On Self Respect

I once passed on a chance to learn windsurfing in the Aegean.  It’s a sport that requires upper body strength and, being thirteen and scrawny, I could only think about the humiliation that would come out of me trying to stand on and manipulate a heavy fiberglass board propelled over the water by a large sail.  It is, I think, for the wounded self respect of that thirteen-year-old that I signed up to take lessons in kite boarding on Little Cayman.  Let bygones be bygones!

Southern Cross is protected from the open ocean by a barrier reef: outside is a wild element, but inside are sandy shallows and relative calm.  The resort’s kiting instructor and I would meet in the afternoons, often after I’d napped, and take a pontoon down the coast to where the shallows were empty of other boats and the wind came across cleanly.  Clean wind, my instructor said, is all you need.

Kite boarding requires a little more than clean wind, however.  There is a harness that wraps around your torso, and a steering bar attached to a set of long lines meant to run from the harness to the kite.  The lines, I found out, are constantly misbehaving and coming up knotted.  Throw them into the water downwind of the pontoon, clip the bar to the pontoon, and let the wind work out the knots. 

Kite boards in a row.

Kite boards in a row.

The kite itself is inflated using an air compressor and immediately it lives, lifting on the slightest breeze.  Then it is connected to the untangled lines.  The lines and the bar are attached to the harness.  A slight tug on the bar, a turn of the wrist, and the kite slips sidewise in an arc to twelve o’clock. 

Sometimes, if the wind is a bit too strong and you’re just learning like I was, the kite launches up and you go with it.  It’s straight out of the water, through the air, and then straight back down into a face full of brine and sand.  This happened a handful of times before I learned not to fight the kite when it lurched.  Good kite control, my instructor said, nodding.  Good kite control what? I asked.  He shrugged and laughed.

It turns out good kite control can take hours of practice to acquire.  And by kite control we are talking about using the bar to edge one wing up or down – dip the left wing down a fraction and the wind pushes the whole kite that way.  Keeping the kite steady overhead is more difficult than it seems. 

I spent four afternoons working on my control until I could do figure eights with the kite, or let it drag me across the surface of the water in the direction I wanted it to go.  Eventually I was given a board, and then the kite – for all we had accomplished together – proceeded to dole out another set of merciless beatings. 

As of this writing, my record for skimming the surface of the water while standing on the board and keeping the kite aloft at the same time clocks at 5.64 seconds.

Those 5.64 seconds were some of the best seconds of my life.