Fear and Kiting in Los Cabos

DSCN0401Parental Advisory: Dear Mom and Dad, please don’t read this. I know how you feel about me kiting and this isn’t going to help. Love, Dawn

I don’t kitesurf in the summer heat. I consciously decided that kiting is a fall and winter sport for me because it’s hell getting the gear rigged on the hot sand. I’ve come close to heat stroke a couple of times. But on my first foray out this autumn, I came close having a stroke for a very different reason.

It’s always difficult to motivate to go out the first time after my summer break; I know from experience that half my equipment is going to fail because it’s been sitting around for months in the summer heat. The glue that they use to seal the valves in particular is degraded by high temps so when you try to blow the kite up, one or more valves go “pop!” and you’re S.O.L unless you know how to do repairs, which apparently I don’t. I tried to replace a valve last year, followed the instructions carefully, watched YouTube videos on how to do it, but failed terribly. I can’t even tell you where I went wrong.

My neighbor Walker, who’s a kiter, was here this week and convinced me it was time to get the kites out. The wind was blowing a good 25 to 30 miles an hour, the water was crystal clear, and it seemed as good a time as any to get out there. And I was glad to have some company for the first foray in many months.

Walker is an enthusiastic kiter. He’s been doing it since the sport was in its infancy and went through the hell of using kites that didn’t have all the built-in safety features that those of us starting up much later benefit from. He’s got some great tales of harrowing near-death experiences that I’m glad I got to miss out on. His enthusiasm means he was down on the beach at the first sign of whitecaps. I dragged my feet, experiencing the resistance borne of the knowledge that it was probably going to be a bit of a nightmare figuring out which of my well-used kites was flight worthy. Sure enough, after I got down there and helped Walker launch his brand new 7M Sling Shot, I tried three different kites, including one of Walkers that he’d offered up, and none of them were operable. Walker had forgotten to bring the bar (essentially the “steering wheel”) down for his 6M that I was hoping to use and before launching he suggested I jerry-rig it with my own bar. I knew this was a bad idea and did it anyway. The kite is different than any of mine and sure enough, when I launched it, it immediately dove to the beach and crashed, flew back up and dove, over and over again as the lines twisted on themselves. Frustrating!! Not to mention not so good for the kite. Before I could get it under control, it nose dived into a sundried porcupine fish, which penetrated the heavy nylon of the leading edge, but thankfully not the bladder and a foot long hole tore through the canopy. That kite was out of commission until it could be repaired.

Meanwhile, as I struggled to get the next kite (any kite!) rigged, Walker was out there flying back and forth across the water, intermittently crashing the kite into the water’s hard surface and then struggling to relaunch because he was under-powered. It was apparent from the tangled mess of the lines on the bar I was trying to rig that I didn’t deal with that issue before putting them away for the season. My bad. Untangling lines requires the patience of Job and after trying to get two other setups rigged, mine was waning. Walker came in while I was deep in the tangles.

When I explained what the hold up was, he offered me his brand new kite. Although he’d been underpowered, we reasoned it would be perfect for me because I weigh considerably less than he does. After a half-hearted protest that the kite was new! I thanked him profusely and got out there.  Employing what patience remained, I timed it right to get out through the heavy shorebreak without mishap and was up and whizzing out to sea trying to remember the subtleties of the sport.

Fifteen minutes into my session, I’d just tacked, heading back out to sea, when I leaned back and took a look down to marvel at the crystal clarity of the water backed by the white sand bottom and contrasting black and mottled brown rocks. The water was so clear it looked like it was only a few feet deep. I’d begun to turn my attention back to the surface and the kite, when I sailed over the outline of something that resembled a shark.

BigMouthWait…WHAT?!

