Friday, December 9, 2011

Windsurfing as anti-aging medicine

"The Time a Person Spends Windsurfing is not Deducted from their Lifespan..."
This is how noshuzbluz signs all posts on the discussion forum. I am currently in Germany, and have been spending a lot of time in hospitals and other areas where almost everyone you see is old, and this line is constantly popping up in my head.

There is a stark difference between the older persons I see here, and the windsurfers of similar age that I see on the local beaches or in ABK clinics. The picture on the left is from an ABK clinic earlier this year in Bonaire. Two of the windsurfers in the picture kicked my butt on the water - including Stew, the guy in the white shirt, who in in his seventies. When I assembled a little video from the clinic, he was the only one who had a completed 360 captured on video...

Stew is definitely not an exception - I have met many windsurfers in their 60s and 70s that are much better windsurfers than I am. Many of them play and work harder than I do on the water - I think noshuzbluz is onto something.

I read a little about the effects on exercise on aging, and I have come to the conclusion that noshuzbluz statement is probably an understatement - that the time spent windsurfing actually get added to your life span - probably with a significant multiplier. If you don't believe me and think that this is just a justification to sail a lot, do some reading - maybe start with this article from the Harvard Medical School. Plenty of studies have shown that regular exercise reduces the likelihood of all kinds of diseases, from cardiovascular diseases to osteoporosis,  dementia, and cancer. The best exercise regimens include cardio and strength training as well as balance training. If you have ever spent an hour on a windsurf board, you know that windsurfing is just about an ideal mix.

The biggest challenge with any exercise is sticking to it on the long run. Going to a gym is interesting for a little while, but most people stop going regularly after a few months - I have done that many times, with all kinds of different gyms, over the past 20 years. Obviously, windsurfing can be different, and keep you interested for decades. But that's not a given, and I have met plenty of (often former) windsurfers where the stoke has gone away over the years. Below are a few suggestions that may help to keep the stoke alive. They are organized by some of the tips given in the Harvard Medical School article I cited above.
  • Explore a variety of activities. I love the just going back and forth fast, but it does get boring eventually. Most windsurfers spend years getting learning to plane and jibe confidently in difficult conditions. Learning and struggling is part of what makes windsurfing interesting, and stopping to learn new things once you have mastered the jibe (or perhaps the duck jibe) can be the beginning of the end. There's a lot more to learn - just do an ABK clinic, or take some private lessons at a qualified instructor. If there is none where you sail, take a trip to new places, and experience new venues. Or just get a GPS, and learn how to sail faster and longer. Chances are that you'll be sailing at angles and speeds you never sailed at before soon! If you can find some other local sailors with similar interests, even better! Form an informal little club or a team on the GPS Team Challenge site, and multiply your fun!
  • Exercise regularly. If you are lucky enough to live at a spot where you have wind and waves all the time, you're probably doing this already. But for the vast majority of us who do not live on a spot like Maui, this probably means that we need to widen our horizons a bit. Perhaps get a sailable SUP and play in small waves when there is not enough wind to plane, or paddle around marshes and re-discover your inner Tom Sawyer. Learn some light wind freestyle, and there will be no more skunked days! It may seem a bit silly at first, but it can be a lot of fun once you get over the initial hump. Some of my best windsurfing days this year were light wind days - and my year included 123 sessions and 6 1/2 weeks on Maui.
  • Listen to your body. This is perhaps the most important thing as we get older. In your 20s, you can perhaps ignore your pain, because you will recover within a day or two. In your 50s, that's not such a good idea anymore. The two things that helped me the most here are (1) getting great instruction, and (2) long distance windsurfing. Great windsurf teachers like Andy Brandt and Matt Pritchard gave me the necessary technical basis. Going for top one-hour average speeds and maximum distances in a day forced me to recall anything they ever told me, and to listen to small complaints that my body was sending me which I could have easily ignored during shorter sessions. For example, really bending your knees and committing all your weight to the harness are essential to sail a hundred miles a day and get off the water without pain in your knees and hips, and blisters on your hands.
  • Use good equipment. There is nothing wrong with using old equipment that you know exactly how to sail - but if you have not sailed any new equipment recently, you absolutely should! Some of the new boards and sails that I tested during the last year just blew me away. I would have never believed that it's possible to combine speed, agility, and comfort the way that some of the newer shapes do. When I replaced a 10-year old sail that I though of as perfectly fine a couple of years ago with the equivalent new model from the same manufacturer, I was totally amazed by the improvement in performance. Of course, not every new board or sail is perfect for everyone, so try a few different new things. If you are sailing a newer shape or kind of board for the first time, give it some time - you probably will have to adjust your sailing style a bit, but you may end up with a lot more fun. Again, getting some qualified instruction may be a great idea. How about a week at WorldWinds in Texas, or at a Vela center in the Caribbean? 
  • Have more fun. That's the most important advice, and all the other things above are just ways to get there. Try new things, but don't get too serious about anything. Learning new stuff is great, but don't forget how to enjoy just blasting back and forth from time to time, without "working" on something! I am following the speedsurfing scene most closely now, and many of the greatest speedsurfers are also great wave sailors and/or freestylers. Just do what seems most fun at the moment! The more things you know how to do, the more fun you'll have. The best example is our friend Marty, and excellent freestyler, even though he does not get to spend nearly as much time on the water as I do. But when he makes it to the beach, he is always out there having fun, no matter if it's blowing 35 or 5.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Winterizing a Pro-Tec helmet

