waves, culture, aphorisms

Madagascar: Out of Time

(A version of this story was first published in Boards, 2014 Autumn Issue.)

The Emerald Sea and 3 boats. pic by Ruben Lemmens

The Emerald Sea and 3 boats. pic by Ruben Lemmens

I’m sitting in a friend’s Hamburg apartment off the Alster, eating her marzipan and licorice even though I should be writing about a trip I did almost a year ago to Madagascar. The deadline for this essay is over a week past, and I am afraid that my editor will not publish this, but I cannot stop writing. I must finish this essay because my mind won’t be free until Madagascar–a trip that was so full of difficulties (even now!)—is finished once and for all.

I look outside of the 5th floor window down on the German city streets, and I see cafes serving coffee, I see people walking with purpose, and I see time embedded into the souls of the trees and the souls of the buildings and the souls of the people. Put your ear against the soul of a German man (or lady), and you will hear the ticking of time—like a heartbeat but more steady. Einstein says time is relative, but here in Germany, time is nothing but a fact. No matter where you stand, you can see a clock in every train station or airport.

This means that I have a perfect vantage point of the time passing by me while I sit not writing. I can see the clock tock 4 o’clock in the afternoon, which is my self-imposed deadline for the day’s writing. But now, 4pm is just another time in the past. The clock continues forward while my Madagascar article simply does not.

For this three thousand word article, I have about six thousand words thrown into a Word document, portraying a Pollock painting of experiences from my trip. There is no through-line, and there is no order: just moments unlinked.

Now it is midnight, but I’m not tired—I don’t feel tied to time anymore. As a pro windsurfer, I go through time-zones like popcorn. Hawaii to Europe is a 12-hour time difference, but for me, the trip is a standard commute to compete. I try not to think about this and instead focus back to Madagascar, where I went to make a film but instead discovered a new world. Ignoring my mess of 6 thousand words, I try to start over. Go back to zero. Hit reset on the clock. Except you can’t. Life only goes faster and faster and faster forward. Thinking back:

Madagascar does not have many roads; and the asphalt that does exist is so potted that the dirt is preferred. Madagascar does not have hot water; I stayed with a wealthy local family and faced a cold shower after every day of windsurfing. Madagascar is for manpower; lawns are cut with shears, and gravel comes from hammers. And WIFI? Forget about it. But the biggest lacking luxury of all was Time. Madagascar does not even have time.

What does it even mean that Madagascar is without time? For starters, without time there can be no death. Obviously, people die, but the Malagasy people do not see this as a stop. In the interior of the island, the Malagasy annually dig up the bodies of their ancestors, put new clothes on the corpses, and re-bury the newly dressed skeletons.

Even the Malagasy language lacks time. “Good morning”, “good afternoon”, “good evening”, “good anytime” are all represented by the same phrase: “M’bola tsara”, which translates to something like “still good?” The response is the same as the question: M’bola tsara. Still good. Nothing changes. M’bola tsara.

On my first day in Mada, I saw a young Zebu (a Malagasy horned cow) sacrificed on the beach in front of the house where I stayed. The poor calf was sailed in from across the bay with its skinny legs tied together. When put on the sand, he shook from seasickness or from cold or from terror—or from some bovine Parkinson’s, who knows.

The local people stuck money to the Zebu’s hide with honey as they said wishes to go with the Zebu to the spirit world. The beast was then beheaded and butchered in the sand. The son of my host family, Billy, placed the skull on a sacred tree that holds the spirits of his ancestors.

I make a wish on the Zebu under the ancestor tree. Pic by Ruben Lemmens

I make a wish on the Zebu under the ancestor tree. Pic by Ruben Lemmens

I felt pity for the animal, but my new Malagasy family reassured me that in Madagascar death is not the end. Rather, the sacrifice delivers the Zebu to the spirit world of the ancestor spirits. The dead Zebu’s blood pooled in the sand, and opened intestines stank. The tide rose and took away the blood and dung. We ate fresh Zebu steak that night. M’bola tsara.

The exception that proves the rule regarding Madagascar and time is my host-brother Billy’s Casio wristwatch, which he loved and wore everywhere despite not having a job or going to school or living in a place that even has time. During the sacrifice, which was done mainly to wish him well during his next year in university, he somehow broke the plastic strap to his Casio. He looked down at the white stripe of skin on his brown arm and nearly cried. This was a disaster as terrible as Prometheus tripping down Mt Olympus on his way to gift fire to man and losing the torch in the dirt, extinguishing the flame forever.

Billy with Zebu head and Casio. pic by Ruben Lemmens

Billy with Zebu head and Casio. pic by Ruben Lemmens

Time is like that fire. Time is a sign of the west and the power and wealth it represents. Time is a sign of progress, or rather time allows for the concept of progress. Owning time then is a symbol of power.

At one point, in a small village, we sought permission to windsurf and film where no one had ever windsurfed before. This village was way out in the Bush hours from any road. We were told: You know when you go into the Bush but you don’t know when you’ll return, so eat a big breakfast, you might be glad you did.

An often said Malagasy phrase is “Mora Mora” which means “Slowly Slowly.” This can be a response to anything. How’s it going? Mora Mora. How is writing that story on Madagascar? Mora Mora. How long does it take to reach the village? Mora Mora.

The village was the cliché picture of African village life. Chickens pecked the dust. Zebu wandered slowly, aimlessly. A mutt bitch with her worn tits full of pups lay—dead-looking—in the shade under a porch. One pup, white probably but dirt colored actually, with no room on the mother’s tits, wandered on top of the porch of the hut and into the open doorway, following the scent of food. The woman of the hut stood in the doorway, guarding her abode. She looked down at this pathetic baby dog searching for food (for life!), and without any hesitation, she gave it a full football kick. The puppy twirled and flipped through the air before landing in a whimper and plume of dust—scampering back to the frenzy at the tits. M’bola tsara.

Sunset Dancing - pic by Ruben Lemmens

Sunset Dancing – pic by Ruben Lemmens

The hut of the village leader has two rooms while most of the other huts have just one room for the entire family. I needed his permission to film from the island off the coast from this village. My crew and I sat behind Billy as he described what we wanted.

The conversation commenced in Malagasy, so instead of listening, I scanned the walls with my eyes. The wood walls were mostly bare except for two plastic clocks. The hands on each clock showed a different time, and as I stared longer, I realized that both were stopped. Mora Mora.

