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Total Exhaustion: On Switching Passions from Climbing to Windsurfing

Originally posted at Hafa Adai.

This introduction won’t be long because this piece by Todd Mei is paramount to any intro that could do it justice.  I asked him to reflect on his life as a climber-turned-windsurfer because I’m interested in passions and how people come to find them.  My favorite part of Todd’s essay is about exhaustion - a perspective I haven’t always thought of until recently.  I love this narrative, not only because it’s thoughtful, but because it’s about Todd, and like many people I know, I've just always looked up to him as an athlete and mentor. Here's to the challenge of "finding your total exhaustion." Enjoy!  

“What do they call it, joy de veever?”

—Leo O’Bannion, Miller’s Crossing

“I need my pain.”

—James T. Kirk

From rock to wind and water. I still think of myself as a rock climber, even though it’s not a sport I have seriously done since 2003. I suppose this sense of identity has largely to do with the amount of time I put into training, setting and achieving goals, and of course having some of the best experiences with friends who share the same passion for more or less the same reasons. In 2005, I moved to the UK and stopped attempting to climb for lack of access to decent rock and a climbing gym in my local area. As a result, I had a large gaping hole in my life for about six years. And it was made worse by devoting the majority of my time to an academic career—finishing a PhD and trying to get a foothold in the ever worsening higher education market in the UK. The frequent encounters with bureaucratic pettiness and the alarming divorce of physical endeavor from the academic life made for some frustrating times.

Then in 2011, my wife put a challenge to me. Care to try sailing? “I am not a water sport person,” I replied. Actually that was a lie. As a native Southern Californian, the reply meant something like, “Any water sport that does not involve riding waves is a waste of time.” But my wife was ever so keen to learn how to sail, and I agreed to have a taster session at Wild Times, the nearby sailing school in Whitstable, Kent (UK). Little did I know what I was getting myself into. Not only was the school a bit revolutionary in how it taught sailing and windsurfing—senior instructors really focus on one-to-one tuition—but the adjacent yacht club had a long history of spitting out successful dinghy champions at the national and international levels. (And no, it’s not an uppity yacht club; just a bar on the beach with a lot of men and women hanging out in wetsuits.)

A few weeks later, I found sailing a little Pico dinghy as about as much as I wanted to handle. I’m still not a good sailor, and I remember thinking at one point that I had a handle on things. But attempting to land the boat in onshore winds, my mind blanked and I forgot how to slow down. Going rather fast at my instructor, I felt a sense of despair. He dodged the dinghy like a matador, grabbed the boat, glared coldly through his sunglasses, and admonished, “What gives, dude?”

I promised my wife, who by then was hooked on sailing and giving dinghy racing a go, that I would complete a level two certification—doing things like man-overboard exercises, coming-to, and gybing and tacking in slightly higher winds. After that, I was going to give windsurfing a try. Why not? It might be worthwhile. After all, it involved something like a surfboard.

I thought I might pick it up rather easily since the beginner boards were as large as dinner tables, and I had a fair amount of experience skateboarding and sponging (body boarding). Little did I know how hard the damn sport was. In fact, to this day, I think of all the sports I have done (wrestling, skateboarding, skiing, sponging, surfing, snowboarding, climbing), windsurfing is by far the most technically difficult. More on this later—if the reader is still with me!

I want to pause here to try and explain how I became so taken with windsurfing. It has to do with exhaustion. Not just any exhaustion, but the kind that comes from how one becomes totally engaged in a sport and how it demands every ounce of mental and physical commitment—either on the day or in preparation, training, and visualization. Of course, not every sport will elicit the same feeling of exhaustion for everyone. But I think for each one of us, there is at least one sport that results in this kind of satisfying, total exhaustion.

For me, windsurfing—like climbing—has a very satisfying kind of exhaustion to it. With climbing, the combination of trying not to fall (whether out of fear of injury or resolve to onsight or redpoint a climb) with the expenditure of maximum effort creates one of the most complete senses of being exhausted. After one day of climbing, nothing feels more well-deserved than a rest day of doing absolutely nothing but lounging, watching films, drinking, and eating. My fondest memories are filled with bouldering circuits at Devil’s Lake (Wisconsin), weekend sport climbing trips to Jackson Falls (Illinois), and trad days at Tahquitz and Lover’s Leap, California.