When it gets really windy, I often use a Pro-Tec helmet while windsurfing. It works great most of the time, but as the weather gets colder, the helmet has a number of little problems:
I am talking about the ventilation holes - they give me an ice cream headache when it gets cold. Wearing a hood underneath helps somewhat, but when the temperatures drop towards freezing, the ventilation holes are just a bad idea. And we are getting there now, especially when the wind comes from the north.

I could have simply spent $120 to buy another helmet, but since I have only one head and thus don't need two helmets, I decided to address the problem with a knife and a plastic pool noodle. Plastic pool noodles are an extremely valuable tool for windsurfers: cut of 10 cm pieces and put them in the foot straps so they don't get crushed when stacking boards; cut them in half and put them on the roof rack or trailer as a cheap cushion; or cut out little pieces to fill holes in the helmet during the colder seasons:
Here is the image of the final product:
I may also tape the holes close with some electrical tape, but I don't think its necessary. Now all I need is 35 mph winds to try it out :)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Sorry, waves, but I love slicks

Yesterday was an interesting day. The forecast called for SW winds in the low 20s, but this time of the year, that often brings winds around 30 mph. We decided to mix things up a bit and go wave sailing at Old Silver Beach. I can count the number of times I have been in waves on my fingers, so I'm not any good at it - but Old Silver Beach is supposed to be easy. Or so we thought...

When we got there, the wind did not look strong at all, and from the parking lot, the water looked quite flat. We rigged 4.5 and 5.7 m wave sails for Nina and me. I also spend quite a bit of time changing the foot straps on my Hawk - putting the front  straps in the inside position, and widening the back straps. When we were finally ready to go out, the wind had picked up quite a bit, and so had the waves. The wind also had turned from SW to WSW, and now was coming almost directly onshore.

I decided to leave the Hawk on shore and go out on the 77 l Goya One instead, since that board is just wonderful in chop. When trying to get started in the shore break with onshore winds, I finally understood why Matt Pritchard had called the board a bit too small for me. I can sail the board without problems in flat water and chop, but in in the waves, I had a bit of a hard time to get started. It did not help that there was a bit of a wind shadow near shore - my wind meter read anything from 11 to 20 mph. Several times when I got on the board, the nose would just sink, and with waves coming in, I'd be unable to get it straightened out in time. Well, I eventually made it out, and had a bit of fun. Between adjusting harness lines and checking on Nina, I had a few more opportunities to practice my launches. They did not get easier, since the incoming tide and increasing winds also increased the size of the waves. But at least, the water in Buzzards Bay felt warm (maybe 12 C).

Nina, who had sailed in something like waves maybe twice before, had a much harder time. She tried to take her Angulo custom out, but never made it through the shore break. After 30 minutes of trying, she got caught with the rig between her and the waves, and was rewarded with a big mast smack to the head.

We decided to cut our losses, and drive over to Hyannis for some easier sailing. Once at the Sea Street Beach, Nina was a bit cold and demotivated, and did not want to go out, but I took my Hawk and the re-rigged 5.7 m wave sail and went sailing. On the water, I found myself quite overpowered. The wind had picked up to averages of 32 with gusts of 38, so maybe the 5.7 was a tad big - I think I would have been quite nicely powered on a 4.5.

Well, what can a poor boy do who does not want to rig for the third time in 2 hours? Look for flatter water, of course! So up to the Kennedy Slicks I sailed. On the way, I constantly had Matt Pritchard's voice in my head: "Bend your knees! Put all your weight in the harness! Speed is your friend!" Doing all that made the sail quite manageable, especially after adding a bit more outhaul.