I asked Billy to ask the significance of the times on the clocks. I thought of all sorts of possibilities: maybe these were the times his children were born? The answer was: no significance to the times of the stopped hands on the two clocks on his otherwise bare wall. The clocks were only decorative. M’bola tsara.

The lack of Time meant that our minds were 100% with our bodies, which in this age of constant communication is almost impossible. I could not think to another place or time. Time zones only matter after the advent of instant communication, which starts with the telegraph. Before the telegraph and with such long travel times between places, time zones were an incomprehensible concept. But once someone in London could send a message as the sun sets to New York where the sun still rides high in the sky, time zones matter. Time zones allow for coordinated, long-distance mass transit and stock exchanges and so many things. The telegraph became the telephone which became the iPhone. But this history does not apply in Madagascar.

In Madagascar, I had no communication with anyone farther away than I could shout. I lost a girlfriend on that trip because I did not call her after she suffered a surfing accident. I could not call her to explain that I could not call her. M’Bola Tsara.

This 100% in-the-momentness was possibly the reason the beauty of the landscape assaulted me so powerfully. Normally beauty has a tendency to bore, which is why locals never notice “the view” and why tourists crave home or the hotel TV after a week. Maybe this is why the cruise or bus tour is so common—in a state of perpetual motion, you exist in a state of constant newness, never actually being in any one place long enough to be bored. Not so in Madagascar.

The beauty of Madagascar violently dominates the viewer. The view here does not rest passively while you sit with toes in the sand and a Caipirinha in hand. The Malagasy wilderness consumes you. The waters of the Emerald Sea are a blue beyond the blues of Photoshop. Sailing through these sapphire seas feels fake and therefore dizzying. The black lava rock is so razor sharp that walking across is impossible without thick-soled shoes. The land is king and you are the view. M’bola tsara.

I am reminded of what D H Lawrence said of Australia a century ago:

“The land is here: sky high and blue and new, as if no one had ever taken a breath from it; and the air is new, strong, fresh as silver; and the land is terribly big and empty, still uninhabited…it is too new, you see: too vast. It needs hundreds of years before it can live. This is the land where unborn souls, strange and not to be known, which shall be born in 500 years, live.”

Here in Madagascar, the land will never be inhabited, not even in 500 years. It is too beautiful, too powerful. The inspiration for the man-eating tree in the Harry Potter books comes from Malagasy legends. Hiking the mountains and wilderness around Diego Suarez, Billy would point at some curled and twisted plant and comment: Don’t touch that tree or it will be bad for you; don’t even look at it. No other explanation.

Riding Madagascar, photo by Andi Jansen

Riding Madagascar, photo by Andi Jansen

Flying from the capital Antananarivo to the northern tip of the island, which is where we were, I could see green mountains—without any paths or people—that surely contain thousands plants and animals yet to be discovered by biology. This untouched land resists the human touch.

Even the bottled water tastes sea-like. More than just salty, the water tastes like seaweed but only faintly and not unpleasantly. So hidden is this taste that I would drink a sip and wonder whether it did in fact taste sea-y and then have to take another sip to find out. And then another. I drunk whole bottles of water this way.

Fresh water in Madagascar costs more than coca cola or beer (Three Horse Beer is the local brew on tap), but while water is rare, the land is rich in almost every other way: fresh vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon bark, pepper, oil, gold, etc. Most of these lie untouched in the virgin wild.

I became giddy to taste, touch, and take from Madagascar. I took bunches vanilla pods, ounces of black pepper, a rock of ambergris to take home in a bundle for free that would have cost over a thousand dollars if purchased at western prices. I wanted—I am ashamed to realize now—to exploit the unexploited land. I felt the greed of Columbus. The riches overflowed, and that was reason enough to take.

But not totally. You see, my trip was not one of hotels, but rather a Malagasy family adopted me. They heard that I wanted to do a film trip to Madagascar, and they invited my crew and me into their home.

On one of the many nights spent talking after a delicious dinner (Blue Mangrove Crab Salad is highly recommended), my host-mother Jacqueline told me the reason she invited me. Yes, her son Billy loves windsurfing and was elated to be part of our trip. But the real reason is more complex.

Jacqueline asked me if I saw the big sign that is impossible to not see when you step out of the airport. I blushed. Of course I saw the sign and wondered what “Say No to Sexual Tourism” meant. Jacqueline explained that old men from Europe (mainly France as Madagascar is a former French colony) fly to Diego Suarez for the teenage girls who are poor and uneducated. A few euros and presents later, an old man can have many teenage girlfriends.

Jacqueline wants a more positive kind of tourism for the northern tip of Madagascar—her homeland. She thinks windsurfing could be an answer because of the sandy beaches and nonstop wind and waves. She wants tourists that support and respect the local people instead of screwing them.

Now noticing the near-pedophilia everywhere, I felt dirty. For the first time in my life, I understood nudism—an escape from society. I wanted to travel this coast and to keep it untouched by the groping hand of humanity—even my own. But if I were to travel the coast naked (which I did not do) I would want one human item: my windsurfer so that I could fit myself into the wind and waves.

What an old wind! The oldest wind I’ve seen—it was endless like a long, infinitely long freight train that goes by car after car, stretching across the horizon. 25knots when I arrived till the day I left. In most places around the world, winds come and go. Some winds die in the night—like in Maui. I had a midnight session on the Emerald Sea during full moon. In Mada, the wind is immortal. M’bola tsara.

Malagasy Coast and Me, pic by Andi Jansen

Malagasy Coast and Me, pic by Andi Jansen

But despite this perfect wind and windswell, my job—getting windsurfing footage and photos—proved almost impossible. Something went wrong every single day.

I cannot catalog every near-disaster. The Emerald Sea and Bay of Sakalava both offer really consistent good windsurfing: starboard tack side-onshore with head high waves every single day. But the best spots for photos and film are more difficult to reach and surf. We needed a boat to get to most of the spots, but we never had the right boat. One of the boats capsized, throwing us into the swells. Babaomby Lodge made a deal with me for 3-day-use of a jet ski for filming but did not deliver. Some of the local French tried to sabotage my trip by spreading rumors in town that I was a fake pro windsurfer—an imposter not to be helped! Oh, and my photographer (flown in from San Francisco) wanted to windsurf instead of taking any photos—the waves and wind were too tempting.

