Lessons Learned Windsurfing

November 08, 2016

Nick Stoneman shares how the challenges (and victories) of windsurfing can be a metaphor for pursuing one’s dreams with dedication and commitment.

Rear view of a windsurfer passing by. Click to see more...

I first learned how to wind surf on a mountain lake that sits above the village of Salisbury in Connecticut, where my wife Vicky and I rented a cottage for the summer. It was a small lake with inconsistent gusts of wind, making learning more challenging. But, I toiled and battled, with plenty of bruises and sore muscles to show for it, until one glorious day I was able to sail with a level of mastery that few had seen before –at least on that mountaintop lake!

Once the summer cottage closed for the season, I lived in Manhattan while Vicky lived in New Haven where she was going to graduate school. I would typically travel up to see her and get snippets of her time in-between her studies. I decided one fall weekend to leave Vicky to her books and go over to the ocean along the Connecticut shore and put my newfound expertise as a windsurfer to a true test.

When I arrived at the beach there were dozens of people swimming, sunbathing, tossing Frisbees and, yes, windsurfing. I hauled my board, mast, boom, and sail down to the beach and began to put all the parts together. I must admit that the bold confidence forged atop the mountain started to waver a bit as I looked across the water and saw the skill and talent of the windsurfers buzzing along just yards out from the shoreline.

Stifling all angst, I kept at it, choosing to rise to the challenge and show them “my stuff”. Off I went, into the water, getting my sail up (first try, so the dozens of people whom I was sure were watching must have been impressed) and off I went – headed straight out to sea.

It was exhilarating. The strong and consistent winds were transformed into power and speed by the sail, at levels the lake never offered. Small waves made for intermittent lifts of excitement. I got my feet into the straps and my harness clipped into the boom and, for the first time, was able to lay way back, feeling the water brushing off my shoulders as I stared at the sky through the clear part of my sail. I was flying and could do no wrong, knew no limitations.

Then, reality hit. Hard. While I was wallowing in that dangerous blend of joy and self-adulation (quite a cycle to break), the weather had the gall of deciding to change. The skies had blackened. The waves had turned to white caps. I hit a four footer and took a spill. When I came up, I was swamped by wave after wave and it was all I could do to hang on to the board. I looked around and there were no other windsurfers. The people on the shore – much fewer in numbers now – were small specks in the distance. I was alone, far from shore, and definitely in over my head.

I battled for the next 30 minutes. I got the sail up, only to be toppled by a wave again and again. I was exhausted, but knew I had no choice but to keep trying, as I drifted farther and farther out.

Then, I heard a voice (and it did not stem from a spiritual experience!): “Attention windsurfer. Put down the sail!” I turned and looked and somehow a Coast Guard cutter had snuck up on me and was demanding that I acquiesce and admit defeat. Well, I ignored the “request” and kept trying, until I heard, “Attention windsurfer. Put down the sail, or we are going to arrest you.”

Suffice it to say, I obeyed, was hauled on board, taken to shore, properly admonished, and sent on my way.

So what did I garner from the experience? Perhaps most obviously, confidence needs balance. The risks one takes have to be viewed within the context of understanding the downside. But perhaps most deeply, I discovered a trait of a refusal to relent – perhaps a flaw if gone unchecked, but also a trait that fosters the belief that one’s dreams are limited only by one’s commitment to seeing those dreams come to fruition.

Our work with young people has to have this self-belief and commitment as an essential tenet. We have to give them the sense that they can become who they want to become, that they can dream of what “could be” and make it “what is”, and that society’s future, shaped through their imaginations taking hold, is bright.

Perhaps we are that mountaintop lake, preparing them for the rough seas ahead. And perhaps we can give them an even greater set of skills, prepare them even more, so they can keep their sails high and be able to compellingly navigate the waters of their future and arrive safely to shore, dreams realized.

I would like that.