Read a couple of sad real stories recently. Kitesurfers sponsored by equipment manufacturers to promote a particular brand. These individuals push themselves to the limit and beyond their natural physical limitations and experience duress or psychological pressure to outperform kitesurfers from a rival brand.
The reward being prize money, free equipment and travel. The brand owner/managers remit is that a particular kite and board needs to be seen as the best on the water. The sponsored rider should be in first place on the winners podium at every competition. My experience of 25 years of windsurfing and now a kitesurfer has been the opposite of competition. Going out purely for fun, sometimes to disconnect from everyday stresses, family responsibilities, and to reconnect with a sense of self. The only competition I was ever in was me versus the wind and waves. Conditions to test inner resolve, strong winds, mad gusts, rolling shorebreak, biting cold. Overcoming a natural trepidation to go out in high wind and the fear of failure in that environment. All these things are about personal challenge and not about being better than someone else.
I built up confidence and a healthier identity through water sport. I was never someone elses wife, mum or employee on the water. 100% focussed on what I was doing and totally absorbed by the experience. I would describe it as falling in love, but the novelty never wears off and the relationship never grows stale!
Reason I got in to windsurfing: my kids were growing up and part time employment allowed enough time for some leisure pursuit. My middle class peers were joining golf or tennis clubs, and forming new friendships there. These sports were primarily about beating your opponent in a game or match. And I did not like the snobbery, black tie dinners and people being ranked by the cars they drove. So while my husband at that time revelled in the competitive element I hated it.
Then one School Easter holiday in Tunisia my youngest was 3yrs old, I was 40. The hotel had a couple of windsurfers staying with their own kit, watching them fascinated me. The hotel had some old kit and I had an hour every day and became hooked, everyone reading this knows that feeling. The urge to do more, which results in lessons, buying equipment and after a while you are on a path with very fine lines between hobby, sport and obsession. After a few years I had improved enough to go on a test trip run by Boards magazine, a week in Ras Sudr, Sinai, Egypt. The only female of 8 testers and 6 men on the team for the magazine. 20 years ago water-sports were still male dominated. So I was very much the token gesture female, relatively unskilled, the smallest and very much ‘the runt’ of the pack. There was some competition on the water and some strong opinions about the different boards we were testing. I learned from this experience, how much my body size and lower skill level affected my choice of favourite board
The years rolled on with two lives. Life One: Wife, Mum, part time Nurse, all important to me but in reality just roles in life. If I look back, those roles were a huge multitasking blur tinged with overwhelming feelings of responsibility. Cooking meals, ironing double cuffed white shirts, kids homework, twice daily school run. The relentless monotony of providing a never ending service for unappreciative others. The second life of secret pleasure was all mine. Time spent looking at the wind forecasts or checking tide tables, calling buddies about locations and timings. Reading Gybing tips, watching training videos and looking forward to the next great session on the water.
Finally when the timing was right, dropping the kids at school gates, got a speeding ticket on the drive to the coast. Rig up alongside buddies in the car park, shared excitement, happy chatter about wind strength and direction, lending kit to someone who has left something vital in their garage. Wrapping duct tape around someone’s chest to fix a wetsuit zip malfunction. Crystal clear memories of the first successful waterstart, the perfect planing gybe, the first jump landed without spinout. this things are burned forever in my memory bank. The scarier moments will never be forgotten either. When the wind gets stronger and you are overpowered and cant manage the shore break at your starting point.
The days the wind dies with the inevitable walk of shame up the beach, carrying kit over wooden groynes. The weird stuff, like realising you are about to be smashed against a sea wall, before being hauled up it in a lifebelt, thrown by a guy from the fish stall. Or creating a puddle of water on the floor of the car park attendants hut, huddled over his tiny stove trying to bring life back to navy blue hands, just so you can de-rig the kit, change and drive home. Turning up late at the school, still wearing a wetsuit, rapidly trying to think of a plausible excuse for the stern school secretary and the withering look of disapproval from my daughter, “ Why can’t you be like the other mums ?”
That sums up it all up really, the day when two worlds collided. If it had just been an aerobics outfit, or yoga leggings, I would be deemed ‘normal’. But I was wearing a wetsuit and that was outside the rules of life One. The boundary between two halves of life had been breached and the competition. For my time was just beginning to ramp up a notch. Fast forward another twenty years, 3 kids are all grown up and happily living their adult live choices .
My now ex-husband has a rather parochial life, still competing with golf , cars and lots of other people. I found solace on the water during the difficult time of transition. Windsurfing was the catalyst which enabled me to confidentially grow as a person and that helped me face life as life one slowly dried up. I met and married a lovely German windsurfer. You never know what life will bring and you meet such fabulous people in water sports. Age itself brings self-knowledge and freedom from responsibility, but also diminishing strength and stamina. So two years ago I started to learn how to Kitesurfing and although only really a beginner I love it. The feeling when you finally get up and see the water rush below you. Starting at the beginning again has been a steep learning curve, so hard to forget the instinct to pull to have more control and I stand up too much.
I have drunk more seawater than I even though possible while mastering the body drag. Been pulled up and slammed down on the water so hard the air was knocked out of my chest . Watched my board sail happily away from me to deeper water while still adjusting the kite and trying to get going. Been described by an enthusiastic Egyptian instructor as the ‘Mrs Bean of Kitesurfing’, but nothing is going to put me off, I’m here to stay. There are so many people willing to help launch and land a kite at the beach. Experienced kiters who will point out the ideal flatter water spot for learners at mid tide. Not to mention the wonderful supportive and empowering female camaraderie of the Girls Kite Together group is exactly what is needed right now.
Of course there will always be competition in life, but not normally between one kiter and another. Mine was always outside elements competing for my time and attention. If I had given in fully to that competition from life one, I would have been eventually ‘dropped by the sponsors’ of that life. Left in a void when those people’s needs ended. By carving out time for sport then, not only am I fully able to enjoy it fully in the second life, but recent. Retirement has provided even more time and now there is NO competition for it !
The only competition now is the friendly rivalry between us as windsurfer and kitesurfer. Retirement has been a catalyst for further change. We bought a van this year and declared ourselves kitesurf/windsurf nomads. Currently touring with ‘Van’ (menage a trois) around Dakhla and Essaouira in Morocco for a couple of months and loving it. If things go well , when I get back, I might even enter the competition circuit myself. Likely winning a massive sponsorship deal with Ibuprofen Gel !
Article wrote by our amazing, fearless and supportive Bronwen Strohm