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caribbean cock-up

My Bajan Blow

Having read the July newsletter where Ian mentioned the possibility of a Caribbean Nomad holiday and Martin talked about self-rescue techniques I thought I might humour you with a cautionary tale involving both. I have just returned from a holiday in the aforesaid Caribbean and was involved in a little self-rescue attempt too, although not as per Martin's scenarios.

To be honest I didn't think Nomads ever did silly things, and so I was holding the story back in case it might lead to my being cashiered. However after Ian's brave confession in the August newsletter I now feel free to admit that I too did a silly thing and survived to see the funnier side.

I cannot say I went on this holiday to windsurf, since it was a family holiday and this would risk severe reprisals from those who must be obeyed. However I did take my harness and a spare set of lines just in case the opportunity came up for the odd casual beach hire, like daily for instance...

I cannot also say that each morning I studied the wind conditions carefully or that within 2 hours of arrival at the hotel in Barbados I had located the best local windsurfer hire and negotiated rates. Since that would not have been in the spirit of the family holiday that it so obviously was.

The experts among you will know that you windsurf in Barbados in the winter, when the trade winds are strong, the seas high and the humidity low. Also you will know that the right spots are on the South Coast where the wind is cross-shore and the breakers are not crucifying. You know not to sail on the West Coast since it is sheltered and has permanent offshore winds. You know not to sail on the East Coast because the sea conditions are monstrous, continuous big waves crashing onto rock-strewn beaches.

Sadly, I safely count as a non-expert and therefore cannot take responsibility for ending up at a hotel on the West Coast in the Summer studying a daily succession of windless seas, whilst pretending that it didn't matter since I didn't really come to windsurf anyway.

The West Coast beach is virtually continuous shell sand for 10 miles, and it is a very nice place to loll about, don't get me wrong. Because the land shelters the beach from the Trades there are no breakers at all and as a consequence coral grows in abundance on reefs that start only a few yards offshore. Snorkelling over the coral provided an interesting diversion to what was definitely not going to be the main event, of course.

It was not until the very last day of my holiday that I woke up to the unmistakable sounds of groaning trees and banging doors. Looking out it became clear that all pretence had to end, there could be no apparently disinterested stroll along the beach just happening to stop at the hire shop. How would I explain the fact I just happen to be carrying my harness and lines, some sort of truss perhaps, a fashion statement, hmmm...

This was not going to fly, it had to be the brazen up front and in-your-face approach since pick up bus times loomed. You know, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do while the ladies do, er... well, what they gotta do too, but somewhere else preferably. You get the drift I'm sure, and yes since you ask I am still paying the price.

I arrived breathless at the hire shop and this was the first mistake, the price miraculously rose from my previously negotiated rate, must remember not to look so enthusiastic in future. Then I had to argue as to whether I was good enough for the conditions, as they felt that the wind was a bit strong. I flashed my harness at them and told them I was a Level 3-4 windsurfer and bluffed and blustered until they relented. In retrospect I now feel a brief consideration of their point might have been a better strategy.

Anyway they got out the kit, and here again I might have perhaps allowed some rational thoughts to linger. The board was a Bic Veloce which had no retractable daggerboard, which I am used to. The sail was a 6.0m no-name tub of lard which I suspect had lead battens as it couldn't possibly have been designed that heavy without cheating.

The sails life story was told in its appearance, it was actually de-laminating in places and trailed bits of mylar from a succession of small dings and bigger cuts. It was clear, shall we say, that my bluff and bluster hadn't persuaded them to put out their very best gear. I hastily agreed to the kit though as time was passing, the pick-up loomed, and so went to furiously rigging up the harness lines. Perhaps I should have spent more time on familiarisation with the equipment.

Sailing out proved to be very tiring immediately since the wind was very strong, but sheltered from the shoreline by trees. As I tried picking my way over the reefs generously sprinkled with sea-urchins and fire-coral my main aim was not to fall in whilst they were in body range. The gusts however pushed down making this tough work, from full force to being backwinded within a few seconds made for an energetic few minutes with no relief from the harness.