The trip reminded me that adventure is hard. Nowadays, the word gets stuck to picnics and hikes, but classic adventure is miserable when you’re in it: what-the-hell-am-I-doing misery. Adventure is only fun as a memory.

Here’s an excerpt from my notes on the trip that captures an example of what each day felt like:

“With us so near the equator, the sun hangs on the top of the sky all day and then falls quickly down past the horizon so that the entire afternoon sprints by in not much more than an hour. Night and day exist but not the steady flow of time to which we nail our western lives. This means we have only about an hour of good light every day just before the dark of night.

Today, we spent the whole day till dark filming from a city-block-size uninhabited island made completely of the sharpest black lava rock I have ever seen. If lava dries quickly enough, it becomes the sharp edge of broken glass. Two kinds of bushes grow from this rock island– no trees. One is a shrub with inch long thorns that sprawls about the island like a thorny, bushy vine. And the other plant is green, leafless, and looks like it should grow underwater, like a sea anemone. This second plant breaks easily when walked through and spouts a milky sap.

After a day of filming from the island, the sun already set, and a treacherous 2-hour boat ride without lights ahead of us, we loaded the camera and windsurfing gear into the hull. All of us were covered in cuts and that milky sap. Once on the dangerous sea journey home, the skipper turned and said, “Don’t get the white stuff in your eyes or you’ll go blind.”

M’bola tsara.

360 over razor sharp lava rock. Pic by Ruben Lemmens

360 over razor sharp lava rock. Pic by Ruben Lemmens

Thank you very much to everyone who made the trip possible. The Gaspard family welcomed me into their family and for that I am forever grateful. Billy and Madapower events took care of all local logistics. Andi Jansen and Ruben Lemmens were the fearless men behind the lenses during the adventure. This trip changed my life. Thank you all for making it happen.

UPDATE: The pictures are now clickable and lead to a larger version.

Competition and Play / Windsurfing’s Family Tree

Graham Ezzy Aloha Classic

Competition and Play

“I was just having fun out there,” Levi Siver said after his winning heat of the 2013 Aloha Classic. And his sailing WAS fun. The most memorable part of his winning heat was that he seemed to be playing with the waves rather than working on them. It seems obvious that watching the King of Hookipa effortlessly play is fun to watch. But if that is all we want to see, why have competition at all? Why introduce any constraints at all? Maybe because we spectators also enjoy the stories written in sweat, tears, and blood about the hardworking underdog’s journey to beat the natural talent. What exactly is the role of play in windsurfing competitions?

“Play cannot be denied,” John Huizinga says in his study of play Homo Ludens, “You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.”

“To play” is to shift the focus from scoring points to how one scores points. To use a cliché: it’s how you play the game that matters most. Levi’s played daringly and loosely, not confined by fear or rules. Which is to say that he was free. Yet, he was in a contest, and in windsurfing terminology, the opposite of competition is “freesailing” which makes contest sailing “slavesailing.” Competition is by definition the placement of rules, points, clocks, judges, and rankings on an otherwise carefree pastime. And yet Levi did not seem at all confined under all these constraints. And, a bit of that freedom transferred to everyone watching.

Historically, physical play is for animals, children, and aristocrats. The majority of adults throughout history have had little time for anything other than work. Sport is nothing but organized play.

But the rules of play have been recently updated. In our age, sport can be work. As professional athletes, play is our work, and our work is to hide that play is actually work. Windsurfing is no different from futbol or football in this respect.

I see sport as the act of making comedy of death—to reach a hand out to danger and then dance away laughing. Think of young boys wrestling. Think of cops-vs-robbers or Indians-vs-cowboys. Sport is an ode to the two great physical pulls of Life: sex : war, or eros : thanatos. How many hundred times have you heard the football pitch used to describe the war field and vice versa; and descriptions of “in the zone” mirror those of making love.

Common culture attributes how one plays the game (whether it be football or windsurfing) to the strength of one’s inner character. Remember that sportsmen receive some of the highest honors in our society despite contributing nothing but play, and even then only for an ephemeral moment.

But then why does a playful style like Levi’s look so damn good in a windsurfing heat? My answer is that apart from imparting a bit of freedom to the audience, a playful style balances the danger of windsurfing. Like honey added to lemon tea to balance our the sour, a playful style contrasts and therefore compliments risk taking.

Windsurfing’s Family Tree:

Most people forget that windsurfing was sailing before it was surfing. Our sport is a marriage of the sailing and surfing lifestyles. Surfing comes from the Pacific, Hawaii in particular, and sailing is an old and universal truth of human existence.

In Old Hawaii, where surfing originated, everyone rode waves, but surfing was primarily a pastime for Ali’i (Hawaiian royalty). Surf culture turned rebel as the sport spread to places like California and Australia (50’s to 90’s). This rebel attitude persisted until surfing’s recent rise (descent?) to the mainstream.

Traditionally, sailors are outcasts—think marines, pirates, tattoos, and “mouth of a sailor”. To sail is to escape. The sailor lives without a home. When at port, the sailor drinks to excess and deposits his wages into the coffer of the brothel—all this as an all too modest attempt to wash off the residual stress and fears of sea.

In recent years, sailing now exists as a merger of the bottom and the top of the socioeconomic spectrum: working class and leisure class. Think: navy/shipping vs yachting. Images of sailing in the popular mind include tattooed navy seamen, Columbus, Somali pirates, wealthy weekend yachters, Popeye, as well as Oracle-funded hydro foils. Windsurfing inherits from them all.

Sailing and surfing are vocations in the true sense of the word—a calling. The sea calls, offering freedom and adventure. But she is a siren sea, and while her song promises freedom and the pleasures of new worlds, nothing is more confining than a ship deck stuck at sea. And after time on the rough seas in any kind of craft (windsurfer included) all terrestrial activities becomes a bit more boring compared to the life-threatening thrills of the swells.

My earliest memory is of the anxiety after dusk as a 2 years-old me waited with my mother to hear the sound of my father’s car coming home from a day of riding big waves on Maui’s north shore. Phantom sounds would mimic the crunching of a his car’s tires on our gravel driveway and my mom would stiffen, holding her breath, hoping that the sound would continue into the shape of my father walking through the front door. After an infinite number of false gravel noises, my father would finally return, still wet with saltwater because he swum ashore after the sun set. He would be exhausted but still perked up with the flow of adrenaline caused by riding waves over 20 feet high.

