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.

Crossing Paths: Surf Legend Derek Hynd

photo by Dane Peterson

photo by Dane Peterson

Between holiday travel and the cold I inevitably pick up during said travel, I’m way behind on my writing. As promised I’m working on a story about a recent experience I had with peyote and a couple of Huichol Indians, but in the meantime, here’s a quickie about meeting a surf legend on my trip to Central California last November.

I returned to Hollister Ranch this past November with hopes of getting a little surf on this time around. My wonderful hostess Nancie, her brother Dana, and I headed down to a spot called Lefts and Rights to see if the surf was up and were treated to a vision of clean, solid four foot peelers. Considering the exclusive nature of the spot, I was surprised by the size of the crowd. Then I remembered it was a Saturday. Everyone and their dogs were at the beach.

I’d flown a nice quad surfboard to San Francisco from Maui en route to Baja, but decided to leave it in the Bay, wrapped in its protective coating of pipe insulation and cardboard. It had taken two of us enough duct tape to seal the joints in the Space Shuttle to wrap it up, and I’d never get it back together by myself for the trip to Mexico. Instead, from a collection of boards stacked in the shed attached to Nancie’s house, I borrowed an aged and dusty 6’10” egg that reminded me of my favorite Eclipse board waiting for me back in Mexico. Nancie pointed out that the board was shaped by Renny Yater’s son Lauren, another in her long list of surf industry friends.

At the break, I stood and studied the wave for several minutes before squeezing into my 4mm wet suit and heading out. The first thing I noticed was the amount of seaweed I had to cut through to get to the lineup. It tangled around my leash, creating enough drag to make me stop to pull it off in big long clumps. It reminded me of pulling long hair from around the drive shaft of a vacuum cleaner.

In the lineup, I took my time and watched as others caught one wave after another. The crowd was mostly friendly, but I sensed the tingle of territoriality hanging in the air. Wiry teenagers ripped on boards the size of potato chips, balding guys sporting spare tires around the midriff hung out on longboards waiting for their wave, and one woman, about my age, paddled by on a log. Despite the number of people in the water, it was easy to keep track of Dana in his bright blue wet suit, a thick yellow stripe running lengthwise down each side. He had an easy riding style and sat outside picking off the larger set waves on his longboard. I tried to stick fairly close without crowding him like a frightened child holding to her father’s shirt tails, despite feeling that way. Of course I wasn’t going to let anyone actually see that I was nervous. I knew I just needed to catch a few waves to stoke my confidence.

Every wave is different and every break offers the opportunity to learn something new about surfing. These waves break faster than the ones I am used to and I was glad I’d chosen the shorter Yater board over the longboards that were on offer. The wave, like a piece of music, dictates the rhythm of the dance one must employ to surf it. It took me several waves to begin to feel the beat.

Dana hollered, “Watch out!” good-naturedly as he took off on a wave I was paddling for, prompting a couple of chuckles by the men around me and a comment about the death of chivalry. The mood was improving and so were the waves.

Dana paddled back out followed by a curious-looking man with an Australian accent. He was skinny and had an odd look in his eyes. As he paddled past, we exchanged pleasantries and he commented on the conditions and how fortunate we all were. His expression of gratitude surprised me based on the general vibe in the water. I liked him instantly. He took off on one of the next waves and I looked on in amazement at what was the strangest surfing style I’d ever seen. He remained very low with his knees up by his chest, his feet lined up together like he was on a ski jump, not a wave. Nevertheless, he moved gracefully up and down the wave and even pulled a beautiful 360 that caught me completely by surprise.

Later, I watched from the beach briefly and wondered how he pulled off those spins, watched as he slid down the face sideways and did other strange maneuvers I can’t even begin to describe. When he came in, I noticed that the board he’d been riding was unlike anything I’d seen before. A series of channels ran along each side of the underside of the tail section where the fins ought to be. No fins? The tail was asymmetrical and made the board look, to this uninitiated kook, unrideable or at least like something an amateur had shaped. I was starting to think this guy might be the nutty professor of surfing when Dana introduced us.

The nutty surf professor and his ingenious finless board.

The nutty surf professor and his ingenious far field friction-free board.

“This is Derek Hynd,” he said gesturing towards the nutty professor.

Confession time. I’d heard of Derek Hynd, but didn’t know much about him, just that he was a big name in the industry and had surfed in the pro circuit long ago. I struck up a conversation with him and quickly got the sense that, like his board, his thinking was very non-linear. It was at times difficult to follow what he was saying, as it seemed completely out of context. I realized quickly that I was missing significant background information or perhaps even knowledge of the language being spoken. At one point he said something about the womb and feminist theory as it relates to surfing and I felt a sensation like whiplash jerk through my brain. To top it off, every time I tried to ask him anything about himself, he turned it around and asked me more about myself. I liked his vibe though and sensed I was the presence of a fully self-realized human being. I was hoping we’d be able to hang out with him for a while. Maybe try out that crazy surfboard myself (although I admit I probably wouldn’t do it any justice).

While we stood on the beach chatting, the surf built to well over six foot faces and everyone was saying how it would only get better as the day progressed. But Dana and Nancie had things to do and, as per the rules of The Ranch, I couldn’t surf without my host present. I reluctantly bid Derek and his friends adieu with the hope of one day getting to pick his interesting brain.

Back at home, I discovered that while there isn’t a Wikipedia entry for this enigmatic man, there are several articles written by and about him and plenty of video footage that provide a further glimpse into the mind of the legendary friction free surfer Derek Hynd.

Below I’ve shared some of the more interesting tidbits I found along with video footage of Derek on a board very similar to the one he rode that day. The waves we surfed were, shall we say, considerably smaller, but his style and approach to the wave are the same.

This video illustrates why Steve Pezman calls him the “best surfer in the recorded history of wave-riding.”

For more on Derek’s wild Far Field Friction Free ride, check out The Surfer’s Journal POV videos. In Part I he shapes the ride from an existing fish and in Part II he rides that same board.