I learnt during this brief energetic spell that it gets hot quickly when you windsurf in a tropical climate. Although I fell in several times I did not cool off since the water and wind were so warm that they gave no cooling effect at all. You needed to be in the water for some time and to be static to get any feeling of heat loss. Getting hot also meant tiring quickly as I discovered, and was about to learn more forcibly.

I finally broke into the clean wind, it was a remarkably clear delineation visible on the water itself as a texture change. At last able to get into the harness I let the board rip and let the accumulated tensions ease away in a long blazing run of about a mile. This was the only truly enjoyable part of the whole episode.

At the end I realised the harness lines were all wrong and my front arm was really tiring. I flopped around in the water to adjust the lines and then tried to uphaul. Ye Gods, where had this wind come from...

I had allowed myself to track out further from the shore on my long run and now I was over 500 metres from the shore and getting the full force of the wind for the first time. I realised immediately that I needed to get back in since uphauling required literally all my strength and I couldn't waterstart. So off I went back on the return run, yet again the lines needed adjustment and I tired on the front arm again.

With this unfamiliar board and sail I was struggling to make any headway upwind at all. The return ride was monstrously fast and it was all I could do to stay with the gear. It was all new to me and I was still finding the sweet spots, so to speak. It all ended with a crash as I was finally bettered by a gust that yanked me over the sail. Normally at this point I would have dropped the daggerboard on my Mistral Evolution and defensively sailed nearer to shore, but the Veloce you will remember, didn't have one...

By the next time I had uphauled and got sailing I knew I was in trouble. I was already tiring to the point that I was having trouble holding the boom against the gusts and on the next run it became transparently obvious I was making no headway towards the beach. I tried a number of further runs but each one ended in a forced ditching, by the time I had recovered the rig I was further out from shore than when I had started. This continued until I was ditching without making any progress simply because I was too tired to control the sail any longer.

I realised then that I was out of my league, and it had taken only an hour to reduce me to that. My bluffing and blustering on the beach had begun to look decidedly foolhardy.

Being a typical Englishman I decided to try to self-rescue, since at least that would create the least embarrassment. I didn't want to impose on those nice fellows on the beach after all, it was absolutely nothing to do with the thought of them smirking at all.

However de-rigging the sail proved impossible since I had not rigged it and could not see how to free the boom which was trussed up like... well like something really well trussed up, you know... I really should have paid more attention to the kit.

Next I tried to float the rig on the back of the board and paddle in, however the wind was so strong that the rig would not stay on the board as soon as it broke clear of the sea. I must say I didn't think to try and use my feet to stabilise it but I doubt I could have held such an awkward position for long enough anyway.

Finally I decided to try and paddle in with the sail just dragging behind. Because of the wind the board always turned away from the shore as I became the sail and the actual sail acted as a sea anchor. After 5 minutes of furious paddling I had not even succeeded in turning the rig around to point to shore, thus assisting my departure from dry land instead.

At this point I took stock, should I detach the sail and swim in on the board, this didn't seem to offer less embarrassment potential than just being rescued. After all you can't arrive on the beach and plausibly pass off losing the sail.

And then they might want me to go out again and find it, more embarrassing still. You can't just say "Well I'm sure it's out there somewhere" and then bolt for the pick-up coach. Or can you, I mean what exactly is the etiquette for such occasions...

I could of course have just floated out to sea to become an enigma, like the Marie Celeste, then no-one would need to know I screwed up. I might have come to an honourable end, eaten by sharks, abducted by aliens or swallowed by a new triangle, you know... the Barbados Triangle. This at least required no effort and hence appealed strongly Despite the tiredness my brain did eventually latch on to the grave disadvantage, that I would die. From a purely selfish point of view this did seem to clinch it as a non-option.

