In the last five years, in pursuit of proficiency at boardsailing, I have given up a job, bought a small moving van to carry four fully rigged sails (the better to be ready for each and every puff of wind), built a house on a channel in the Florida Keys to shorten the distance between me and the water (and sold it because there wasn't enough wind in the area), and then moved to Oregon's Columbia River Gorge, which is the world capital of boardsailing.
By the time I got to Oregon last June, I should have been able to sail on a reach in choppy water on a 25-knot day, execute a smooth jibe and sail back to shore, without falling. Instead, this is what happened when I tried those maneuvers:
•Overpowered by a notorious Gorge gust, I was yanked off my board with a force that bent the aluminum boom and the steel hook on my harness, flipped over the sail and deposited in the water. I landed so hard I saw stars.
•The next time out, I ended up—in wet suit, harness and bare feet—climbing a 150-foot cliff covered with loose rock and slimy vegetation. I had hit a sandbar that had knocked the fin off my board, and I was taking a shortcut home.
•A week later, the board flew off the roof of my pickup truck as I was driving home. I tracked it in the rearview mirror as it floated 15 feet into the air, did a lazy backflip, landed on its nose and performed a horrifying somersault. Much to my relief, it was dodged by the motor home behind me.
I would be pretty accurate in saying that those three experiences fairly reflected my windsurfing career. No, I didn't need a shrink to deal with a serious bout of masochism. What I needed was a teacher. It took me a long time to figure this out, but I finally realized that the reason my progress was slower and more painful than it should have been was that I was trying to learn without instruction.
At my emotional low point last summer, the day I climbed the cliff (a desperate attempt to succeed at something athletically challenging), my wife, Karen, reminded me of some words of wisdom: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Sure enough, my salvation appeared not long afterward, in the form of Rhonda Smith-Sanchez, the 1989 United States Boardsailing Association's national women's champion. Smith-Sanchez conducts clinics at sailing haunts around the country, but she lives in Hood River. In September, when the crush of summertime sailors had faded, I signed up to take private lessons till the Columbia froze over, so to speak.
Smith-Sanchez came equipped for the challenge of correcting my five years of misguided self-teaching. Apart from her personal knowledge of boardsailing, she had with her an Alpheratz Contact Trainer. One of the inherent difficulties in learning this sport is that once you get the board moving, you leave your instructor behind—unless he or she has a high-performance, uncommonly maneuverable boat. The Contact Trainer solves this communication problem by means of a 6¾- by 2 [1/3]-inch, 14-ounce, waterproof radio receiver that is strapped to the chest of the student, who wears earphones held on by a headband. The Contact Trainer, which is powered by a nine-volt battery, has a range of half a mile. Communication is only one-way—from instructor to student—which is undoubtedly a good thing; the student can ask questions back on shore. Out on the water the student learns by listening to the instructor and then trying to figure things out himself.
So there I was, in the middle of the choppy Columbia River, struggling to get back up on the board after my usual reach and crash. And there it was, a logging barge, bearing down on me. I can't tell you what a relief it was to have Smith-Sanchez's calm voice guiding me through a successful light-wind water start; I got up with little difficulty and sailed out of danger. After that, I could do it again. And again.
If you're lucky, you can catch Smith-Sanchez at a boardsailing clinic near you, and the Contact Trainer is becoming a popular teaching aid at water-sports schools throughout the country. (LotharSanford, the American distributor for the French-designed product, says schools sell the trainer, but that it is not yet available in stores. For information, call 212-757-3881.) It would seem to have a golden future among novice waterskiers, rock climbers and anyone else trying to master a single-handed sport. As for me, I'll be in Baja, where I'm going to chase the wind—now that I have become a half-decent boardsailor.