The last time I tried windsurfing I wasn’t able to even stand on the board, let alone hold the mast. A friend’s response to my grumblings was brutally visual. He let a pencil stand vertically on his desk. “That’s me,” my friend, who happened to be an ardent snowboarder, declared. Then he taped an eraser to the center of the standing pencil. The pencil shamelessly collapsed. “That’s you. You want to windsurf? Lose weight!”
Twenty shed pounds later I was on vacation in the Dominican Republic. Far from being a lean pencil I, eager to try again, at least felt like one. With trying came falling, but thanks to Ellen Faller’s tips it was easy to raise the sail again. I was getting somewhere.
On the surface this bay was a perfect place to learn. The wind was mild and steady. The sun, hiding behind the clouds, was kindly overlooking my lack of sunglasses and sunscreen. The waters of the bay, protected from the sea by a coral reef that like a bow string joined the bay’s ends together, were as flat as an ice-skating rink.
Then came the fall from paradise. Let’s say you’re throwing yourself backwards onto the bed, but instead of the soft mattress you are expecting, your back meets crushed concrete. The thing I fell on was a shoal no more than a foot beneath the surface.
It turns out that a life jacket isn’t a mere flotation device. The one I was wearing shielded my back from the impact. I pulled myself back onto the board. Little black needles were sticking out of my leg and right hand. I removed some of them. Wanderer, that is how I understood the name of a man who outfitted me with a windsurfing rig, rushed to me on a kayak.
“My friend,” he said “no good – erizo.”
“What’s erizo?” I asked him. Wanderer dipped his hand under the water and produced a sparkling white ball which he held up high.
“Erizo,” he repeated. I was learning Spanish hands on.
“Erizo means sea urchin,” a lovely mermaid from the diving, snorkeling, and everything else “watery” beach shop explained. “Don’t go to the places where there are yellow flags. White sea urchins are harmless but black ones you must not touch.”
The next day I was hanging out around the buoys that marked the swimming area, supposedly free of sea urchins. I much preferred the cold looks of the occasional swimmer to the hot sting of the sea urchins’ spines. After another fall I returned to the board with a new sting to my right foot. The needles, four of them, were deep inside my skin. The sea urchins were all over that area!
So what do you do if you want to windsurf but are terrified of sea urchins?” was the question I asked Pedro, an equipment guy at the shop. “You wear shoes,” he said.
In the following days I wore an old pair of diving booties Pedro had kindly given me. What I engaged in was a mix of windsurfing and windswimming. I would not attempt to cross the wind over the shallow water. Instead, I lay down on the board and paddled my way out to a deeper area. “The sea urchins down there have your name written on them,” joked my friend. The opposite too was true. I knew exactly where their colonies were. Black and menacing, it seemed as if they were pointing at me with their long needles as I passed over. They resembled an assembly of alien spaceships and if you don’t believe in those things, they certainly resembled sea mines from the World War II era. They were part of a minesweeper game and so was I.
The next day I managed to return to the place where I started from without getting stung. I was met with cheers from Wanderer and his crew. They, no doubt, were happy for their Dominican sea urchins finally being left alone.
Back on the beach a Frenchman was next in line. I passed him the board and the life jacket. He pointed at the shoes. I tried to explain that these were not included but there was a disconnect – the Frenchman spoke no English. I surrendered the shoes pointing towards the dive shop. He nodded and took off. There was no falling – the guy graciously sailed away.
Windsurfing was not the only water activity out there. A daily water aerobics class was by far more popular. Under blasting music an enthusiastic instructor paraded his students along the shore waist deep in the water. I suggested to Pedro that this glorious procession will result in a mass stinging one day, since in certain places the marchers were only a few steps from the sea urchin colonies. Pedro said that this wouldn’t be the first time. The last time it happened his entire staff went snorkeling and filled two trash containers with the sea urchins that day.
Days went by. Sailing for longer stretches without falling, I began to really enjoy windsurfing. Changing course became easier. When tacking, I felt the wind blowing directly at my back – an indication that I was doing it right. Along came moments when leaning myself against the wind I felt every single muscle of my body and mind completely relaxed. Sea urchins no longer scared me, but they were not the biggest challenge out there.
The next day the wind came from the east. I jibed uneventfully to the western side of the bay. To get back I decided to reach just like the Frenchman had done the other day outside of the bay and tack back to the beach.
As soon as I left the bay the wind increased. The waves materialized, forcing me to start falling again. The intervals between falls decreased steadily until it reached the point where I was falling as soon as I raised the mast. Tired, I watched how the wind was ripping the sail out of my hands and my hard-won confidence along with it. Buoyed by my – up until now – windsurfing progress, I was contemplating buying my own board and sailing it in Brooklyn’s Jamaica Bay. In the Dominican Republic, someone will eventually come out to rescue me, even if only for the board’s sake, but who will watch my back in Brooklyn? This was one of those “life is not a game” moments for me.
I was drifting westward along the coast. I still had enough strength left to sail to the shore, only the small cliffs and boulders the wind blew me past did not seem right for landing. Then I heard the roar of the motor – a boat was coming from the east. I waved at it. At the helm, two of Wanderer’s boys were ferrying a family to a snorkeling spot. Ten minutes later we were back on shore. “What happened?” asked a kid about to get a windsurfing lesson, “did you get stuck?”
“Yes” I said, wondering if he got shoes for his lesson.
The next morning I was at the dive shop getting my board. This was my last day in the Dominican Republic. “Hey,” Pedro greeted me, “Do you remember that French guy you gave the shoes to? He stepped on a sea urchin. The needles went straight through the shoe and punctured his foot. He said he will never windsurf here again.”
Stas Holodnak, originally from Ukraine, lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. He enjoys sailing, rowing and swimming. He hopes one day to explore the Amazon River and live to write about it. Links to his essays can be found here.