Windsurfing escapade

I have said repeatedly — my little southern Minnesota town is packed tight with wind.

Sometimes it's hard to find beauty in the thing you're bracing against.
Sometimes it’s hard to find beauty in the thing I’m bracing against.

The first time it rained I nearly cried with relief; the shift in atmospheric pressure felt almost emotional, my shoulders relaxing as the tension dripped away — and even then the wind was there, slapping droplets against the windowpanes. The wind is simply present, a quiet pressure or gusting force. You get used to it. Sometimes I walk half a block before I realize my clothes are all oriented the same direction — the wind has quietly rearranged them, bunching my shirts under my arms, methodically sifting my hair into a tangle. When we fight, the wind and I, I tend to lose.

It’s hard for me to find beauty in the thing I’m bracing against. We adapt to survive, not enjoy ourselves.

Worthington hosts an annual Windsurfing Regatta, and windsurfers come from across the US (and beyond) to compete. Worthington’s lake is wide, shallow, and never smooth. It’s a perfect location.

Though windsurfing is (apparently) an Olympic sport, I’d never heard of it before I moved here. Boards rigged with tall, transparent sails have been skimming across the lake all week like sideways dragonflies soaring in tandem. Along the shore, vendors are selling State Fair food — gyros, kettle corn, deep-fried everything. A good third of the people on the beach are wearing wetsuits. In the evening, when I leave work for dinner break, I wander down to the beach and find a lake-facing seat at a picnic table.

It’s getting dark, and most of the windsurfers have come in. Only one surfer remains on the lake, maybe thirty yards out, sailing back and forth along the shore. He is close enough that I can see how hard he strains to balance his weight against the pressure in his sail.

I feel the wind drop, then gust. A few seconds later he loses his balance, falling backward into the lake, the sail spinning forward. He resurfaces, treading water. This sport does not involve life jackets. He climbs back onto the board, bouncing slightly, trying his weight. He pulls the sail out of the water and snaps it out, throwing off droplets — I can hear the snap even from the shore. He is off again, heading the opposite direction.

I start to grin. It’s like I can feel his joy even from a distance, the way his whole body pulls against and with the wind at the same time, the way every muscle strains to counterbalance the pressure in the sail. It looks fast and difficult and energizing and satisfying, like a glass of water on a hot day. For a minute, the wind seems beautiful. It looks fun, and I want to try.

When I get back to work that night, I proofread an article about former competitors offering free windsurfing lessons. My coworkers and I almost talk our sports reporter into taking a lesson, but he talks himself out of it; I will have to go alone.

In the morning, the teachers have rigged a surfboard to a swivel on land. A gray-haired woman and a family of five are ahead of me in line, and I sit on the grass to wait. I try not to over-think, or think at all. I’m volunteering for this; why am I nervous? When my turn comes I brush handfuls of grass from my legs, ripped from the roots by my distracted hands.

“I have no skills,” I warn the teacher.

“That’s okay,” she says, holding the board in place. “Hop on.”

She speaks soothingly and constantly, like I am a skittish pet that needs a calm, reassuring voice. Hips in, arms straight, knees bent, shoulders down — there are so many instructions to remember at once. She explains how to tilt the sail, how to turn the board around the sail, how to work with the wind to gain leverage. Hips arms knees shoulders. The board spins and I quickstep on it, barely regaining my balance, tugging on the sail and trying to hold myself up. She shows me how to hit the sail, popping it into place in its frame. I am shaky, overbalanced, uneven.

“Want to try it on the lake?” she asks, grinning. She hands me off to the other teacher. We wade into the water, where he has two surfboards tethered together with a ten-foot cord between them.

“Your job,” he says, pointing to the tether, “is to make that stay slack.”

I climb onto my board, bouncing to test my balance. The board dips into the water, and I swing my arms and arch my back to counter it. A few seconds later I am stable again, rocking with the waves.

“No dancing out here,” he instructs. “Leave that for the land.” He also speaks in a gentle veterinarian chatter. “Pull up the sail, there you go, take the bar…”

He has been talking like this for a minute, my body frantically trying to adjust to the shifting surface of the board, before I look back and realize we are sailing, that we have left the shore. I feel like I am gaining height, not distance, looking down toward land.

“Can we go back?” I ask, dizzy. The tether jerks tight between us.

He coaches me through the turn. I do a wobbly quickstep around the sail, position my feet, and snap the sail into place, arching my back to counter the pressure. The teachers didn’t show me that; it’s what the windsurfer on the lake did. The one that made me want to try.

My teacher turns to look, raising his eyebrows. “When I hear that snap, it tells me you’re ready,” he says.

I start to laugh, nervously at first, then uncontrollably. He warns me giggling will make me fall in. The sail tugs me forward and I lean back, overbalancing again, barely staying aboard.

We sail in and out once more, then the lesson is over. We splash into the water by the shore, pulling our boards to the shallows.

“You didn’t fall in,” my teacher says suspiciously. “Nobody comes out dry the first time.”

I thank my teachers repeatedly, and they promise that if the weather’s good and there’s not a long line, I can go back out tomorrow. I am still shaking, wobbly on my toes even on land, but I know I will return tomorrow.

That moment, the tug when the sail snapped into place, when I leaned back and the wind was necessary, holding me up, pulling me forward —

It felt exactly like I knew it would.


One thought on “Windsurfing escapade

  1. Dang, girl…. I’m so jealous. I can imagine I was there, though, because you are a fabulous describer of things.

    Also, how does one keep one’s hips in? That sounds tough.

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