the mercury fell below 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30°C) and many a day when they did not dip below 90. The last couple of mornings, however, when I’ve ventured outside to release the hounds, the quality of the air has changed – it’s got that autumn crispness to it and the moist coolness feels good on my skin. I lift my arms up and let the air envelope as much bare skin as possible. These mornings as I sit on my surfboard waiting for a wave, the air feels incredibly refreshing as it flows through my wet rashguard. It’s down right cold as it whips across the skin on my legs as I and my board rush across the face of a wave. It’s still hard to imagine that in another month, it will feel cold enough to consider wearing a shorty wetsuit (Short legged and made of thinner material than that of a full wetsuit).

As the days wear on though, the daily high temperature still exceeds 95 degrees and the sun’s rays remain intense (it being a only little over two weeks since the equinox). Despite wearing ample, good quality high SPF sunscreen, the skin on my face has been burnt more times in the past three weeks than it has all summer. The concrete block that the garage is constructed of still absorbs the sun’s energy, turning the garage into a little hotbox that I am reluctant to lock a couple of the dogs in overnight.

Other signs of the changing season include the remarkable fact that the water coming out of the taps is no longer scalding hot, but cool like the morning air. At the height of summer, I often have to jump out of the stream of water because it’s too hot, despite the fact that the water heater gets turned off in May. One of the more remarkable signs of winter’s approach came a few days ago when I saw the first Humpback Whale cow with a brand new calf in tow, making their way North up the sea towards their overwintering habitat between El Cardonal and Cabo Pulmo. When I emailed my friend, the whale researcher Urmas Kaldveer, to tell him, he confirmed my suspicion that we were ahead of the normal schedule for female Humpback sightings.

And then, three days ago, midway through my morning session the wind shifted and took on an all together different quality that told me winter was inexorably on its way. It switched from offshore to come from the North and picked up quickly, turning the bay into a mess of wind chop and white caps. It was a stiff, cool wind, unlike summer wind.

The North Wind is a phenomenon in eastern Baja that brings windsurfers and kitesurfers from the world over to play in the waters off her shores. As temperatures in the Rocky Mountains plummet, the wind funnels down the Colorado River to the Delta where it blasts down the path of least resistance, the Sea of Cortez.

Like the roads here, the wind is a blessing and a curse. It can blow 30 knots or more for days on end, throwing sand and dirt everywhere, making gardening and weeding impossible, causing sinus infections and blowing out what would otherwise be perfectly good surf. For wind-sport enthusiasts it creates the right conditions for them to have the time of their lives.  It’s the reason I took up kitesurfing in an “If you can’t beat it, join it” moment of clarity.

Despite the North Wind, we currently have two tropical storms, Hurricane Jova and Tropical Storm Irwin, spinning just South of us and a third tropical disturbance further South off the coast of southern Mexico is gaining in strength and organization. Sea temperatures remain in the mid-80s, which means her waters offer little resistance to the movement of storms.  Autumn truly is a transitional season – we are experiencing winter and summer weather patterns at the same time!

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Buy Sailing the Windy Sea by Barbara Harper

Welcome to my Kitemare

On Thursday I plugged away for most of the day at my WIP. I’d missed the morning surf session due to the morning groggies and the wind came up by 8AM sealing my fate to remain in front of my computer. By 4PM I was ready for a break. The wind was averaging 18.4 mph on the hill our house sits on, the exactitude of which I was able to ascertain using my handheld Kestrel wind meter. In pretty short order I got my nine meter kite and other gear together and transported it down to the beach.
 
It had been a while since I’d assembled my kite so the first time I launched it the lines were crossed and on the next attempt I forgot to insert the “donkey dick” (yes, that’s really what it’s called) into the chicken loop, which caused the kite to unhook from the waist harness, shoot skyward and fly a ways down the beach. After two false starts, I finally had the kite flying acceptably well, my helmet on and my board in hand strapped to its leash, ready to head into the water.
 
The next challenge was the eight to ten-foot shore break that was pounding between me and the open sea. I had to get through it without crashing the kite or getting bashed on the rocks (did I mention that this coast is really rocky?). I’m still learning, so I said a little prayer (yeah, I really do that kinda stuff), asking to be kept safe, waited until it looked like there was a lull between sets and headed into the water. In my panic to get outside quickly I forgot a bunch of basic technique and got pounded pretty good a couple of times. Somehow I miraculously managed to get outside without losing “too much” ground.
 
