Wind and Water

or how I took a left turn at Albuquerque on the way to the Gorge



"Wind and water," Marek said more than once. "The Gorge is all wind and water." When he'd found out that I was planning to spend a week in the Portland/Gorge area in early June, he was kind enough to reach out to me more than a few times with invitations, advice and encouragement. Marek, being smarter than me, doesn't spend all summer whining about the wind but actually spends time in a place where 3 meter sails and 70 liter boards are not only used but used frequently. As Marek predicted, I would find plenty of wind and water on my trip.

Back last fall, a good friend from college had come to Atlanta and met me for breakfast. We began talking and before I realized it, I'd been talked into climbing a really big hill. "It'll be fun," he said. "And, at our age we won't have that many more opportunities to do something like this." This hill is near another hill he'd climbed the previous summer with another close friend of mine. Together with some other friends, they decided it was so much fun, they'd do it again and wanted me to come along.

Where was this hill? Near Portland. So my little brain figured if I can get to Portland, I'll be able to get to the Gorge for some (to borrow Marek's phrase) wind and water.

I'd wanted to sail there for years and it looked like this summer I'd get my chance. Somewhere along the line, Marek heard about my plans to go out and since he spends a good bit of his time out there, as I mentioned earlier, was generous with his assistance. Further, Trey and Michel would be going out about the same time so a bunch of us Atlanta guys could get together.

As the time approached for the trip, I actually read more about the hill I was supposed to climb. As hills out there go, it was pretty tall but people didn't have quite the habit of falling off that they did on some of the others. That was comforting. Nonetheless, the hill was tall enough that it required a bit of preparation if I didn't want the experience to be totally miserable. So I spent the spring doing useful stuff like taking a sailboat trip and almost two glorious weeks in Nags Head. Yes, denial and procrastination are great methods of training.


Mt. Hood

A hill in near the Gorge, Mt. Hood. My hill was about 1000 feet higher than that.

During one of my extensive training sessions, i.e. trying to get my Formula board to plane on an overly optimistic day (a very useful Alpine skill), a motorboat came up alongside and the driver started shouting at me. "What tha' hel...?"


Trey in the Gorge

The guy in the boat, Trey

Of all people, it was Trey. "Hey, I hear you are going to the Gorge." Yep. "You should get together with us and sail." Sounds good. "We'll have a real good time." We continued to exchange pleasantries, vague future plans and then he left me to my optimistic pumping with my 9.5.

However, my trip approached - I'd had eight months to prepare - I actually started to research and read about my little hill. I made the mistake of looking at it on Google Maps. Why are all the contour lines bunched together and why are there so many of them? Panic set in.

Portland

To get to the Gorge*, you go through Portland. Portland is rather a singular city which even has its own show: Portlandia. Portland is where hipster meets granola. It's the Mecca of craft beer, bicycles, artisanal doughnuts and ice cream; and VW campers - all with vistas on a clear day of snow-capped volcanoes.

In fact, all you need to know about Portland are in the following two pictures:


Keep Portland Weird


Beer Brats Bikes

It's also the kind of place that makes you question your life choices especially if you are imagine being back home, stuck in traffic on a hot, windless day with only office buildings for scenery.

The Gorge

We set out from Portland for the town of Hood River. Long ago, Hood River was notable for logs, fruit grown on the plain above the Gorge and a local ski hill, Mt. Hood. After I arrived, Marek got in touch with me. "Join us. Yesterday we were on 4.0s." And, he sent me a picture to prove it. From the picture, it was clear it was taken from the Washington side since the wind blows from the west 99.99% of the time.


Marek at the Wall on 4.0

Marek at the Wall on a 4.0

The next day, I set out for the Washington side myself with my friends. We paid the toll to cross the river and enter Washington. We then turned left and drove a couple of hours with seeing maybe a three cars. Now, totally lost, we got out and climbed a hill. The hill was scattered with boulders and the further we went, the boulders were replaced by sand.


St. Helen Rocks

The good news: on top of the hill was wind and water just as Marek said. Unfortunately, we didn't see anyone windsurfing. The place, quite frankly, looked like a mess. We talked to some other people and found out there had been a big fireworks explosion a few years back. That explained a lot. The bad news was the water was white but it was fun if you sat on your butt and slid down on it.


On the rim Mt. St. Helens

Behind us is where it went bang.

See an animation of the bang

All in all, I'd say it was a disappointing day. I didn't see any windsurfers like I was promised.