I now understand his desire to ride those swells, returning to shore in the dark, finding the sand by instinct and with relief. He was home late for dinner but still home for dinner with a family instead of still being out at sea. Windsurfing in those waves amplified the echo of all that is the history of sailing against an otherwise bourgeois existence.

This is windsurfing: sailing on the level of the individual.

The Why of Windsurfing, or The Warsaw Report

Here are some pictures of Kevin Pritchard that capture what I love about windsurfing. If you don’t like reading or are short on time, look at the pictures and then think about windsurfing indoors. Or, read my story below.

Kevin Pritchard in the Bay

Kevin Pritchard flies

Kevin Pritchard on Maui

On the trading floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange, I was told “why” is for losers. The why of the price of gold does not actually matter, and if you focus on finding the why, you’ll miss the window of time to trade. And, some convincing philosophers go so far as to say that you can never ever know why A leads to B. “Why” is a ghost made for guessing. More important is to know the what, as in “What the hell appears to be happening?” Which is to say, you make more money when you don’t waste time trying to figure out the causes and effects of this complex world.

But this is windsurfing, not Wall Street. And in this morning moment, I’m inclined to investigate a kind of why: The “why” of Why we windsurf. Or rather, why I windsurf. The indoor world cup in Warsaw, surfprisingly helped me to better understand my vocational call to the whitecaps.

The Warsaw World Cup was my first indoor windsurfing event, and I was very excited. When I was a kid, I liked the indoor events because they make windsurfing look like other sports. Instead of lonely, windy beaches, windsurfers perform for stadiums full of cheering spectators and music. Indoor windsurfing seems to have the legitimacy of other sports like futbol: ticket sales, food vendors, and most importantly fans in seats (here I mean “fan” in the sense of enthusiast or fanatic, not to be confused with the wind ventilator fans needed for indoor windsurfing).

What is indoor windsurfing I hear you ask? Well, it’s a pool set up in a stadium with large wind-producing fans. Three disciplines compete: freestyle (which is tricks on flat water), racing (in which the winner is the first over the finish line after going around the buoys), and jumping (which is performing aerial tricks after flying off of a metal ramp). Indoor windsurfing events were more common in the 90’s, so the fans and ramp were in storage for roughly a decade before being shipped to Warsaw.

Fans in Stadium

In 2014, I announced my return to competition and the PWA announced the Warsaw Indoor World Cup. I was more excited for the indoor than any other event. At the actual event, however, my excitement could not have disappeared more quickly.

That sounds negative, but I actually mean it positively. Even though this was a World Cup event in the sport to which I’ve dedicated my life, the Indoor had none of what I love about windsurfing. And by not having any of the “why” of “why I windsurf”, the Indoor event somehow made that “why” more obvious and important.

The world cup happened in Warsaw’s National Stadium, which is one of Europe’s more modern soccer/futbol venues. As exciting as competing in a large stadium was (which it was), I couldn’t ignore the resources (14,00 liters of fuel) needed to power the fans to create the wind. Apparently, the fans need a similar amount of energy as a small city. The idea of creating wind seems kinda silly, like the indoor ski hill in Dubai.

But silliness aside (has wastefulness or decadence actually stopped any event?), windsurfing indoors is nothing like windsurfing outdoors. Hitting the jump ramp was terrifying; in fact, the ramp was possibly scariest thing I’ve done windsurfing. The ramp is metal with a 10cm (4in) slot for the fin and rollers to help the board accelerate. It’s like going full speed at a metal wall with teeth. Hitting the lip at Jaws is not nearly so scary.

Ricardo Compello jump

And what’s the point of the jump ramp? It’s nothing more than a stunt. Which is not to say that stunts are bad. Stunts are great fun to watch and to occasionally do. Google defines “stunt” as “an action displaying spectacular skill and daring.” Windsurfing can not be reduced to just “an action.” I’m not sure what the best words are to describe a windsurfing session. Continuous action? Man vs sea? Harnessing chaos? If you windsurf, you know what I mean. Sailing straight is not inaction. Tricks, jumps, jibes, waterstarts, and wave rides are all bursts of action on top of the base action that is sailing straight.

Jumping off a ramp indoors is none of this. Do you see the contrast? You can’t even launch very high off the ramp. Why risk injury by rocketing myself at this metal ramp for a stadium full of people that don’t know much about windsurfing but just want a good show?

When it came my turn to go off the ramp, I had already lost all care. I existed in a sort of blissful apathy. To sum up my event: I am happy that I can check off “indoor” from my list of To Do’s, and I finished 9th, which is worse than I could have done but also better than I could have done. On top of that, it was a very good show. Both the jumps and the racing were exciting to watch. The event saw close to 40k people in the stands, and I felt myself caught up in the excitement and music and announcers and lights. But none of that is windsurfing.

Graham Ezzy in Poland

In the locker room and athlete area, I heard talk that the return of indoor is going to be the salvation of windsurfing. Before I did the indoor, I also thought that Indoor events could be a way to bring windsurfing to the mainstream. My dream was introducing indoor to the Olympics. No more waiting for wind, and the world would see windsurfing jumps to rival the snowboard half pipe. But now, my response is: no way. The Indoor is nothing at all like the magic that is windsurfing.

By magic I mean: man vs sea, man with sea, conquering fear against a greater power, amplified physical and mental awareness, exploration, the randomness of waves, etc, etc, etc.

Here is a paragraph pulled from an introduction to some of my poems that describes my difficulty in writing about windsurfing. I think it is appropriate here: “My experiences crossing patches of open ocean or riding 60ft waves were too powerful to convey–not unlike the difficulties described by others in writing about god. So much of being at sea is feeling scared and small, which is why some sailors devote their lives to the sea in the same way that some men turn to monasteries.”

The texture of the water—be it sea or lake—is a kind of organized chaos. Waves are water’s reaction to wind. Is it not perfect that windsurfing is the act of being one with both the wind and the waves? We ride a beautiful chaos—Nothing like the Indoor.

