Health & Fitness

Which daydream lights your fire more brightly -- lifting weights in a humid gym or dancing across tropical waves on a surfboard? Pumping a rowing machine while staring at a wall or sailing up the coast on a hot evening? Running through your city streets or cruising across your local lake? All those are good exercise; only three of them involve "working out".

Last month we saw that

  1. there is more to exercise than "working out",
  2. the exercise motivation problem is solved by getting involved in a sport we love, and
  3. windsurfing is an example of a versatile, widely available, self-motivating  sport that millions love.

Its name is an accurate description: wind surfing. We're surfing, using wind rather than waves to power our boards. Of course, lucky coastal dwellers get to do both, using wind to enhance their surfing on ocean waves. Of the many sports I've tried and the several I've gotten serious about, windsurfing is the most versatile and challenging, yet by far the safest.

Its versatility stems from the varieties of sailing styles, equipment, water conditions, and personal preferences it offers. The boards we stand on range from big 12-footers (known as longboards) that will float anyone and should be a new student's choice, to little sub-8-foot "sinkers" that work almost like water skis: if they're not planin', you're sinkin'. The acrobatic, aerial windsurfing you see in some TV ads is done on small boards and small sails in high winds, while the relaxed cruising you see in other ads is done on longer boards with bigger sails in gentle breezes. Many advanced sailors have at least two or three boards and several sails so they're ready for anything.

The water conditions range from perfectly flat ponds to five-story-high breaking waves (guess which you'll start in?), and wind conditions range from barely perceptible breezes to 60 mph gales (again ... guess?). Water and wind conditions vary dramatically with climate, weather, location, and the size of the body of water. We high-wind addicts set aside nuisances like work and surgery to pursue our holy gale whenever the gods deliver it, while many sailors prefer to cruise on bigger gear in the light winds they can find on many evenings and weekends. It's all about personal choices.

Personal choice is one of the great appeals of windsurfing. There's casual cruising and exploring on longboards in pleasant breezes. There's "freestyle", or doing sail- and board-handling tricks in light breezes. There are several kinds of racing, which can be done in light breezes on longboards and in higher winds on smaller gear. Even surf sailing in two- or 50-foot surf at the seashore can be done mildly (slower speeds and lots of maneuvers) or wildly (jumps over 60 feet high). There's totally mind-consuming, high-speed play available on any water in high winds. Then there's what most of us do -- head for the nearest lake and have a ball in whatever nature provides. I'm sitting at one right now, with a huge grin on my face after an afternoon of 30 mph winds and chest-high swell. There are thousands of sailors who regularly do full loops in conditions like these, but not I -- not with 220 combined years on my knees and ankles. I don't mind 25 feet of air under me, but I prefer to stay relatively upright. There's that key word again: prefer. In the lighter breezes this morning, we had several hours of great longboarding conditions for those who prefer that.

Like any other exercise, windsurfing requires as much effort and provides as much exercise as we choose. Some sailors are satisfied with a short evening cruise, others do it aerobically and anaerobically for 10-12 hours on the GOOD days. Either way, motivation is never a problem. You'd have to drag many of us to a gym, but you'd better not try to drag us off the water before the wind quits.

In every sport from rock climbing to softball, one can pretty well understand and predict how this handhold or that fly ball will behave, so a beginner can get up a hill or catch a batter out on his first day. But windsurfing across a pond, turning around, and cruising back without quality instruction can be very frustrating to the sailor and very amusing to observers. That first day of windsurfing has humbled, even discouraged, many an accomplished jock who refused instructions. There's NOTHING obvious about how this stuff works, but formal instruction takes care of that problem.

For example, we can sail at twice the wind speed, yet we can't sail directly upwind. We have sailed at an official, sustained 54 mph, yet catamarans can blow our doors off in light breezes. But in one day a trained instructor can teach a patient, attentive beginner to sail across a lake, turn around dry, and sail back to her starting point. Where she takes it from there is her...preference. I often see petite ladies drive up alone, rig up, and absolutely RIP (that's a verb, not the acronym found on tombstones) in wind that knocks dogs off their feet and in waves she can't see over, because skill counts far more than strength in this sport. I also know men who seldom sail in enough wind to blow out a healthy candle. Preferences!

Where and how do you start? In the Yellow Pages under windsurfing or sailing or boats. Or visit the lake or seashore, find a windsurfer, and start asking lots of stupid questions. If we laugh at them, it will be in the evening after you're gone. You will not come up with a dumb question we've not heard -- or asked -- before. A tip: if the wind is staggering, don't expect us to be very cooperative. We're in a rigging frenzy, and nothing will stand in our way. We don't get conditions like this often enough, and the rest of the world is on Hold until night falls or the wind quits. Just stand back and watch in awe, or question the sailors stuck on shore because they aren't yet ready for this..

Getting started is easy: take a $75 lesson from a professional instructor for a weekend -- there is no good substitute -- and you're a windsurfer. Your skill level is still a 1.0, but your grin is a perfect 10. And since light breezes are far more common than strong winds, beginners get far more perfect days and places than high-wind addicts can find.

Cost? $700 can completely outfit your beginner/intermediate year or three with good used gear. From there it's all...preferences.

Requirements? Some water, a breeze, some gear, some instruction, at least 70-80 pounds of body mass, some patience, and an ego healthy enough to survive the learning process. Hint: I'm still learning a great deal after almost 20 years in this sport.

Risks? Almost none. Even the extremists who do it in gales and giant waves very seldom get hurt. As we say from 30 feet up in 50 mph winds, "It's only water". The greatest risk is hypothermia, and a wet suit takes care of that in cool weather.

Health benefits? In the windy season, my resting pulse (an excellent measure of heart health) drops into the 40s, and my BP (an excellent measure of cardiovascular system health) runs about 120/70 (I'm 54). College athletes inquire about my conditioning program (hey -- this IS my conditioning program), and my smile runs about 10 cm wide. When on the water in good winds, my altered state of consciousness obliterates the IRS, my boss, and the fact that my house was on fire when I left for the lake after lunch.

Fringe benefits: being part of one of the most challenging, aesthetic, versatile, exciting, safe, accessible, and open-ended sports around. I hope to make it the foundation of -- and motivation for -- my "workout program" until I'm at least 80.

Gyms? Weights? Running? "Working out"? Only if they'll help my windsurfing and if there's no wind.