Shopping

The hill took a bit out of me and despite the encouragement of my travelling companions, I was too knackered to windsurf. Further, it seemed that most of the Atlanta crew had headed for home. So, in the morning, I walked around Hood River and went into the windsurfing shops. Anyone who has been to the Outer Banks knows the drill. On your off day, you wonder in and see what new gear is out. This is important because this will most likely be the used gear that you'll be buying ten years hence.

Frankly, this was another disappointment. Almost every board was 100 liters or less. Almost every sail was 5.0 or smaller. I guess only little people windsurf here because, back home, these are ridiculously small sizes. I did see some good deals on 85 liter boards but since my 85 liter board back home hasn't gotten wet in five years, it didn't seem worthwhile to grab another one.


Formula boards need not apply

Alex, I'll take places not to take my Formula board and 9.5 for $200

One thing that was not a disappointment were the cinammon rolls at Bettie's, a breakfast/lunch place. For $5, they serve a cinammon roll the size of a cake. And, it's very good. Forget Cinnabon - this one is the king of cinammon rolls. We split one four ways. Unexpectedly, almost everyone who ordered one was pretty fit and likely to burn the calories before they stuck.


Cinammon Roll

That afternoon, I took my friends down to the Event Site so we could watch the wind sports. The place was full of kites and windsurfers - about 50-50. Not only was it the week of July 4th but we had a bunch of immigrants because of Canada Week. I say, if a wall needs to be built, it should be on the Northern Border. Parking was at a premium, not like the good old days. We saw a lot of conventional kites and windsurfers plus a few foils of each variety.

Event Site


Event Site

Most impressive was a local kid who was foiling on a 5m while the conventional kiters were on 11 and 12s. He spent a lot of time close to shore and when a giggling pack of high school girls walked by, waved at him and called his name, it confirmed our suspicions why he refused to sail out further.

A Lot More Wind and Water

The next day, inexplicably, we went looking for more wind and water on the Washington side. We paid the toll and drove and drove. There were more cars this time - maybe a handful. Again, it seemed we got lost. So we got out for a look around. I've heard that the Gorge swells are pretty big but the swell I had to climb up was absolutely ridiculous. I'd say it was at least 15 ft Hawaiian**. Maybe it was more. Whatever, I can't say I was really comfortable on it.


Big Gorge swell

The swell I wanted


At least 20 Hawaiian

The swell I got

At least the wind picked up, though. I guess that was good until clouds moved in and started dumping icy stuff on us. In July. And, I'm from Atlanta. So, we crawled into these really big 3 man sail bags to wait it out.

Next morning, we had lots of wind and lots of water. It's true what they say about the Gorge and 40 mph winds. We trudged onwards trying to sort things out. After about 5 hours, the trail seemed to run out. No windsurfers again. Plenty of wind and water but no windsurfing. Again, I was very disappointed. This trip wasn't turning out anything like Marek's who had been bombing me with pics of windsurfing all week. I really like the guy but it's hard to look at someone windsurfing in a shorty while you are shivering. Did I mention it is July? I guess I did already.


Top of the Hill

Well, we kind of gave up on trying to find any windsurfing and trudged back the six miles to the car. The water was too icy to slide on our butts this time. Finally, when we made it to the car, we saw the craziest thing: people who were going to hike four to six miles while carrying equipment just to snowboard or ski. I mean, we get bent out of shape if we have to park five spaces away from the water at Van Pugh and carry our gear. These guys were going to walk four or more miles. And they don't get to jibe at the end of a run and do it in the opposite direction like we do. They hike another few miles. Weird.

Well, that was pretty much my Gorge vacation. I found wind. I found water. I'm just a bit disappointed in it all, though. Not what I had envisioned. The views were pretty good, though. Yelp review: water not as advertised. Unexpectedly hard. 1 star.


View on Adams

* For those not familiar with the Gorge, it's on the Columbia River between 70 and 90 miles east of Portland and one of the great places in the world to windsurf. Cooler air in Portland (where it's often cloudy and even sweater weather in the summer) gets sucked by hot rising air in the arid eastern parts of Oregon along the river. The Gorge part of the equation is that during the Ice Ages, catastrophic floods caused by the break up of ice dams scoured out a deep cut in the mountains east of Portland so that the easiest path for all the wind is through a narrow gap. Imagine if the thermal winds of Panama City, Cocoa or Avon were being sucked through a gap a mile wide.