(But being the complicated hypocrite that I am, I might do another indoor event again. Though, I think the ramp needs a serious redesign to enable more modern jumps. In fact, I’ve come up with a new ramp design (any engineers interested in building it, drop me an email or comment).)

So if lights, cameras, and crowds are the opposite of a good windsurfing session, what is a good windsurfing session?

Graham in Oregon

While I do like being watched on the water and having my photo taken (I’m very vain and never recovered from wanting my father to watch my windsurfing), the sessions that stand out most in my mind are the lonely ones. Or, better: I remember the alonely sessions (not at all lonely) without people but full of windsurfing and love and waves and maybe, just a little maybe, a friend or two. It is in these sessions that you fully realize that the windsurfer is a ship able to take you on a journey as adventurous as you can handle.

Many of us windsurfers (and our significant others) complain about the wind’s fickle nature—the idea of a switch to turn on the wind is very tempting. But, I think we actually secretly love this aspect of our sport. Yeah, windsurfing is not like tennis or futbol in terms of reliability, but that makes it better, not worse. Good days are rare, and that makes them special.

Earlier in this article I compared windsurfing to religion. While windsurfing is obviously not a religion, windsurfing becomes a “why” for the other parts of our lives. Windsurfing is the reason for owning a van or going on vacation to Cape Town or not planning anything for a weekend 2 weeks in advance because it might be windy then.

A common practice in windsurfing is to pray (yes, pray) to the wind god (or the deity of your predilection) that the wind aligns with the clock so that we can go on the water. This introduces the supernatural to our every day (and mostly secular and apathetic) lives. I’m not one for superstition or religiosity, but when it comes to the wind and waves, I am. And I think we all are, even if just a little.

Traversa vs Fernandez vs Campello: Who will win the PWA World Title???


Hookipa Beach Park


Update: As of 10:47am Hawaiian time Nov 1st, Ricardo is out of the title race. Thomas will place no worse than 5th in the event, meaning the race is down to Thomas and Victor.

In 4 days, the Aloha Classic will decide the wave world title for 2014 at Hookipa Beach Park on Maui’s North Shore. Hookipa is the Pipeline of windsurfing, Hookipa is the beach where wavesailing started, Hookipa is the point of pilgrimage for sailors both professional and amateur, and Hookipa for me is home. The waves that break over that reef made stars of Naish, the Angulos, Levi Siver, Polakow, etc.

Only 3 sailors can win the title of “best wave sailor of 2014 according to the PWA”. They are Thomas Traversa, Victor Fernandez Lopez, and Ricardo Campello.

Sailing with momentum and currently ranked 1st is Thomas Traversa. He won the Red Bull storm chase at the start of this year, and he went on to win the PWA jumping indoor in Poland as well as the PWA world cup in Klitmoller. He backs up his wins with two 2nd places (Tenerife and La Torche).

For years, I’ve thought Thomas’s talent under appreciated in the general media. He is a windsurfer’s windsurfer, and I think most other pros would place him in their personal top 3. And this year, going into the last event of the season, he is in first place.

But actually Victor Fernandez Lopez has the best shot at winning the title despite currently being in 2nd place. Why? In a word: discards. After 3 events, each sailor discards his worst result. This year saw 5 events, so 4 will count. Thomas has a 9th, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, and Victor has 1st, 3rd, 2nd, 5th.

Victor loves the podium. I think Victor has more podium finishes than any other wave sailor in the last 8 years. And he is the only one of the three title contenders to have a previous wave world title (2010).

Ricardo is no stranger to the podium either (currently 3rd). He dominated freestyle in the early naughts, winning 3 world titles and almost every single event. He was unstoppable. And then he turned his focus to waves. Many people in the wave sailing community laughed, thinking he wouldn’t be able to do well. And at first, Ricardo struggled. But only at first. Now, he has proved himself to be one of the best wave riders in the world– and also one of the most progressive!

I brought out my calculator to see the math on what results at the Aloha each contender needs to win the overall.

Ricardo needs to finish on the Aloha Classic podium to have a shot at the title. Here are all all possibilities:

Ricardo in 1st at the Aloha:
Rico will pass Thomas in the overall unless Thomas places 5th (or better); and pass Victor unless Victor places 4th (or better).

Rico in 2nd:
Rico will pass Thomas unless Thomas places 6th (or better); and pass Victor unless Victor places 5th (or better).

Rico in 3rd:
Rico will pass Thomas unless Thomas places 7th (or better); and will pass Victor unless Victor places (6th or better).

For Thomas, the math is much easier. To win the title he needs both to place 7th (or better) and to finish ahead of Victor (and so long as Rico does not win [see above]). Or, if there’s no wind, he wins with his current points.

ALL OTHER SCENARIOS: Victor wins the overall. This is why Victor has the advantage.

Is the past Aloha Classic prologue to the future? Probably not. But let’s look at it anyway.

Last year, Ricardo scored the best of the 3– finishing 11th (eliminated by your author). Thomas and Victor tied for 15th.

And if we want to look two events back, we go all the way back in time to 2006. Ricardo was 5th, Victor 7th, and Thomas 21st.

What does that mean? Not much. Maui is a gamble. Polakow could come out the trials and win the whole event. In fact, if the waves are really big, he’s an easy bet for the podium. Ricardo’s overall maui performance is the best of the three. But Thomas shows the most improvement.

What do I think?

Well, Ricardo and Victor spend a lot more time on Maui than Thomas does. In fact, Thomas doesn’t really like Maui. Whereas Rico and Victor come twice a year, Thomas comes once every few years. How ironic that now Maui means the title for him!

Victor looked really good in the spring. His Hookipa sailing is better than ever. Ricardo is always fun to watch. But I don’t see either winning the event unless the waves are small– in big surf, the Maui local advantage amplifies.

The forecast (as it stands right now) is for medium-size waves and strong (for Maui) wind. This means jumping might count. Now, Hookipa is not a jumping spot, and the contest often is only about wave riding. But, if the judges count jumps, both Ricardo and Victor have a much larger advantage than they normally would have.

Thomas is more of an unknown. He impressed me a lot at last year’s Aloha. Is he good enough to place at least 7th– hell yeah.

Maui locals have a significant advantage at Hookipa making it harder for some of the elite riders to break into the top 10. Last year’s top 10 was all Maui locals except for Alex Mussolini and Kauli Seadi. Should be noted that Mussolini went to high school on Maui and spent months on island every year since graduation.