Windsurfing has a different type of total exhaustion. The beginning stages of learning are quite technically challenging, and if you think that as a beginner you’ll be blasting along the water in a few hours or a few days, then it can also be frustrating. It takes a lot of patience and work to get the skills of blasting and carving. This is not to forget that beginning skills are quite hard to master. Non-planing, beginner turns are difficult not just for their balance and timing, but because failure means falling over and having to constantly haul the sail from the water (a good core workout). What’s more perplexing is that the beginner skills don’t translate directly to those intermediate and advanced skills where you can plane along in the straps—that is, skim on the surface of the water at high speeds, powered only by the wind. Indeed, etched in my memory is my first encounter with high winds that required such advanced skills.

The sailing school had a cohort of 4 dedicated student windsurfers who came back month after month in the summer of 2012 to make progress. None of us really understood what it meant to be in high winds of 20 mph or more. How could we? Since I had started, I was just focused on mastering turns at low speeds, not really understanding what it meant to go fast. Then one day, Jason Wild (the bloke running the school) mentions to me that there’s going to be a good breeze in a few days. He asked if I wanted to give it a go, along with the other three students. Sure, sure.

Mentally, I was determined to do well and was preparing myself for expending a lot of energy. On the morning, Jason met with us and said something like:

“So these are the kinds of conditions windsurfers hope for. I’m not instructing you today. But you’re welcome to take the kit down to the beach and have a go.”

This meant Jason would be out having a blast with the other veterans while we got a chance to flail. It also meant there would be no rescue boat in case we got in trouble or sucked out by the tide.

Honestly, I was nervous. It had been a long time since I had been a beginner at a sport. And while I had been taking windsurfing lessons the summer before, this was the first time I would be flailing in view of experienced windsurfers. And flail we did. But, and I have to emphasize, the veterans—while they may have had a laugh at our expense—seemed to be supportive. I think every windsurfer knows how difficult it is to make the transition from beginner to intermediate. And even to this day, the Whitstable locals who blast, rip, and shred are always encouraging and motivating novices.

Jason lent us two boards, one to a pair. I tried uphauling the sail close to shore and spent a great deal of effort trying to get a hold of the boom as the sail flapped and snapped in the wind. When I finally got going, the board was going so fast that it was a completely different sensation. I was planing. I was in awe of the force and speed. Having not learned how to use a harness (I was notorious for using arm strength to hang on the boom), I held on for dear life and realized the only way to stop was to let go of the boom and dive off. Trying to get back to shore was epic, and I and the other student with whom I was paired soon realized using beginner skills in such conditions was futile. So we sat on the shore practicing beach starts—where you don’t uphaul the sail but use the wind to lift the sail and take off. Every now and then a veteran surfer would take a break to give us tips.

Before that experience, I was intrigued by windsurfing because it was technically hard. After that morning I was hooked for very different reasons.

Windsurfing started to become a sport for me. The experience in high winds is what I would soon come to know as that feeling of total exhaustion . . . but in a different way distinct from climbing. With windsurfing your body is part of the rigging. You are a conduit between the force of the wind and the resistance the board puts up against the water and waves. The slightest move with the hands or feet has huge consequences, and trying to do carving turns, trick turns, and loops always involves doing lots of small things with the right timing. Things move so fast that you can’t think about when to act. Your body has to be attuned to the wind speed and direction and how the water is playing. Force of nature and technical challenges. Total exhaustion.

It’s now coming to the end of four years since I took my first windsurfing lesson. As my friends know, I am absolutely obsessed with it. I still think of myself as a climber, but since 2003 my life feels as if it has become whole again with the kind of pleasure and fatigue that the right sport can bring.

Yesterday (May 3, 2015) was a stellar spring day at Whitstable Beach—low tide, sun out, strong winds, about a dozen of us out. A good mix of novices trying to find their comfort zones, veterans blasting and carving, and freestyling wizards looping, spinning, and twisting in the wind. My back is sore from trying to complete a forward loop, but it’s a good soreness . . . the kind that makes you feel alive.

“Today’s the day,” a local freestyler said to me when rigging his kit for the session. “Going for a forward loop?”

“Got my helmet,” I said nodding.

“The pain doesn’t last long,” he replied smiling and anticipating me smacking my face and back against the water at high speeds in failed attempts.

“The learning curve never stops,” I said to myself.

This thought didn’t make fully committing to the loop any easier. But on my first time around and landing on my back . . . it somehow made the pain worthwhile. So I tell myself.


My thanks to my wife, Patricia Baker, for pushing me into a sport I once thought ignorantly to be a waste of time, and to the Wild Times Sailing School, Jason Wild, Stuart France, and Rupert Kilburn for all their motivation, tuition, and used kit! And my thanks to the reader for lasting this long. If you’ve found your sport, I hope you find the foregoing to be both accurate and affirming. If you haven’t found your total exhaustion, you’ll never be able to stop once you do. “Git on it!” as the climber Eric Zschiesche would say.


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