Gorge


Gorge

But, as they say on TV: Wait, that's not all! The river has a brisk westward current of 2 mph or more in spots. This current has two wonderful effects. First, it runs upwind so that simple back and forth windsurfing that most of us do is actually sailing off the wind. No pinching to stay upwind and getting on a plane is that much easier. Second, with the long straight stretches of river, it kicks up a swell which in places can be head high or more.


Gorge

** Hawaiians measure the wave not from the front but from the back. So when a Hawaiian says the surf was 5-8 ft high, that's 10-16 for us mainlanders.

Big thanks to Marek Skupien for the pics and enthusiasm. Next time, buddy.

The Silly Season

Summer is upon us. There's a lot less wind and more idle time. It's a dangerous and expensive time.

Summer is when you will make you most optimistic purchases: the gear you use once a decade. With light winds are you looking for a 9.5 sail? Are you bringing the old Mistral One Design out from the piles of stuff in the garage and sailing around in light air? Are you studying the latest trends in light air weapons - foils and super wide boards?


Optimistic airplane

Optimism isn't always a good idea.

Maybe you are. Me? This is when I buy that 70 liter wave board. Or the 3.7 that I might use if I'm ever at Hatteras when a tropical storm rolls through (don't laugh, it did happen to me. Once.) My mind starts to fantasize as a way of dealing with my withdrawal from regular shortboard sessions. What would I use in 30-45 mph winds? What board would be best for learning a Spock or Vulcan? This last question is important because I fantasize that someday, I'll learn some shortboard freestyle moves. Truth is that I've been working on duck jibes for 15 years with little progress. I blame my short arms but my reluctance to get wet in winter is certainly a factor.


3.3 in action

Chris Campbell on a 3.3. If history holds, he'll use it again in 2019

Day after day you resist temptation. But, inevitably you snap. Late at night, you spy a good deal, maybe a "Buy It Now" on ebay and, before you realize what happened, out comes the credit card. You delete the confirmation email to hide any evidence of your deed and figure out a way to intercept the UPS guy/gal before they drop off the package at the front door.

Now you have a real problem - where to put your new toy where the significant other won't notice. They are tired of stumbling over sails and masts; tired of smelly neoprene; and really can't understand why you need four boards more than replacing the old dishwasher that won't clean the dishes.

Kiters yap all the time about how their gear is better because it fits into a car. BS. Their real advantage is that they can hide that new 11m kite in the back of a closet until fall. New kiteboard? No problem, stick it under one of the kids' beds. No child goes looking under a bed because of the remote possibility that there really is a monster under there (or, is that just a myth propagated by kiting parents?)

monsters under the bed

Calvin's Dad kited, I think.

Windsurfers have a tougher time. Where do you stash something eight feet long where it doesn't arose suspicion? If it is discovered, how do you explain it? Here are some strategies:

Um, it's for a friend
If congressmen caught in a compromising situation can use this one, why not us?

"The new board? Oh, it's for Joe. He lives in a gated apartment complex and UPS doesn't deliver big packages so he asked if they could deliver it here so nothing could happen to it and I told him that you wouldn't mind and he'll pick it up this weekend, no next weekend because he's got to visit his mother this weekend so I told him it's okay."

Note the long run-on sentence. This is intentional. You want to continue your explanation until you are absolutely sure that the SO has totally lost any interest in what you have to say. You may have to practice holding your breath in a pool to perfect this technique. It also helps to actually have a friend named Joe that they aren't particularly fond of as it helps them not to want to hear any more about it.

Paint it Black (or white)
Not only was it a hit for the Rolling Stones back in the Dark Ages but it remains good advice: Try to buy everything so they match as much as possible. Masts are easy. They almost always are black and annoyingly long. It's very easy to throw in another top and bottom with no one the wiser. And if it comes in another color? paint it black.

Own a couple of white boards? Your next board should be white as well. If it's not white, a can of white spray paint is two bucks and cheap price to save your relationship. Sails are more difficult to match but it doesn't matter. The only important part is that the sail bag color matches. If you have three green bags stacked in the corner of the garage, hiding a fourth behind them is easy. And yes, the fourth will fit easily behind because it's that 3.7 you hope to use, remember?

N + 1
This is a strategy of strength. The important part is to have enough crap, er, gear that adding another bit is completely imperceptible. This is also known as the "Milky Way" strategy. If you looked up at the stars on a clear night, would you ever know if there was a new star up there? No, you wouldn't. If you have enough fins, another one is similarly just a drop in the proverbial bucket.

It's for you, dear
This is a bold strategy. Remember that 3.7? You don't try to hide it. No, you openly declare "it's for you, dear. It'll be easier for you to learn."