Last years’s locals:
Levi Siver (1)
Bernd Roediger (2)
Morgan Noireaux (4)
Marcilio Browne (5)
Josh Angulo (6)
Robby Swift (8)
Graham Ezzy (9)
Kevin Pritchard (9)

The local advantage makes it harder for non-locals like the three title contenders to get the top positions they normally get. This is why Victor Fernandez Lopez is in the best position mathematically for the world title– he wins by default if either Ricardo or Thomas doesn’t do well. That said, both Thomas Traversa and Ricardo Campello seem fired up this year– both seem more motivated than previously. Victor already has a world title, but Rico and Thomas don’t. Will this desire for a maiden world title be enough to motivate either Thomas Traversa or Ricardo Campello to step it up at the Aloha? Both would need to do better than they have ever done before on Maui.

What do you think? Who will win the overall? And why? Give your predictions in the comments.

Writing and The Sea


Graham Ezzy- Writing and The Sea from Ezzy Sails on Vimeo.


With “Writing and The Sea”, Kevin Pritchard raises the bar of visual storytelling in windsurf cinematography. I am lucky and proud to be the focus. Thank you KP.

Tell me your stories about wave priorities, localism, and hierarchies


I want to hear YOUR stories! Share in the comments.

Yesterday, a Colombian man yelled threats at me at Hookipa– my home beach. The only reason: We have different understandings about who has priority on a wave. My understanding is one formed by Hawaiian surf culture. I tried talking with him, but he only wanted to shout, so I unfortunately don’t know where his understanding comes from. (To be perfectly frank, I don’t understand the threats either. Do I need to look out for car bombs? Have I accidentally placed myself in the path of a Colombian drug gang?). No punches were thrown; at least some civility prevailed.

This experience was extremely unsettling for me. Not unsettling because it happened but because it happened somewhere that is a home for me. I’ve come to Hookipa since I was born. I am filled with a comforting wave of familiarity and happiness when I see the rocks, sand, and people there. Shouts and threats from a Colombian break all that.

“Rules” on the water rely on a foundation of mutual understanding from the members of the surf community at a beach. Therefore, the rules change depending on the beach. I don’t expect to know the priorities at a beach in Australia.

And the rules change over time. At Hookipa in the late 80s and early 90s for example, if you weren’t one of the one of the original crew or from Hawaii or really really good, you basically couldn’t sail there. I’ve heard stories from the early 90s of certain famous Hawaiian pro windsurfers beating up other pro sailors, who weren’t from Hawaii, in the shorebreak. The offense? Sailing at Hookipa.

Now days, the pecking order is much more welcoming. Not only are other pros welcome but tourists are welcome too.

My interest today, however, is much larger than the tiny topic that is Hookipa priorities. I want to hear YOUR stories. What are the rules on your waves? Are there fights? Tell me stories about the fights. What is the most outrageous thing you’ve seen or heard of that has happened because of a conflict about waves?

At some point soon, I will write an expose on the topic. But first! I can’t wait to hear your stories.

foto friday


What would you do to get a head? (image: Cody Cobb)


Anne get your gun.


Man delights in this labor in the middle of the task or at the end, but almost never at the start.


And she wished for wings. But not to fly away.


At the top he begins to feel the unrest of stillness.


Many forget that the birds also swim and dive and surf.


I live to sleep.

And what wings will serve you underwater?


The ghosts of always haunt the now.


Surf it, brah.


Do I know you well enough?




Protect anonymity.


Some poems posted in the writing section...


All Bags Aboard!


Gear for a normal surf trip...

Traveling with board-bags sucks. Every step is a hassle—it’s basically like traveling with a set of living room furniture. Getting from point A to point B requires negotiation skills and a comfort with the absurd. The lessons learned apply to traveling with any kind of baggage or to any situation requiring negotiation—whether flirting at the bar or freeing hostages.

“You can fly with that?” Is the question I get asked when people see me with my windsurfing bags. Yes, yes we can. (Unless you want to fly British Airways… They don’t accept any kind of windsurf-board so do not fly them.) Note: Sometimes the airline agent behind the counter will say that your bags are too big for the plane—this is not true. But more on that later.

The first rule to learn is that there are basically no set rules on what surf bags are allowed and how much you should be charged for them. Suuuure, the website might be pretty clear on what the airline allows. And the agent’s computer behind the check-in desk is clear too. And so is the book of rules next to his computer. Buuuut, they all say different things.

In practice then, the size allowed and the cost charged depend on the kindness of the agent and how well you negotiate. Both are variables you can change. If the agent isn’t nice, find a new one and hope for better luck (ah! That’s why it’s important to arrive 3 hours before your flight). At first, you might think that newly hired agents are nicer or easier to negotiate a lower price with. This is not always true. Remember that niceness correlates with confidence. Often, new agents are insecure and don’t want to mistakenly allow a prohibited bag or undercharge.

Sometimes, two agents behind the same counter will have different interpretations of the baggage rules. I had an experience in Paris CDG airport 7ish years ago where the agent (~40 years old male) did not want to accept any of my boardbags. He said they were too big to fly on Air France.

I asked the woman (similarly aged) at the computer next to him if she knew about checking in windsurfing gear. She said in a thick French accent, “Yes! We do it all the time. It should be 200 euros.” The man was not happy with this.

They argued in French in front of me for a solid 15 minutes, after which the woman stormed off and the man told me that I could check in the bags but only if I paid 12 euros for every extra Kilo over the allotted baggage allowance. I was 95 Kilos over… That comes to 1140 euros for the excess baggage. All this for a nonstop flight to Lisbon that cost less than 300 euros roundtrip.

He printed the charge, and I was about to pay (what other choice did I have?) when the woman came back with a book of rules. Ah hah! She pointed out that the cost for sailboard bags was 200 euros.

The man was not satisfied (a reminder that logic/reason rarely works against someone who has made his mind up about how matters SHOULD end). The man and the woman argued in French for another 45 minutes. The boarding time for my flight came and went, and the line lengthened behind me.

When it seemed I would miss my flight, the man threw up his arms. Now it was his turn to storm off. The woman apologized to me for his behavior. She hurriedly charged me the 200 euros, handed me my boarding pass, and told me to run. I kept the original baggage charge as a souvenir.