I had several successful runs out and back and was marveling at how I hadn’t crashed the kite yet and that I was only about 50 m downwind of where I’d started. This was a first. Somehow my pock-holed brain had managed to retain most of what I’d learned during sporadic forays made over the past two years. This day I was concentrating on the instructions I got from Mike Doyle the last time I kited.
Mike is a legendary surfer, surf equipment innovator and all-round expert waterman who took up kiting shortly after it appeared on the scene in the late 90s. A couple of months ago, I was driving North down the road on my ATV loaded up with kiting gear when he pulled up alongside in his SUV and asked me where I was headed. He invited me to join him saying,“It’s more fun to kite with someone.” I warned him I was a total beginner, but that didn’t phase him. He helped me rig my kite and then as I struggled to keep it in the air, I watched in awe as he zoomed out to sea and back with ease. Each time I returned to the beach to start over because I was getting too far down the coast, there he was on my ATV waiting to give me a ride back to the take-off spot. This gave me a lot more time in the water and instead of expending energy on long hikes back up the beach I reserved it for kiting. To top it off, at the end of our session Mike gave me a bunch of pointers. I was grateful to receive his insight and committed his instructions to memory. “Keep the kite out of the water. Park it between 11 and 10 o’clock and keep it there. Get your hips pushed forward and lean back.”  Check, check and check.
 
I’m at the stage in kiting where I’m still using what is called a bidirectional board. It’s just what it sounds like – it goes both ways. It has foot straps and a handle for pulling the board snugly onto your feet while your kite is behaving like a leashed, coked-out orangutan overhead. At some point I hope to move upward and onward to a unidirectional board like Mike uses. My dream is to kite in big waves like he does (well, big to me anyway).
 
I’m also still learning how to go upwind. This is a key skill. Until you master tacking upwind you are doomed to make the Walk of Shame every time you go out. It’s just what it sounds like – a long walk back down the beach to where you left your car, ATV, dogs, drinking water, spouse or all of the above.
 
So this last session, I’d been out for a while and was slowly losing ground, but I was doing so much better than usual that I didn’t want to come back in. I just kept riding, kept trying to regain ground. Before I knew it I was a mile and a half down the coast. There’s a gentle bay lined by a beautiful sandy beach just a little further North, so I decided I’d head there to land and avoid dealing with the rocks that lined the beaches where I was when I decided it was time to go in.
 
I’d been out for two hours without a break and was getting tired. I bobbed up and down in the water and planned my attack to go in, the kite flying overhead. I laughed in spite of myself when I took in the scene around me – three to four-foot wind swell, white caps and tiny people that looked like ants on the beach. “They must think I’m crazy,” I thought, “but this is so much fun!” I thanked God for what was my most successful session yet. Then I realized I’d said it in the past tense. “Shoot!” I thought, “I meant is, the session that still IS my most successful yet.” Call me superstitious, but I got the distinct feeling that I’d jinxed my session. Now I just wanted to get to the beach. I still had a long walk home.
 
I looked in the direction I wanted to go and then started the power stroke, a maneuver with the kite that gives it more acceleration to get you up and going. Before I knew what happened the kite did a rapid nose dive, WHAM! hitting the water hard. Mike’s words came to me again, “Keep the kite out of the water. And if you do crash it, get it up fast. Don’t let it stay in the water.” I pulled on one of the lines to relaunch and it shot overhead. The right tip flapped in the wind. “That’s not right,” I thought. I tried to steer the kite to my left, towards the beach, but it wasn’t responding normally. Down it crashed again. I got it up fast and tried to assess what the trouble was. I could see that one of the struts that give the kite shape and rigidity was deflated. Now the left tip was flapping in the wind. My heart jumped and I thought, “Shit! I better get this thing to the beach pronto!” I tried to fly it to the left, but it just wouldn’t go. Slowly it became less rigid, crumpled and fell out of the sky.
 
My heart sank. I was still a good quarter mile out to sea. There was three- and four-foot wind swell bashing me around and now my kite was useless. When the kite is still inflated you can lie on one side of it and hold it open to catch the wind so it drags you to the beach with a minimum of effort. I’d used this self-rescue technique many times when my lines had become tangled or once when my kite ripped. Now it was a big awkward piece of formless ballast. I looked at the sun and figured I had an hour before sunset. Resigned to my fate, I started reeling the kite lines in and wrapping them around the steering bar. A bidirectional board is too small to paddle like a surfboard, so I took one of the safety straps and connected one end to the board and the other end to the kite, making a train of equipment. The board was still attached to me by its leash.
 
In the time that it took to organize all the gear, I’d been pushed another eighth of a mile down the coast. I looked at the people on the beach. There were a couple of pangas (fiberglass outboard motor boats) there too and I wondered if the fishermen were among the crowd and aware that I was out there hoping to be rescued. I pushed that thought out of my head. “You got yourself into this, you have to get yourself out of it.”
 
The impact vest I was wearing gave me a little added buoyancy, but the helmet and harness impaired my ability to swim. But the worst thing was the drag the kite produced. The wind swell pulled on it and in turn it pulled on me. I started to wonder if I was making any headway at all. I did the front crawl, then the breast stroke, interchanging between the two while trying to avoid sucking any water in as the wind swell rolled over me.
 
I swam with my eyes closed at first and then when I started to drift off course made the mistake of opening them underwater. Looking down into the bottomless blue depths spooked me. I tried not to think about what might be hanging out down there.
 
