Thursday, August 9, 2018

Bad Behavior

Let me start with a story. A bit more than a week ago, we were sailing in the late afternoon in a typical southwest wind at Kalmus. A beautiful, windy day. I'm standing in the water near shore, trying to get reoriented after a failed 360 or some such thing, when suddenly I hear a loud bang, a splash, and an "Oh no!".  One of the Kalmus regulars had been de-rigging in the water, as she often does. Another Kalmus regular had not seen her there, and jibed near shore. He just noticed her in the middle of the jibe, and his boom hit her board hard - hard enough to require a proper repair, ding stick would not have done.

The jiber was a guy who is (a) a pretty good windsurfer, (b) usually stays out of everyones way, and (c) is a nice guy. He's definitely not an aggressive windsurfer, and was very sorry about the accident. There may be a guy or two who sail Kalmus often where you might expect such a thing to happen, but definitely not with him.

Why did it happen? Quite simple: he was coming in against the setting sun, which severely limits visibility. He simply did not see that there was someone standing in the water. Nor did he see the board in the water until it was too late.

Why am I telling this story? Just to illustrate that accidents can happen, even with competent and careful windsurfers. Poor visibility against the late afternoon can be a big contributing factor. Note that in this instance, the person was standing in the water, and a board and sail were next to her. She was definitely a lot easier to see than the head of a swimmer in choppy water.

This (finally!) brings me to the real topic of this post: do not windsurf (or kite) through the swim area at Kalmus! This rule applies even when there are no life guard on duty. Looking at the accident I described above, it is actually more important in the late afternoon after the life guards leave, since the visibility is worse than during the day. If there is anybody in or near the water in the swim area, or even a chance that someone may want to swim, the entire swim area is a definitive no-go zone.

Most windsurfers who sail at Kalmus on a regular basis know this rule, and act accordingly. When the wind is straight onshore, it can be a bit hard to clear the buoys that mark the swim area, but almost everyone understands that safety is more important than avoiding a tack. Every now and then, someone who has not sailed at Kalmus does not know about the rule, but they are usually quickly informed about it by the regulars, and then stay out of it.

Of course, there are exceptions. Some thing has encourage some people to behave badly and aggressively in the past year or two, and there have been several instances where the person asked to not go through the swim area started arguing, and simple refused to listen, regarding his own convenience higher than the safety of others.

The first instance happened a few days ago. In this case, it was a kiter who routinely went through the swim area, and in at least one instance also kited very close to a beginner windsurfer (less than 2 feet away). This was quite threatening to the windsurfer, and definitely not safe. When her husband later ask him to keep a safe distance, the kiter denied sailing close to the windsurfer (despite this being witnessed by at least 2 people). When asked not to kite through the swim area, he insisted of having a right to do so. When other windsurfers in the neighborhood confirmed that he should not kite through the swim area, he started complaining about "harassment", and "threatened" to call the police. The windsurfers encouraged him to do so, since the outcome was predictable: the police came when he called them, and informed him that he is not allowed to sail through the swim area. They also mentioned that he would be banned from the beach if he continued to do so.

Just a couple of days later, a similar thing happened, this time with a windsurfer. It was a windy SW day, and about 30 windsurfers were on the water during the day. All of them avoided the swim area the entire day, except for one guy who showed up shortly after the life guards had left, and promptly proceeded to sail through the swim area. Several of the locals asked him to stop doing that; one of them was my lovely wife. When I jibed close by, I heard him yelling at her, so I walked over, and also asked him not to sail through the swim area. We tried to explain to him that endangering swimmers could get the only windsurfing beach in Kalmus closed for windsurfing, but he insisted that he had been sailing at Kalmus for 30 years, and had the right to go through the swim area. He also complained about having had a bad day at work, as if that gave him special rights. Eventually, he stated that he'd sail through the swim area even more now because of the "nagging" - which he then did, for several hours. During that time, he proved that he definitely was a good enough windsurfer to go upwind to avoid the swim area - he nailed fast tacks on a board that barely had enough volume to keep him above the water. He also proved that he was quite willing to aggressively defend his "right" to go through the swim area, at one point choosing to hit me with his boom rather than changing his angle to the wind when we were on a collision course at low speed. I was the downwind sailor and verbally asserted my right of way, but I think it is safe to assume he does not know or care for right of way rules (another Kalmus regular, Don, had an almost-collision when the guy refused to change his course, coming out of the swim area on port, while Don was pinching upwind on starboard to avoid the buoy).

