Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hatteras - Fall 09


Its a funny step to pick up ones life and move it to a new place, and what great contrast it was to move from sleepy small-town upstate NY to the beltway of DC. The thing I have learned in a few short weeks here is that this is a place where the ethos of a materialistic narcissism are taken to the practical extreme. Do you feel your boss doesn't respect you enough at work? you're in luck, there are hundreds of "luxury" apartments, condos and townhouse that all have granite countertops and brushed stainless steel appliances for you to come home to... even though everything you eat comes out of a box - because you don't know how to cook. Does your shitzu suffer from low self esteem at doggy day care? Maybe a spa treatment and some acupuncture would make fido feel better. Is your 5th grader having a hard time balancing gymnastics, soccer, yoga, and studying for the MCATs? Maybe a time management class for tots is in order…

Suffice my short rant to say that this place has to be a paradise for someone who has OCD. The mere coincidence of so many people, and so MANY ways to make sure you are ahead of the Jones', is simply staggering. With this short dip into greater DC culture, I embarked on my trip to Hatteras. Mainly in search of a carve gybe, but also in hopes of finding real people, within the few million souls that inhabit the surrounding area.

What follows is a trip report of the best sailing of my life… and to remove any lingering doubt, the sailing community is just as wonderful here as anywhere else.

Day 0

Cold rain on a darkened windshield set a somber tone on the quiet 6+ hour trip down to Hatteras. Pulling into Island Creek Drive in the dark, I knew I was in the right neighborhood, given the number of cars with faded roof-rack pads and an odd battered longboard or two lying on top. Having never been on Baltimore Area Boardsailing Association (BABA) trip before, I wasn't sure what to expect, and hunting around in the post-dusk rain for which house was "Island Storm" had the uneasy feeling of tromping through someone else's backyard.

A few minutes of careful surveying yielded the correct house, but when I walked in the front door, only silence was returned as I shouted out a greeting into the foyer. Remembering that there was supposed to be a Monday night welcoming party, I scanned for the house that had the most lights on and between the misty raindrops I could see a crowd of people through the top floor window a few houses away.

To date my experience with the greater-DC sailing community was limited to a few kind responses to some of my blog posts ( and the clear perception that the word "racing" held almost mythical status in the lexicon of the BABA-community. Browsing a few newsletters online was enough to know that BABA was not unlike many outdoors clubs that struggles with the changing face, age, identity, and interest in its sport. It should be said that this is the same phenomena in the cross-country ski community (all the kids are into snowboarding) and rock climbing communities (all the kids are into bouldering). Having seen this generational phenomena in other clubs before, I was curious to see what lie in wait as I walked up the wet wooden steps, and covered in raindrops, I stepped into my first BABA… anything.

Its pretty funny to walk into social situations like these, where you honestly don't know a single person, and so begins the awkward process of "Hi, my name is Shawn, I don't think we've met". Fortune was on my side, in that the second person I ran into was Daphne, who in the most welcoming way possible, made an effort to introduce me to virtually every soul who walked by and all of my housemates-to-be that were readily apparent. The funniest (insert scratching noise across a record sound) moment came when I asked Daphne "So… where is the water here, and where do you sail?" In the slightly tortured way you would explain something to a confused child (reader's note: I arrived after dark and had never been there), she explained that , and in the morning I would be greeted with a 180 degree view of an open sound as soon as it was daylight.

To be honest, my perception of the BABA-vibe was pretty much correct, and I couldn't help but chuckle at the excited response when it became known that I had a longboard, and no less than 5 seconds later the question of racing was brought up. I have to give the BABA folks credit in this initial interaction on two important counts: first, some folks here not only compete, but do so at a really high level (like the Olympics); and second, despite the clear enthusiasm around racing, there was nothing but a genuine interest in welcoming a new sailor to their midst. It was clear that this was a "come as you are" group of people that exuded nothing other than a love for the water and a heartfelt joy at sharing it with others.


The morning dawned at 7 and eager to get on the water, I was out of bed after a restless night of sleep and getting info on the sailing from my housemates. By 8am I was on the water with my least favorite sail of my whole quiver an orange and black 6.4 KA wave sail that I got on Ebay and rigged using the "alternate mast" in the rigging instructions (460 instead of 430). Seeing emails about some BABA swaps, I already was hatching plans of writing glowing reviews about in in my trip report, only so that I could drum up interest around selling it to someone else. Unresolved was a plausible explanation for why exactly I would be selling a hardly-used sail of a really common size, that I had claimed "sailed like a dream." The best I could do was something about how a Nigerian businessman I met online offered me a second one as soon as I let the first one go for cheap…

Wearing just a shorty and rashguard, I hauled my gear to the breakwall, weaving through the array of boards and sails on the grassy rigging area as walked towards my first encounter with the salty and shallow waters of Pamlico Sound. It should be said at the outset that THE number one thing I wanted to walk away from this trip with was a carve gybe (sorry, I prefer the British spelling). Numerous attempts back home in central NY had never gotten closer than me slumping off the tail of my board, clutching the boom over my head.