At first I didn’t believe my eyes, and started looking around at the white caps, hoping one would resemble a shark and I could laugh at my paranoia, but that was denial at work. I considered further what I’d seen: it’s shape was distinct–a wide body, tapering to a long tail with an upright caudal fin that only one type of fish in the sea possesses, light grey on top and white underneath at the tips of its fins and a as I passed overhead, it flicked that tail once to impel itself forward, an unmistakable motion. As the reality that I had indeed seen a shark, a rather large shark, slowly sank in, I felt the vice grip of anxiety rise and take hold of my chest. I began debating what to do. I was still on a course that took me out to sea, to deeper darker waters, but away from where I’d seen the shark. I needed to give him time to continue on his way North. Unfortunately, my mind then had him pulling a U-turn and coming to see what that “thing” was that flew overhead. I wondered Are sharks curious? The darkness of the deeper water was frightening because of all that it could conceal. I decided it was time to tack and head back to shore, but with all that anxious thinking I was distracted and blew my turn. I sank into that deep, dark blue water up to my neck, and anxiety turned to panic.

“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, SHIT!” I said as much at myself as to myself. Get up and get going! I silently commanded.

And so I did, saying a little “Thank you God,” as I got up to speed without the kite crashing and exploding on impact (not an uncommon occurrence where I am concerned). I was headed to shore.

This is where the way my brain works frightens me a little; on my way back to shore, it occurred to me that I’d only been out kiting a short time and I began rationalizing that the shark was long gone. He’d obviously just been cruising, there was no evidence of him being in hunter mode. When the time came, I did not go to shore, I turned that kite and me strapped to my board and headed back out to sea. True or not, I’d convinced myself I was safe above water and blocked out the possibility of kite failure, major wipe outs, the wind dying, and several other instances where I’d be back in the water up to my neck only minutes after seeing what I estimated to be an eight-foot shark.

It’s amazing what the human mind is capable of blocking out when it wants to ignore the facts. I’d almost forgotten all about that shark, when on my next tack, I lost control of the kite and it shot right to left, yanking me out of my board straps and flinging me a good ten feet downwind, before crashing into the water with a resounding WHUMP! Suddenly, I remembered Mr. Shark. Pushing the question of where my board was aside, I concentrated all my attention on the kite and after a few nail-biting failed attempts got it relaunched. I looked back hoping to see my board bobbing on the surface nearby. It was nowhere to be seen. Shit! Where is it? I could feel the anxiety putting its stranglehold on me again. Desperation wrapping its suffocating arms about me, I began to body drag upwind in search of my board. I recalled thankfully that it has red footstraps, unlike the two boards I’d previously lost in scenarios similar to this one – white, I’d concluded, is a STUPID color for a kiteboard; they just disappear among the white caps. The recollection of losing those two boards at sea taunted me now. Would I find the board or have to body drag all the way back in? Please God, no. A couple of drags of about 30 feet, first one way and then the other and I could see the board bobbing in the wind chop. I relaxed a tiny bit. Quickly, I regained the board, slipped my feet into the straps, and power-stroked myself up and out of the water. I could breathe again.

A few more tacks and I wiped out again, this time though I didn’t crash the kite and remained close enough to the board that it was visible. I decided I’d tempted fate enough and it was time to go in. I couldn’t relax out there except when within easy reach of the beach. But there was a big swell in the water that day, so every time I got close to the beach, a huge wall of water would loom up behind me threatening to send me into shore ass over tea-kettle like a big piece of flotsam wrapped up in my lines. I imagined myself riding those waves and pulling out gracefully by launching myself like a bird, as I’d seen advanced riders do on Maui. As I approached the shore, I got my opportunity as a wave began to grow behind me. I rode it partway in before pulling the kite up to stop my forward momentum and skidding to a remarkably graceful halt before I crashed on the sand. Using the kite’s pull, I exited the water in a series of small hops. The sand never felt so solid, so secure under my feet.

Walker was no longer on the beach, so I did a controlled crash to land the kite. When I ran over to deflate it, what I saw made my breath catch in my throat. The plug for main intake valve was open, probably popping under the pressure of one of Walker’s more dramatic crashes. The only thing keeping the kite from deflating was the stopper, a little plastic ball that plugs the hole under back pressure. I was reminded of one of the earliest lessons we were taught by the instructor at Action Sports Maui: Always rig your own kite and if you don’t for some reason, double check the rigging before launch. I’d been in such a rush to get out there, I’d forgotten an essential lesson. I was lucky the kite hadn’t deflated when I crashed it way out at sea.

