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.