Stepping off into the warm water, I vowed to myself that I was not going to do a single tack until I accomplished a gybe, even if it took all week. The 22mph wind was a perfect speed to facilitate gybe practice and the next two hours taught some hard earned lessons on the way to carving a steady arc during my turns. To my pleasant surprise, the sound was only chest deep for a long distance out, making it the perfect learning environment because the penalty for falling off was to simply stand up and beachstart again.

Despite my best efforts, I kept coming back to the same failure mechanism of stalling out in the carve on every gybe attempt. Many folks at this level (myself included) who made hard-won progress to get comfortably into the harness and straps are prone to shoving their feet into the straps as tightly as humanly possible, in order to avoid (previously frequent) catapulting. It took a while to figure out that this was preventing me from gybing, because I couldn't keep my board carving during a turn while I was fighting to shake the damn thing off of my front foot half way through. Only through trial and error did I discover that I had to fight the tendency to seek the firmest possible attachment to the board, as getting to a gybe requires the (scary and) counter-intuitive step of loosening the straps in order to gracefully disconnect with the board and later reconnect on the other side of a turn.

A second breakthrough came when I mentally recalled the lessons from a gybe clinic several months before, and the loose recollection that mast base pressure (MBP) somehow played into it. Let me just say, that not only does it 'play into it", it can not be emphasized enough… As someone that is prone to rush ahead an try stuff on my own, with minimal attention paid to the pedagogy of instruction, let me just say that when folks talk about MBP, its really no joke. They REALLY are not making it up. That stuff really works.

Two hours of persistent failures later and at 10:05am on the first day of the trip, my hands connect with the boom at the terminus of a downwind arc and still dry, I sail out of my first ever gybe.

It was nice to be on the water amidst such a large group of sailors in this new and strange place. It had the feeling that people were watching out for me as that no matter how far I was from shore, someone would always sail over, circling around to make sure I was ok, before heading back. At one point I stopped counting at 50 sails and 2 dozen kites on our little patch of the sound, and it genuinely felt like the entire Spanish Armada was out there at once.

After a brief rest on shore, one of my housemates Amber asks me if I want to head out to the shallows a few miles off shore. In the grown up version of "hey, wanna go ride bikes?" I felt it was important to disclose to her that I still am not a very good sailor and that I can't gybe very well yet, to which she replies "yeah, me neither, lets go". Off we sail, farther and farther from shore out, and at what I would guess was about 1.5 - 2 miles offshore, we hop off our boards in a rare deep spot (over out heads) and I do my first waterstart of the trip on the way back.

After lunch, the wind died down and I seized the opportunity to go bootie shopping, and tour the local sailing-shop circuit, all within 10 minutes of the house. The dynamic between the shops couldn't be more different… from the large internet-based shop with salespeople with bad attitudes, to the slightly redneck one with used stuff, and a couple smaller but super-friendly and helpful ones thrown in between. Booties in hand, it was time to head back for dinner, which at the "Lets Dish" house, is an event to look forward to. I don't remember that nights menu, but the cuisine for the week varied from lime-basil shrimp over couscous to New Orleans-style pulled pork, with Tilapia over orzo with meatloaf in between. Why there aren't 6 houses all doing the Let's Dish game is simply beyond me.

After dinner its time to go hit a talk by sailing instructor legend Andy Brant of ABK, held at a local shop. The dude was awesome as he fielded everything from fin selection to how to pull off a front loop. The shop threw out a 25% discount for anyone that bought stuff that night, and I walked out with a new 430cm skinny mast, as a strategic addition to my quiver.

Day 2

The second day dawned colder, pulling on my full suit I notice that there are only 10-15 sails on the water as it seems a few folks have decided to have a slower start to their day. I rig up the same KA sail, but on the 430 mast and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it actually… didn't look all f___ed up any more. The battens all could rotate around the mast and everything was finally zen with the rig. Out on the water, I finally made peace with the sail as the morning's gybe practice yielded several more completed turns. Which in a way is fortunate in that I don't have to make my morally-compromised sales pitch to anyone about the sail, but sadly I don't have any more excuse to be eyeing a new quiver of Hot Sails Maui SuperFreaks.

After two morning sessions, and lunch I took some time to chill out in the afternoon lulls, before heading out for an evening session. The skies turned grey and darker, but the steady NW wind still made for phenomenal sailing. As an evening shower struck, the number of sailors on the water steadily dropped, and many were congregated on the shore watching for a break in the rain. The steady patter of raindrops while sailing turned into a loud staccato on my sail whenever I was off of my board in the shallow water. On my final run, I decided to try a "hero gybe" close to the shore, you know where you are blasting in at about a 100 mph and carve this perfect arch just a feet feet off the beach… but achieved nothing more than unimpressively crashing in front of a dozen of my compatriots.