When I reached the harbor, I was a bit disappointed at first. It was close to high tide, and waves were crashing through the holes in the jetty near shore and at the far end. This made the water near shore, which can be ultra-smooth at lower tides, a bit choppy. But the middle section of the jetty is solid, and stood just 3-4 feet above the waterline, creating smooooth water without disturbing the wind. I made me think of the videos and pictures I had seen of West Kirby.

I did a few runs along the jetty, but sailing alone was not so much fun, so I decided to sail back to Sea Street and check on Nina. On the way there, whom did I see sailing up to the Slicks? Yes, Nina! Still on her 4.5, but now on the Goya One 77, she had gotten bored of being cold, and decided that rigging and sailing might just warm her up. So we sailed back up to the Slicks together, and the real fun started.

I still had my entire gear set up for wave sailing, from foot strap positions to the wave sail I was using, but that did not keep me from practicing sling shots right at the wall. Here is a short video from the GPS data from a few of these runs:

The replay is accelerated 10-fold. This time around, I actually did get a feeling for what the Slingshot is supposed to be. I tried a couple of them on most runs out, taking advantage of gusts and where the water was flat (closest to the wall, the "waves" were about 2 cm "high"!). Just from the tracks, it would seem that the last bend in the jetty would have been perfect for going downwind - however, the water was getting a bit rough back there, both from wind-driven swell and from some swell coming in from the end of the jetty.

When everything comes together - a nice gust, perfectly flat water, and good board speed to start with -, doing a Slingshot is a pretty amazing feeling. At least once, I had the feeling of being almost pulled out of the foot straps when pushing the rig forward and going downwind, which then translated into great acceleration (well, at least for my standards and gear). Here are the speed data from 5 seconds (speeds in km per hour):
That sure felt good! The other thing that just feels great is the jibing at the end of a speed run in perfectly flat water. Going into a turn at almost 30 mph is a feeling that I find just absolutely amazing - the board cutting through the water like a hot knife through butter, the sail going completely powerless, and coming out of the turn still fully planing. But while I had some decent jibes, I think the jibing is perhaps one of the weakest points on the Hawk. Over the last year, I have been on a number of boards that just want to keep planing no matter what. These include Dean's Manta, Dani's iSonic, the RRD Firemove and Firestorm, and several other freeride and slalom boards that I sailed at the board test in Hatteras. In contrast to those boards, my Hawk gets quite sensitive at the end of a jibe, and takes small handling errors as an excuse to fall off the plane. I think this is at least partially because it's a lot narrower than most of the other boards, and perhaps also because it's a tad slower (compared to pure slalom boards). But don't get me wrong - I love the board, and I'll just have to improve my jibes a bit more.

In the speed runs, I was gunning for 30 knots, but only got up to about 29.4. The wind was strong enough for more, and the conditions were ideal, but the wave-oriented setup definitely help me back a few knots. The Manic 5.7 was quite wonderful to sail once I got used to it, but it does not have the stability of a Matrix, or the slippery feeling of a cambered race sail. But on the other hand, perhaps it was a better sail for practicing Slingshots, since it does provide a bit more direct feedback. Still, the session made it into my top 5 session for 2 second top speed. Nina did even better - it was her second-fastest session ever, with more than 48 kmh top speed. That's despite being on wave gear - who knows how fast she would have gone on the Missile!

The was one other thing I was practicing during the entire session: to take it easy - have the most fun with the least effort. This might seem a bit strange when sailing overpowered in 30+ mph winds, but it is actually a great idea (someone else put it into my head a few years back). Just assume that it can be easy to sail in those conditions, and that you just have to find out how! Of course, I don't think I could have done it without all the tips I have gotten over the years from Andy and his crew, Matt, Tulpe, and all the other great instructors that have helped me along. With their help, though, I was not tired at all after almost two hours, when we had to stop because it was getting dark. My main incentive to practice the "easy sailing" thing was for long distance sailing. I may never be really fast, since my risk tolerance is quite low; but I absolutely love sailing for hours on end. I have sailed 160 km in about 6 hours, and I am looking forward to longer days and longer sessions. We may skip our annual trip to Bonaire this winter, but we'll be in Hatteras for two weeks next spring - and that is the perfect place to break personal bests for distance sailing. Anyone interested in joining me on the water there next April for 12 hours?