There were several of our windsurfing friends on the beach who witnessed his behavior, and got rather upset about it. Someone had a camera, so pictures were taken of him sailing through the swim area on almost every run, and of the license plate on his car.

After two such incidences in about as many days, I must admit that I was starting to be confused: did the water really convert to a "no rules" area as soon as life guards went off duty? That did not make sense; was not what the police had actually said; and was not what almost everyone I talked to on the beach thought, but it deserved a check. So I place a call to the Director of the Barnstable Recreation Department, whom we know from organizing the East Coast Windsurfing Festival, to double-check, and perhaps ask for advice how to handle such situations.

But before I received a phone call back from the town, I had talked to this incident with another windsurfing friend who sails Kalmus about as often as I do, Joanie. She reported that she had a similar frustrating conversation a week earlier, where the guy also ignored the request not to sail through the swim area, and claimed to have sailed Kalmus for 30 years. Sounded like the same guy, and a quick email exchange of pictures confirmed it. So this was definitely not the first time the guy had been asked.

Funny thing is that Joanie has been friends with Patti Machado, the Director of the Barnstable Recreation Department for several decades, and that they ran into each other the next day by chance. They talked about the "Bad Behavior" incident. Patti, who bears responsibility for safety at Barnstable beaches, confirmed that sailing through the swim area when people are in the water is an absolute no-no. She suggested that we'd get the license plate numbers, and send them to her, so she could send a formal letter to the offender; repeat offenders would face a ban from all Barnstable beaches that would be enforced by the police and the Harbormaster. Since we already had the relevant pictures, I simple send them along by email, and a letter was sent the same day.

Hopefully, it will never be necessary to actually issue a beach ban, but it is nice to know that such selfish and potentially dangerous behavior will not be tolerated. Note that this is not about someone accidentally drifting into the swim area because they are beginners, or the wind suddenly dies, or some such thing - that can happen to anyone. It's quite obvious if someone is trying to stay out of the area, or if he just ignores rules because he regards them as inconvenient.

So, what should windsurfers do when they see someone sailing through the swim area? Simply inform them that the swim area is off limits for windsurfing, even if it is inconvenient, the life guards are off duty, or no swimmers are in the water at that moment. The vast majority of windsurfer will say "I did not know" and follow the rules. If someone is curious about the rule, go ahead and try to explain it. But don't get into an argument with someone who thinks the rule does not apply to him, or states you should not "nag" him or talk to him, or gets aggressive or loud. Perhaps point out that the town is perfectly willing to enforce the rule, all the way to a complete beach ban. If someone ignores the requests and repeatedly sails through the swim area, feel free to take pictures and send them to the Department of Recreation, so that they can help clarifying and resolving the situation.

Of course, there is also the issue of swimmers being outside of the swim area on windy days. When the life guards are on duty, they usually walk over and ask the swimmers to move to the swim area; but what if they are off duty? I suggest to politely inform the swimmers where the swim area is, and to suggest to them to move over there for their own safety. Of course, windsurfers have to avoid swimmers even outside the swim area, but on a windy day, it can be hard to impossible to see a head among the whitecaps, especially against the setting sun. It may be necessary to explain that windsurfers may be traveling at up to 30 miles per hour; may not see swimmers; cannot always stop suddenly; and may loose control of their gear. At times, I have turned over my board and pointed to the fin to explain that they probably would not want to be hit by such a thing, even accidentally; that worked quite well with large pointer fins.

Asking swimmers to move to the swim area really only works when windsurfers stay out of the swim area. Even a single windsurfer who goes through the swim area on a regular basis can make the request to move seem rather non-sensical - which is a good reason to stay out of the swim area even if there is nobody in the water at a given time. During a summer like this one, when the water is warm and the heat and humidity sometimes seems unbearable, it's just a question of time until someone wants to go for a swim.

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