The next day when I related this experience to my buddy Meisy, he laughed and pointed out that when I body drag using the kite to move upwind to retrieve my board, I essentially turn myself into big fishing lure. Thanks Meisy, the image of a shark clamping down on me like a baited line will haunt me every time I lose my board from this day forward.

Dry Docked

I haven’t been much of a writer these past three weeks.

I keep thinking, “There will be time for writing when you are older. Seize the opportunity now to surf and kiteboard as much as possible while your body is relatively healthy and strong. One day, perhaps sooner than you want to believe, you won’t have the stamina and strength to surf for several hours in one day. Then you’ll have all the time in the world to write.”

Perhaps this is short-sighted and selfish. Perhaps it’s avoidance behavior or a rationalization. Whatever it is, it’s keeping me surfing. Surfing and enjoying life so much (aka partying with friends) that I found myself several days ago so exhausted that my body felt like a lead weight I was lugging around. It took concentrated effort to keep moving and get the things done I needed to get done around the house before I left the country (re-potting of two large plants, organizing and packing my bags).

But I’ll have plenty of opportunity to rest up now. A few days ago I flew North to eastern Canada, to the place I will always call home no matter how long it’s been since I’ve lived there, Vankleek Hill, Ontario. I slept on the plane despite the good reading material I had along with me (The Sun magazine). I slept hard, so hard that I didn’t even hear the attendant come by with immigration forms and dinner. I might have even drooled a little bit. Then that night I took two melatonin pills before bed in part to counteract the tiny bit of coffee ice cream I ate while I re-watched the movie Apocalypto, in part because I wanted to sleep the sleep of the dead. I had a serious sleep deficit that I needed to reverse.

Ice cream and a movie, Thai food before that – some of the small pleasures I don’t get much of in Baja, the things that make leaving my beautiful paradise just a tiny bit less painful.

While leaving induces the pain of separation, emotional pain, the truly painful thing I’m focused on right now is the physical pain of a volcano-like hole on my knee that refuses to heal. It’s been there since January when I sliced the top off my knee coming in with a kite that was inside out and dragged my knee over the top of a rock. I didn’t even feel it, it was such a clean cut. But after I got out of the water, I looked down to see watery blood dripping down my leg. Ever since then the cut has grown into a hole that keeps getting deeper and deeper every time I surf despite taking several measures to protect it. I covered it with a waterproof Band-Aid and then with a tubular piece of neoprene cut from an old wetsuit. It seemed to be working and six weeks or so ago, it looked like a new layer of skin had finally grown over the wound. Then I decided to fore-go the Band-aid I’d worn every other surf session and instead applied a layer of New Skin® liquid bandage over the new scar tissue. But I forgot to put the tube of neoprene on over it. At one point when I popped up, my left knee caught the waxed surface of the board, I felt a sharp pain as the New Skin was ripped from my knee taking the new layer of skin along with it. I was back to square one.

Day 1: Healing begins

What I needed to do was stay out of the water, but I was unwilling to accept that increasingly obvious fact. As a result, this hole has threatened to get infected several times. It gets hot and extremely sensitive to the touch and then I clean it with hydrogen peroxide, coat it with antibacterial ointment, apply a bandage and pray. I’ve hit it square in the middle on tables and chairs, which nearly brings me to tears. Yoga and other activities that involve applying pressure to the knees are done gingerly, carefully, with most of the weight applied to the right knee.

By the time I return to Mexico I will have been out of the water for three weeks straight. For once this is a good thing. By then I pray there will be a layer of new skin in place that is thick enough and tough enough to resist the wear and tear of being dragged across the rough waxy surface of a surf board after soaking for several hours in the water. Because if it isn’t healed by then, I’ll be hard pressed to stay out of the water as the summer surf season ramps up to full speed ahead.

What about you? What is the longest you’ve had hold off doing something you love due to an injury? What’s the gnarliest injury you’ve ever had?

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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