Au Vent Fou

I LOVE THE WIND.

I have come to love it because I am, and have been for twenty years, a windsurfer. Windsurfers pay attention to the wind, for obvious reasons. It becomes an obsession – I cannot pass by a pond of any size greater than a few board lengths and not mentally assess the quality of the chop, the direction and the relative strength and stability of the breeze blowing across its surface.

The wind is the engine and it is the determining factor in all decisions the sailor makes. Windsurfing, perhaps more than any other kind of sailing is closest to the wind. The sailor holds the wind in her hands, by proxy. Rudderless, the windsurfer depends on the intimate interplay between three, critical and infinitely variable elements: the craft on the surface of the water, the fin that imparts the energy from the sail, and the sail itself. Point of sail, mechanical differences, skill and luck play key roles too, but water, physics and wind make the stew; the other factors are more like flavourings.

Windsurfing – strangely counterintuitive despite its apparent simplicity – is difficult to learn and therefore, worthwhile just for that reason. For example – the greatest speed is found across the wind, on a reach, not downwind as beginners so often suppose.

There are many other rewarding factors too. One of the best being the look on the faces of boaters and other sailors who return to shore when the wind promises to be wicked. Windsurfers rig up and go out when that happens. We pass each other, coming and going – we matching the wind’s foolishness; them practicing moderation. I am grateful for being on the fool’s side of the equation and hope to continue to enjoy this cocky excess for as long as I can.

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In the normal course of non-windsurfing life, we generally don’t learn much about the wind. We suffer it and curse it, when it is ruinous. We savour it, when it offers cooling succor. We experience it without really understanding it. Where does it come from? How is it controlled? It is, above all, mysterious. The wind operates in anonymity; invisible except to the touch. The falling barometer can divine it but offers no real idea as to the exact time, duration, location or the strength with which the wind will blow.

The wind is notoriously unpredictable. It comes and goes – a steady wind is rare, gusts are the norm. Even in the mistrals and siroccos of the world, where breezes can be forecast with a degree of daily certainty, the wind reserves the right to variegate – if not with colours, for it is transparent, then with intensity and direction.

The Mayans worshipped several gods and one of them, named Huracán (remind you of something?) ruled the wind. Well, that is, it did its best to try. The wind had other ideas. In the Mayan tradition, it was truly wild; uncontrollable and without heed.

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Here are the things about the wind that I have learned by sailing in it, or that I believe to be true. The wind is sticky. In fact, the air that is propelled by the wind is the sticky bit. It sticks to itself – clinging to similar molecules like an evangelist to his pew. Temperature and humidity form into homogenous clumps that travel together. These clumps adhere to shorelines and points of land; they avoid dissimilar clumps like magnetic poles. This meniscus – or surface tension – characteristic seems to me, more than any other single factor, to define the physicality of the wind.

So, as I look out to windward, I watch the colour and texture of the waves: grey, wrinkly chop (like in the picture above, with the incredibly handsome – but also grey and wrinkled – sailor) foretells of a low, powerful gust – an even more accurate telltale than whitecaps. Context clues like trees, flags, and other sailing vessels help to enrich the description. Then the gust arrives and…nothing. The next time, with the identical context clues, …whoosh! A powerful gust.

Tumbling Tumbleweeds

My theory – more of a mental picture, really – to explain this inconsistency is that the wind is like a series of passing masses, travelling like giant, invisible tumbleweeds of moving air. There is a rowdy mob of them, randomly jostling, pairing and shouldering one another out of the way. They crowd forward on the water and despite manifesting signs like waves, chop, and flag-waving they sometimes bounce right over my sail – leaving me waiting; bereft of wind power. Their stickiness and propensity to cling to a surface and then suddenly release gives them this strange variability. Like a stampeding herd they race across the surface, sometimes jumping over, other times bulling their way through those objects they encounter on their unplotted path.

I think of these invisible tumbleweeds as gleeful and childlike; or like antelope or a flight of plover – unified and unscripted, a spontaneous choir in a rapturous choreography. This is of course influenced by my personal bliss at being part of this natural symphony; of being in the wind, and I am sure the wind is as uncaring and detached as the falling snow or a single flame in a raging fire. We assign emotion and judgement based on the outcomes and our perceptions.

My logical mind knows the wind is neither angry nor kind. It just is.

On a still, hot Spring afternoon, I raked leaves near the shore of our lake. Hearing a strange noise, I looked up towards the sound to see a swirling upwelling of leaves, branches and dust. It sounded like a highway tractor with a heavy trailer load, slowing down to stop, its brakes hissing.
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Suddenly, our neighbour’s under-construction boathouse floor was lifted off of its foundation and became a giant pinwheel of plywood, spinning in slow motion and spitting nails and splinters of wood like a gattling gun. It rose up to maybe twenty feet in the air and then dropped to land mightily on the flat calm of the water. A zephyr of water carried on,  jetting away like a motorboat across the surface and then abruptly lifting off and disappearing.
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All of this happened in under ten seconds and after the waterspout vanished, the air was once again perfectly still and the only noise was the lapping of the wavelets caused by the boathouse floor landing in the lake and a few leaves and twigs falling into the water.
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I stood stupefied, holding my rake up in mid-air, looking to see if anyone else was around – to corroborate what I had just witnessed.
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Hot air, bound and then releasing in an explosion of movement was to blame. The spin of the earth put English on the rising column of air as it rove down the wooded hill and picked up the thousands of pounds of fir plywood and 2X8s like so much kindling.
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“Au vent fou,” I said aloud into the quiet, dumbstruck, thinking of the name of the Quebec windsurfing shop where I had just bought some gear, online.

Think of us, we windsurfers, when you drive your car on a warm day, your window open. Let your flat palm play in the wind like a foil, lifting and dropping in the stream of air. Then imagine that feeling; that unseen, natural power and think what it would be like to have your whole body pulled along over the water, at speed, the board slapping impatiently at the surface and the wind – a careening, magical hoard rushing towards you, raucous and eager as hounds in the hunt.

There you have it, that is the wind, and logic be damned.

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