Absurd baggage receipt

A lessons learned? If the first agent you encounter is not reasonable, find another… don’t expect him to change. Applied to negotiation: 1) reason is not king; work with the person who is willing to make a deal, ignore the person who has already made up his mind.

But all this mess can be avoided in the US by using porters (unfortunately, porters are much rarer in European airports).

Porters are your new best friends. Sometimes adding a middleman is best—as is the case with Porters. Slip them a 20 upfront (or more depending on the number of bags you have). The first benefit is obvious: they relieve you of dragging those coffin bags through the crowds. The second benefit is less obvious but way more important: they can negotiate a better price for your gear. For a 40 dollar tip, I’ve avoided hundreds of dollars in excess baggage fees.

Be up front about it. Show the porter your bags, offer the tip, and say that you only want to pay X amount. These guys check in bags all day long—they’re pros. Mr. Porter knows the agents behind the counter and thus how to score a deal that you can’t.

A strange bit of human psychology: I’ve seen people who are too cheap to tip the porter, so they struggle with their massive bags through the airport, and then end up paying hundreds extra after a half hour hassle with the lady behind the counter.

Enter negotiation rules 2 and 3: 2) Familiarity matters; ie liaisons help. 3) Generosity given (an upfront tip, for example) generally leads to much better negotiations. (Gift giving is a sacred ritual in many cultures. Giving a gift creates an implied debt owed to the gift-giver.)

At the end of the day, persistence wins. On the way to a World Cup in 2009, Alex Mussolini and I were flying from Lisbon to Cabo Verde. We had checked in fine, but out of the plane windows we could see Alex’s bags lying untouched on the tarmac. Alex raised the issue with the head flight attendant. She told him that the bags were too big to take (I believe her… there must have been 20 pro windsurfers on that flight and all with mountains of baggage). He told her he needed the bags for a competition. It took some pleading on his part, but they eventually loaded the bags into the cabin, securing them over unused business class seats. < That is definitely not in any rule book, online or otherwise.

If the taxi or car driver says that your bags won’t fit, politely say, “Let’s just try” and proceed to show him how it’s done.

(And I should add: Playing the airline loyalty game helps a lot. The 3 free bags I get from being Gold status on Star Alliance carriers is gold. A lot of windsurfers find that United is the best option. )

Some Perks to Big Bags
Is there any plus side to carrying such plus-sized bags? Yes! They are a pain to steal.

What thief has the initiative or know-how to get away with the bags that I can barely lug around? If someone manages to carry my bags to a car and then fit them inside that car to drive off, more power to him. I can barely get around with my windsurfing bags and it’s my job.

Some years ago, a friend of a friend had his car parked in Manhattan overnight with all his windsurfing gear in the car. Thieves broke into the car. They stole the contents of the glove box, the stereo, and everything else in the car except his windsurfing gear. Ironically, the gear was probably more valuable than the car!

(However, the Canary Islands seem an exception; there, unwatched boardbags disappear.)

All Bags Aboard!
Everyone has baggage of one form or another. Sometimes that baggage isn’t in bags. I have a friend who learned how to surf before she knew how to swim. In the ocean and amidst swells, not knowing how to swim is as heavy a weight as any bag.

Having grown up in India before moving to America, she did not have swimming culture all around her, as is the case in most western countries. Yet, she was in Santa Cruz on a vacation and wanted to try surfing. And surf she did!

She booked a lesson from a local surf school—never letting slip that she didn’t know how to swim (I don’t advise anyone to try this). Without letting go of the board for fear of drowning, she fell in love with riding the waves and whitewaters.

Upon returning home to Boston, she promptly enrolled in swimming classes and bought a surfboard. She then trekked 2 hours each way on weekends in the summer for a chance to surf.

Eventually she moved to Maui. It’s a lot easier here.

I think of her story every time I grumble to myself about lugging around 200 pounds of windsurfing gear. My bags weigh nothing compared to the weight of not knowing how to swim during your first surf lesson.


Helmets and Risk and Me

Hard crash at Jaws


“Where’s the helmet?” That’s a question I’m asked a lot lately. Most ask it with a hint of hurt, as if windsurfing lost a role model in my decision to stop wearing a helmet all the time. In answering, I must meditate on death and on an injury to my face last summer. But don’t worry about this serious tone! Next week’s post will look at the comedy that is traveling with surfboard bags. But first: Death.

Well, actually, before we get to Death, let me set the scene for my readers about the helmet. I was the first/only professional windsurfer to wear a helmet. When people asked my why I wore the helmet, I had many responses. “What other extreme sport athletes ignore safety so blatantly?” I’d mention the expert windsurfers who died due to a head injury. And my favorite response: “because it’s cool”. My arsenal of custom-painted helmets helped me stand out on the water. A trademark. A trademark I’ve now given up.

Death and Waves
What is more mortal than a breaking wave? As surfers, we know waves in their last moments, as they break into a mess of foam.

A dying wave explodes with energy. Order becomes chaos as a wave trips to its death, turning white and formless. Just a chaotic mass of energy dissipating into the environment.

At my home-beach, Hookipa, waves come from Japan. They travel across the Pacific Ocean, hit Hawaii, and break once—only once. A journey across the ocean to die in Hawaii.

Ironically, the first dead human body I ever saw was at Hookipa Beach. His death had nothing to do with the ocean; the unfortunate man crashed his motorcycle, lost an arm, and bled to death. I must have been around 13 years old when this happened, and at the time, I thought he looked unconscious, not dead. The dead look so much like the sleeping, making it so easy to imagine reanimation.

Waves seem so tragic, like that body, until you realize that waves are merely energy moving in a physical form, in this case water. New waves are the water of old waves inspired with new energy. The water rises and falls, beating against the shore. Constantly being reborn as new energy creates a new wave.

Face Smashs
Last summer, I crashed hard during the AWT event in Oregon. I smashed my face, cut my lip, and broke off one of my front teeth at the gum-line, the nerve fully exposed. I was wearing my helmet when this happened.

I thought, “What can I do to protect my face in the future?” Wear a face guard like in American football? Use a mouth guard like in boxing? These options seemed a bit ridiculous. There was only one sure way to guarantee my bodily safety: to stop windsurfing. Or at least stop trying tricks in the waves or double loops or backloops.