Day 3

The third morning started with east off shore wind and the normal morning enthusiasm for getting out on the water had slowed to a trickle. The frustrating part was knowing that just a half mile away on the ocean side it was rocking solid mid-20s in an onshore breaking surf. Everyone, myself included seemed to be torn between hopeful waiting for the wind to turn southward and just being a little tired from several solid days of sailing, and the idea of heading out in anything but a pristine wind seemed out of the question.

My morning filled with email, surfing the web, perusing gear stores again, and finally in the afternoon patience was rewarded by a shift in the wind to the south and a number of folks take to the water. The rain again joins us as a steady companion as the steady rain again made a dull ticking sound as I stood sheltered under my orange and black 6.4 meter rain shelter upon every waist-deep beach start ("east coast water starts" according to Andy Brant). Between the rain and the general transition to "Hatteras time" an afternoon group lesson with ABK instructor Petra Kanz was postponed until the following day. The wind picked up in the early afternoon with my first runs on my 104L board and a 5.6 sail in the upper 20's wind. It was hard to make the transition down in size, and after several thankless attempts, I finally managed to get my first gybe on my smaller gear.

In the last wave of sailors on the water, the wind is still blowing 20-ish and even though it isn't postcard-perfect blue skies, its is still great conditions. The numbers of sails on the water slowly dwindles from the low teens to just myself and one other sail as the grey sky, still heavy with rain, seemingly forgets to include sunset between steel-colored daylight and darkness.

Day 4

Friday dawns, and the trend of people waking up later and later continues. WIth both of my shoulder's sore, I manage to stumble out of bed by 8 and find myself shlepping out for a morning session before the re-scheduled afternoon's gybe clinic. Petra spent 1.5 hrs walking us through the finer points of the carve gybe, and frankly I was relieved to hear that lots of folks were having the same problems I was. Everything from stalling out, falling to the outside of the turn, falling to the inside, not enough speed, not enough control… you name it, and we as a group had it. The best part though was Petra kindly volunteering to be a gybe buoy out in the chest-deep water and we took turns sailing (or trying to sail) around her and getting instant feedback on each of our gybes.

After a quick snack, it was time for the last run of the day (and ultimately the trip) in steady 22-24mph NW winds. It started with half a dozen sails, then 4 then just Petra and I out on the sound. Slightly overpowered on 6.4, gybe after gybe, we engaged in impromptu and quiet games of follow the leader in a shrinking pack of sailor. Skipping over chop, and there was this carefree feeling of playing tag on the playground as children, as we raced back and forth.

I couldn't believe that nobody else is out catching what is probably the best 6.0 conditions of the entire trip, but as I am slowly learning in my wise old age of a early 30-something, "vacations" come in many different flavors to many different people. The orange and rose-colored glow of the setting sun in the west bathed our sails in glowing light and on each run the eastern sky gots darker and darker. The lights in each of the houses are steadily growing brighter than the sky around them as slowly the contrast between the water and the sky was fading and it was getting slightly harder to see the waves on the water.

Finally after an hour of just Petra and I on the water, I focus on loosing ground downwind between each gybe in order to start working back to the houses, to avoid the annoying task of trying to sail downwind. Many lazy S-turns later, it was getting dark enough that I was having a hard time seeing and decided it was finally time to stop saying to myself "just one more run."

On the final reach towards the shore, I can clearly see tv's on and people eating dinner in each of the houses, silent conversations on the other side of a backlit pane of glass were an odd contrast to the vacant murky grey shoreline straight ahead. About 150 yards offshore I go through the pre-gybe sequence of scanning, hands back, unhooking and pulling my rear foot from the strap. By 100 yards out I settle in with my full weight against the overpowered orange sail, back foot poised on the downwind rail, and I am rocketing towards shore. The thought goes through my mind that going this fast in near-darkness towards a solid breakwall is going to end badly if I botch the timing on my gybe.

50 yards out, I roll onto the balls of my feet and the sail pulls the board into a smooth arc to the south, as a gentle spray of water hisses out from underneath. Weight forward in a semi-crouch, it feels almost like riding a skateboard through a banked turn, and time feels like it slows down as I let centrifugal force do its work to hold me up out of the water that wizzes by beneath my leaning sail and body on the inside of the turn. My feet switched, and a scant 15 yards from the breakwall, the rig flips and the boom connects with my waiting hands. Completing the carve I let out a loud whoop and feel totally pumped as I jump off the board into the knee-deep water after what felt like the perfect gybe. Looking up and down the shore, there isn't a human in sight and I laugh to myself that no one saw it.

Seconds later Petra sails up and we both silently trudge through the shallow water and one last time, we gently toss our gear over the breakwall and climb up over it, into the darkness.