OK best do my rescue wave then, oops, isn't the shore rather a long way away now, how did that happen. Still those nice lads on the beach will be keeping an eye out for me, I am after all the only windsurfer out here. Hmmm, now I think of it, why is that?

Waiting to be rescued is a boring experience. Particularly when you are so far out from shore, haven't got your glasses and so haven't a clue whether you are about to be saved. Probably you are just increasing the rate at which you disappear from the shore by forming efficient sail-like shapes with your hands and body whilst the entire humanity on the beach are studying their eyelids, from the inside.

Windsurfers are not exactly exciting places to wait for anything come to think of it. Plus, I was hot and thirsty, who knows maybe getting dehydrated. What are the symptoms, lets see, irrational thoughts and anxieties, daydreams followed by hallucinations, increasing irritability culminating in madness. Describes my normal day really. Hang on aren't these irrational thoughts, ooh, er...

Suddenly out of nothing a fish burst from the sea and flew a missile trajectory up to about 10 metres high and travelling 50 metres before dropping back into the water without even a splash or the slightest quiver of movement. To do that this fish must be travelling at over 60mph under water, OK, that's got to be a bona fide hallucination, help...

I finally catch the attention of a motor boat passing by nearer to shore, but at the same time someone leaves the beach at the Hire shop, in a Hobie Cat. This is bloody typical, you wait for a rescue vessel for hours and then two come along at once...crikey I'm being irritable now!

The motor boat left it to the Hobie to rescue me before madness set in and after a few minutes I was dragged onto the canvas decking whilst another punter threw himself into the sea to sail the board back to shore. Having never sailed before the ride back to shore was out of this world.

I had no idea you could sail so fast and so effortlessly, The effortlessness was a particularly sore point at the time, to be honest. I now know what I will do once I am too old to windsurf, like tomorrow maybe. To get back to the beach required a broad reach of about half a mile and this run was unbelievable.

I used the tack back to formulate some excuses but actually I was too tired to talk and the guys on the beach seemed to understand. I learnt that my abandoned family had in fact triggered my rescue. They had grudgingly watched me using binoculars, presumably to make sure that I didn't make a break for South America with the traveller's checks before they could spend them on duty free.

Not understanding the complex rules of male embarrassment avoidance they had bolted down to the hire shop and jumped up and down in a complete panic until the poor guys got on their boat for a bit of quiet relief. My attempts to look nonchalant on getting off the Hobie were completely wasted after an epic performance like that. The lads understanding attitude I think stemmed from this forceful impression of what might have driven me to take the windsurfer out in the first place. I retired in a funk and nursed my broken spirit, the body wasn't in top shape either but that mends.

Later I realised that my harness lines were still on the board and I went back to get them. I learnt that the guy sent out to rescue the board had also got into trouble and they finally sent out the Hobie again with their "top man" to bring it back.

He, it turned out was a local windsurfer who performed in the winter competitions. He casually mentioned sailing for up to 3 hours without using harness lines at all, and sailing for 6 hours with. It was clear to me this guy was a windsurfing God of some sort. I mean, he performs forward somersaults with his board intentionally! My somersaults are invariably unintentional and rarely involve the board other than as something to try and miss as I impact.

Still, their second best man couldn't bring it back so my ego dragged itself off the floor a few inches. You have to take the breaks you're dealt and that's the best I got.

Looking back I can now see I made every mistake there is to make in choosing the location, equipment and conditions to sail in. Its possible to laugh about it now but of course the ending could have been a lot more unpleasant. And all because of a rush of blood to the head after a week of windsurfing denied. The moral must be, don't ever let your heart rule your head on the water.

The other moral is, don't ever go on a windsurfing holiday without packing your favourite family...

My wife has just pointed out that I of course meant to say don't ever go on a family holiday without packing your favourite windsurfer, er yes dear...

Dave Watson

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