Let's ignore the fact that most 3.7s are cut way too flat to work in light air. The crushing truth is that your SO has zero interest in following you down the path of darkness known as windsurfing. They see no appeal in going for a swim in January. They don't want to be beholden to the weather forecast. This gambit depends on you having a sincere enough smile that that they think you mean it. At that point, they will change the subject as fast as possible before they have to awkwardly decline to spend a week in Avon in the off season when there isn't a thing to do.

I deserve it
We mention this strategy only to warn you that it's a disaster in the making. You were off windsurfing all spring while your SO did work around the house or shuttled the kids. And now, you have the temerity to insist that you deserve a new piece of kit? Yeah, good luck with that.


the Titanic

You deserve a ticket on ths ship. Bring a life vest, though.

Stay safe and put the credit card away. It's a long time until September.

Stephan



This is something I've been struggling to write for a week - the passing of Stephan Els. I'm still stuck on the denial stage of grief and probably will be for a while. I still have his emails where we talked about some boards that he wanted to look at when he got back from South Africa - where he was when he died. In my mind, I'm still awaiting his return.

I was in Cocoa Beach last Monday. I'd driven down to pick up some gear that friends had down there and hoped I could bring back to Atlanta and sell. One board, in particular, I thought would be great for Stephan and a big part of my motivation to drive eight hours down there. I picked up the gear in the morning and spent all afternoon at Kelly Park windsurfing. There'd been a couple of kitefoilers and a windsurf foil down there so after packing up and seeing that I'd missed Chris Voith's call, I was excited to call back and tell him what I'd seen and learned (Chris is learning to windsurf foil). I rang Chris up and babbled for five minutes about "foil this" and "foil that". Then Chris paused and asked if I'd seen the web site that day. "Was it down? Did it get hacked?"

Chris began, "It's about Stephan Els."

When you get to a certain age, you can almost tell beforehand what is coming. I don't know why or how but it's a sense. Chris began to tell me and I rushed out, "and he's okay, right?" to dispel my fears but the news was very certain and undeniably tragic. After I hung up with Chris, I sat in my van, with the board that I hoped Stephan would like, and looked out at the water through watery eyes.

I'd met Stephan a few years ago at our Fall Classic when he first began to get back into windsurfing. He'd windsurfed as a teen growing up in S.A. and, now, here in the U.S, with family and job commitments, he was no longer able to pursue his other passion of paragliding so he began to dabble again in windsurfing. He was immediately one of those people whose company you enjoy.

It's those same commitments that encouraged him to make the best use of his time on the water. He'd go out when it was cold or barely enough wind because he couldn't be choosy about his time on the water. Like me, he ended up with a good bit of light wind equipment - wide boards and big sails - so we'd be on the water together when many of our windsurfing friends didn't even show up or were onshore waiting for stronger winds. Yet, quite often, these sessions turned out as memorable as any. Sometimes it was because on a chill winter day, we'd play with the big sail boats in the channel on Lake Lanier, or have an unexpected summer session with a warm breeze.

He was also my "partner in crime". Several times, we decided to take advantage of the upwind/downwind capability of our gear and go visit another part of the lake. We'd go from Tidwell up to Van Pugh or from Sunrise Cove to Van Pugh. It was great fun even when, more than a few times, the wind died and getting home was a chore. It was still a laugh and the feeling the day was well spent.

But, really the reason I enjoyed windsurfing with him so much wasn't just that he didn't mind rigging a big sail but his easy-going attitude and friendliness. It was fun to sail with him whether it was windy or not. It was just good to be in his company. I looked forward to his calls or texts on those days when the wind looked even the least bit promising: "Are you going?"

I always made the effort to ask him about his family when we were talking (usually while rigging). He was very devoted to his wife and sons. As much as he loved windsurfing - they came first. And, it's their loss that I'm the saddest about.

In reading what others have written about him, he touched others - friends, colleagues - in much the same way. And, in those comments, I was reminded that windsurfing was only just part of what he was and no matter how much time we shared, I wished that I'd shared more.

(Other club members comments on his passing)

Memorial site for updates and to share your photos and stories of Steph with Jocelyn and the boys. http://www.forevermissed.com/stephan-wilhelm-els/#about In lieu of flowers/gifts, his family asks you to give to the boy’s education fund.

Memorial service will be at 2pm, April 22nd at Dunwoody Baptist Church.
1445 Mt Vernon Rd, Dunwoody, GA 30338

Photos: Barrett Walker

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