In my early 40’s I took up windsurfing. I spent most of my time falling off the board backwards into the water, and then climbing back on the board while asking myself, why continue. Then I would spot a windsurfer gliding across open water. I wanted the thrill in knifing through the wind across the water just that way.
When I achieved a modicum of balance, I set out to cross a small bay in North Carolina that lay in front of our rented beach house. By then I’d had lessons and plenty of practice falling, climbing on the board again and pulling up the heavy rigging. I expected more of the same. But even if I had to start and stop I was confident I would eventually succeed.
Many times I set out to cross the bay with a steady wind blowing, filling my sail. Then the board and I would turn and come about into nothing: windless, stalled, dead-in-the-water. Or, in the quaint language of sailing, my board and I were “becalmed”.
I did not welcome becalmed. I had dreamed, planned, studied, practiced and set out. I wanted to arrive.
Paddling occupied me for a while, but produced only slight forward momentum. Instead, I could slip backwards with astonishing speed. The currents and the tides that hadn’t seemed consequential worked against me.
I often beached the board, gaining time to think, sun myself, and observe the occasional jumping fish. Intermittently I stuck one index finger into the air as if to test the wind. Secretly I hoped my finger might beckon a rogue burst of air to my cause.
When the wind, my modest sailing skills and the tide converged, I experienced short sails, riding my windsurfing dream for a few seconds. But right after success I might skid haplessly into an oyster-shell encrusted sand bar dense with reeds.
Alone on the water or in the reeds, the need for a safe return grows as the afternoon sun begins to fade. The time came when even if the wind were to change there was no going back to the dock safely under wind power. Then I would wave sheepishly to my stepson, Steve, who I relied on to check on me intermittently through binoculars from the dock.
Sitting in Steve’s skiff, the hull of my board splitting the wake behind us, I chided myself for not performing well. It was true I might have practiced more on dry land, and could have studied the intricacies of sailing more thoroughly. But the little bay with its rapid currents and tide changes had prevailed. My progress and my failure hadn’t been all up to me.
After a second summer of attempts, Steve and I drug the board high on the beach one last time. I said I might try windsurfing again someday—on a lake, or river and after more lessons—but I haven’t. Instead I had made peace with the idea that whatever I might or might not accomplish on a surf board or in life wasn’t all up to me. That thinking has helped me navigate every new thing I’ve tried in life since, with a little more ease and grace.
I’ve been excited about woman ski jumpers competing in the Olympic games for the first time. Even a still photo of US Women’s Jump team member, Jessica Jerome, in flight–with no “terra firma” in the frame—has thrilled me and made me think about what it takes to learn to leap, both on the slopes and in life.