Any form of windsurfing carries a certain danger—albeit a small one. Pro windsurfing magnifies this danger. Wearing a helmet all the time seemed silly and antithetical to my maneuvers on the water. (Also, it should be noted that surf helmets are made to protect mainly against cuts to the head, not brain damage.)

Life is a series of gambles. In choosing to be a professional windsurfer, I choose to live with a certain amount of risk. I bet that I’ll be fine (knock on wood). [Yet, I still think helmets are a great idea for recreational windsurfers. Will I still wear a helmet sometimes? Yes.]

But risk deals with unknowns, like a forecast. And the most important thing to remember about forecasts is that they are always changing. So, to get the best forecast you must look at many forecasts over a period of time and focus on the trends and changes in the forecasts rather than on any single forecast.

So too it is with risk. Maybe I can look at the people around me as an indicator of risk to myself, my peers, and people my age. Despite the large number of my friends who are pro surfers or windsurfers– taking risks in gnarly waves at Jaws and Tahiti, etc– none have died from windsurfing or surfing. In fact, the leading cause of death is suicide.

Unexpected, right? That’s the way it is when risk collapses into impact. Unexpected…

Maybe, the best role model is that of the water, forever rising and falling as the energy enters and leaves, creating waves. The waves may die, but the water of their bodies lives on. So seems a good way to approach life– when everything seems a broken foamy mess, the best thing to do is just wait for the next wave of energy to form you and carry you high.

In January, a good friend and a great windsurfer took his life. The news shook me up, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I still don’t know how to deal with it.

Adventure sports athletes are not supposed to talk about any feelings other than being stoked. This my friend’s father blames for his son’s death. That prison to be permanently happy was a much bigger risk than any other physical risk in his life.

I don’t offer a solution…just thoughts on waves and a reminder that there is no cure-all for risk.

Life, after all, could be defined as taking risk. The moment one stops taking risk, one dies. We can’t control all physical risk– cars crash, waves break. However, we can help those around us by reminding that in every powerful cresting wave is a body of water that will become a chaos of foam before becoming a wave once again. If you’re the crest, expect the foam; and if you’re the foam, take relief in the crest to come.


Next post will be on Wednesday, the 8th of May HAST and will cover funny stories on traveling with boardbags as well as tips on how to make the process cheaper and easier.

The Importance of Crashes, Falls, and Wipeouts



People ask me for windsurfing advice all the time. How to pushloop, how to tack, how to taka, etc. But nobody ever asks me how to fall.

“Huh?” I hear you asking, “Why would anyone need to learn how to fall?” Fall equals fail in the internet’s vernacular. Fails plaster the pages of online culture. A collection of oops! that the whole world watches, laughs at, and thanks their stars it happened to somebody else.

But falls are not fails– at least, not always. Falls, crashes, and wipeouts make learning possible and therefore are the opposite of a fail. Knowledge comes from the Falls.

I’m reminded of a piece I wrote for Windsport 3 years ago. Here is an edited version:


“Windsurfing is full of falling. Most people fall ten times before they even travel ten feet. And learning to jibe means falling a thousand times. At this rate, we could call the sport Fallsurfing.

When I set out to learn a move, I only have one plan: fall a lot. The quicker I want to learn a move, the more I have to fall. When I first started trying wave 360s, I’d try one on every wave of my session. This meant that I’d go home without having made a single move that day because I’d only tried 360s. That’s not fun at all.

But each next day, I completed more of the 360 rotation and projected farther in front of the wave before messing everything up and crashing. One day, after millions of falls, I landed my first wave 360 (I was so happy that I literally started laughing on the water). I would never have landed a 360 if I hadn’t fallen first. Each crash gave me a little bit more information on how to do the maneuver properly, so every failed wave 360 I had done was a part of my first successful wave 360. Moves cannot exist without first being wipeouts.

Going for a 360 after thousands of falls.

Going for a 360 after thousands of falls.


To most windsurfers, this probably seems obvious. They are thinking: “Who expects to land a back loop on the first try?” Yet, most of our culture does not allow for failure. One of my English professors confided in me that the hardest part of his job is getting kids to the point where they can write without expecting it to be perfect. Trying to write a flawless story on the first attempt is impossible and thus crippling. But writing a lot of stories regardless of whether they are good or bad will inevitably lead to improvement, and improvement guides one towards perfection (even if it is ultimately unattainable, everyone wants to get closer). My professor tries to teach falling to his students by assigning them nightly writing in a blog that no one will read. Maybe he should get them to windsurf.

Other sports like skateboarding also require much falling in order to improve, but windsurfing seems to be the kindest to falling. For one, water is a lot softer than cement or dirt. Most often just a splash in the water, a fall in windsurfing rarely means broken bones or deep cuts. Thus falls are mainly ego injuries and not physical ones. Further, the sport of windsurfing has an infinitely large number of moves to learn, so the falling never stops. Even the best wave and freestyle professional windsurfers in the world are constantly falling on new moves. Everyone, from the guy learning to jibe to Ricardo trying to land a triple forward, is falling.

Wipeout! at Hookipa.

Wipeout! at Hookipa.


Falling is the essence of life. Science requires multiple failures and trials before reaching an accurate result, and evolution relies on genetic mutations that create a varied spectrum of non-prefect animals, and from this variety only the ones with stronger genes survive. No one wants to write a shitty story and nobody wants to get slammed into the water mid forward loop, but these are necessary steps for getting better. In order to improve, you must fall. And the best way to learn to fall is to windsurf.”


The day you stop falling is the day you stop learning. Yet, HOW you fall matters.

When I was a teenager, I crashed so hard. On different occasions: I broke my left leg, my right wrist, and my right foot; I tore the tendons in my right shoulder; and, I needed dozens (or maybe even well over a hundred) stitches after collisions with rocks, reef, and fins.

I still crash hard–yes, I did knock out a tooth last summer– but I don’t crash nearly as hard as I used to. I attribute this to learning how to fall. Injuries are less likely if you are aware of your body position, the equipment’s position, and the forces of the wave at the time of the wipeout.

Given the importance of falling, maybe the best windsurfing tip I can give is to go out and just crash for a whole session. The more crashes you do, the more comfortable crashing becomes– making wipeouts safer and learning easier.

So, go out and crash.


Next post will be Wednesday the 1st of May (all times are Hawaiian time).