The drag of the kite kept working against me. Just as my frustration threatened to unhinge me, it occurred to me that in my fervor to get to the beach where all the people were, I was swimming into the wind swell, and spending a lot of energy working against it. If I turned ninety degrees, I’d get to the beach a lot faster and not have to deal with the drag of the kite nearly as much. I cursed at myself for not figuring it out sooner.
 
Turning to orient myself in the other direction, I caught a flash of white in the water beneath me. I sucked in my breath, my stomach clenched and my heart raced. “Great White,” flashed across my mind. I reminded myself that white sharks are actually grey on top and I was just being paranoid. I thought how sharks are hungry at sunset. I was getting pretty spooked.
 
That’s when the cavalry, I mean firefighter arrived. Out of nowhere Andy, a firefighter from Washington, appeared, paddling his white longboard. It occurred to me then that the flash of white I’d just seen must have been a reflection off his board. “Andy!” I yelled over the howling wind, “You have no idea how happy I am to see you!”
 
It turned out that Andy and his wife Lisa, who were renting my casita, watched much of my session through binoculars. They saw how far down the coast I’d gone and kindly drove their rental car down to pick me up. They’d witnessed the kite crash and my struggle to swim to shore. That’s when Andy decided to paddle out to see if I was okay and would signal Lisa if I needed a panga to come pick me up.
 
“So how are you doing?” he asked. 

“Mostly, I was getting lonely,” I said. And then added, “I got a little spooked. It’s nice to have company out here.”

Rather than signal the panga,we attached the kite to Andy’s longboard. Released from its drag and going with the wind swell, I could finally make good progress.
 
The sun was just ducking behind the western hills and turning the sky to shades of coral and pink as I hauled my waterlogged body out of the water. I expressed my gratitude to Andy and Lisa for being there and for bringing the car that was waiting a short walk down the beach to take me home. As I trudged down the beach, waterlogged kite heavy under my arm, I made another note in my mental kitesurfing instruction book: Issue prayers of thanks only after successfully reaching dry land.
 
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Seasoned

In mid-November, after a month on Maui, I returned to Mexico where the weather was fine and much like the climate I’d just left behind on Maui’s North Shore – highs in the mid 80s, lows in the mid-70s. A surprise late-season swell had just arrived, treating fellow surfers and me to some fun waves at Nine Palms for the first several days. The sun’s strength was evident from the skin on my face and legs, which was transformed gradually from hues of seared pink to a gradually deepening roasted brown.

Three days ago the weather changed, shifted, and was altered dramatically as though someone threw a switch in response to the approaching solstice. The sun lost the searing intensity felt only two short weeks ago. And in the early hours of the evening, it now plummets out of the sky causing shadows to lengthen like long fingers grasping at something in the landscape. Where previously, I sought shady patches to escape the sun’s intensity, now I search for sunny spots where my extremities, numbed by encroaching coolness lurking in the shadows, are warmed.

Three nights ago, I awakened from a sound sleep to the sound of an urgent thudding sound. My dog Peanut, laying beside me on the floor, stirred simultaneously. I sensed her concern and felt the stab of fear in my gut as I strained with all my senses to discern the source of the disturbance. Whump! whump! tha-wamp! babang! I heard loud banging on one, or was it more, of the wooden doors. In that moment, that throat-clenching pause, with sleep still enveloping my brain, I was certain a horde of plunderers, rapists and henchmen were forcing their way in through the doors. The rush of fear wiped the haze of sleep from my head and, as I gave it a shake, I realized the true source of the turmoil. A fierce wind had risen during the night, just as my kitesurfing neighbor had prophesied, and was hammering away at the door. I relaxed and my brain flooded with the ridiculous image of a Samoan warrior beating on the door with a large club of the sort they used to dispatch their Fijian neighbors.

I turned my attention to the sounds coming out the dark. Winds of 40 miles an hour were surely blowing and stronger gusts made me question our security (mine and Peanut’s).  I quickly realized that I’d left several windows open when I retired, when I thought only of the fresh night air making it more pleasant to sleep. Now, realistic or not, I pictured screens ripped open by the force of the gale and gathering myself further, quickly went about securing the windows closed. Even with the windows shut, the door continued its whump! whump! tha-wamp! babang! so that as I crawled back into bed and the dog settled on her cushion next to me, I wondered if I’d ever get back to sleep.

The sheets had cooled noticeably while I’d run around closing things up in the dark and it was then that the realization hit me – summer is over. Even in this area, tucked just below the Tropic of Cancer and therefore technically a part of the Tropics, a crispness had entered the air where previously it was all softness and warm caresses.  I shivered in response, a purely psychological reaction, and pulled the heavy yellow, black and red-striped blanket up from the foot of the bed, tucking it under my chin as though in doing so I might keep the pressing seasonal change at bay.

Another twenty days and the cycle will begin again, imperceptibly at first, to reverse itself. The days will get longer and the sun gradually stronger. The sea that cools with the shortening days will be warmed once again by the approaching sun, energizing summer storms, hurricanes and their offspring the waves.